Newest bunch of sitcom 'second bananas' are innovative, quirky and appealing

November 20, 1992|By Orlando Sentinel

Jerry Seinfeld is funny, but Kramer -- his pop-eyed, pixilated, pratfalling pal on "Seinfeld" -- is beautiful. If Kramer didn't exist, you couldn't invent him.

Tim Allen is funny, too, but Al -- his wry, reticent, Zen-like assistant on "Home Improvement" -- is a trip, riding a funky wavelength all his own. Like Kramer, he didn't come from a mold and doesn't leave one.

Kramer and Al -- created by Michael Richards and Richard Karn, respectively -- are state-of-the-artless specimens of that ever-changing TV species known as the second banana, no two alike.

Many of the great TV sitcoms have had one, a weird planet in orbit around the major star. Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) had squirrelly Ed Norton (Art Carney) on "The Honeymooners." Spacey Howard Borden (Bill Daily) was the counterpoint to earthbound Bob Hartley on "The Bob Newhart Show."

Barney Fife (Don Knotts) was -- to switch metaphors -- the loose cannon on a ship anchored by stolid Andy Taylor ("The Andy Griffith Show").

Some legendary sitcoms such as "Cheers," "Barney Miller," "Taxi" and "M*A*S*H" are ensemble shows with large casts that don't allow for the emergence of a single second banana, though Christopher Lloyd came close to breaking out as Jim Ignatowski on "Taxi."

Considering how relatively rare they are, we're enjoying a wealth exotic supporting birds in prime time right now. On the list with Kramer and Al is Luther Van Dam (Jerry Van Dyke), Craig T. Nelson's babbling assistant on "Coach."

Where do they get these guys?

They don't -- go out and get them, that is. Characters like this tend to materialize out of thin air, luck and serendipity.

"Home Improvement's" Al, for example, is a direct result of Richard Karn's being slapped with a traffic ticket in Los Angeles.

At traffic school he found himself seated for eight hours next to a Hollywood agent who told Mr. Karn about a couple of producers who were putting together a new series about a TV handyman.

The stage-trained Mr. Karn discovered that the producers had already cast a well-known older actor -- he won't name the name -- in the role of Tim Taylor's sidekick.

"They said, well, you're not really right for any of the roles, but come in anyway," Mr. Karn said. "They liked what I did."

When the more famous actor dropped out to do movies, Mr. Karn got the role -- and proceeded to transform it into something unforeseeable by the writers. The role of Al was "kind of nebulous" on the written page, Mr. Karn said.

The defining moment for Al was Mr. Karn's reading of the line that has become Al's "anthem," as Mr. Karn puts it. The opening was a rejoinder to one of Mr. Allen's notoriously awful jokes.

"Tim said, 'Al, I think they call it molding because it's been in the refrigerator too long.' The writers wrote, 'I don't think so, Tim,' " Mr. Karn said, giving his line a flat reading.

"But because of the person I am, and the person I thought Al was, I put a whole different spin on it."

Mr. Karn's deliberate reading, accompanied by a steely stare, gave the "I don't think so, Tim," line a tone of affectionate contempt.

It didn't take a traffic ticket to bring gangling Michael Richards to the attention of "Seinfeld" producers, who had admired his work on the short-lived ABC comedy-sketch series "Fridays," which aired from 1980 to 1982.

In fact, the producers apparently had so much confidence in Mr. Richards they barely bothered to connect the dots of his character.

"There wasn't much," Mr. Richards said about Kramer. "The writers really didn't know. So I just had to make it up through my imagination. I didn't know his age or nothing. All I knew is that he didn't have much money, and that he lived across the hall from Jerry's apartment."

"Seinfeld" didn't have a huge wardrobe budget at the outset, so Mr. Richards searched thrift shops and came back with his collection of exquisitely hideous, '50s shirts.

Richards, an expert physical comic, has carte-blanche to punctuate his lines with pratfalls.

"If it's funny, it's in," he said. "I try to find an action to go along with the dialogue," he said.

Mr. Van Dyke found his way to stardom by the most conventional route. Years ago while doing stand-up in Los Angeles, he hired a hungry writer named Barry Kemp to produce material for him. Mr. Kemp went on to create "Newhart" and then "Coach."

"He specifically wrote a character that he knew Jerry Van Dyke would be ideal for," said Jasper Vance, a publicist for "Coach."

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