Zeppo Marx was known as the straight man of the Marx Brothers, overshadowed by the more outlandish comic personae of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. While ignored by contemporary audiences and critics, film revisionists have reviewed Zeppo’s contribution to the Marx Brothers’ comedy, and some have found his understated presence important to some of the comedy performed.
The straight man in a comedy team or duo is important. Without Ricky, Lucy’s antics would be outlandish and incredible; without Mary Richards, Rhoda Morgenstern could be seen as pushy and overbearing (think about it – when she was spun off, she was quickly gifted with another straight man: her sister Brenda); and Lou Costello needed his straight man, Bud Abbott to set up the gags and jokes.
Even though the straight man doesn’t get the hilarious jokes, he/she is key to a successful comedy. But it’s very easy to let the straight man become dull and colorless. What’s unfortunate is when a straight man is a talented or interesting comedian and is sorely misused – this is the case with Rashida Jones in Parks and Recreation and Kaley Cuoco from The Big Bang Theory. Jones and Cuoco are talented comediennes and actresses, and have been sorely underutilized on their shows – and lately they’ve been so margianlized, that each time I see them I hope that they’ll be freed from their respective shows and get on vehicles that take advantage of their gifts.
Jones plays Ann Perkins, the best friend of Parks lead character Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). Introduced as a foil for Leslie in the show’s brief first season, the two quickly created a bond, while Ann dated characters from the show. The running joke was that Ann took on the personality of her boyfriend, but it was when she was floundering that Jones was gifted with some great gags. But even then, the writers still don’t seem to know what to do with Jones. Because she’s stunningly gorgeous, it’s easy to make her “the girlfriend” and even in films (Our Idiot Brother; I Love You, Man) she often takes on the thankless task of being the straight man.
Unlike Jones, Cuoco wasn’t necessarily the straight man in her show. When she came out in the first season of The Big Bang Theory, and the cast was tight and streamlined, Coco’s Penny was a very funny character – the hot blonde who played off the two geeks who lived across the hall in her building. Even though the show was about Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (Jonathan Galecki) and the Odd Couple-like behavior of the two roommates, and the will-they-won’t-they romance between Penny and Leonard, the best and most central relationship of the program was between Sheldon and Penny, and their bizarre best friendship. Because Sheldon was, at the time, incapable of relating to the opposite sex and Penny was not at all attracted to Sheldon, their relationship was grounded solely on their friendship. Unfortunately, the great duo of Couco and Parsons was diluted when the cast was expanded, and Sheldon got a girlfriend (the wonderful Mayim Bialik). And because six of the characters on The Big Bang Theory are the comedic characters, Penny is easily lost among the crowd, often pushed to the side, reacting to the hilarious hijinks of her geeky friends.
Penny and Ann were two of my favorite characters at one point. There were a few moments when they were given moments to shine, and I love the friendship between Ann and Leslie – they’re probably the best BFF couple on TV. And when the writers do get it right, Ann is really funny – for example, nursing her wounds after a breakup with Chris Traeger (a hilarious Rob Lowe), she starts to fall apart a bit, even painting a sole crimson streak in her hair. Also, the show’s core is very sentimental, and when the two band together in sisterhood, it’s great – while Leslie’s beautiful victory speech after winning an election was heartwarming, even more touching was Ann’s genuine, tearful happiness when she broke the good news to Leslie in the scene before.
And in the first three seasons, Penny was a comic whirlwind – stealing her scenes, and criminally not getting recognition from Emmy voters. The best episodes had Penny and Sheldon play off each other – she dislocated her shoulder and turned to Sheldon for help, and the two had a ridiculous evening on their way to the hospital. Or whenever the two perform a duet of “Soft Kitty” to make each other feel better.
If the writers of these shows don’t do better by Jones and Cuoco then the two actresses should be allowed to leave to pursue other projects. Otherwise, the writers should figure out how to better serve these ladies.