[30 January 2007]
It’s not easy being the straight man. Since its origin in vaudeville, the role hasn’t changed much: he (or she) plays superego to the comedic id. The straight man tries to defuse the comic’s manic energy with sarcasm (David Spade to Chris Farley), a genial patience (Dick Smothers to his brother Tom), or mute exasperation (Teller to Penn Jillette). Though it requires a fine sense of timing, the role can be thankless, as audiences tend to focus on the character with jokes.
In Comedy Central’s The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show, it’s the Naked Trucker (David Allen) who plays it straight. As the official website explains, “He’s a voice of reason preaching the Gospel of Live And Let Live in a world dominated by the Us Against Them mentality.” Traveling across America in an 18-wheeler, wearing nothing but a red baseball cap and a strategically-placed acoustic guitar, he’s apparently an emblem of the open road.
Along the way, he’s picked up Gerald “T-Bones” Tibbons (David Koechner), a jut-jawed drifter with a bad comb-over and indefinable accent. That same website describes him as a “slightly bewildered bodhisattva,” the Buddhist term for one who assists other sentient beings in achieving their true Buddha nature. What enlightenment T-Bones has on offer is unclear; he embodies the philosophy expressed in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit.” T-Bones is a con man, his sly wit worthy of a Buddhist master or desert trickster god.
In the opening moments of the series, the Naked Trucker and T-Bones shared a table at a roadside dinner. While T-Bones read the menu, Trucker read The Grapes of Wrath. When T-Bones asked, “I wonder which of our books is more satisfying?”, Trucker informed him that The Grapes of Wrath is “an American Classic.” T-Bones asked whether one can order steak from The Grapes of Wrath, before commenting, “Endgame. Beckett. And I’m having the fish and chips.” The scene was typical of the formula, contrasting the walking non sequitur with his pretentious foil, with the former coming out on top. While the Trucker sings, “Mind your own business, / That’s my trucker’s code,” paying a kind of lip service to “ideals” of freedom and individuality, T-Bones “lives” them.
Following this promising start, though, the show lost much of its energy, mostly because of the Trucker. He went limp during the first two episodes, offering only sarcastic asides to the audience (similar to Chappelle’s Show, the series combines performances for a studio audience and pre-taped skits) or repeating T-Bones’ jokes. In one particularly annoying example, T-Bones sang, “I like rubes and three-card monte / Sending emails to Negroponte / With a Trojan horse / In porn.” The Trucker responded, “You’re sending email viruses to John Negroponte, the intelligence czar?”, as though the joke would be retroactively funny if the audience had John Negroponte’s resume.
As T-Bones, Koechner does the best he can, and the show is edited closely enough to cut short his in-character floundering. The most successful scene of the first two episodes was probably the first “Hitchhiker of the Week.” Will Ferrell, in a robin’s egg-blue tracksuit, challenged the Naked Trucker to a race, asking, “Do you have free will…Tin Machine?” Ferrell offered Koechner a new target, reviving some of their chemistry from Anchorman. The Naked Trucker faded into the background; as Koechner and Ferrell upped the absurdity, the scene transitioned into a different kind of humor, one without the need of a straight man.
The first episode’s Naked Trucker seemed strangely passive-aggressive for a man with an acoustic guitar hiding his dangly parts. When, in an act of spite, he tore up a management contract he’d signed with T-Bones, the audience reacted with genuine dismay. Despite his exasperation at T-Bones’ antics, the second episode’s Trucker learned forgiveness, saying, “Look at that face. I cannot be mad at that face.” This time, the audience was on his side, proving that sometimes even the straight man has to lighten up a little.