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TV’s Greatest Straight Men (and Women)

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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.

HAL LINDEN

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.

JASON BATEMAN

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.

EDDIE ALBERT

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.

DAVE FOLEY

NEWSRADIO (1995-99)

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.

DAN ROWAN

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.

GEORGE BURNS

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.

ROB MORROW

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.

ISABEL SANFORD

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.

GEORGE FENNEMAN

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.

JOHN KRASINSKI

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.

BOB NEWHART

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.

LINDA LAVIN

ALICE (1976-85)

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.

ED McMAHON

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.

BUDDY EBSEN

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.

DEAN MARTIN

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.

DEMOND WILSON

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.

LARRY HAGMAN

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.

JOHNNY GALECKI

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.

STEVE ALLEN

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.

RON HOWARD

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.

JUDD HIRSCH

TAXI (1978-83)

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.

FORREST TUCKER

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

BEWITCHED (1964-72)

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.

BUD ABBOTT

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.

ANDY GRIFFITH

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!

My Favorite TV Brainiacs

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Who says nobody likes a wise guy? I certainly do, as long as they’ve got a certain element of wit or panache about them. On TV, this may be the golden age of smart characters, who amaze us with their knowledge while offering us a glimpse into the soul of a genius. These are my favorites.

DR. GREGORY HOUSE

(“HOUSE” 2004-PRESENT)

As good as the writing is on “House,” there’s no denying how incredible Hugh Laurie is at making a nasty, drug-addicted wiseacre someone you want to watch every week. The most amazing thing may be how Laurie makes House’s diagnostic thought processes come alive without boring the hell out of us.

House: If her DNA was off by one percentage point she’d be a dolphin.

LISA SIMPSON

“THE SIMPSONS” (1989-PRESENT)

Lisa, created by Matt Groening and voiced by Yeardley Smith, is an animated TV treasure. She’s the voice of reason on “The Simpsons,” while also firing off hysterical material all her own.

Lisa: You made me love baseball. Not as a collection of numbers, but as an unpredictable, passionate game, beaten in excitement only by every other sport.

SHELDON COOPER

“THE BIG BANG THEORY” (2007-PRESENT)

Here’s how good Jim Parsons is as Sheldon, the genius among geniuses on “The Big Bang Theory.” He’s completely taken over that show without changing its essential vibe. High IQ has never been so entertaining.

Sheldon: You know, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that morality is just a fiction used by the herd of inferior human beings to hold back the few superior men … It’s worth noting that he died of syphilis.

DICK CAVETT

“THE DICK CAVETT SHOW” (1968-73)

For a time, Cavett and his TV talk show were at the nexus of national public discourse and intellectualism that regular people could fathom. He also was damned funny. Anyone who can go from trading quips with Groucho Marx to conducting a reasoned debate on the Vietnam War is a rare talent, in my book.

Cavett: There’s so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?

FRASIER CRANE/LILITH STERNIN

“CHEERS” (1982-93)

“FRASIER” (1993-04)

Nobody does smart, sophisticated sitcom work like Kelsey Grammer. As Frasier Crane, he found the perfect outlet for his acting skills, from luxurious line readings to killer punch lines. Equally brilliant is Bebe Neuwirth as Frasier’s wife (and ex-wife) Lilith. their scenes together are terrific.

Frasier: Who is this colleague anyway?

Lilith: He’s the man who supplies me with lab rats. It’s about time we got together socially. I’ve known him for over fifty-two generations.

LT. COMMANDER DATA

“STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION” (1987-94)

It would be easy to classify Brent Spiner’s android, Data, as a poor man’s Mr. Spock. But that would be wrong. This beloved sci-fi character was all-purpose: He provided comic relief, he stood in for humanity’s perennial search for meaning, and he often saved the day.

Data: I could be chasing an untamed ornithoid without cause. (A wild goose chase)

STEVE URKEL

“FAMILY MATTERS” (1989-98)

Jaleel White’s sitcom juggernaut appears on the List not because of his sparkling dialogue or great acting. It’s more for his sheer outrageousness. Urkel was this irritating explosion of annoyance and weird clothing who had to be seen to be believed.

Urkel: You won’t be sorry, sir. I can assure you that we Urkels are a fine, old family with a proud name. You know that in Kenya, “Urkel” means “a benign cyst on the foreleg of a wildebeest?”

DON HERBERT

“MR. WIZARD” (1951-65)

For a lot of Baby Boomers, Mr. Wizard presided over a friendly TV outpost where scientific curiosity was celebrated, not shunned. Don Herbert was the original Science Guy.

Mr. Wizard: Fruit, cereal, milk, bread and butter, the five elements of a healthy breakfast.

MR. PEABODY

“THE BULLWINKLE SHOW” (1961-62)

The only cartoon pooch to make the List, Mr. Peabody was a wicked punster. He and his boy, Sherman, would time travel into the past and interact with Ben Franklin, say, or Nero – all for the sake of a labored one-liner. Naturally, I thought he was tops. Kudos to the great voice stylist, Bill Scott.

Mr. Peabody: Peabody, here.

THE PROFESSOR

“GILLIGAN’S ISLAND” (1964-67)

By rights, this dude deserved a Nobel Prize or two. The Professor could take a couple of coconuts, a shoelace and some bamboo and construct a working generator. His one failing? He couldn’t figure out a way off that crazy island. You were still cool, though, Russell Johnson.

Professor: All right, Ginger, read my mind.

Ginger: 36, 22, 36.

Professor: Well, that’s just the atomic weight of sodium hydro-chloride.

DR. TEMPERANCE BRENNAN

“BONES” (2005-PRESENT)

This show has a bunch of solid characters, but it would fall flat without the appealing performance of Emily Deschanel as Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan. She’s the smartest person in the room, without being overly odd or neurotic.

Bones: People lie, but bones always tell the truth.

ADRIAN MONK

“MONK” (2002-09)

Monk, on the other hand, is all about the weirdness. Tony Shalhoub outfitted his skittish sleuth with a slew of neurotic tendencies, to great effect.

Monk: I have lived my whole life without feeling a drifter’s face. I’ve always been proud of that. Even on my worst days I can tell myself: At least I’ve never felt a drifter’s face.

DOOGIE HOWSER

“DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D.” (1989-93)

It’s amazing that Neil Patrick Harris was able to emerge from the shadow of this character, a genius kid who becomes a doctor. Doogie was so endearing and memorable that it gave us all hope for a generation of smart, thoughtful kids to come.

Patient: Wait a minute. You’re a kid.

Doogie: True, but I’m also a genius. If you have a problem with that, I can get you an older doctor who’s not as smart as me.

MALCOLM

“MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE” (2000-06)

As Malcolm, the smart kid in a seriously nutty family, Frankie Muniz found the truth at the heart of an absurd role: Brains alone are no match for the overwhelming insanity of family life. Sometimes it’s just best to go with the craziness.

Malcolm: I did the math once; it turns out, every 17.4 dinners, my family actually has a pleasant meal together.

GIL GRISSOM

“CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION” (2000-PRESENT)

To me, William Petersen’s Grissom was the best of the various TV crime procedural folks (his show is still on the air, but he left a couple of years ago). He was passionate about his work, he didn’t miss details and he had a sense of humor. But he also had a tortured, slightly weary quality about him, too.

Grissom: People just don’t vanish, Jim. It’s a molecular impossibility.

STEVE ALLEN

“THE TONIGHT SHOW”, ETC. (1950-52, 54-57, 56-61, ETC.)

Steve Allen was the prototype of the brainy TV host. There would be no David Letterman, Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel without him. He had several shows over the years, including the first incarnation of “The Tonight Show,” where his ad libs and off-the-cuff remarks were pure gold. Plus, only a true egghead would dream up “Meeting of the Minds,” a 1970s show where Allen interviewed actors portraying historical figures.

Steve Allen: I used to be a heavy gambler. But now I just make mental bets. That’s how I lost my mind.

SPOCK

“STAR TREK” (1966-69)

Spock never seems to go out of style. A generation of nerds and misunderstood types – possibly including the President of the United States – can attest to that. From his computer-like mind to his supercool Vulcan neck pinch, Leonard Nimoy fashioned a character even lunkheads will forever recognize.

Spock: Vulcans never bluff.

DET. ARTHUR DIETRICH

“BARNEY MILLER” (1974-82)

Though never a household name, the late Steve Landesberg was a truly gifted performer. Here, he played a riotously funny cop whose razor-sharp wit and bemused smile undercut a certain vulnerability that I think is very common among highly intelligent people. His Det. Dietrich was a true outsider, all too aware of the contradictions of human behavior, yet determined to engage with the world. A Brainiac with a soul. I still laugh all these years later, remembering some of his lines.

Barney, looking at a box of confiscated sex toys: What is that thing with the feathers?

Dietrich: I don’t know, but it’s reasonably priced.

That’s my List. So who are your favorite TV smart guys?