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What makes a great supporting character? The term itself is a bit of a misnomer: In the land of the sitcom, the supporting character is the real star. We cheered the romance of Sam and Diane but laughed at Cliff and Norm. Will & Grace should have been titled Jack & Karen. And how often have you heard someone say his favorite character on Seinfeld was Seinfeld?
Betty White and Tracy Morgan have appeared in eponymous vehicles (The Betty White Show, 1977–78; The Tracy Morgan Show, 2003–4), but their best work comes from stealing other people’s scenes: White as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, and, on May 8, hosting Saturday Night Live; Morgan as Tracy Jordan, the cuddly, wacked-out millstone around Liz Lemon’s neck on 30 Rock. These are the kind of supporting characters who aren’t just reliably funny; they’re the reason we watch sitcoms in the first place.
White’s genius lies in cannily playing against type. Much of the bite of Sue Ann on Mary Tyler Moore came from the fact that White was previously well established as a sunny national sweetheart. She zigzagged again as Rose Nylund, the innocent dim bulb. And her recent career renaissance has been built entirely on the marriage of her unerring comic instincts (“Everybody asks me, ‘Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to do?’ And I always say, ‘Robert Redford’ ”) and her willingness to shock for laughs, as when, on SNL, she played a baker talking about her “dusty muffin,” or ended a sketch with the line, “Happy Mother’s Day, mother[bleep]ers!” Will Forte told this story of White’s week at SNL: “She got in super-early on Friday, worked all day, then went to bed at about 12:30. She’s 88-and-a-half! So the next day I said, ‘How are you doing? Did you get some sleep?’ And she said, ‘Oh, I don’t need sleep. I just went to my hotel and had a cold hot dog and a vodka on the rocks.’ Which was exactly what I wanted Betty White to say.”
While White plays expertly against her reputation, Morgan plays up, and with, his infamy. It’s no coincidence that Tracy Jordan is two letters removed from Tracy Morgan. Which is why, among the current parade of terrific supporting players (Hamish Linklater on The New Adventures of Old Christine; Eric Stonestreet and Ty Burrell on Modern Family; anyone on Parks and Recreation), Morgan’s performance stands out: It’s not just funny, it’s brave. Like White, he’s fearless; his naked belly alone has made more memorable talk-show appearances than Charles Grodin. “That’s old-school funny, when you do anything to get a laugh,” Morgan says. “If you laugh, I’m good.”
Playing a trumped-up cartoon version of himself has also freed him to shine in a way he never did as an SNL cast member. (It’s telling that, when he hosted SNL last year, Morgan seemed to appear in more sketches in one night than he had in seven seasons as a regular.) In Tracy Jordan, he’s found the perfect character: himself. “Tina Fey knows my voice,” he says. “And Tina understood that I understood what I was doing. Charlie Chaplin said that’s comedy—knowing who you are. I mean, look at Betty White. She knows who she is.”
I ask White how TV comedy has changed—she has, after all, been doing it about as long as there’s been such a thing as TV—and she says, “I don’t think it’s changed a bit. The audience has changed. They’re much more sophisticated. They’ve heard every joke and know every story line. That’s a hard audience to surprise, and a hard audience to get a laugh from.”
That may be true, but then both Morgan and White are making that hard work look easy. So what better reason to bring them together? (Other than, say, as the dream cast for an awesome remake of Harold and Maude.) At our cover shoot, the photographer suggested gingerly that White stand behind Morgan and reach around and grab his chest. Naturally, she was up for it. And you know Morgan (suddenly, inevitably, shirtless) was willing. Though as she did so, the beatific White added drily, “Just so you know, this is a one-sided game.”
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