Fourth bananas

I think, as this holiday season arrives, that it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to remember those who often go unremembered, unmentioned, and ungifted at this time.

No, not the poor; if our current administration can do such a good job of leaving behind children and families below the poverty line, we can certainly do the same thing. (Unlike the administration, though, I only advise forgetting about the poor for the length of time it takes you to read the column; there are plenty of opportunities to donate your time and money around the holidays, and apparently there's this thing called the Internet that might help you find the one that appeals most to your particular interests.) I'm talking, of course, about the third and fourth bananas.

You may be unfamiliar with the term, because, to the best of my knowledge, I've just invented it. Everyone knows what the beloved "second banana" is; the figure on a show, usually a comedy or a talk show, who provides the necessary assistance and the support for the star to shine, and who often gain fame and respect in their own right. Paul Shaffer, Andy Richter, Ed McMahon, Harvey Korman - you know the list.

But the people I want to honor today don't, by virtue of limited screen time but not of limited talent, rise to the level of household names. (Except, I guess, in their own households, and those of their friends and family.) But we love them, and the shows they're on are better for their being on them. They truly are the living proof of the old maxim that there are no small parts, only small actors. They probably won't make the big money, and they will never get nominated for awards (for these roles, at least). But they steal the show every time they appear on camera, and I find myself, at least, hoping to see more and more of them.

Thanks to imdb.com for some of the help tracking down the names of these unsung heroes and heroines. Let's raise a glass of eggnog or dedicate an extra spin of the dreidel to:

1. Robert Maschio (plays "The Todd" on Scrubs). An insult to surgical residents everywhere, the incredibly dimwitted, sexually obsessed, constantly high-fiving The Todd (as he refers to himself) is a moron. But he's a moron with soul.

2. Melanie Lynskey (plays Rose on Two and a Half Men.) Sure, she's a stalker who had a one-night stand with Charlie Sheen and now hangs around the place. But you think it's easy to be both creepy and charming at the same time? You try it and see how quickly you get maced.

3. Sean Gunn (plyas "Kirk" on Gilmore Girls). Gunn has, in recent seasons, been elevated to a main player, but he still (and I mean this in the best possible way) has that fourth banana feel: skulking around the outside of the show's main plots, he comes in to add his normal dash of crazy to the proceedings. Whenever he appears onscreen, you just know you're in for it.

4. "Comic Book Guy, Bumblebee Man, Disco Stu, etc., etc." (The Simpsons). Sure, they're fictional, and you might hold that against them, but it's the holidays - let's give them a break. The Simpsons are well known to have the best collection of fourth bananas in television history. Everyone has their favorite one, and claims that theirs is by far the best. They're all right.

5. Chris Pratt (plays "Bright" on Everwood). There are actually several underutilized and underappreciated actors on Everwood -- another who comes to mind is Nora Zehetner, who plays the deceased Colin's sister -- but I have to give Bright the trophy this time for the way in which he has managed to naturally transform his character from jerk to complicated jerk with redeeming qualities over the course of the year. It's hard to be the inarticulate one in a show that's so intelligent, and Pratt pulls it off nicely.

6. Don Stark (plays "Mr. Pinciotti" on That '70s Show). In a cast that may actually be the strongest ensemble cast in a network comedy today (although this season has been a little weaker than past years), most of the main characters do the comedic heavy lifting and share screen time equally, and so they don't qualify for this category. (Sadly, they seem to rarely be considered by Emmy voters, perhaps for the same reason: Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, Wilmer Veldarrama, and Mila Kunis are some of the best comic actors working today.) But the writers have used Stark to show off all the things about the '70s that look particularly idiotic today - the white afros, the leisure suits, and far, far, worse - and he deserves recognition for submitting to this.

7. Rachel Cronin (plays "Shirley" on Ed). If you don't know Shirley, you kind of have to see her. The constant owl-like stare. The adoption of the non-sequitur as a prime conversational technique. The elevation of the triple-take into a fine art. We all love Shirley, though we're also a little bit afraid of her at the same time.

8. Troy Evans (plays "Frank Martin," or "The guy who works the front desk at the ER who's very grouchy and generally doesn't have a good thing to say about anybody, but who seems to be exactly the kind of guy who should be at the ER and give the main characters just that little extra kick in the teeth to make their already excruciatingly hard jobs just that little bit harder.") Self-explanatory. (And an honorary shout out to all the actors who play nurses and support staff on ER, who do their jobs year after year, and are always referred to as 'guest stars.' At some point, you'd hope someone would invite them to feel more at home.)

9. Mindy Clarke, (plays "Julie Cooper" on The O.C.) How do you think it must feel to be the one person on one of the hottest shows on television that absolutely nobody likes? Who has to play fake and smarmy because that's who her character is, and who gets all the fake-sounding lines because she's a fake-sounding person? Her character's going to get a lump of coal in her Christmas stocking, but let's give her something nicer for the holidays, shall we?

10. Paris Hilton (The Simple Life). This poor girl languishes in obscurity. No one has ever heard of her, or her television program. The media has ignored her, and particularly the paparazzi. Perhaps she could come up with some way to get her name out there. I don't have much hope for its success, though.

So there you are - kudos to all of you. We wish you well. May you rise to third or second banana in 2004.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

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