TWTV Hall of Fame: April 2013 – Best Lead Actor in a Comedy

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By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Emma Fraser, Whitney McIntosh, Heather McLendon, Andrew Rabin, Anthony Strand, and Cameron White

Happy Easter/April Fool’s Day everyone, and welcome back to This Was Television’s Hall of Fame! Once again, we’re coming off another month of extensive hits and votes for our performance-centric ballots. That interest helped us set two new records with March’s Lead Actress in a Comedy theme, as seven of our eight nominees qualified for induction into the Hall of Fame and Mary Tyler Moore received the highest percentage of support ever with 98 percent of the vote. (For the record, we are very annoyed with the person or persons who chose to vote no, and therefore denied us the fun of announcing our first undisputed nominee.) Thanks as always for your support and interest. We’ll be closing out our lead performance nominations this month with Lead Actor in a Comedy—let’s see if the boys have as many fans as the ladies.

To recap our criteria: any performer being considered for the Hall of Fame must have played the same role for at least one season of a show, and if they appeared as that same character on more than one show the shows need to be tonally similar enough to fit the same category. Five-year eligibility rule is still in play, but it applies to the time a character was on a show, rather than how long the show ran, meaning that characters from shows still on the air can be considered as long as the last time they played that character was 2008 or earlier. And as always, the threshold for nomination remains a 60 percent yes vote.

With that said, here are the nominees.

Les:

Edmund_Lord_Blackadder

Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder, Blackadder (1983-1989, 2000)

The lifeblood of any good actor is the ability to deliver a variety of performances, the ability to find different characters to play and to play each one with a sense of uniqueness. Few actors are able to craft even one truly memorable role; fewer still are capable of finding multiple variations on that same role. But over four series and a variety of specials, Rowan Atkinson managed to do exactly that as no fewer than six generations of the Blackadder family, the most venal and corrupt dynasty ever to strive for power in Britain.

The Blackadder series is built on moving through various periods of English history, and in each installment—medieval England, Elizabethan times, the Regency, or World War I—Atkinson managed to create an interpretation of the titular character who was recognizable as a member of the family but also their own person. As Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh in The Black Adder, his performance is sycophantic and sniveling; as Lord Blackadder in Blackadder II he’s a pompous noble who’s always got his hands in a scheme; as Mr. Blackadder in Blackadder the Third he projects subservience while at the same time seething with a barely concealed rage; and as Captain Blackadder in Blackadder Goes Forth he’s a world-weary soldier who knows his back is against the wall but never stops trying to find a loophole. Atkinson varies the degrees of self-confidence and competence for each one in turn, and it never feels like he’s going through the motions or repeating himself.

And at the same time, his various incarnations of Blackadder remain the cohesive center of the entire series, despite providing a different flavor each time around. The caustic writing of Blackadder is its greatest attribute, and the cutting insults written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton wouldn’t be nearly so cutting if they weren’t coming from Atkinson’s mouth. Atkinson invests every line with exactly the right amount of contempt you’d expect from someone who believed he was the smartest person in the room, and more often than not was proven right in that conviction. (Well, maybe not so much The Black Adder, but that was only the first series.) He made Blackadder’s insults a thing of beauty, and I have yet to find anyone else who can deliver an “Oh God” in such disgusted world-weariness. Even in a murderer’s row of English comic voices—Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Tim McInnerny, Tony Robinson—it was Atkinson who held that show together, and Atkinson who made it us root for the most inutterable bastard in history.

Anthony:

Bob_Hartley

Bob Newhart as Dr. Robert Hartley, The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978)

Dr. Bob Hartley wasn’t TV’s first or last “Only sane person surrounded by crazies,” but he was probably the most low-key. The role was a natural, given Bob Newhart’s stand-up routines in which we heard only his side of telephone conversations with irrational people. Playing a psychologist, Bob got to provide dead-pan reactions to all manner of neurotic patients. A lesser actor would have disappeared against the over-the-top patients, but not Newhart. With small gestures and simple stammers, he owned every session, regardless of who shared the scene.

Newhart’s skill was also put to good use in the scenes he shared with Suzanne Pleshette as Bob’s wife Emily. Here, he wasn’t the normal one at all. Bob was often petty or irrational, and the two could easily have been a typical TV couple where the wife was too pretty and smart for the husband. But Newhart was able to turn those flaws into strengths, convincing us that Emily loved Bob because of that stuff, not in spite of it. It’s a tough balancing act, but Newhart nailed it.

Whitney:

sam-malone

Ted Danson as Sam Malone, Cheers (1982-1993)

Television comedy can be a tricky thing. Different people like different types of humor, jokes don’t land as well as you’d like them to, character development is glossed over or forgotten about completely to focus more on the “comedy” half of situation comedy.  Shows could have a million make or break moments between casting choices, writer’s room decisions, set design and story focus. In the end, the ability to become and remain a popular comedy comes down to how much the audience wants to hang out with your characters every week. Appointment television is made or broken by the need to find out what happens next, and in sitcoms this translates to “what this specific group of people are doing this week” more than the events of an episode or consequences of a story arc. For me, M*A*S*H was the first to use this theory to their advantage, but Cheers was the first show to truly perfect it. And the main reason they succeeded was because of Ted Danson.

When you look at the set of Cheers, the bar area is in the center at all times. Wait staff, regulars, surprise guests and nameless drinkers all inhabit the outer edges of the screen. Because of this positioning, it gives the impression that Danson’s Sam Malone was the center of this particular universe, with everyone else caught in his orbit. If you’ve never watched an episode of Cheers this would be clear in less than two episodes, I guarantee it. With a cast of extremely talented actors playing characters with larger than life personalities, Danson still stood out. Yes, the bar was his and he was the character whose motivations and past the audience was most clued in on, but a less talented actor could have taken the same lines and personality traits and given us just another character on television. Danson’s charisma and smug handsomeness played off everyone well seemingly without effort, the importance of which was emphasized once Cheers embarked on what would be a series of casting changes and additions (the departures of Coach and Diane, and later the additions of Lilith and Frasier).

Sam Malone felt like a character that existed long before we started watching. Maybe this is just because I’m from Boston and grew up with an ever-changing cast of Sox players and their unique personalities, but Danson was able to successfully be not only a believable womanizing bartender but also a believable womanizing bartender that once came out of the bullpen for the Boston Red Sox. There are some TV characters that you want to watch without every really wanting to be friends with (Tony Soprano, even Michael Scott). With Sam Malone, Ted Danson made a borderline asshole of a person someone everyone in America wanted to have a beer with every week. His charisma, wry humor and ability to expertly balance his good looks with some poor character traits allowed him to be the most popular character on a show of all-time great ones. It’s telling that even though he was nominated for every season, Danson won his two Emmys for Cheers at the end of the show’s run. Even after a decade living in Sam Malone’s bar and experiencing all the ups and downs alongside our friends down at Cheers, America still wasn’t sick of him. Because of that, Ted Danson should be inducted into the Hall of Fame this month.

Emma:

hawkeye

Alan Alda as Captain Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, M*A*S*H (1972–1983)

Starring in all 251 episodes of M*A*S*H is an impressive feat, but Alan Alda’s work on this show is a lot more than just this impressive statistic. His performance as Hawkeye Pierce; a womanizing, jaded but compassionate army surgeon is both hilarious and moving. This mirrors the dual qualities of M*A*S*H; that it shows the horrors and consequences of war, while also having a sense of humor in the face of this. Being able to laugh in the gravest of situations is important and it is why M*A*S*H struck a chord with audiences when it aired and why it is still just as relevant today.

As the show and the characters evolved Hawkeye took on a more serious persona and the liberal views of Alan Alda himself became entrenched with his performance. Alda was at this point both writing and directing episodes of the show and so it’s unsurprising that he would incorporate his own beliefs into his work. This could have been alienating, but it doesn’t appear this was the case as the series finale—that Alda directed, co-wrote and starred in—is still the highest rated single broadcast in American TV history with a staggering 106 million viewers (can you imagine anything outside of the Super Bowl getting anywhere near this today?).  The latter half of M*A*S*H’s eleven-year run is sometimes referred to as the Alan Alda years and this signified the show’s dramatic turn.

Delving into more serious territory doesn’t mean that we should ignore Alda’s comedic talents, and it was the variation of tone that shows how brilliant he is in this role. At times it was the absurdity of their situation which let Hawkeye shine as the lead, or when he emulated his own personal hero Groucho Marx with his trademark nose, glasses and moustache. This character is a flawed wiseass and one that could be written off as a jerk, but there is also a hidden warmth to Hawkeye.

Taking on a role that Donald Sutherland had made his own in Robert Altman’s version of M*A*S*H that preceded the TV show in 1970 could also have been a tough sell, but Alda did just that. I only recently watched the movie and Hawkeye’s womanizing has a strong sexist undertone that isn’t present in Alda’s portrayal, this makes it easy for me to pick a favourite. One person who would’ve disagreed with this assessment is M*A*S*H author Richard Hooker who was disappointed with Alda taking this character in a liberal direction. Regardless of political convictions it is clear that Alda played an important part in the success and longevity of M*A*S*H 

Cory:

archie-bunker

Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, All In The Family (1971-1979)/Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983)

These races aren’t all about awards; in fact, we started the Hall of Fame to give props to people who weren’t able to break through the glass ceilings established by the Emmys and Golden Globes. But it’s hard for me to disregard all-time greats in categories like this one. As I’ve said a few times throughout our various races, sometimes the goofballs who vote for important awards actually get it right. Carroll O’Connor’s achievements at those awards shows fits that bill. From 1970-1979, O’Connor was nominated for an Emmy in every year but one (1975-76) and won four times. He had a similar run at the Globes, with six nominations between 1971 and 1977 and one win. Even though the quality of Archie Bunker’s Place is debatable, O’Connor still turned in such good work there that he was awarded a Peabody in 1980 for the episode “Archie Alone.” He was award show catnip.

But of course, O’Connor deserves to be here for many more reasons. While Norman Lear’s interests in social issues and debate gets rightfully cited as the driving engine of All in the Family, O’Connor’s similar interests in those ideas helped bring the immortal Archie Bunker to life as well. Though he was a liberal and the show was definitely left of center, O’Connor had no problem taking on that side of the proverbial aisle, just as he had no problem personifying an ignorant, curmudgeonly bigot. And perhaps most importantly, O’Connor brought such depth, complexity, and vulnerability to Archie that Lear was able to tell the stories he wanted to (and force the audience to be a little uncomfortable) while keeping them laughing at and with Archie throughout the series’ run. This is one of the most famous television characters of all-time and the performance is a big, big reason why.

Heather:

Chandler-Bing-TOW-Rachel-s-Going-Away-Party-10-16-chandler-bing-9945582-720-480

Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Friends (1994-2004)

In the nine years since Friends ended, Matthew Perry is still most strongly associated with his portrayal of Chandler Bing. And for good reason. Perry frequently provided the necessary “straight man” character in comedy while not sacrificing humor. Perry’s Bing is the predecessor to Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth. His droll sarcasm balances out Joey’s stupid humor and Ross’s neuroses, and his (mostly) even-keel personality accentuates and fuels the comedy in this trio of friends. Over the show’s ten-year run, he found ways to create additional comedic motifs through his character, like his habit of emphasizing the wrong word in sentences. In sitcoms—especially in shows like Friends in which situations and personalities are exaggerated for comedic effect—Perry could have allowed his character to snowball into a caricature. Instead he was frequently the voice of reason—and irony.

So often it was Perry’s delivery that elevated a funny line to a hysterical, memorable one. Thanks to him, we have such comedic classics as: “The cushions are the essence of the chair,” “Wah-pah!” “Stay… stay… good fake dog,” and “MERGE!”

More than humor, though, Perry’s contribution to Friends was his engaging and realistic portrayal of a long-term relationship—the longest in the series. Ross had his flings and his on-again-off-again relationship with Rachel. Joey was the charming womanizer. Chandler was in a relationship with Monica since the end of season four. Perry (and Courtney Cox) managed to create a long-term committed relationship—and then marriage—that didn’t bore viewers. Their relationship allowed the show to explore deeper issues of committed relationships that the other characters weren’t able to do, such as wedding costs, house hunting, children, and the thousand tiny things that come up in marriage. He was often the one to calm down frenzied, extreme control-freak Monica, and their “odd couple” marriage expanded and enriched the comedy.

Andrew:

Fonzie

Henry Winkler as Arthur “Fonzie” “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, Happy Days (1974-1984)

Arthur Fonzarelli is one of the most iconic characters in television history. He ranked fourth on TV Guide’s list of the Greatest TV Characters of All Time. He became the central character in a series that would launch a seven series franchise. There are many reasons to vote for him, and we’ll get to those. But there’s probably one reason you’re considering not voting for him.

Yes, on September 20, 1977, in the 91st episode of Happy Days, the third episode of the fifth season, entitled “Hollywood (Part 3),” Arthur Fonzarelli, on a pair of skis, jumped over a shark. It’s absolutely absurd, and totally out-of-line with the mostly realistic portrayal of life in the 1950s (give or take an alien-centric spinoff). And yet, its historical impact in the world of television dwarfs almost anything done by these other reputable nominees. Jumping the shark became a cultural idiom about a gimmick used by a show around the point of the series’ recovery. It spawned a website and a book. Winkler even spoofed himself years later on Arrested Development. The jumping of the shark may have been a low point for Happy Days as a series, but it is an asset to Winker’s candidacy due to its impact on television history.

That leaves us with the rest of The Fonz’s resume. Winkler, who got the role only when series creator Garry Marshall’s first choices were considered too tall compared to the rest of the cast, flawlessly transitioned from minor, recurring player to series regular to the lead actor to this (okay, maybe that last one wasn’t flawless). Unlike Steve Urkel, another breakout character who went on to dominate his series, Fonzie didn’t become more and more ridiculous but more real and deep. Episodes in season six and season eight (both after the literal shark jumping) dealt with Fonzie meeting his father and mother respectively. His relationship with the Cunninghams became an incredibly sweet version of the surrogate family structure that so many of today’s comedies feature.

And yeah, The Fonz was cool. He had his office bathroom and two distinct catchphrases (“aaaaaayy” and “sit on it.”) He could hit a jukebox and turn it on. Listen to the studio audience’s reaction to every one of Winkler’s lines and moves in this clip. How many characters have gotten that kind of reaction just for showing up?

The Fonz already has a statue. It’s time to put him in the Hall of Fame as well.

Cameron:

frasier

Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane, Frasier (1993-2004)

Characters don’t become the focus of television show spin-offs without good reason. Towards the end of their time on Hercules and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena and Angel had found a quest for redemption that would starkly differentiate themselves from their more heroic compatriots. Sitcom spin-offs are more common, of course, as sitcoms are the realm of some of TV’s greatest characters. But the key to playing a good comedy character isn’t just understanding the comedy of the character or situation, but in recognizing the deeper human truths that lie just beneath those characters or situations.

Kelsey Grammer, who played Frasier Crane in Cheers before getting his own show in Frasier, carries that gravitas with him in his performance. “Neurotic psychiatrist with familial issues” is an inherently good setup for a character, but it’s also reflective of a sad truth about how family messes people up, especially as adults. Grammar honed in on that aspect of the character so well that he carries a piece of it with him in every role he’s held since. (Boss is a good example.) Spin-offs are just as much a risk as new shows, but undoubtedly NBC felt confident in building one around Grammar. It was a risk worth taking.

7 Responses to “TWTV Hall of Fame: April 2013 – Best Lead Actor in a Comedy”

  1. Marty McKee

    Oh boy. And you guys were doing so much better.

    Look, I love ya, or else I wouldn’t keep reading every day, but I have to tell you–someone has to break it to you–that television comedy was not invented in the 1970s.

    This list is kind of a travesty, to be honest. Not that many of the names aren’t Hall-worthy, mind you, but…

    But any list of comedy actors that includes *zero* names from the 1950s and 1960s really needs to be scrapped.

    Dick Van Dyke
    Desi Arnaz
    Don Adams
    Jackie Gleason
    Phil Silvers
    Jack Benny
    George Burns
    Bob Cummings
    Danny Thomas
    Andy Griffith

    If the category includes comedy/variety: Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Danny Kaye.

    The 1970s was a great decade for comedy too, as Ed Asner, Redd Foxx, Hal Linden, John Ritter, Judd Hirsch, Jack Klugman, and Tony Randall miss the list. Hey, not everyone can make it.

    A list of nominees that features Kelsey Grammar, Rowan Atkinson, and Matthew Perry but not Gleason, Silvers, Van Dyke, and Benny just ain’t much of a list, gang.

    Reply
    • arrabin56

      Comedy didn’t end in 1970 either.

      FWIW: Van Dyke was nominated by someone who unfortunately was not able to submit their nomination this month.

      I can’t speak for others, but I intentionally did not choose Arnaz, Asner, or Hirsch because I did not want to nominate someone from a show where the female lead was nominated last month in order to spread the wealth. The same goes for some you didn’t name, like Cosby (who certainly would be deserving) , Goodman, and Seinfeld. I believe O’Connor is the only nominee this month from a series that also had a lead nominated last month.

      Also, you seem to be under the impression that we make these choices as a group. While there is some discussion (for example I often give the last few to pick some of the statistical leaders), the picks are largely independent. I didn’t look at the list of everyone’s picks and say “I’m also not going to pick someone from the 1950s.” I think of some people I’d like to nominate, see if anyone else wants one of them more, and then pick one.

      I think Matthew Perry can be reasonably questioned (I think he’s a fine nominee, but would not even be my first pick from that cast personally). But I also think your specific shots at Grammar and Atkinson are misguided. Grammar as Frasier Crane is one of the most celebrated (and FWIW one of the longest lasting) portrayals of a character in television history. If you care about the numbers at all (and it’s totally legit not to since they’re pretty much just a mash-up of random things) you’ll see he is far-and-away the highest scoring actor in any of the 4 categories we have done.

      I cannot speak to Atkinson’s performance at all. I’ve never seen a single episode of Blackadder. But I do think honoring non-American performances is essential, and the fact that your proposed list of nominees are entirely from American series.

      So no, maybe your favorites weren’t picked. That doesn’t make this list “not much of a list,” it just means it wasn’t your list.

      Reply
      • Marty McKee

        I voted for several names on this list, because I think they are worthy. In 2016. But like you can’t have a Baseball HOF without Ruth, Cobb, and Mathewson, you can’t have a TV HOF without Benny, Gleason, Caesar, and Silvers. It’s not that they’re favorites of mine necessarily, but they’re the pioneers who made it possible for everyone else to have careers. If you told Henry Winkler he was going into the HOF before Jackie Gleason, he would drop out of the race. And if the Baseball HOF opened tomorrow and the first guys inducted were Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, and Kirby Puckett, the ghost of Babe Ruth would drop his hot dog in a second and start looking for someone to slap.

        I don’t believe in quotas and wouldn’t insist on adding a Brit just for the purpose of adding one, but if Cleese’s Fawlty isn’t the first through the gate, well…

        Reply

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