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The Joke’s On THEM: Great Sitcom Punching Bags

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Pretty much all sitcom characters absorb their share of cutting remarks – it’s the nature of the art form. But some characters are built almost entirely on the premise that they’ll be the butt of jokes. When it works, it’s comedy magic.


Cooley, the long-suffering lackey to an egotistical TV star on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” was played with mild-mannered grace by Richard Deacon.  No matter how badly Morey Amsterdam’s character, Buddy, needled him about his baldness, the most Mel would do is say, “Yechh!”


Demond Wilson played Lamont, the junior member of “Sanford and Son,” the 1970s sitcom starring Redd Foxx. It was a prickly relationship on screen, especially with Foxx’s character calling his son a “dummy” nearly every episode. But Wilson managed somehow to show both resentment and affection in a way that humanized the harshness.


Possibly the best TV sad sack ever. Toby is the beleaguered HR guy on “The Office,” the one person boss Michael Scott truly loathes. As played by Paul Lieberstein, Toby gets heaps of abuse for no good reason other than his existence. One thing that makes this work so well is Lieberstein’s subtle use of an incredibly halting, stammering voice.


What a great character. Ted Knight’s childish, pompous TV anchor on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” was insanely funny. And unlike most sitcom Punching Bags, he also tried to make a few verbal jabs of his own.

Lou: Put it on an idiot card for Ted.

Ted: Cue cards, Lou. I don’t know why everyone insists on calling cue cards idiot cards.

Murray: We just have trouble thinking of you as a cue.


Actress Maggie Wheeler appeared only sporadically on “Friends” as the always-annoying Janice. Yet the very mention of her name (and certainly the sound of her laugh) caused a visceral, derisive reaction from both the other characters and the audience. She was a Punching Bag who punched back quite effectively.


Joseph Kearns played Mr. Wilson in the  TV version of “Dennis the Menace.” He was winningly cranky, and he invariably got the short end of the stick in his interactions with young Dennis. Sadly, he passed away before the end of the show’s run and was replaced by Gale Gordon as Mr. Wilson’s brother – who also found Dennis to be rather menacing.


A Nazi prison camp commanding officer is certainly a fine choice to be a sitcom Punching Bag, outlandish as that sounds. Actor Werner Klemperer did wonderful work as Klink on “Hogan’s Heroes,” making the Colonel a vain, gullible chump.


Jerry’s main foil on “Seinfeld” was played by Wayne Knight with a terrific sense of evil fun. Newman was a schemer of the first order, and there are people I know who still invoke his name when they’re exasperated with just about anything. Newman!


Whether you prefer Dick York or Dick Sargent as the husband on “Bewitched,” they both served as excellent sources of material for the mother-in-law character, played by the great Agnes Moorehead.

Darrin: I’d like it much better if you’d call me by my first name.

Endora: Very well, Dennis.


Aptly named and hopelessly hapless, the character Screech on “Saved by the Bell” was played by Dustin Diamond. I can’t say I was a fan of this show, but I’m aware that it, and Screech, achieved a sort of cult status.


This guy, I remember. Binghamton (Joe Flynn) was the comedic villain of “McHale’s Navy.” His voice was like a foghorn on the fritz, and he played his many moments of anger and frustration with broad strokes. Who could blame him for being mad? McHale (Ernest Borgnine) ALWAYS got the better of him.


It had to be a thankless task, playing the rich, pompous counterpoint to Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” But Alfonso Ribeiro was able to find just the right undercurrent of humility beneath the arrogance.


Tarlek, the ad sales guy on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” was a buffoon who could easily have turned into a stock character. Thanks to some amazingly bad clothing and deft comic timing by actor Frank Bonner, he became a crucial part of the show’s ensemble.


Oh, Frank. “M*A*S*H” wouldn’t have been nearly as good in its early years without such a great lightning rod for insults. Larry Linville made Frank a towering sitcom monument to weakness, greed and insecurity. Bravo. And remember – Frank Burns eats worms.

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