Guys I Like
When I'm deciding which series I'm going to watch, and which will have to go without my valuable demographic, the first question I ask is, "Who's in the background?" Remember Pride and Joy? Of course you don't. The only reason I bring it up is because it had Jeremy Piven in it, and he's great. I thought he was better in that (which was a bad show) than he was in Cupid (where he had to carry the whole thing).
Likewise Michael Ian Black. He was on the MTV skit-comedy series The State, and played Johnny Bluejeans on Viva Variety. Later, he was the beloved voice of the Pets.com sock puppet. And now he's Phil on Ed. The man's a born wacky sidekick, and he does a great job being wacky in the background. Do I want to see a series starring him? Not really. But I'll watch anything that employs him in a minor role.
Another good example is David Anthony Higgins. Long ago, he was part of The Higgins Boys and Gruber on The Comedy Channel, before it merged with Ha! to become Comedy Central. It was a great show; well, as "great" as it could be, given that it was composed almost entirely of clips of the same stand-up comedians over and over again. I don't know what happened to Gruber or the other Higgins, but Dave (now "David Anthony", because he's working for real networks) has been on two shows I've seen: He was the star of The Army Show, and he's a background character on Malcolm in the Middle. I think it's pretty clear which show is better.
I don't mean to say that I don't wish these actors (and several more which, through rigid self-control I am not listing) long and prosperous careers. And, of course, if one of them should stumble into a starring role in something, I will watch them with glee. But in general, the sort of actor for whom I have an irrational attachment tends to be best at the characters that are taken best in small doses.
I've suffered through many bad shows because I like to watch the people in the background. Remember Working, with Fred Savage? Neither do I, except for the one scene per show where Dana Gould was allowed to say something. The same goes for movies -- Ryan Stiles was in Hot Shots, Part Deux, which is why that movie's box office grosses include my $3.50. If I had my way, that money would have gone directly to Mr. Stiles, instead of feeding the pockets of the rest of the hacks involved.
Sometimes, it doesn't even matter if I get to see the person who attracts me to a project. Nick Bakay (who, I'll have you know, is the voice of the cat on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and used to be the announcer for Dennis Miller's short-lived network late-night talk show) is a writer for The King of Queens, which is all the recommendation I need to watch a few episodes. That policy can, of course, backfire -- I was forced to watch a few weeks of World's Funniest! (with host James Brown making me pine for the halcyon days of Bob Saget) when I found out that Trace "MST3K" Beaulieu was writing for it.
But don't get the impression that it's all sadness when I follow random people's career; Beaulieu was also the reason I watched Freaks and Geeks, and that was a fine, fine show.
What all these performers have in common (besides that they're all great and should be paid a lot more money) is that they're character actors. It's basically their job to walk onto the screen, spend maybe five minutes there, and get out. But while they're up there, they're all the audience can see. It's not really their job to care about the plot; it's their job to take the pressure off the stars by single-handedly making their project watchable and exciting.
Most of the actors for whom I will watch anything earned that status by having once been on a show I liked. When I see Phil Stubbs' Love-a-torium on Ed, I'm laughing partly because I remember Johnny Bluejeans singing a tender love song to Ms. Pac-Man. In a way, I'm hoping that the presence of Random Guy From Old Show will make New Show just like Old Show. This almost never happens, of course, but it's as good a way of picking new shows to watch as any.
Most of this process is actually subliminal. I'll find myself watching something for a few weeks, wondering why that one guy seems so familiar. When I finally break down and look him up, I find out that I've been watching Stephen Colbert all this time. I love when that happens.
Got a comment? Mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.