Scott Payne sings the praises of How I Met Your Mother, which really is a great show. His emphasis on Barney reminds me of something that I’ve been meaning to write about for at least a couple of years now. In many of the truly great sitcoms, their greatness is defined far less by the main characters than the supporting casts. This is one of the reasons that shows that tend to revolve around someone that is already a star so frequently fail. Particularly when the show is given to someone that has historically played secondary characters (or a single one) and they’re trying to give them a shot at “prime time”.

In some ways, I think that it’s best to reserve your best talent for secondary roles. The main reason for this is that supporting roles are generally allowed to be far more interesting. The main characters of the show are people that we are supposed to relate to, but the supporting characters are people that we know but are laughing at. Main characters have some personality quirks, but secondary characters – by virtue of the fact that they are not the protagonist that we are supposed to somewhat identify with – can be extreme variations of various archetypes.

The best example of this that I am aware of is a show called Davis Rules. It was given the enviable position of premiering after the Superbowl. A lot of money was pumped into making everyone aware of its existence. But it failed despite being given two chances (once on ABC and once on CBS) and is largely forgotten now. The main reason for this is that it relied on the star power of Randy Quaid… but it boxed Quaid in as the role of the protagonist. He was the single father of three, responsible, and all that wasn’t the persona that Quaid adopted and perfected in nearly every role that made him well-known.

On the other side, though, you have the examples of Just Shoot Me. The first was a fantastic show that didn’t find its audience and the second a so-so show that managed to hang in there longer than most would have guessed. Phil Hartmann was the draw to NewsRadio and, because he was a side character, they were able to take advantage of his comedic talent while giving the protagonist role to the more low-key Dave Foley. In the case of Just Shoot Me, the draw was David Spade. Spade’s character was not really secondary, but he was more a part of the ensemble than the protagonist (who was Laura San Giacomo). In fact, the storyboard was written without his character and he was put in there at the last minute.

A David Spade show never would have made it seven seasons. A Phil Hartmann show would not have lasted to the point of his death, much less an additional year. Shows built around a strong name certain can succeed, but they depend on large part on a good supporting cast or another lightning rod for humor, such as David Hyde Pierce as a more extreme variant of Kelsey Grammar’s protagonist in Frasier. But as often as not – even in ensemble casts – the real talent lies in characters that take a bigger role but nonetheless stand off to the side while we’re mostly rooting for someone else. Steve Carrell was the only name actor on The Office, but the role of protagonist was given to the somewhat less interesting but far more likable Jim Halpert character.

And so it goes with Neil Patrick Harris. Harris was, of course, the star of his own sitcom when he was a kid, but attempts to use him as a draw were unsuccessful. He seemed like the sort of guy to be able to carry his own show, and he probably could have if given the right part, but instead ended up playing second-fiddle to a relative no-name on How I Met Your Mother. But with Josh Radnor taking the role of the relatable protagonist, Harris was freed to become a hilarious degenerate.

I think it’s often the case that the bigger names want to be the protagonist in order not to cede the limelight to someone else. I remember being surprised that Harris was willing to take a secondary role, but it turned out to be the best thing he could have done. It’s impossible to know what will happen with Josh Radnor’s career, but the adult Neil Patrick Harris has been immortalized and as a result has become of the few child stars that went on to be a success in adulthood instead of just Doogie Howser grown up.

Category: Theater

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7 Responses to Freedom From Protagonism

  1. web says:

    Neil Patrick Harris was really good in the (admittedly net-based) Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Just saying…

  2. web says:

    I would say that part of the problem is that (sit-com) shows which focus on a prior big-name star as protagonist, often neglect everything but the protagonist. Yes, they trap the protagonist into a role, but they also tend to ignore the possibilities that an ensemble cast offers in giving “openings” for other storylines.

    It’s the difference between “let’s give this guy a show because he’s funny” and “let’s make a show about the wacky stuff revolving around Character X.” Most failed sit-coms fall into the first sort. Most successful ones are the second. In fact, the only two I know of that are successful despite being in the first category are Home Improvements and Drew Carey, and in both of those cases they did what you suggest – make a show in which, yes, the “plot” revolved around the main character and his quirks, but the supportive actors/actresses were free to be as wacky as possible.

    (As a side note: wow, since moving on to do game shows, Carey has really gone from merely “overweight” into the “uhm, dude, you might want to see a doctor about your lifestyle” category.)

  3. trumwill says:

    Dr Horrible is just great, top to bottom. When my only complaint is Captain Hammer’s costume, that’s saying something. Particularly when I’m not generally a big fan of musicals.

    Drew Carey was a relative unknown when they gave him the show, which makes his success all the more impressive. On the other hand, he didn’t have a big head (figuratively, literally his head is huge, of course) and so was willing to spread the humor around.

    I was going to add Becker to the list, but Ted Danson actually isn’t funny. For that matter, his cast wasn’t funny, either. Yet the show worked (in my opinion).

    I had noticed some weight-gain on Carey, but not as much as you have (I don’t watch TPIR and so don’t see him much). What’s interesting about him appearance-wise is that after nine years on the air he didn’t look any older. When I see pictures of him now, he still looks about the same age.

  4. Kirk says:

    I remember that when T2 came out, I was a bit disappointed that Arnold was all of a sudden a good guy. Also, much of science-fiction is filled with characters seemingly incapable of badness. I think that’s why I enjoyed Nathan Fillion’s character (Capt. Malcolm Reynolds) on the Firefly series so much.

    bad guy: “I’m unarmed.”

    Mac: (pulls out gun and shoots him)

  5. Becky says:

    I think Seinfeld is a perfect example of this — the other three were far more interesting than Jerry. Do you watch Entourage? Jeremy Piven is best character in the show and he’s also supporting. Mother is one of my favorite shows and Barney is my favorite TV character on right now.

  6. trumwill says:

    One thing that two of the exceptions, The Drew Carey Show and Seinfeld, have in common is that both were written about the protagonist and people that the protagonist knows. Therefore, both Seinfeld and Carey had an investment in the supporting cast and making them better characters. Probably not true of Randy Quaid and Davis Rules or other such shows.

  7. Barry says:

    I think Roseanne fell into that first category, and was extremely popular based on her character – but again, like Drew Carey and Seinfeld the show was based on her “character”, the – at the time – redneck housewife, since that was her comedy schtick at the time the show was created. Time went on to allow John Goodman, Sara Gilbert and the girl that played her sister (whose name escapes me) to grow and become much more dynamic and interesting characters than Roseanne Conners/Arnold/Barr.

    Ellen DeGeneres’ show also took a relatively little-known comedienne at the time, built a show around a similar character to the actress (I could imagine Ellen, if not becoming a comedienne, being a bookstore owner) and became succesful.

    Other examples of shows that plugged into a star’s persona but never gelled critically were those starring Jim Belushi, Bill Engvall, Jeff Foxworthy, Reba McIntyre, etc. Then there were those that succeeded, like the ones with Cybil Shepherd, Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, Brett Butler and of course Bill Cosby.

    Go figure. There are almost too many exceptions to each rule to pigeon-hole any of them…

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