A salute to television's most underrated sitcom performers

by Neal Justin

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

16 March 2009

Rhys Darby stars in the HBO series "Flight of the Conchords." (HBO) 

Rodney Dangerfield wasn’t the only comic to get no respect. Some of the finest work in sitcoms today is being turned in by people who don’t earn Emmy nominations, don’t grace magazine covers, don’t get multimillion-dollar movie deals - and provide the deepest laughs on the air.

Here are five performers who deserve some extra love.


The role: Penny, the not-so-ditsy blonde neighbor on “The Big Bang Theory” (8 p.m. Mondays, CBS)

Where you’ve seen her before: “Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” and “Charmed.”

Why we love her: She’s a knockout - as a comic. Obviously she’s spent more time studying the true greats (Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett) than trying to perfect a Suzanne Somers impression, which is why there’s more than Thighmaster commercials in her future.

In her own words: “The role did start out as ‘the girl next door,’ but they’ve been writing some really great, fun stuff for me. She’s a real girl. She’s smart in her own way and I think she represents the audience, looking at these guys who are so different than what we’re all used to.”

Betcha didn’t know: A highly ranked amateur tennis player as a teen, she now gets her athletic buzz in a Ping-Pong contest backstage.


The role: Kate, girl with four mothers-in-one on “United States of Tara” (10 p.m. Sundays, Showtime).

Where you’ve seen her before: “Raising Dad” and “The Babysitter.”

Why we love her: Toni Collette gets all the raves for juggling multiple personalities, but Larson connects with just one captivating character: a pouty, perplexed teenager who somehow doesn’t make us want to lock her in the closet.

In her own words: “She’s a teenage girl, who is extremely smart in ways that her family doesn’t quite understand, because she’s so manipulative in taking what a lot of kids do when they pity themselves, and they’re always trying to find something in their families that is wrong, so they can use it to act out. In her case, it’s kind of a more extreme example.”

Betcha didn’t know: She loves “Tara” writer Diablo Cody, but hasn’t seen Cody’s Oscar-winning debut, “Juno.”


The role: Murray, the eternally optimistic band manager of “Flight of the Conchords” (10 p.m. Sundays, HBO).

Where you’ve seen him before: “Yes Man” and, if you’re lucky, standup stages across New Zealand and Britain.

Why we love him: He’s a modern-day version of the Partridge Family’s Reuben Kincaid - except with two Dannys on his hands.

In his own words: As he told the Onion, “I thought, ‘People aren’t going to like my character, because he’s so different. If they’re really into these cool-looking idiots, they’re not going to like this other idiot who kind of gets in the way and is always uptight’ ... I guess because it’s the opposite side of the seesaw, it just fits in perfectly.”

Betcha didn’t know: He played Roger Federer’s coach in a Nike commercial.


The role: Quagmire, the most politically incorrect, perverted friend of the “Family Guy” (9 p.m. Sundays, Fox). His voice sounds an awful lot like series creator Seth MacFarlane.

Where you’ve seen him before: Sitting in a van across the street from your local elementary school.

Why we love him: Um, love may not be the right word. But when we’re looking for cutting-edge, PG-37 humor, he’s thrust ahead of Cartman as our go-to guy.

In his own words: “Thrust! You said thrust! Giggity!”

Betcha didn’t know: His favorite TV show is “Wings.”


The role: Matthew, the sometimes bemused, always baffled brother in “The New Adventures of Old Christine” (8 p.m. Wednesdays, CBS)

Where you’ve seen him before: “Gideon’s Crossing” and “American Dreams.”

Why we love him: As co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus tears into comedy at a screeching pitch, he goes the opposite direction, taking low-key to a level no grand piano could reach.

In his own words: “I like putting constraints on characters,” he told the New York Times. “Working from the outside to in. The tighter the restraints, the more gymnastics you can do.”

Betcha didn’t know: He co-created a pilot for ABC, “The Prince of Motor City,” starring Aidan Quinn and Andie MacDowell, but it’s still up in the air whether the network will pick it up as a series.

//Mixed media