Written by Brenden Gallagher (@muddycreekU)
With the return of Arrested Development at hand, the Internet has been spending much time singing the praises of the talented ensemble cast, welcoming the actors and actresses back into our lives like the kooky aunt who lives on the other side of the country and only visits every four Christmases. Roughly twice a day, the Internet gifts us with some essay, list, infographic, or supercut to remind us of how much we love David Cross’ Tobias Fünke, Will Arnett’s G.O.B., or Michael Cera’s George-Michael.
Blogger commentary on Jason Bateman’s performance as Michael Bluth tends to be less flattering. Vulture’s recent “Jason Bateman’s Four Go-To Comedy Moves in GIF Form” is typical of the press he receives. You either hear complaints that his comedic bag of tricks is repetitive, wooden, and unfunny, or you don’t hear anything at all.
Comedy has always had two major roles: the clown and the straight man. The clown gets the laughs; the straight man sets them up.
Bateman’s film work doesn’t receive the same love in the indie comedy community that his Arrested cohorts can expect when they drop a new project, despite that fact the grosses on Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief could probably pay for renovations of every hole-in-the-wall sketch comedy club in New York City. Comedy die-hards salivate over David Cross projects like The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret and Cera’s nerd-rock comedies like the upcoming Crystal Fairy, but The Change-Up and The Switch won’t be receiving any alt-comedy screening parties any time soon. We’re left wondering why Bateman is denied the unconditional adoration reserved for the stand out male character actors on the show. If the rest of the actors in the cast pop up in hilarious cameos and character roles in all of our favorite comedy projects and kill it regularly, why can’t Jason Bateman be great?
“He’s not funny,” some say. Well, he’s not meant to be. No, I’m not being existential. His shtick isn’t built on goofy antics and memorable one-liners. He doesn’t do jokes—jokes are done to him. In the current comedy landscape, with the endless podcasts that pour limitless adoration on comedic craft, folks like Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong receive praise celebrating their comedic triumphs. We unearth footage of them honing their skills from years ago and treat it with the same reverence reserved for early footage of the Beatles. In the midst of this hero worship, we’ve forgotten something very important. Comedy has always had two major roles: the clown and the straight man. The clown gets the laughs; the straight man sets them up. Though you may not care to see the guy eyebrow-raising his way through a leading man role, Jason Bateman is the best straight man working in comedy today, has been for the better part of a decade, and he’s delivered box office results to back it up.
Straight men and women used to be celebrated. Bud Abbott, Stan Laurel, and Margaret Dumont all have their rightful place in comedy history. In recent years, straight men have gotten short shrift. Bateman isn’t the only stuffed shirt to take heat from the cadre of comedy commentators. Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) was booted unceremoniously from Parks and Recreation early on, leaving Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) as the lone target of fan ire. If Ted Mosby hadn’t met the mother last week, we might have seen effigies burned in the streets. In feature films, bloggers and commenters feel the need to pitch a grassroots campaign every time Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, and Bradley Cooper release a movie to remind the world that they “aren’t funny.”
This vitriol comes from an understandable place. You see amazing comedic performers toiling in bit parts while these “unfunny” actors get posters at the multiplex and it offends your sense of fair play. You can’t help but wince when these performers get leading man vehicles that only your mother could love, like The Break-Up and The Change-Up, while all of your favorite gag guys are battling for screen time on Burning Love, The League, and Children’s Hospital. That’s the deal the straight man makes. The only time they get a laugh is when they’re the butt of the joke. Their first two-dozen movie roles will be the douchey boyfriend who writes off the lovable goofball. But, after years of yeoman’s work coming off the bench, they get to star in a movie where they rediscover themselves with the help of a chipper homeless violinist or a lovable orphan girl who was a witness to a gangland murder. And they get paid. These actors have come to terms with that Faustian bargain, and we should too. We need to realize that they aren’t funny because it isn’t their job to be funny.
When you binge-watch Arrested Development on May 26, we encourage you to refrain from comparing Bateman’s performance to the clowns from Walter down to Cera. Don’t judge Michael Bluth on how funny he is, but on how much funnier he makes everyone around him. If Arrested Development was anchored by someone who lacked Bateman’s deadpan skills, the show wouldn’t be—wait for it—great.
This feature is part of Arrested Development Week at Complex.
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Written by Brenden Gallagher (@muddycreekU)