Ten Great TV Comedy Sidekicks

Memorable Supporting Characters

by J. M. Pressley
First published: May 13, 2009

There's a handful of supporting television characters that I've found consistently and hilariously funny through the years. Which ones do you enjoy?

There are few comic characters I've come to appreciate in the last few years as much as Dr. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley) of Scrubs. Well, Scrubs finally aired its last episode in early May in a much more fitting tribute from ABC than the show got with NBC (but that's another story). Dr. Cox will probably go down as one of my all-time favorites in that regard, however disappointed I may be to see the last of him.

That got me to thinking about some of the other television comedy characters I've loved to watch over the years. Of course, names like Ralph Kramden, Lucy Ricardo, Rob Petrie, Mary Richards, Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, and a slew of other all-time greats immediately come to mind. But there's a handful of supporting characters that I've found consistently and hilariously funny. Unfortunately, all of them have left the air. However, thanks to syndication and the miracle of DVD, it's still possible to catch them in the act.

Notes: I'm giving automatic lifetime achievement byes to the following icons: Barney Fife, Arthur "Fonzi" Fonzarelli, Ethel Mertz, Ed Norton, and the entire casts of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H. And, since it's a list of characters that I will actually miss, I've left off the casts of Seinfeld and Friends. My list, my opinions. And so, in alphabetical order....

Artie (Rip Torn), The Larry Sanders Show

Rip Torn could be compelling just by reading a grocery list. His portrayal of Artie (we never know his last name), based on longtime NBC producer Fred De Cordova, earned him six Emmy nominations and one win. Artie's keen wit and smooth glad-handling helped make the show one of the most popular television sit-coms among both critics and viewers. You really have to watch the series to appreciate Artie, but the following quote sums him up nicely. Speaking to the studio janitor, Artie says, "Dimitri, my man, you and I both clean up [crap] for a living. The only difference is my [crap] talks back." Beautiful.

Robert Barone (Brad Garrett), Everybody Loves Raymond

It almost makes me feel sorry for Brad Garrett. In the words of Robert Barone, "I'm a cop and live with my parents. I'm on a constant diet of human suffering." He had to be that funny to hold his own between Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts. The result: a quirky older brother resentful of living in the shadow of his sibling. Robert could have been just a coathanger for size jokes, but bits like his "Crazy Chin" nervous tic and his Wile E. Coyote-like quest for attention made him memorable—to the tune of five Emmy nominations and three wins. Ray Romano and CBS deserve all the credit for surrounding an otherwise ordinary sit-com dad with such extraordinary support.

Dr. Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce), Frasier

Maybe it's the association with Kelsey Grammer. But that wouldn't do justice to the resoundingly foppish mannerisms or deadpan delivery. It takes a special blend of actor and character to pull off a line like this: "I'd like a, a petit filet mignon, very lean, not so lean that it lacks flavor, but not so fat that it leaves drippings on the plate. And I don't want it cooked—just lightly seared on either side, pink in the middle; not a true pink, but not a mauve either, something in between, bearing in mind the slightest error either way, and it's ruined." Niles was one of a kind, and the character was recognized with 11 straight Emmy nominations—and an impressive four wins.

Dan Fielding (John Larroquette), Night Court

Yes, Night Court may qualify as a slightly guilty pleasure for me. After all, it devolved from a dry-humored, slightly offbeat comedy series into a slapstick sit-com in which reality was frequently abandoned. But in Dan Fielding, Larroquette managed to dive into two stereotypes—lawyer and Lothario—and come out as a genuine character. Dan was a great prosecutor, and regarding his libido: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. I throw my life away for sex. But, you know, I thought I'd at least get to die having it." Memorable? The character earned Larroquette four consecutive Emmy awards from 1985–1988, in no small part due to the underplayed humanity that lurked beneath Fielding's shallow persona.

Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd), Taxi

Reverend Jim made such an impression on me that he's the first thing that pops to mind whenever I think of Labor Day. He is at once everything that went right and wrong with the sixties—he called himself the "living embodiment" of the decade. You have to pity a man who lists a 1963 Volkswagen van as his address and counts among his heroes St. Thomas Aquinas, Gandhi, and Louis De Palma. I can still see him standing there, having mistaken a cigarette machine for a jukebox, putting in a quarter and exclaiming, "They haven't played my cigarette yet!" Or, talking about his time at Woodstock, "I wore flowers in my hair and meditated for hours on end. I was finding God all over the place...He kept ditching me." Anybody could play a burnout for a cheap laugh, but Lloyd played one with a humanity that made it hilarious. The character won two Emmys for Lloyd.

Florence Johnston (Marla Gibbs), The Jeffersons

It's unfortunate that Marla Gibbs had her heyday in the early 1980s. She had five straight years of Emmy nominations for her portrayal of sassy maid Florence Johnston, playing the verbal sparring partner to Sherman Hensley's George Jefferson. She never won against stiff competition, but she was one of the most recognizable characters on television for a decade. The quote that pretty much sums up Florence to me comes from the episode in which she was kidnapped by mistake. When rescued by the police, she looks up and says, "Thank you, Jesus. I knew you'd save me. But what took you so long?!"

Manuel (Andrew Sachs), Fawlty Towers

The Brits really have a thing for abusing their comic sidekicks. It might say something about their social class system. Really, either Manuel or Baldrick from Blackadder was going to make this list; Manuel was the better character. Yes, at first glance it's tempting to dismiss him as easily as Basil Fawlty does. But the funny looks, butchered English, and slapstick physical comedy belie a character who takes pride in every accomplishment, no matter how small ("I learn Eengleesh from a boog"). And boy, does he try, no matter how much abuse he takes from the boss he inexplicably adores. Even Manuel has his limits, however. I still get a good laugh from "The Kipper and the Corpse" episode, when Manuel—tired of porting the body of a guest all over the hotel—says, "Mr. Fawlty, I no want to work here anymore!" The second series earned Sachs a BAFTA nomination for the role.

Bill McNeal (Phil Hartman), NewsRadio

Truth be told, it was hard to tell where Phil Hartman ended and Bill McNeal began. It's still an underrated favorite of mine. Bill is probably best summed up with his line "Don't confuse me with the facts." You never quite knew where Bill was coming from, but it was sure to be funny, especially when trading lines with his boss: "You may not believe this, Dave, but you are not Joseph Stalin, and this is not Elizabethan England. I have a right to speak." Or, take my favorite McNeal editorial on diplomatic immunity: "They get a ticket, they don't pay no ticket, and that's why these free-loading foreign diplomats should be dragged out of their cars and beaten like the renegade outlaws they are." The role gave him a posthumous supporting actor nomination in 1998.

Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth), Cheers

Cheers was essentially an ensemble show after a few seasons. It would be tempting to go with Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane for this list, but not only did Frasier turn into a leading role on Cheers, NBC spun him off into a hit series of his own. However, Bebe Neuwirth's performance as his wife, Lilith, earned her two Emmy wins with a wit dry enough to cause a nosebleed. Asked about her cold demeanor, Lilith says, "There are two approaches a woman can take in turning her look to her advantage. The first is to play upon the male's sexual drive and turn yourself into an object of desire. I have opted for the second...scaring them stupid." She evolved into a perfect foil for Frasier over the years, and it's hard not to appreciate Neuwirth's less-is-more approach to the role.