How To Be The Perfect Straight Man

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Ah, Paul Rudd. In Role Models, I Love You Man, and now Dinner For Schmucks, it seems that our man Rudd is destined to forever be Hollywood’s go-to guy to play the approachable, friendly straight man, taking Ben Stiller’s stooge crown and popping it onto his own charming bonce. But making ‘the funny guy’ of the film look extra funny is no mean feat. It requires timing, poise and a lot of talent. In recognition of these unsung heroes, here’s our eight-point guide on how to staying straight-faced – and still get the laughs rolling in…

Example: Zeppo Marx (Herbert Manfred Marx) vs The Other Marx Brothers.

To make his brothers look all the more ridiculous, Zeppo donned the persona of the romantic, sappy, music hall lead, slipping into a suit and tie whenever the opportunity arose. Compare his po-faced dress sense to Groucho’s ‘tache, tails and cigar; mute Harpo’s curly wig and top hat and Chico’s fisherman’s cap, and Zeppo’s straight-laced attire makes them even funnier in comparison.

And yet he was purportedly the funniest off camera; the wittiest, cleverest one of all of them, and a genuine jack-of-all-trades: a mechanic, an actor, an agent, a singer, and the only one capable of filling in for the other brothers when they were off sick. In fact, he was so talented Groucho has been reported as saying: "When I had my appendix out, Zeppo took over for me. He was so good that it made me get better quicker."

See also: Dean Martin (vs Jerry Lewis), Shaun from Shaun Of The Dead, Mark from Peep Show, Stephen Fry (vs Alan Davies) on QI, and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple.

Example: Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) Vs Jay (Jason Mewes)

Living up to his nickname (for the most part), Silent Bob mostly communicates wordlessly through hand gestures and gesticulations. He also hangs out with one of the loudest, crudest, most ridiculous human beings in this or any other askewniverse, and so after one of Jay’s disgusting diatribes the well-placed eyebrow pop is king.

When he does speak, it’s either out of extreme frustration or in a genuine moment of heartfelt emotion – such as in the famous ‘Chasing Amy’ speech from, you guessed it, Dogma. No, wait, Chasing Amy. Anyway, Ol Bob’s a classic example of the not-so-funny man playing it straight, but with a bit of brow-work nabbing the laughs clean off his supposedly more humourous counterpart.

See also: Alan Rickman, anywhere, John Belushi in The Blues Brothers (not a straight man, as such, but still), and The Rock, in any comedy. We’re being serious here.

Example: Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) vs Danny Butterman (Nick Frost)

Now here’s a comedy trope older than the dawn of time. Cheerfully rotund man plus somewhat slimmer man equals hilarity. Laurel and Hardy, Little and Large, Abbot And Costello, French and Saunders. It also helps if your straight man is also noticeably shorter (as in The Two Ronnies) or noticeably taller (as in Del Boy and Rodney) as somehow, deep in our brains, our appreciation of comedy boils down to, “Doesn’t that look silly?”

We’re not saying that Simon Pegg is excessively thin, and nor are we saying that Nick Frost is excessively, um, not thin, but the pair together, especially in the Blood And Cornetto series, play the straight man / funny man act to perfection, mixing an engaging storyline with a few old-fashioned ‘that fat man just gone done do a fart’ gags – and not just getting away with it, but nailing it. You could make an argument for Frost’s characters representing Pegg’s character’s inner child, but that’s something we’re saving for the doctoral thesis. Obviously.

See also: Well, see above. But for more examples, how about Jerry and George from Seinfeld, Horne and Corden, Smith and Jones, The Blues Brothers, The Dude and Walter… the list goes on and on.

Example: Abbott and Costello

Arguably the finest comedy double act ever (though there’s probably a pratfall-off to be had with Laurel and Hardy), Abbot and Costello not only relied on good, old-fashioned vaudeville humour, but top-notch, impeccable timing too. For every dim-witted response from Costello there was a perfect set-up from Abbot, and another seamless set-up soon (but not too soon) after.

As Mel Brooks puts it, “Abbott gets no credit for framing [the joke], for the architecture, for the support, for the drive. He does everything except the punchline; he’s amazing.” In fact, Abbot was Costello’s boss, in a way. He found Costello, and though they were a partnership, he hired him. Despite not being ‘the funny one’, he was the one getting paid the lion’s share of the earnings.

See also: Of course, good timing is an absolute necessity for all comedy, so we’d be listing every successful comedy partnership ever here, but let’s just say, as an example, all the Marx Brothers. There. Silly quick.

Example: Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder, Matthew Broderick) vs Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel, Nathan Lane)

Leo Bloom lives a sad, pathetic life, eking out an existence as an accountant, checking up on other people’s mistakes, and generally being very, very boring. As Max seduces little old ladies and washes windows with coffee, Leo wiggles a red pen over his dodgy books, acting aghast at his antics and making the pompous producer all the funnier.

Essentially, the pair are a classic example of the ‘boring everyman meets outrageous extrovert’ trope, the former irreversibly affected by the latter’s happy-go-lucky, crazy ways. It’s this fine balance that makes a seemingly ‘boring’ straight man that little bit special. Sure, they live dull little lives, just like we all do, but there’s that something extra in there that makes sure they’re not too ordinary, and on occasion swap the straight man / funny man roles, if only for a few seconds at a time.

See also: Sure, The Odd Couple, but also the likes of Turner And Hooch, Murtaugh and Riggs from the Lethal Weapon franchise, and Rosewood and Foley in Beverley Hills Cop.

Example: Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) vs the rest of the Python gag.

Graham Chapman as Brian Cohen (very naughty boy; son of Roman Centurion Naughtius Maximus; supposed Messiah), is practically the definition of the ‘only sane man in the room’ straight man role. It’s a job Chapman was used to, what with him playing King Arthur in Holy Grail and ‘The Colonel’ in The Flying Circus – even if he was, of course, quite as capable of surreality as the rest.

Chapman was regarded by his fellows as perhaps the funniest of The Pythons, and one of the finest straight men comedy has ever seen. While the world falls into screaming matches, swearing, silly voices (and even sillier walks), Chapman, by and large, sits there, smoking a pipe and watching, occasionally getting angry but mostly remaining sane. Very, very sane. And if you can seem grounded while everyone else very much isn’t, you’re the most important man in Monty Python.

See also: John Cleese as Death in The Meaning Of Life, Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz, Group Captain Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Barushel) in Tropic Thunder, and so on.

Example: Dean Martin vs Jerry Lewis.

Dean Martin is a very funny man. His hobby (and we’re not sure whether you know this already) was singing. Turns out he was pretty good at it, so when he met manic comic Jerry Lewis, they were a perfect partnership – Dean’s dulcet tones and Jerry’s madcap antics, bouncing off each other and generally having a riot on both stage and screen.

But there’s something integrally serious and straight about singing a song or playing an instrument. It’s got structure, rhythm, hopefully a tune – certain things you expect – making it very easy to mess around with and poke fun at. Lewis was the master of this, taking the mick out of his singing partner mid-flow and behaving like a clown while Dean attempted to get his croon on. Things invariably ended up in the two of them chasing after each other on stage and generally larking about, but what made it so funny is that Dean actually could sing. Really very well. If he couldn’t, well, then you’ve got two idiots being idiots. As he could deliver a knock-out ballad, well, then that’s comedy genius.

See also: The most recent example of this is Kyle Gass and Jack Black, Gass giving backing vocals and plucking his gee-tar while Black warbles on about monsters and demons and the like. Also, Flanders And Swan.

Example: Every cast member in Airplane, bar Steven Stucker as Johnny.

Airplane! is a one of a kind. If we ignore the sequel, that is. And the Naked Guns. And anything else with Leslie Nielsen in it. And Top Secret. If we ignore all those, and all other mock-serious comedies like them, Airplane! is one of a kind – a comedy where almost everyone plays the straight man.

The nun, the pilot, the inflatable auto-pilot, the doctor, the air stewards: they’re all playing it very seriously, and they’re bringing a lot of prime ham onto the screen with them. Instead of having a silly character playing off a more serious character, we get several very, very, very serious characters playing off a very ludicrous situation, and it’s hilarious because of it. It’s not your average straight man technique, and you have to be able to deliver very weird lines with a completely straight face, but it’s made Leslie his career, and made you laugh. A lot, we’re guessing.

See also: Anything Leslie Nielsen has ever done, Top Secret, Hot Shots, and the better sort of spoof.