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The Empty Chair Syndrome: Life Without Sidekicks

Once the props of TV hosts and politicians, they're becoming extinct. Just ask Regis.

September 24, 2000|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Time was when men stood tall in the saddle in America. Self-reliant and free, that was the ticket. But as they stood tall, those self-reliant and free guys always seemed to have someone standing right beside them, someone a little more reliant, a little less free.

Those were the Days of the Sidekick and they were memorable. Who could imagine Gene Autry without his Pat Buttram; Johnny Carson without his Ed McMahon; LBJ without his Hubert Humphrey; O.J. Simpson without his Al Cowlings?

But something is terribly wrong in Sidekickland. Just two short months ago, "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee!" ruled the morning syndicated celebrity chat airwaves. Year after year, morning after morning, Regis Philbin was alternately exasperated and beaming while just beside him, petulantly niece-like, Kathie Lee Gifford babbled on with or about some visiting celeb hyping whatever project needed hyping at the moment.

Then Gifford, tired of the sidekick grind, decided to amble off the high coffee-table chair and on toward a hoped-for solo singing and acting career. What would "Live!" do? How could Philbin, himself a sidekick to Joey Bishop during the late 1960s, cope?

The answer became, "Very well, thank you. Very well. And alone."

The show is now called "Live With Regis!" and the ratings are up. Philbin stands as tall as they come in TV, with the top-rated evening show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and an ever-more-successful morning show.

And there is not a sidekick on either show in his present, and maybe not in his future.

"We have two of the three elements that made this show successful and we are not in a hurry to change anything," said "Live!" executive producer Michael Gelman on Gifford's departure. "There is not an absolute necessity to have anyone with Regis right away."

As dot-com millionaires and stock-option millionaires and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" millionaires proliferate, they seem to be doing so alone, and quite comfortably.

For ages, sidekicks were necessary. No self-respecting hero would be found without one. Sidekicks carried the armor, like Sancho Panza for Don Quixote. They parried the thrust, like Lancelot for Arthur. They harried the neighbor, like Ed Norton for Ralph Kramden.

There were even sidekicks redux in cartoon form. Kramden's Norton on "The Honeymooners," for instance, became Fred Flintstone's Barney Rubble.

But now, well, the guy tall in the saddle is just satisfied to go it by himself.

This is an age of the lonely person at the top. We do things in a more solitary, perhaps dysfunctional, manner these days. We surf the Internet alone, nestle in our walled-off work cubicles alone, sit alone stalled on the freeway looking at the nearly abandoned diamond lanes. The vehicle to the top, as the century changes, has an empty passenger seat.

Look around late-night talk shows, once the sidekickiest place on Earth, and you find nary a stooge or a helpmate. Unlike their hero Carson, neither Jay Leno nor David Letterman have sidekicks. (Note to prospective letter-writers: Bandleaders are sidemen, not sidekicks.) Ted Koppel doesn't even usually let his interview subjects on the set. Bill Maher seems now to be sidekicklessly politically correct. MTV's Tom Green has two friends on stage, but a sidekick is a job for a single person, not a duo.

Andy Richter served Conan O'Brien well for years, but quit to go off on his own in May. "We have no real plans to replace him," said a spokesman for NBC, O'Brien's network. "Sometimes we miss Andy, but we don't miss him enough to put someone in his chair."

TV series used to live and die by the sidekick. Andy Griffith had his dithering Deputy Barney Fife. Marshal Matt Dillon spent 10 years on "Gunsmoke" being shadowed by Chester Goode (What a perfectly sidekicky surname!). On "Happy Days," time and fame made a sidekick switcheroo--Fonzie started out subservient to Richie until The Fonz became the head guy and Richie the sidekick.

But now it's either go-it-alone or get a whole ensemble. Who's the sidekick, say, among the "Friends" six? "Frasier" has at least four potential sidekicks, but none cover his posterior like a real sidekick would. No one seems to want to be Ally McBeal's sidekick, and on "NYPD Blue," Dennis Franz started out as a sidekick, but then they kicked off all his buds.

Look in the world of business. Hewlett had Packard. Procter had Gamble. Bell had Howell. Johnson had Johnson. Once, even Bill Gates had a sidekick, Paul Allen, his boyhood friend who helped write the first Microsoft code. But Allen fell ill and left the software giant to buy ball teams and date aging starlets, so Gates stands alone at the top of the billionaire heap. (Although perhaps Gates could use a sidekick again what with all those antitrust lawyers kicking him around).

Al Gore seemed perfect as a Bill Clinton sidekick. Smiling and looking hale and pure while his boss bathed in scandalous muck, Gore defended his big buddy like a private before his sainted drillmaster.

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