April 12, 2006

Beloved idiots.

I'm pulling a topic out of a comment thread. What do you think of the sort of TV comic character that's based nearly entirely on playing dumb? Some folks find it intolerable, but others think it's quite charming and a brilliant source of comedy. The currently controversial dummy character is Kellie Pickler on "American Idol." She's not (supposed to be) a fictional character, so her case is complicated by the suspicion that she's a fraud. I mean, how can you play dumb well if you're actually dumb? You wouldn't have the judgment to choose to blurt out the charmingly dumb remarks. Can she just be lucky?

I'm thinking that dumbness works especially well on TV. I don't have a theory why that's the case. But a couple great examples spring to mind: Goldie Hawn, Gracie Allen. Yes, I know my examples are ancient, but I haven't really watched many situation comedies since the 60s. Putting HBO to the side, I've only watched "Seinfeld," I think. (I've seen one episode of "Friends.") So help me out with recent examples of the great beloved idiots of the idiot box, and opine on the theory that dumb is good on TV.

Do you make a distinction between fiction and (supposedly) nonfiction shows? Maybe you love it when you know the dumb character is played by a very smart actress (like Lisa Kudrow) but you hate it when some reality show character tries to get the advantage by acting dumb or innocently gains an advantage by actually being dumb?

Another issue, quite obvious now that I've written this much, is whether it's different for males and females, and whether the physical beauty of the dummy is crucial.

68 comments:

Balfegor said...

Mr. Bean!

And re: whether the physical beauty of the dummy is crucial.

obviously not for men. Maybe for women.

Jennifer said...

You mention Friends - both Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) were dumb. I thought they were both pretty funny. I think it works well for either sex - as long as said character is also hot. Dumb and ugly doesn't seem to do it for many people!

With Kellie, I'm not sure everything is "blurted" out. A lot of it is probably worked out beforehand. When she does get the chance to blurt, she says dumb things like "What's a ballsy?"

For me, I'm annoyed by her fake country girl shtick. The dumb doesn't bother me.

Regardless, her act seems to work for a lot of people!

Jennifer said...

Oh, Mr. Bean good point.

Also Strangers with Candy. Wasn't she dumb? And quite ugly.

I guess it all depends on how they want you to laugh at the character - with or at?

katiebakes said...

Jennifer: Good point re the country girl shtick. For some reason, the dumbness, feigned or not, bothers me more when there is a southern accent attached to it.

MadisonMan said...

Chrissy Snow! Okay, so that's not very recent. How about Mallory Keaton? Hmm, not recent either. I guess I have to watch more TV! Was Lucy Ricardo dumb?

All three actresses above always seemed fairly smart to me.

I think a distinction should be made as well between the idiots and the merely lovably naive. Some parts have been written (can't think of any pre-coffee) that make the person sound dumb, but they're actually naive of the ways of the world. Dumb is good on TV, but only as a foil...usually the dumb person ends up doing something incredibly smart, or has insight that the smart people lack.

CB said...

Of course, the ultimate dumb TV character (and in my opinion, the greatest television character ever) is Homer Simpson. Having watched the show for seventeen years now, I'm amazed at how the writers were able to create a character so outrageous and ridiculous, yet with a strange consistency and credibility. Unfortunately, the brilliance of the early seasons is now highlighted by the recent, very bad seasons. Now Homer is still outrageous and stupid, but no longer as funny and charming.

Tristram said...

And Steve Martin made a movie about it. From back in the days, Dagwood Bumstead (particularly in the movies), Inspector Clouseau (sp?) in the Pink Panther movies made...hmmm...

Okay, perhaps we should limit discussions to characters that are supposed to be sympathetic? Dagwood was never meant to be derided...

Maxwell Smart from 'Get Smart'? Hmm...this is tough.

Playing dumb as a main sympathetic protagonist is really, really hard to pull off.

The danger for Kellie 'SALLLLMON' Pickler is that
Jessica 'So is it chicken of fish?' Simpson may have used all the good will a dumb blond who can sing but is otherwise useless that exists in America today.

See, dumb and successful is hard to believe, at least in America where you aren't born into royalty. So dumb and successful means either you were lucky (lottery) or someone is using you as front (stooge), or that you are just acting dumb to get an advantage (manipulating) any of which can generate derision or antipathy if it lasts too long. (Slightly OT: consider some of the Left's response to President Bush with that in mind, and look at the criticisms that have been promoted over the years...)

Dave said...

Homer Simpson and Wile E Coyote.

And I hate Mr. Bean, for the record.

brylin said...

Lucille Ball from "I Love Lucy."

And Curley, Larry and Moe.

Bissage said...

For my part, I think it is cruel to laugh at somebody because they are stupid. That's not to say I've never done it. It's to say I wish I hadn't.

SippicanCottage said...
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ottotex said...

The boss of the radio station WKRP, Mr. Carlson, "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly..." The single funniest moment in TV history, I think.

Independent George said...

What's I find interesting is that there are so many different categories of 'dumb'. Case in point: Gob (selfish & amoral, but generally too dumb to cause harm to anyone but himself) and Buster (dumb, but well-meaning, and generally an object of pity) on Arrested Development.

Of course, they also had Charlize Theron as the 'mentally challenged' beauty that everyone thought was a genius because she had a British accent.

But like so many others, Homer will always remain my favorite.

J said...

I agree w/ottotex about just how hilarious that scene from WKRP was. Les Nessman and Herb Tarlik weren't the brightest of bulbs, either.

In very recent TV, Jayne from Firefly is dumb, funny, and not in the least lovable.

In not so recent TV, Ted Baxter and Georgette were both dumb, but only one was lovable (and she was the more naive sort of dumb, very Gracie Allen-esque). Cheers had some pretty dumb characters, too: Sam Mallone was fairly thick, Coach was dumb as a bag of hammers, and Woody was a few bricks short of a truckload. Bull, from Night Court, was dumb, naive, and lovable with it.

bill said...

With Pickler, from what little I've seen of her, it's the difference between playing a country bumpkin airhead or a retarded hillbilly. The former could be funny but her tone deaf acting gives us the pain of the latter.

My most positive review is that she isn't very bright and is cynically trying to play naive; she can't pull it off and it just sounds wrong.


Ann, instead of dumb, I'd say many of your examples are actually exhibiting cluelessness: Goldie, Gracie, Phoebe (also see the movie "Clueless"); Joey, however was dumb.

Jennifer, good mention of "Strangers with Candy," Amy Sedaris plays one of the classic "dumb" characters.

For a single show that's a good exploration of the dumb/clueless male/female dichotomy, watch the first three seasons (skip season 4) of the BBC show Coupling. Available on DVD and also on BBC America. The cast had 3 men and 3 women. Steve was the more less well-rounded male, while Patrick was the over-confident, not very bright side and Jeff was the clueless and paralyzed by fear side. Susan, dating Steve, was the normal woman with Jane being the female counterpart of Patrick and Sally that of Jeff. Amazingly funny show that played with the storytelling structure.

bill said...

Somewhere in this discussion needs to be Chance the Gardener, from "Being There."

Melinda said...

Another ancient example: The "Peter" character on "The Monkees," as opposed to Peter Tork. The Brian Jones haircut definitely worked in his favor.

Michael Farris said...

You're mixing categories here, there's stupid, naive and eccentric. Gracie Allen wasn't dumb (as in stupid) at all, she was eccentric, she had her own understanding of the world which happened to differ from that of the herd. Phoebe on Friends was more in that tradition, while Joey was more a naive (but good -hearted) lug.

Now Homer Simpson is more just plain stupid.

Sean E said...

Just about every character in My Name is Earl qualifies to one exent or another, but Randy is the real standout.

I don't know if the Steve Martin comment abbove was meant to refer to The Jerk, but if not then Navin R. Johnson definitely needs a mention.

I want to say Donald Trump, but I think he's meant to come off as buffoonish, rather than outright stupid.

MadisonMan said...

Yes to Homer Simpson, and let me add Ted Baxter. And Kelso on That 70s show. How about the Gumbys?

I think all the idiots have another quality in their character that makes them beloved. Just plain stoopid isn't very appealing, but stupid and loveable is.

HaloJonesFan said...

There's also...well, pretty much the whole cast of Futurama was dumb when the script required it.

You could make a drinking game based around the 'Futurama' commentary tracks. Every time Matt Groening says that the audience loves a slow thinker...drink!

verification word: "aybsx" IRC shorthand for an intimate encounter with someone who obsesses over internet fads.

smilerz said...

I don't think appearance is necessary as long as the character "works." Randy from "My Name is Earl" as the primary example.
Other dumb characters include:
Susan Mayer - Desperate Housewives
Peter & Chris - Family Guy
Fry - Futurama
Most of the cast of "Joey"
Coach - Cheers
Bulldog - Frasier
Latka & Jim - Taxi
Ricki - Heist

sbutler said...

I can't believe it took people 14 comments to mention Cheers! Growing up in the 80's, Coach and Woody will always be the prototypical dump/ignorant/innocent characters.

Maxine Weiss said...

What's far worse is a character who's superior to everyone else: Mary Richards, Seinfeld---it's everyone else who's the fool. Mary Tyler Moore---too perfect, wacky Rhoda, zany Phyllis etc were all far more interesting.

Nancy Walker, Dangerfield. Comedy is supposed to be about the flaws. Perfect Mary Richards just wasn't funny. Beth Jarrett was funny, though---"Ordinary People", that movie was pure comedy, wasn't it? Hilarious---the French Toast scene.

"You can't save French toast!" ---Beth Jarrett oughta get a load of my refrigerator with the moldy leftovers piling up. ----That was Mary Tyler Moore at her most comedic.

Peace, Maxine

Gerry said...

G...i...double l i...g.a.n spells Gilligan.

CB said...

If it's quotes you want:
"My baloney has a first name, it's H-O-M-E-R; my baloney has a second name, it's H-O-M-E-R."

Alan Kellogg said...

The wise fool is what we're seeing here. The doofus who makes astute observations.

Wile E. Coyote is not stupid, but he is a fool. A fool who thinks himself better than he really is. He's overconfident and much too trusting. He's Murphy's Law in action, the unintended consequence given live. Wile is the mad scientist out in the field, gamely plugging away even though reality keeps dumping on him.

Which is in direct contrast with the wise fool, who stays on the sidelines and watches as others come to harm. He is the story teller's viewpoint as the fabulist comments on society and the foibles of society's denizens. The wise fool does foolish things, but it is his neighbors who are stupid.

Now, how do you play someone with an Int of 5 when your Int is equivalent to 15?

Icepick said...

I think there are really four categories here:

Stupid - Just plain lacking in intelligence.

Clueless - Not stupid, but oblivious to what's going on. Think of Holden and Banky in "Chasing Amy", where they spend several minutes inside a lesbian bar. The time before they realize what's going on, they're clueless.

Eccentric (Thanks to Michael Farris for the word. I kept thinking "flaky".)- Phoebe from Friends would qualify for this category.

Ignorant - Ingnorance is not stupidity, although the two often go together. Mr. Carlsen not knowing that turkies could fly was ignorance. Thinking that giving away live turkies for Thanksgiving by dropping them out of a helicopter was dumb, even if the turkies could have flown.

"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly..." Yep, funniest moment in TV history.

SippicanCottage said...
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tcd said...

Betty White playing the naive small-town Midwestern girl Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls.

paul a'barge said...

The entire cast of "Hee Haw".
Jim Carrey (Ace Ventura, Pet Detective).
Ted Baxter (Mary Tyler Moore).
Keith Olberman (MSNBC, oh wait, maybe he's really dumb!).

chuck b. said...

Did I misread Kellie Pickler? Was she acting? Acting dumb makes for great comedy--but being dumb not so much.

Real dumbness actually scares me a little bit--especially when it's made to look fun and glamorous. We live in a tyrannical regime of pop culture dumbness right now, and I'm not talking about George Bush. Paris, Jessica, now American Idol contestants? (Note to self: Is the dumb thing a pendulum swing away from the exhausting smartness of Madonna in the 90s?)

I want a time out. "Time out, Jane! Time out!"

Maybe the truth is more appalling: I'm so old now I don't get dumb's ironic pose. Is this "The Dumb Age"?

Mark me down for a good five years of Smart.

CB said...

Alan Kellogg said...
The wise fool is what we're seeing here. The doofus who makes astute observations.

Homer: "Lisa, if the Bible has taught us nothing else, and it hasn't, it's that girls should stick to girls sports, such as hot oil wrestling and foxy boxing and such and such."

paulfrommpls said...

Barney Fife. Clueless, if that's one of the categories. Because he's actually kind of smart, but his paranoia and insecurity make him do dumb things. And of course the source of maybe 80 of the funniest mments in TV history

I don't if it's the "funniest," but one of my favorite moments in TV history is the episode of MTM when Ted and Georgette get married. Mary and Georgette are having one last heart-to-heart; Mary asks her is she really loves Ted. She says: "Well Mary, somebody has to!"

Still makes me tear up.

Mary wasn't really supposed to be funny in that show, usually (for the person who called her not funny). She was the character others played off of.

paulfrommpls said...

Not to mention Goober, Gomer, Floyd, the mayor, Ernest T. Bass, the entire Darling family, and so on. Clara, Aunt Bee's friend who was maybe more mean than stupid like a Lucy from Peanuts in her declining years, and that relationship got into that whole old-woman thing of friends who aren't really friends, who actually kind of despise each other.

Steve Donohue said...

There's also the 'noble savage' element of dumb too- for that reason I vote for Beavis and Butthead as the qintessential dumb characters. They were borderline illiterate, but at the same time, they often made rather intelligent observations about their own generation. Of course, you had to parse out that intelligence from the idiocy.

CB said...

On a slightly different note, the funniest character on TV in recent years, in my opinion, is Eric Cartman from South Park. What makes him funny is not that he's dumb, but that he's outrageously immoral, or at least indifferent to moral standards. What other character could dress as Adolph Hitler for Haloween & make it funny? I'm trying to think of similar characters from other shows, but can't think of any.

sonicfrog said...

Lenny and Squiggy.... HELLO!!!

But what about the rare comedy that doesn't rely on the dumb character for laughs. The token "Dumb" character too often seems like the easy path to a laugh. When it's done right, it works great - I Love Lucy, WKRP, Night Court, Friends, Simpons - but I think it's harder to do comedy where that character does not exist in the cast. Dick Van Dyke Show, Frasier, Family Ties,... scratch that, Justine Bateman was a dumb character in that one. WOW. It's hard to think of a good comedy that doesn't have the token dumb character in the cast. Help anyone???

paulfrommpls said...

Dick Van Dyke had Jerry the dentist; he was kind of dumb. The "wacky neighbor," anyway, a la Kramer. (a very broad type too, going back at least to Ed Norton - also a great dumb/wise character.)

Actually, the Alan Brady character was kind of dumb in the sense we're talking about here.

paulfrommpls said...

David Brent. The Office. Wow.

Brendan said...

It begins and ends with Kelly Bundy. God, how I love her.

Bad Penny said...

"Hi, I'm Larry, and this my brother Daryl, and this is my other brother Daryl."

SteveR said...

It really depends, but often the dumb characters aren't very funny, just dumb. Ok I'm supposed to find it funny.

The dumb dad up against the smart ass kids, are almost never funny, unless its Homer Simpson good.

Goldie Hawn on Laugh In was classic.

MadisonMan said...

It's hard to think of a good comedy that doesn't have the token dumb character in the cast. Help anyone???

I'll vote for the first Bob Newhard show. There were simple people (Howard Borden) and neurotic (Mr. Petersen, Mr. Carlson), but nobody was out-and-out dumb. The main players -- Bob, Howard, Carol, Jerry, Emily -- were all smart.

Baronger said...

I'll throw the "Ellen Degeneres" show into the mix. But it seems that her character was more incompetent then dumb.

Incompetent and dumb seems to be the main turn off for me. Bull from nightcourt or Jack from 'Will&Grace' though dumb do show some basic competences.

Maybe it is dumb and dorky which is the turn-off for me.

Sean E said...

"It's hard to think of a good comedy that doesn't have the token dumb character in the cast. Help anyone???"

Scrubs, Curb your Enthusiam, Sports Night

Flawed characters, sure, but none you can really call dumb. There must be others. MASH?

Tristram said...

Comedies that didn't have any dumb characters (main, anyway) is a short list (I can only think of one):

M*A*S*H, especially afer Lt. Col Blake / Maj. Frank Burns characters were gone, which was quite a few years of Col Potter and Maj. Winchester.

Okay, Col. Flagg was a moron, but he only showed up on a few episodes. And the cook was sorta dumb, but again, a marginal character at best. Klinger was, like Yossarian, quite sane. And many, many stories did not involve dumb people in the plot.

Oddly, people keep bringing up Homer Simpson, yet he is clearly not dumber than many other characters. Bart, Barney, Moe, Crusty, Skinner, etc are all pretty much morons. In fact, pretty mucah all the characters on the Simpsons are either intelligence or sense imparied. And the 'smartest' character is Sideshow Bob who keeps losing to Bart. heh.

Though, Homer is clearly one of the few really dumb yet sympathetic main characters.

Gerry said...

Ah, still thinking about stupid turns my mind to the movies.

"Don't call me stupid!"

Kevin Klein as Otto was simply brilliant!

Doug Sundseth said...

Since I didn't see him mentioned, how about Archie Bunker?

Ignorant, naive, not bright, unwise, occasionally poisonous, and not good looking. Carroll O'Connor was clearly playing a character, though. Had the actor been perceived as similarly unpleasant, I don't think the show could have worked.

Broadsheet said...

How can I be the fiftieth comment before anyone mentions that OTHER Simpson? Namely Jessica? Chicken of the Sea?

SippicanCottage said...
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Rick Lee said...

Look people... I live in Appalachia and I saw the film clip of Kellie Pickler at home with grandpa. That's not acting. Of course I've never met her personally, but in my opinion that's as real as it gets. I think the negative reaction to her is mostly urban prejudice.

tdocer said...

Sgt. Schultz? Col. Klink?

Funniest show ever: WKRP "Turkeys Away". Second funniest ever: MTM "Chuckles Bites the Dust".

Jennifer said...

I think the negative reaction to her is mostly urban prejudice.

Urban prejudice against suburbanites? Her small town is a suburb of Charlotte, NC.

Mark the Pundit said...

Mr. Bean is a good one, but here is one no one has mentioned yet, and Ann would recognize:

Officer Barbrady!

XWL said...

Brendan beat me to invoking the Kelly Bundy comparison.

Blonde, check, curvy, double check, prone to spouting cutesy non sequiturs, triple check.

Do the writers of Married with Children deserve a writing credit on American Idol for the work they've done with the Pickler this season?

(is it a coincidence that MwC was on FOX? I think not, Can some sort of Kellie based sitcom be far behind? I think so)

sonicfrog said...

Pual... wrote, in response to DVD lacking the dumb character:

Dick Van Dyke had Jerry the dentist; he was kind of dumb. The "wacky neighbor," anyway, a la Kramer. (a very broad type too, going back at least to Ed Norton - also a great dumb/wise character.)

Actually, the Alan Brady character was kind of dumb in the sense we're talking about here.


Jerry the dentist was not a regular. And Alan Brady, though he was the butt of Buddy's wisecracks, was not portrayed as dumb at all.

I don't really like the show, but did anyone mention Kelso on "That 70's Show"?

XWL said...

Another issue, quite obvious now that I've written this much, is whether it's different for males and females, and whether the physical beauty of the dummy is crucial.

To focus on that part, I think what makes the attractive, but dumb character (and there are male and female counterparts, Joey on Friends, Jethro on Beverly Hillbillies, Kelly on Married with Children, Chrissy Snow on Three's Company just to name a few) popular in sitcoms is that their dumbness diffuses the dangers associated with their sexuality.

A sexy smart woman is dangerous potentially. A sexy dumb woman is doubly desirable (for some) in that you have a carnal phsyicality melded with a childlike demeanor (didn't say that this was a healthy desire).

The big dumb hunk functions in the same way, a large man can be menacing, but a large, sweetly dim, man melds strength, desirability and innocence.

Using the Kelly example, through her dumbness she could embody aspects of the madonna/whore duality simultaneously without internal contradiction.

Pickler's appeal might be similar, when she tries to make overtly sexual moves on stage they are both akward, embarrassing, and sort of hot anyway.

Were she more in command of her sexuality that would threaten the teen and preteen girls doing the voting, but since she exudes a cluelessness about everything, she can sell the sex without coming across as a threat.

Personally, I don't get it, but it seems to be working for many, as she has yet to be in the bottom three (and I don't think you can chalk it up to her singing voice alone)

Cousin Don said...

Check out the song lyrics to "Stupid Girl" by Pink which was actually used as a starting point for a piece on the Today show last week about girls acting dumb to get famous and rich ala Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton. Of course I'd lump Pink in there to for dating Tommy Lee.

Alan Kellogg said...

Cousin Don,

About Paris Hilton. Believe me, that's not acting. Nobody's that good an actor.

Rick Lee said...

Albemarle is the suburbs?? That's a scream. It's a 50 mile drive through NOTHING but farmland and pine trees to Charlotte from Albemarle. See map.

Aspasia M. said...

Black Adder's Rowan Atkinson is an example of a character who gets smarter as the series progresses.

(and the character Baldrick gets progressively dumber. "I have a cunning plan that cannot fail!")

Black Adder gets more attractive as he gets smarter. Black Adder III, where Rowan Atkinson plays the butler to the Prince in Regency England, is one of his more attractive characters.

SippicanCottage said...
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Jennifer said...

Rick Lee: I could be wrong. I am looking to buy a house here in another part of NC and Albemarle keeps coming up as part of the Greater Charlotte area on real estate sites.

Regardless, I think its an act. And that's what bugs me.

Aspasia M. said...

Geo- BlackAdder is the smart one through most of it. The other characters are incredible dopes. Queenie! There's a cornucopia of morons on that show. We've been rewatching many hours of it at the Cottage recently.

I love that series! Mr. Geo and I once watched an entire marathon of Black Adder on PBS in one sitting.

Between the Middle Ages and the Regency Baldrick seems to get more incompetent and Black Adder grows smarter (or perhaps more wry and sardonic?) Anyways, it's funny to see their intelligence react to history.

My favorite show is the invention of the Dictionary in the BlackAdder III series.

Today Mr. Geo was singing the theme song of Black Adder. It's an improvement over his recent punk-influenced serenades.

Aspasia M. said...

hmmm. Smart Actors on TV. (Or actors who play smart.)

I like Mandy Patinkin.
(He was also quite good on "Dead Like Me.")

Ernst Blofeld said...

The dumb character is an archetype. It's an easy way to write comic misunderstanding in a script. The delicate part is the interactions with non-dumb characters. Usually, but not always, there needs to be some affection between the other characters and the dumb character.

Coach/Woody: strong affection for the child-like and decent characters.

Frank Burns: dumb and malicious. The comedy is in seeing him thwarted by more clever characters.

Gracie Allen: comic misunderstanding via an extremely eccentric worldview. Also Daphne in Frasier.

Wiley Coyote is not dumb. He is _focused_, and his determination drives him to extremes. He is also a super genius. It says so on his card.

Mandy Patankin was terrific in Dead Like Me.

SippicanCottage said...
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