Aren't they just hilarious? They’re socially awkward and compensate with overconfidence, they don't adhere to rules, and often display a complete lack self-awareness. All of this makes them even more tragically funny – or does it?
Just like the stereotype of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the "neurotic sidekick" can be found in many modern comedies. They are the fools of our era – within the comedy genre but also outside of it, they are the clowns that laugh as we laugh at them, (willfully) blind to the fact that it is at their expense. Their confusion, strangeness and misery are what makes us feel superior to them and better about ourselves while also allowing us the relief of laughter.
There are a few actors who have built their entire career on this stereotype – some accidentally, others calculated. There is Jonah Hill who upgraded his career from playing awkward, chubby outsiders to playing the weird and inappropriate sidekick in Wolf of Wall Street. Zach Galifianakis's and Melissa McCarthy's careers revolve around this character trope (she even received an Oscar nod for her role as the ultimate neurotic sidekick in Bridesmaids), and Rebel Wilson can also be counted among the people who usually take on these kinds of roles. It seems hard to escape the stigma that comes with these roles, which makes evolving an acting career beyond this stage difficult or even undesirable for these actors. After all: don't try to fix something that works.
Looking at these actors and the characters they play, comedy screenwriters should ask themselves if it really is necessary to include a comedic whipping boy/girl. And should female comedic relief characters be written the same way male ones are? Is writing them so similarly a sign of equality, or something else altogether?
In order to answer these questions, we need to delve a bit deeper.
How They Work
Drawing inspiration from slapstick and legends of physical-comedy Laurel and Hardy, these characters can take the comedic elements of a film to entirely new heights – or lows. There are so many different ways in which a funny character can be written. The weird sidekick is treated as the universal answer to "we need a good laugh right about now" – a development that does come with certain issues.
To illustrate my point more accurately, it helps to look at Hangover and Bridesmaids as the most prominent examples of this trend in recent years. Characters like Alan (played by Zach Galifianakis) or Megan (played by Melissa McCarthy) are consciously designed as the laughing stocks of their respective movies. While other characters in those stories may be funny in their own right, characters like Alan and Megan do not follow clear arcs of personal development – in the end it is more about the other characters changing and growing, and ultimately accepting/ appreciating the sidekicks for who they are instead of having them adapt and grow out of their strangeness. Regardless, these displays of acceptance fall flat in the face of the condescension that dominated their in teractions beforehand.
As an audience, we are laughing at these funny outsiders, which in turn becomes problematic once we realise that these characters often represent a specific minority regarding their race, body type, sexuality, and even their state of mind. This character trope goes against prevalent discourses of desirable behavior, careers, exterior presentation, and social integration. They are weird, different, not part of our club of "normal" people and therefore hilarious, not to be taken seriously, and "other."
Why They Are Controversial
Controversial elements are not only caused by the fact that these characters are basically inviting the glee and bully-like schadenfreude of the audience with their bumbling ignorance – other issues arise when we stop to analyse the traits that make it so easy for those characters to escalate inappropriate jokes and situations.
Paradoxically, the general consensus seems to be, "it's fine, they don't need to be politically correct because they're different." Thanks to this mentality elements of crassness, uncomfortable sexual overtures, and harassment become normalised as traits of these characters who officially don't know any better. In comedy it isn't necessary for everything to be politically correct at all times, but this tendency to normalise traditionally negative and socially unacceptable traits within characters that are regarded as outcasts of the prevalent social group established in their movie, perpetuates negative prejudices and stereotyping.
In Hangover Alan is portrayed as somewhat childlike and effeminate with his "man purse" and the way he throws his hair back, while he also becomes the target of bullying due to his body type. Similarly, Megan in Bridesmaids is portrayed as slightly naive and prone to butch mannerisms, while dressing like a female Charlie Sheen. Also in Bridesmaids, Rebel Wilson's talents are wasted on playing the disgusting and lazy sister of the main character's equally off-putting landlord. What is it with these characters and the way they are written to break conventional gender codes? Is it because this is another step to set them apart from the other characters who behave and present themselves "normally"?
The large body on screen seems to be an element that is inherently “funny,” which is why so many comedies exploit it and cast actors who fit this profile while being able to add a layer of "crazy, weird, and insufferable" to the mix. Even though comedic relief characters are not always about body mass, they usually have other debatable “flaws” that makes it easy to joke at their expense, while elevating the other characters at the same time.
Interestingly enough, many critics and film scholars argue for the feminist aspects of characters like Megan because they take on a mould that has been designed for male comedians. Melissa McCarthy does not shy away from letting out her disgusting and embarrassing side when she is in character – she is the Alan of the female clique in Bridesmaids and she owns it. But at what point does progressive character development turn into veiled judgement of women who do not adhere to social standards of femininity and beauty?
The Psychology Behind Them
The comedic sidekick seems to act as a stand-in for our own feelings of suppressed embarrassment and inadequacy. Our existence within the confines of society is dictated by many confining rules and expectations that are sometimes hard to follow.
Aren't we all a little like Alan or Megan, in the end? Or wouldn't it be nice to be able to behave like them for a day? To just be ourselves, free to say and do things our way, even if it makes us seem a bit strange, inappropriate, and even gross.
When we laugh at these characters, we establish ourselves as superior – at the same time, we envy their freedom to a certain degree. We are allowed to like these characters, but only in a condescending manner. Admitting envy or true sympathy would turn enjoying these movies into guilty pleasures.
These characters are designed to make us feel better about our intelligence, our morals, and our understanding of the everyday world. Ultimately, their rudeness is jarring, but also bizarrely childlike – and we all have moments when we wish we could be snotty, careless children again.
And It Goes On… And On…
Rough Night is an upcoming American black comedy written and directed by Lucia Aniello (who made a name for herself with her work on Broad City). Here is the trailer:
After watching this, I think it's safe to say that Rough Night looks like a cross between Hangover and Bridesmaids, which is bizarre because Bridesmaids itself already borrowed heavily from Hangover and its character constellations. Of course the cooky, slightly overweight friend is the one who ends up killing the stripper… and of course it is her who is portrayed as more hysterical, excessive, and crass than the other women in her friend group. Of course…
It all boils down to a question of taste. There is no disputing that these sidekick characters are (sometimes) funny and that they serve their purpose by making the other characters look more polished. The question why producers feel the need to include these admittedly negative stereotypes into commercial comedies in order to gain a few additional laughs, is another matter altogether – and it probably says much about the lack of trust they put into their own product.
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