Monday, September 29, 2008

Straight Man/Funny Man Dichotomy

I once took a college course for 3 relatively easy credits called "Film Comedy" and there was a very revealing quote in our textbook explaining the straight man-funny man dichotomy: "Comedy is something funny in a non-funny situation or something non-funny in a funny situation."

If my friends have traditionally thought of me as goofy and are expecting that and I were to walk into the room with a suit and tie and shake their hands in a business-like manner, they would find it funny. When Andy Kaufman did strikingly ordinary things on stage, people found it funny because they were expecting non-funny. This is where the funny man/straight man dichotomy comes from: Encapsulating the entirety of the humor about a situation into one character and everything else into the other allows one to have the base of reality from which funny will seem most evident by contrast.

Some shows like Perfect Strangers, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, or Family Matters has one (or two) funny men and everyone else is normal. The Office employs straight man-funny man humor tremendously: think of how Michael, the funny man, says something awkward and the rest of the office, playing the role of the straight man goes silent.

30 Rock is an example of the opposite: Jack is highly businesslike. He dresses in a suit and tie and often says things a businessman is supposed to say in the tone a businessman would say it. At the same time, he'll occasionally catch you off-guard by saying something bizarre occasionally. In that sense, he encapsulates both straight and funnyman qualities: Everything about his demeanor is representative of the straight man, while his occasional bit of bizarreness is the funny contrast. It works very well, because there are clearly delineated boundaries between the two.  On the other hand, some shows like Wings or Cheers or Seinfeld, everyone's a little off kilter with they're one funny personality trait. On Wings, for example, Faye is a little absent-minded, Roy is a little greedy and Antonio is a little lonely. These traits only provide comedy because Faye is surrounded by level-headed people, Roy is surrounded by mostly moral people, and Antonio is surrounded by people with a healthy differentiation between friendship and people they hang out with at work.

There are also some shows in which the straight-man/funny-man phenomenon gets deliciously skewed:
1. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has straight men and funny men at first but the straight men eventually go funny. Someone enters the world of these narcissistic people (Dee, Frank, the 3 guys) as an outsider to their narcissism (i.e. the priest who was in love with Dee, the unnamed waitress) but they get caught up in their narcissism and get turned inside out in their interactions with the group
2. Newsradio and Arrested Development: On the surface, there's one straight guy-Michael Bluth and Dave Foley's character-but they end up showing just a hint of narcissism or pettiness here or there and as time goes on and they become more bonded to the group, they're negative traits become drawn out more to the point that there's no longer a straight man
3. Family Matters-Originally, the family is normal and the neighbor next door is off-kilter but as they end up bonding, it seems as if Steve Urkel might be the normal one, and someone like Carl, with his outbursts, might be the off-kilter one. This show was broadcast at the height of TGIF, so the comedy had a layer of forced sentimentality to it as well.

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