The straight man

Conan O'Brien once told Tom Scharpling being the straight man is the hardest thing in comedy.

How does Scharpling (host of The Best Show on WFMU) keep his poise during his bits with Jon Wurster? He pinches his leg.

"Once in a while, the silliness of the whole thing hits us during a bit and we lose it," Mr. Scharpling wrote in an e-mail message after the show. "Sometimes Jon has to cover for me by talking while I'm gathering my bearings, and sometimes I have to do the same for him.

"One time that stands out is Jon deliberately thinking the band Husker Du was called Husker Dude. Hearing that line come out of Jon's mouth just killed the both of us. I had to hold it down, playing the outraged straight man while Jon kept laughing silently. Which makes me want to laugh. I usually end up pinching my leg to stay on track."

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner recently talked with the AV Club about the straight-guy/funny-guy dynamic.

AVC: The straight-guy/funny-guy dynamic has been around for ages. How did the two of you fall into that format?

MB: I think the real engine behind it is Carl, not me. I’m just collecting the fares. But he’s the guy that creates the subjects, the questions, and creates a kind of buoyant, effervescent, terribly na├»ve character. He keeps saying, “Sir, I find that hard to believe, that you’re 2,000.” [Laughs.] He actually says that. So I didn’t even start it. I wanted nothing to do with it. I was eating a piece of sponge cake and drinking Manischewitz wine in a corner somewhere at a party, and suddenly Carl comes over with a tape recorder and says, “I understand, sir, you were at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” And I was off. I was off doing what I had to do.

CR: It’s really a writing job—the straight guy comes up with the premises. In all good writing teams, there’s always someone who has a strength in one area, and my strength is that I always come up with ideas. I write books that way—I put a first line down and say, “Where does this go?” About a week or two ago, somebody came and told me about an article that said the guy considered the straight man in old vaudeville days owned the act. Weber and Fields, one of the biggest acts in vaudeville, it was Weber who owned the act and hired Fields. And he used many different Fields. There wasn’t one Fields. And Abbott and Costello, Abbott got the lion’s share of the money. He was the head guy. He found Costello, and it turned out that that was an accepted thing, the straight man was the guy, the producer, the writer, and the other guy was the guy who made the money for him. But I never thought of it in those terms. I am also the voice of the audience. I’m going to ask questions that if I were in the audience, I would love to know what this man thought about this, this, and this.

AVC: What about the straight-guy/funny-guy dynamic has caused it to last so long?

MB: Well, the straight guy is never given enough credit. For me, the heroes are the straight guys. The funnier one in Laurel and Hardy is Oliver Hardy. And Laurel gets all the credit for being the comic, and Hardy was the straight man. Abbott is a relentless maniac driving everybody in the world crazy, especially Lou Costello. And Lou gets all the credit, and Abbott gets no credit for framing it, for the architecture, for the support, for the drive. He does everything except the punchline; he’s amazing.

AVC: Regular audience members don’t seem to be very interested in comic setups.

MB: Yes it’s true. It’s so true. And I think the straight guy is critical. Dean Martin never got any credit. All the credit went to Jerry Lewis. And it was Dean’s reactions and his ease and his grace and his sheer talent that made that team work… Jack Benny was really the straight man of The Jack Benny Show, and that’s what made it so marvelous and wonderful. [In one joke], he’s in his vault—you hear him step by step, you hear the vault creaking, you hear the vault open, you hear some tinkling of coins, of gold or something. Then you hear a voice say, “Okay, your money or your life.” And you wait—this is radio—you wait a full minute, interminable space in radio. And the guy says, “Well?” And Jack says “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” The same thing with Johnny Carson, who just listened to comics. I loved doing his show, because you really made him laugh. He wasn’t kidding.

My take: The toughest part about being the straight man is being unselfish. The laugh goes to someone else. You create the environment for laughs but someone else gets to deliver the actual punchline. In that sense, it's almost like being the producer of a show but within the actual act.

1 comment:

Abbi Crutchfield said...

The role of the straight man is really hard to play in a lesbian comedy duo.

I never knew that the writer / producer / idea person usually winds up playing the straight man. I think it behooves a duo to be aware that they're getting laughs together. Team Submarine is really fun to watch in that respect. The straight lines Steve delivers get laughs in anticipation of the crazy ones Nate says.

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