YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

First Person

Not a Star. Not a Hero. He's a Fifth Banana.

On NBC's 'Ed,' Michael Ian Black carries on TV's proud tradition of the quirky, offbeat sidekick.


I'm that guy from that show. You know, as in, "Hey, you're that guy from that show."

Yep. That's me. There are a lot of us out there, guys (and girls) vaguely recognizable from television programs viewers occasionally flip past on their way to "The World's Strongest Man" competition. Specifically, I play Phil, the bowling alley manager on NBC's "Ed," or as it is variously referred to by members of my family: "The Ed Show," "Ed TV" and, memorably, "Mr. Ed TV."

If you still can't quite place me, there's a reason for that. I don't play Ed, Ed's best friend, his love interest or even his love interest's best friend. I'm the fifth banana, the quirky guy who pops in at the end of scenes with some offbeat comment before retreating into the nebulous shadow world in which all fifth bananas reside.

Fifth bananas occupy a strange piece of real estate on the television landscape. We're the weirdos. We're written weird; we act weird. Many times, we even look weird. (I'm the exception: I'm an extremely handsome man.) We don't get the girl or save the day. Our personal lives are sketchy; generally, we're not granted homes or families. Sometimes we don't even have last names. (What was Squiggy's last name?) We're TV's equivalent of the chocolate chip bagel--off-kilter yet sweet. Still a bagel, just not one of the cool ones. You never hear anybody say, "God, I'd kill for a chocolate chip bagel right now."

Don't get me wrong. I love my job. "Ed" is a great show, my cast mates are smart and funny, and the lunches are all you can eat. I guess I just thought landing a plum network TV gig would alter my life in some unimaginable and fantastic way.

I envisioned free NBA tickets fluttering from the skies like confetti. They haven't. I can't even get free tickets to the WNBA. Backstage to anything hipper than "Toy Story 2 On Ice" is still off-limits. I did appear on a talk show, but unless you live in the greater Tulsa, Okla., area and receive channel 82, chances are you missed it. Where are my yes men? Where are my sycophants? Why does nobody laugh too loud at my lousy jokes? It's all part of being the fifth banana.

The one time I was treated like an honest-to-goodness celebrity was when I accepted an offer to appear at a trade show for the Bowling Proprietor's Assn. of America (yes, this organization really exists). They flew me to Las Vegas, put me up in a junior suite, and all I had to do was shake hands for a couple of hours. It was fun. People were excited to meet me. Most of our conversations went like this: "Tell Ed I love him" and "Is Ed as nice in real life as he is on TV?" One woman told me I was so charming, they should put me on the show.

Believe me, I'm not ungrateful. Lots of actors never reach fifth-banana status. Until last year, I was one of them. I worked in a coffee shop as a barrista, which is an ancient Latin word meaning, "He who scrapes out the bottom of the cappuccino machine for minimum wage." This job is much better.

Plus, there are plenty of household names who started off in exactly the same position I'm in now. Kelsey Grammer, for example. When he began on "Cheers," he was just another stooge at the bar. Now he's got a walk-in closet stuffed with Emmys. I recently saw him on the cover of Architectural Digest showing off his new digs in Maui, so maybe there's hope for me yet. But then again, what's Cliff Clavin been up to lately?

In many ways, being a fifth banana is great. Like, when I throw up in public places, nobody writes about it in their gossip column. And a lot of the fun, oddball stuff on the show falls my way. So far this season, I've walked on stilts, locked myself in a plexiglass coffin and been thrown from a mechanical bull. My brother computes statistics for life insurance companies. I asked him, and he said he never gets to ride mechanical bulls at work.

Another upshot is that I don't have to do any of the annoying chores that fall to the more prominent cast members. I haven't had to shoot any of those saccharine "The More You Know" spots, for example. There's less pressure on me. If the show ever goes down the toilet, nobody will be pointing the finger in my direction. Also, I work fewer hours than the other guys, so I have plenty of time to pursue other interests. (If you can think of anything in which I might be interested, please write to me in care of The Times.)

Being a fifth banana is kind of like being on punch-bowl duty at the prom. It's not glamorous, but you still get to wear the tux and, all in all, I'm content. The bottom line is this: I'm employed doing the thing I love to do, and in any profession, that's saying a lot. I would much rather be "that guy from that show" than "that guy from that coffee shop."


"Ed" airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children.

Los Angeles Times Articles