With the passing of Andy Griffith earlier this week, it seems only fitting to devote a List to the best straight men and women in TV history. It’s such a delicate balance: being strong enough comedically to stand up to your zany co-stars, yet grounded enough for the audience to relate to you.
BARNEY MILLER (1974-82)
At the center of one of my favorite shows, Linden’s compassionate cop, Barney Miller, presided over an absurd, smart, feisty circus of humanity. He was the moral compass, but with enough personal quirks to keep things interesting.
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2003-06)
Bateman gave a virtuoso performance as the put-upon Michael Bluth in “Arrested Development.” His timing is fantastic, every episode, every line. Plus, he had some great scenes with Attorney Bob Loblaw.
GREEN ACRES (1965-71)
Of course, no character was more put-upon than Oliver Wendell Douglas, played by Eddie Albert. This surreal sitcom about city folks living in the country had daffy Eva Gabor, sneaky Pat Butram and a brainy pig among the ensemble. And in the middle of it all was Albert, who gamely tried to regain control – but thankfully never did.
MARY TYLER MOORE
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (1970-77)
This one is a tough call, particularly since I’m not including Dick Van Dyke on this List. Mary’s character was incredibly funny in her own right, but I always felt she played it best when she was reacting to Lou, Ted, Rhoda, etc.
Here was a terrific show that featured a great cast, with Foley as the straight-arrow guy running the radio station. He was witty, while being at his wit’s end. Not a bad game plan when your co-stars include Phil Hartman and Andy Dick.
ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN (1967-73)
Dan Rowan had one job to do on “Laugh-In” and he did it exceedingly well. Amid all the groovy goings-on, with sketches coming and going at lightning speed, Rowan simply looked tan and dapper while cleanly setting up punchline after punchline. You can look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls. I dare you.
THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW (1950-58)
Although a lot of their material is now dated, it’s amazing how much of the Burns & Allen formula still works in today’s scripted TV comedies. Gracie had all the best lines, of course. But George was smooth as silk.
NORTHERN EXPOSURE (1990-95)
Rob Morrow sort of came out of nowhere as Joel, the New York City doctor stuck in a crazy Alaskan town. The concept burned itself out after a few years, but it was great while it lasted. Joel’s frustration kept the show on its toes.
THE JEFFERSONS (1975-85)
It took a very strong personality to hold the screen with Sherman Hemsley as George Jefferson. Enter Isabel Sanford as Louise. By turns she would yell, plead, cajole and guilt trip George to keep pace. It was a classic sitcom combination.
YOU BET YOUR LIFE (1950-61)
Fenneman is a unique figure in television history. As the announcer for the Groucho Marx quiz show, “You Bet Your Life,” he was verbally pummeled from here to Tuesday by one of the funniest human beings who ever lived. Groucho could be merciless, and George routinely was left speechless. Oddly enough, it made Fenneman all the more endearing.
THE OFFICE (2005-PRESENT)
As Jim Halpert, Krasinski carries his show’s “regular guy” role without the benefit of being the lead character. It’s a tricky thing to calibrate, but Krasinski has been all over it from the first episode. He gets his own jokes in, too.
THE BOB NEWHART SHOW (1972-78)
How great was this dude as a straight man? Well, he often was HIS OWN straight man, in scenes on the phone. No one does a thoughtful stammer like Mr. Newhart. Perfection.
This wasn’t Gilbert & Sullivan, but it was solid comedy. Lavin played things straight as working class mom Alice, adding a touch of drama here and an earthy zinger there. And she held her own around characters willing to shout “Kiss my grits!” at the drop of a hat.
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON (1962-92)
Gotta give it up to the most durable sidekick in talk show history. Ed was Carson’s Rock of Gibraltar: quick with a laugh, a comment or a helping hand. He was a joke target when need be, as well. And the show was never funnier than when Ed got in a funny line at Johnny’s expense.
THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES (1962-71)
Ebsen’s Jed Clampett had a way of seeming smart and not-so-smart at the same time. He never, ever veered out of character. One of his main responsibilities was to bear witness to the twin whirlwinds of Granny and Jethro, which he did with his trademark country squint.
THE DEAN MARTIN COMEDY HOUR (1965-74)
Dino went from being Jerry Lewis’ straight man in movies to being everybody’s straight man on television. He was superb at it. Effortlessly, he made singers, actors and comedians who came on his show look good. Here was a guy who was the butt of nearly every joke, yet he was clearly the coolest guy in the room.
SANFORD AND SON (1972-77)
Absolutely an unsung hero of TV sitcoms. Wilson was the all-too-human counterpoint to Redd Foxx, who gloriously chewed the scenery like it was a danish from the craft service table. Without Wilson, the show doesn’t work nearly as well.
I DREAM OF JEANNIE (1965-70)
Looking back, maybe this wasn’t the most enlightened comedy premise in the world: an astronaut finds a bottle containing a beautiful genie who becomes his servant. But that’s not Hagman’s fault. He did every ridiculous facial contortion known to man during his years as Major Nelson, as if he knew most people would later know him as J.R. Ewing.
THE BIG BANG THEORY (2007-PRESENT)
He’s a nerd’s version of a straight man, but it still applies. Galecki expertly reels in audience sympathy while lobbing up softballs for Jim Parsons to knock out of the park. Well done, sir.
THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW (1956-60)
A TV pioneer, Steve Allen was a genius at conducting “interviews” with his stable of comic actors. They included Don Knotts, Louis Nye and Tom Poston. They’d show up as crazy characters and Allen would gently skewer them with puns and wry observations. David Letterman and Jon Stewart have been doing a version of this for years, but Allen got there first.
HAPPY DAYS (1974-84)
Though not a huge fan of “Happy Days,” I very much respected the way Ron Howard gave the show a likable, viable central character. I also admired the way he didn’t quit the show when the Fonzie character took over the world.
YVONNE DE CARLO
THE MUNSTERS (1964-66)
Yes, it is possible to be a great straight woman while dressed as a lady vampire. Despite her appearance, De Carlo basically played a suburban housewife dealing with a sarcastic father and a childish husband. They got most of the one-liners and she was the rational, head of the household.
Hirsch was the voice of reason on “Taxi.” Sometimes that meant giving a pep talk; sometimes it meant taking someone to task. Usually, it meant trying not to crack up while the likes of Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufman brought the funny.
F TROOP (1965-67)
Very little about “F Troop” made sense, except that it was disarmingly funny. Tucker played his Sgt. O’Rourke like he was the lead in “The Music Man,” which was exactly the right approach.
DICK YORK/DICK SARGENT
The wonderful duo of Darrins did their level best to hold their heads high, no matter what incantation or evil twin scenario they were up against. That’s what happens when you marry a witch with a big family.
THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW (1952-53)
Abbott was a legendary straight man from the stage and the big screen, but he also qualifies for The List because of his popular, but brief TV series with the great Lou Costello. Abbott was like a professional hit man of comedy. He was sharp and he was confident and you almost never knew he was there.
THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (1960-68)
Thank goodness for Andy Griffith. His show was heartbreaking, human and hilarious. At its best, it was as funny as any TV program before or since, and it did so with a firm belief that humor could come out of everyday life and common foibles.
Is it possible I’ve missed anyone? Add them to The List!