Hello my name is Manda and I…am a Straight Man.
Not the heterosexual male type, the comedy type.
For those who are new to the term, the Straight Man refers the more serious half of a comedy duo or the serious character among a crazy ensemble. Their job is less to act and more to react to the crazy eccentric, also known as the Comic, they have gotten saddled with. Think Abbot and Costello.
For many years I was the Comic in productions. I would often be cast as the kooky, eccentric crazy lady and I had loads of fun doing it. I didn’t want to be the Straight Man. The Straight Man was boring. Nobody laughed at the Straight Man. These were the roles I was born to play.
But the more people got to know me, the more they got to know the shy, neurotic, sarcastic side of me that naturally fit into that Straight Man role. So I started getting cast in those roles. I fought against it, trying to go for as many zany roles as I could, dead set against taking on the Straight Man role.
Then I met Errol, who is the natural Comic and my fate as a Straight Man was sealed. My nervous and easily overwhelmed personality was a natural fit for his exuberant insanity and our chemistry was apparent right away.
In our comedy duo, weTangent, I serve as the Straight Man 99% of the time. Errol is loud and crazy and spouts some hilarious punchlines. I am shy, embarrassed and get frustrated with his antics. I am the Simon Pegg to his Nick Frost, the Bert to his Ernie, the Marlin to his Dory.
Being a Straight Man is tough. Nobody really wants to be the Straight Man. They rarely get the punchlines, they don’t get to go wild with joy, and their existence seems purely to serve as a foil for their more enthusiastic partner. Most of the laughs and praise go to the Comic who is far more memorable.
But just because they are not as noticeable does not mean they are not important.
For one, they have to do a lot of the set-up to the jokes. Yes, the Comic gets the punchline and therefore they get the laughs but it’s up to the Straight Man to help with a lot of the leg work in pulling it off. Think about it this way: have you ever heard a friend tell a joke like this?
“A blonde, a brunette and a redhead rob a bank. So the police are looking for them and…oh wait, sorry, I forgot, first they get away and then they hide and the police are looking for them and the blonde one says “Potatoes!”…No wait, I forgot to mention they’re in barrels and…hang on, let me start over…”
The punchline is nothing without the set-up. Without it, the joke falls flat and the audience is left to throw acorns at you. The ability to set up the perfect joke is incredibly important, and it often falls to the Straight Man to achieve this.
I’m not just talking verbal set-up either. I’m also talking about emotional build-up. Comedy is rooted in misery and pain. It’s a truth you quickly learn the more you do it. The emotions a character feels in even the most whacky of comedy must be just as genuine and real as if it was the most serious of dramas. A lot of the reason we find comedy funny is because we love identifying with and laughing at the pain those characters are feeling. If the pain isn’t real, it just isn’t nearly as funny…yup, we’re that sadistic.
The Straight Man is also there to ensure that the Comic’s personality is considered funny. By himself, the Comic would be considered by many to be an unfunny, overbearing annoyance. They are loud and obnoxious. The Straight Man acts as a counter balance to that. More importantly, they act annoyed on behalf of the audience.
Think of…oh, I don’t know, Adam Sandler.
By himself? Freaking unbearable (at least to me). He shouts in his baby voice as loudly as possible while running like a lunatic. But put him next to normal people…well, he’s still kind of annoying but he also suddenly starts to become funny. The Comic is funny, but only with someone to bounce off of and to act as the audience surrogate. Likewise, the Comic provides the zaniness that the Straight Man lacks. It’s a wonderfully balanced and symbiotic relationship.
But that isn’t the most important thing I learned about being a Straight Man. The most important thing I learned is that despite appearances, being the Straight Man is just as much fun as being the Comic. You don’t get a lot of the glory and you don’t get the punchlines, but you get to play around with some really challenging comedy. Being a good Straight Man is a lot harder than it looks. You have to be willing to give up the spot light, you have to have impeccable timing, and you have to be genuine.
I’m getting used to being the Straight Man. To be truthful, it wasn’t easy at first. I was pretty quick to assume that being the Straight Man meant that I simply wasn’t funny. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It only meant that I was a different sort of funny, and it’s okay that this happens to be where my talent lies.
It certainly helps that I have a creative partner that I mesh with and who is easy to play off of. Errol’s at his best when he has someone who will react to him. He is crazy energetic and fun.
I’m the straight man. I’m at my best when there is someone to react to. And most of the time, those reactions will range from frustrated to worried to petrified. And I’m quite okay with that.
How about you guys? Who are some of your favourite straight men?