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Brother, can you spare a punch line?

The brothers of ‘Men’ are set to inherit ‘Raymond’s’ crown as top brother act. By Wendell Wittler
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

As an only child, most of what I learned about having a brother came from observing Wallace and Theodore Cleaver (that’s Wally and the Beaver to their friends). I learned that being an older brother meant having to constantly clean up after the younger brother’s mistakes; not only that, but he got all the good laugh lines.

As far as fully-grown adult brothers, the best role model I had was the occasional guest appearance on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” by Jerry Van Dyke. After all, when you have the real-life Van Dyke bothers playing the fictional Petrie brothers, it’s gotta be realistic, right? Including  the storyline about Jerry’s character being confident and talented only when he’s sleepwalking? (Please remember that I was six years old at the time.)

In the 40 years of television since, there have been plenty of sitcoms featuring juvenile or adolescent brothers, from “The Brady Bunch” to “Malcolm in the Middle.” But grown-up brothers mostly were relegated to guest stars playing very strange characters (unless you classify “Simon and Simon” as comedy).

Then came “Frasier” with David Hyde Pierce as Frasier’s brother Niles. By no stretch of the imagination can the Cranes be considered typical brothers — or typical anything — and much of the talk in the early days of the show was about Pierce’s eerie physical resemblance to star Kelsey Grammer, making him the male equivalent of Vicki Lawrence on “The Carol Burnett Show.”

Oh, brotherWhen “Everybody Loves Raymond” debuted in ‘96, Ray and Robert Barone immediately usurped the Cranes as TV comedy’s preeminent brother act.

caption: \"Golf For It\" -- Robert (Brad Garrett, left) and Ray (Ray Romano) get into tricky territory over who will have responsibility for Marie in the future, on the eighth-season finale of \"EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND,\" scheduled to air on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Robert Voets/CBS )2004 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved copyright:Robert Voets / CBS

Even though the show was constructed around all of Raymond’s dysfunctional relationships, you just can’t read the title “Everybody Loves Raymond” without hearing it said in the disdainful baritone of resentful Robert.

Not that the resentment wasn’t understandable: Raymond was a successful sportswriter with a wife, three kids and a beautiful home; Robert was a divorced policeman who had moved back in with his parents.

Only now, as the Barone family winds down toward the series finale, has another successful brother act emerged — and in the geography of network scheduling, it’s right next door.

Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer play the Harper brothers in “Two and a Half Men,” which after just a season-and-a-half is already the most successful sitcom ever centered around two adult brothers. And if “Raymond” took one step toward more understanding of the fraternal relationship, “Men” is moving much farther.

Fraternal trauma
Of all the potential sources of personality-warping childhood traumas (parents, bullies, sports injuries, too-friendly strangers), brothers especially need to be affixed with warning stickers. Alan Harper (Cryer) has lived in fear of his “dark side” since the age of seven, when he was caught leaving a toy store with shoplifted Silly Putty and no idea where it came from. It wasn't until they were living together for over a year that brother Charlie (Sheen) reluctantly admitted that he had planted the putty in his sibling's pocket.

In a similar incident, Raymond was blamed for a childhood accident that destroyed his father’s jazz record collection, and which really was caused by Robert. And Robert’s strange quirk of touching his food to his chin before each bite (also known as “crazy chin”) turned out to be a subconscious reaction to the dinner-table attention his mother gave to Raymond as an infant.

But if you’re looking for emotional help and support, don’t bring your brother along. In one episode, Raymond was pushed into going to a meeting of Robert’s support group only when the rest of the family was afraid it was turning into a cult. (It was making Robert much too happy.) More recently, Raymond and his father agreed to join Robert with his therapist, but they all skipped the appointment and went to the track instead, an experience they enjoyed so much they made it a regular practice — until being exposed when it was discovered that the therapist had died of a heart attack weeks earlier. 

Meanwhile, Charlie Harper didn’t want his brother to join his celebrity-studded men’s group, but he was less ashamed of Alan than accurately predicting his ability to disrupt the meeting. It could’ve been worse. Instead of Sean Penn and Elvis Costello, the celebrities could’ve been David Spade and Weird Al Yankovic.

Green-eyed monster
While Robert’s jealousy of Raymond is at that show’s comic core (he even once tried to pass himself off as Raymond to impress a female sports fan), there have been plenty of examples of Raymond turning jealous of Robert. When efforts to boost Robert’s confidence turned into comments that he was “classically handsome,” while Ray was merely “adorable like a hamster,” Ray responded by getting a head-to-toe makeover, complete with a George Hamilton tan. When Ray’s book proposal was rejected at the same time Robert was promoted to lieutenant, when Ray discovered that his kids had more fun playing with their uncle, and when Ray discovered Robert’s new apartment was a ‘bachelor pad’, it was Raymond at his least lovable.

You might expect the divorced and dejected Alan Harper to be jealous of the brother who has taken him into his Malibu beachfront home, but Alan never respected Charlie’s bachelor lifestyle. Charlie has already tried to warn Alan away from women at least three times, which could be interpreted as jealousy except for the fact that he’s been right each time.

But both brothers share bad luck in relationships — Charlie is just more adept at ending them. And professionally, these brothers are more similar than they’d like to admit. Alan is a chiropractor, stereotypically seen as the healing profession for people who can’t get into medical school. Charlie, a musician making commercial jingles instead of hit CDs, is equally an underachiever.

Consolation prize: Better plotsAs previously noted in my article on , the second-billed brother on “Frasier” definitely got the better story arc. And that has been equally true on “Raymond” as the major elements in Ray’s life have remained pretty much unchanged while Robert moved several times, got married (without his future in-laws’ blessing), was gored by a bull and considered changing careers (although viewers knew from the start that the episode about becoming a male model had to be a scam).

Even with near-equal billing, Cryer’s Alan has already been through more life-altering events than Sheen's Charlie.  While Alan is more openly insecure, it’s Charlie who is more set in his ways, and every threat to his lifestyle, from a financial crisis to a girlfriend’s pregnancy scare, pushes him into a deeper (and funnier) state of denial.  In real life, Charlie's business of jingle writing is in decline; that sounds like a future story arc.

After , the Harper Brothers are going to be the only brothers act in town. The current crop of shows in development for next fall include sitcoms about adult sisters and brother/sister combinations, but nothing where the fraternal relationship is central. Even a pilot for Sheen's real-life brother Emilio Estevez ("Long Island Sound") has a sister but no brother in the cast.

And if the long-rumored Robert-centric spinoff of "Raymond" ever hits the air, we might see a lot of his strange brother-in-law, who's been played on the original show by Chris Elliot. Sitcom brothers may be getting better on television, but definately not brothers-in-law.

is the online alias of a writer from Southern California.