Hilarie Mukavitz - With all the great comedy duos, it is usually the "funny man" that we remember. We remember Lou Costello saying "Hey Abbooooott!" but not Bud Abbott's delivery that led up to that point. The comic in the duo often gets most of the credit. Today, however, I'd like to spend a bit of time talking about those unsung heroes in Muppet comedy: the great straight men of Muppet comedy duos.
Bert - played by Frank Oz
In the ongoing debate about whether it should be "Bert and Ernie" or "Ernie and Bert," I am firmly in the "Bert and Ernie" camp. Why? When a comedy duo is billed, the straight man's name goes first: Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, Martin and Lewis; and the one that had the most direct impact on the Muppets: Burns and Schreiber.
Bert is a rare example of Frank Oz getting to play the straight man. As hard as it is to believe now, initially Frank Oz and Jim Henson played around and traded off who was Bert and who was Ernie before Sesame Street began. Jim Henson once commented "Frank didn't like Bert. He felt Bert was too dull. But then after a while he realized that Bert's dullness was really a lot of fun, and he got into this dullness thing and turned it into this wonderful personality."
Bert and Ernie have the classic odd couple dynamic. Bert is the one with the routine, and usually the more rational of the two (as can be seen by the classic "banana in the ear" bit). Like many a straight man, there are the long-suffering looks at the camera when the goofy Ernie is pulling his antics. What makes Bert unique as a character is his passionate devotion to interests very few others share. (A trait which, as a geek, I can relate to strongly.) Bert loves oatmeal, argyle socks, pigeons, paper clips, and bottle caps and the letter W. There is even an example of a rare sketch starring Bert without Ernie in which Bert is surprised and delighted to find out that Rick Moranis shared a lot of the same interests.
Out of all the duos that Frank Oz and Jim Henson performed together, Bert and Ernie were the ones they performed for the longest time. They are also the only Muppet characters to be mentioned in Frank Oz's eulogy at Jim Henson's memorial service. If you haven't had the treat of hearing about "Bert in Self-Contemplation," I highly recommend it... just keep a Kleenex box nearby for the end.
Sully - played by Richard Hunt
Like Penn and Teller, Sully is literally the silent partner for construction worker buddies Biff and Sully. It is implied that even though we never hear Sully speak, it is probably because Biff never lets him get a word in edgewise. However, when given the opportunity, Sully demonstrates that still waters run deep, and that he has talents his usually oblivious partner is unaware of.
Sully is an accomplished musician... When Biff and Sully move a piano together, Biff can pound out a basic scale. When he leaves, Sully plays a Chopin prelude. When Biff forgets his radio, Sully actually constructs an entire piano to play so Biff can have music while he works. Sully also seems to have a side gig as a bass player with a band that Ernie leads. Notice that Bert specifically yells at Sully... probably because he's thinking "Hey, you have a loudmouth best friend too. You should understand what I'm going through." Also included in Ernie's band is another classic Sesame Street straight man: Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Johnson - played by Jerry Nelson
Let us pause for a moment and reflect on the special hell that is the life of Mr. Johnson (sometimes known as Fat Blue). It seems that he is fated, whenever he decides to go out to eat, to always be served by the cute, lovable, totally inept Grover. I would recommend to Mr. Johnson that perhaps he should start cooking for himself... but I'm guessing the grocery store cashier would also be Grover. Grover seems to be the only one working customer service jobs in Mr. Johnson's tortured universe. Mr. Johnson's name was revealed during Grover's stint delivering singing telegrams. Grover has also shown up in Mr. Johnson's world as a pizza delivery monster, a flight attendant, a street musician, a wig salesman, a department store salesman, an employee at a framing shop, a fitness instructor, a taxi driver, a move theater concession stand worker, a photographer, a hot dog vendor, a baker, a rental car company employee, a reality show host, and the star of "Spidermonster."
Kermit the Frog - played by Jim Henson
The ultimate straight man in the Muppet universe is Kermit. He's been straight man to Sesame Street characters, Muppet Show characters, humans, you name it. Besides his versatility, one thing that makes Kermit unique as a straight man is, when he is not showing frustration, he has a mischievous side as well. Kermit can give as good as he gets. Here are a few examples:
Kermit and Grover
When Grover is not pestering Mr. Johnson, he can often be found at Kermit's place. Grover makes repeated attempts to sell Kermit items that would require body parts that Kermit does not have: a nose-warmer, a toothbrush, earmuffs. Once, we not only see Grover try to sell Kermit sunglasses, but we get to see Kermit do a Groucho Marx impression.
It was also common for Grover to interrupt whatever Kermit was trying to teach with a "Heeeeey froggy babyyyyyy!!!" Although Kermit does manage to get Grover back a few times, particularly when Grover tries to talk about how great the number 2 is.
Kermit and Cookie Monster
Pretty similar to the Kermit and Grover sketches... except usually Cookie Monster's interruptions are about, surprise surprise, his single-minded pursuit of the cookie. Now and then ,Cookie Monster would show up playing a character. I especially enjoy the sketch from a Muppet Newsflash where we can see Cookie Monster in drag playing Little Red Riding Hood.
Kermit and Don Music
In the Don Music sketches, Don Music is attempting to compose commonly known songs like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Row Row Row Your Boat." To ease Don's frustration, Kermit gives suggestions for lyrics, which ultimately results in a totally different song such as "Drive Drive Drive Your Car" or "Mary Had a Bicycle."
Kermit and Forgetful Jones
The few sketches with Kermit and Forgetful Jones are classic. More than once Kermit has attempted to direct Forgetful Jones in a movie. You can see Kermit at his most frustrated when Forgetful has to sing the theme song to Oklahoma in this fan-favorite, truly classic example of Richard Hunt's ridiculousness and Jim Henson's almost broken attempt to keep from laughing.
Kermit and the Sesame Street Kids
There are multiple examples on Sesame Street of a Muppet playing the straight man to whatever child they are talking to. One example would be Herry Monster and John John. But, perhaps, the absolute best example is Kermit with a girl named Joey, who, when singing "The Alphabet Song," kept bringing up Cookie Monster, pushing Kermit to leave... but then bringing him back in the most adorable way ever conceived.
Kermit and Fozzie
As host of The Muppet Show, Kermit was basically the straight man to just about anybody that appeared, Muppet or guest star. One of the best combinations was Kermit and Fozzie: the Hope and Crosby of the Muppet world; best friends. Kermit is relatively patient with Fozzie, and keeps trying to help him succeed... but even his best friend the bear can push the frog over the limit. Moments such as "Good Grief, the Comedian's a Bear," Fozzie trying to negotiate with the help of Irving Bizarre, Fozzie after group therapy, and countless other examples illustrate the frustrating, hilarious, and unbelievably fulfilling (for both of them) relationship that Kermit and Fozzie share.
Kermit and Miss Piggy
Miss Piggy rose from being a recurring character to being a lead in just about a year after her debut. She was soon overshadowing Fozzie, which just goes to show the only person who can really upstage Frank Oz, is Frank Oz. Besides having a dynamic like a comedic duo, Kermit and Piggy are also sparring partners. They actually have a relationship similar to some of the pairs in romantic comedies in the 1930's and 1940's, such as Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Though I doubt Katherine Hepburn ever karate-chopped Spencer Tracy (although I bet she was more than capable of it).
The next time you are watching a Muppet project, and one of the characters is making you laugh, don't forget the straight man character who helped make that possible. I've barely scratched the surface here. Tell me, fellow Muppet fans, who are your favorite Muppet straight men?
Check out our Great Muppet Straight Men Playlist on YouTube!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org