You come for the hamburger, but you sure love the fries.
From Ed Norton and Ethel Mertz to Larry Dallas and Screech, sidekicks have been as integral to TV sitcoms as unlocked front doors and the gang always managing to get the same table at their favorite hangout.
Sidekicks don’t take center stage and they always seem to have quirky names that align with their even quirkier personalities. They live in some sort of parallel universe where we don’t know their parents and may not see their homes. They may not be the biggest winners in life, yet they help drive the show forward, mining their eccentricities for laughs while helping the main characters achieve their goals.
Sidekicks are as necessary and omnipresent as the laugh track — a main character without a best friend is like a sitcom without a catchy theme song. TODAY spoke with five actors who memorably played sidekicks to get their take on how to effectively tackle this kind of supporting role, what their characters mean to them and how these parts are so much bigger than you may have realized.
Andrea Barber has cemented her place in the pantheon of TV sidekicks, playing the peculiar Kimmy Gibbler, the unlikely best friend of Candace Cameron Bure’s D.J. Tanner, for eight seasons on “Full House” and then again for five more on its reboot, “Fuller House.” Kimmy was irritating and odd, yet lovable to viewers. It’s a character ingrained in her own DNA that she lovingly embraces.
Barber said her character was initially meant to provide some comic relief.
“She would barge in the back door, make some jokes, throw some insults and then walk out,” she said. “Like, that was the extent of that role. I think it was just meant to be funny and lighthearted, not very deep. That's what the sidekick is supposed to do.”
Fans loved watching Kimmy in action, partly because she defied convention and didn’t adhere to any sort of norms, a calling card for many sidekicks.
“Especially with the teenage Kimmy Gibbler, she had so much self-confidence,” Barber said. “For an awkward, gangly teenager, she owned it, she loved herself, she owned it, she never apologized for anything. And that's really rare to see that in teenagers, especially. But Kimmy Gibbler had that confidence in droves. And I think the audience really responded to that.”
To be so identified with one character can overshadow an actor, but Barber said she’s never had any bitterness toward Kimmy.
“I've read that about a lot of these sidekicks who either resent their characters or just want nothing to do with it,” she said. “Like, they don't want to, they don't want to do their catchphrases anymore, or their iconic dances or whatever it is, they just don't want anything to do with it. And that was not the case with me, I think in large part because I left the business after ‘Full House’ and I went straight into college, and into a very normal life where I didn't act for 20 years and I had no desire to.”
Barber did say, though, that one part of being Kimmy as a teenager that wasn’t a ton of fun was the wardrobe, noting her penchant for wearing “neon tights and weird jumpers.”
“I can laugh at it now. But, yeah, there were times I was just like, I just want to feel pretty and cute. And I never really did as Kimmy Gibbler. But that's OK. That's all part of being a sidekick,” she said.
A generation of kids grew up with Kimmy, barging her way into the Tanner house, seemingly rubbing everyone the wrong way. She was the classic force-of-nature neighbor who walks into a home that isn’t locked and makes herself comfortable, blissfully unaware or unconcerned that she’s annoying. Would she be friends with someone like Kimmy?
“Oh, 100%. Absolutely,” she said.
“We can't just be friends with people who are like ourselves,” she added. “That would be a very boring life. So you got to have some color and flavor in there. And that's what the sidekick personality is for.”
As peculiar as Kimmy may have been, Barber fondly remembers the opportunity to showcase her complexity in an episode where D.J. throws Kimmy a last-minute party after forgetting it was her birthday.
“By the end of that episode, you really see how hurt Kimmy is by this and how much it hurts that her best friend forgot such an important day,” she said. “And it's the only time in the eight-year run of the series that I got to cry on camera and show that there is more depth to this character than just being a loudmouth twit.”
Barber said “there were some murmurings” of a Kimmy spinoff, but it can’t happen due to contractual matters between Warner Bros. and Netflix. However, she’s trying to create a show with Juan Pablo Di Pace, who played her husband, Fernando, on “Fuller House.”
“Even if I keep playing these sidekick-type characters, I love it,” she said. “I'm good at it. I have really good comedic timing. And I like making people laugh. So even if I'm sort of pigeonholed into this type of character for the rest of my life, I'm OK with that because it's comfortable and I like doing it.”
Barber said the sidekick has morphed over the years, to the point where it’s now shifted to a more front-and-center role.
“I think we’re now seeing the sidekick, or the sidekick personality, being promoted to leading roles because now I'm watching shows like ‘Big Bang Theory,’” she said. “That is an entire show full of what would be known as sidekick characters, but they're all leads. But they're awkward and they're nerdy. They're funny, but that was a whole show full of characters like that.”
For Barber, sidekicks have morphed into something more and deeper.
“I think that the sidekick was just sort of this afterthought comic relief back in the day a couple decades ago, and now we're seeing these characters take the spotlight because the audiences are responding to these types of characters who are awkward and different because they themselves feel awkward and different,” she said. “I mean, who can't relate to that, especially when you're a teenager feeling that you can't fit in and feeling that you're trying to find your place in this world?”
Kimmy has once again been put on the shelf, with “Fuller House” having wrapped up its run. She doesn’t stray too far from Barber, though.
“Even though I'm nothing like Kimmy Gibbler, I just really have a lot of love and respect for her,” she said. “She'll always be a part of my life, even though the show is now over.”
On fans reaching out to her: “Now, in the age of social media, you have so much more direct contact with your fans. People would contact me and say, ‘You know what, I loved your character. I love Kimmy Gibbler growing up because she made me feel that it's OK to be different.’ And that really stuck with me.”
On D.J.’s relationship with Kimmy: “I love D.J.’s loyalty to Kimmy because Danny, Uncle Jesse and Joey, they were really mean to Kimmy Gibbler back in the ‘90s. And I look at some of those episodes now and I'm like, ‘Wow, I don't think that would fly if we were to make this show now.’ Because I would never be that mean to my kids. You know, I have teenagers and when their friends are over, I would never put them down. Or say, ‘Go home.’ Or I would never, even if it's a kid that annoys me, I would never say that to a child or a teenager. … D.J. was always there for her. D.J. never strayed. She was just like, ‘Nope, Kimmy’s my best friend, you gotta just accept it.’ That type of loyalty is rare these days.”
On whether she’d play Kimmy again in a reboot or spinoff: “Oh, 100%. I would not hesitate. That's the same way I felt after my 20-year break of having left Hollywood, having sworn I would never go back. And then (‘Full House’ creator) Jeff Franklin called out of the blue and was like, ‘Hey, let's do a reboot. Would you be interested in doing this character again?’ And I jumped at it. I was like, ‘Heck, yeah, of course.’ And it's partially because I love the character, but mostly because I love the cast. I love my co-stars. It's such a magical set.”
DJ Jazzy Jeff
DJ Jazzy Jeff was an actor who didn’t want to act. On “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” he played the dimwitted Jazz, always at the side of Will Smith’s Will. Prior to taking the small screen by storm, he and Smith had become huge stars in the teenage market, thanks to their music. Jeff said he had no aspirations to get in front of the camera, even though the opportunity to be on the sitcom came out of the videos the pair made for their songs.
Jeff became one of the key elements of the show, the perfect complement to Smith’s fish-out-of-water Philly teen adjusting to life in Southern California. But if Jeff had originally had his way, he never would’ve been part of the series.
“‘Fresh Prince’ was kind of like, ‘Hey, we think it would be kind of cool if you kind of came on the show,’” he said. “And I turned it down. I may have turned it down about eight times, until Will was just like, ‘Listen, they want you to do three episodes. If you do one, and you love it, that's good. If you do one, and you hate it, you only got two to do.’ And I was kind of like, OK, and next thing you know, it was six years.”
Smith and Jeff had become huge stars, thanks in large part to the music video for their song “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” which Jeff said had an impact on their sitcom.
“If you look at the beginning of ‘Fresh Prince,’ so much of that was taken off of the ‘Parents Just Don't Understand’ video,” he said. “So I think they looked at, ‘You and Will have a natural chemistry, because of the music. And because of the videos, maybe this will translate on the screen.’ And it did.”
To this day, fans feel a kinship with the relationship Will and Jeff had, which manifested itself in so many ways, perhaps most notably their greeting, which is the part of the show he hears about most from fans.
“The handshake was very much probably the biggest thing, and a lot of those things were taken from some of the things that Will and I would do amongst ourselves,” he said. “That was a handshake, how we greeted each other on tour. So, we just met up one day on the set, did the handshake. And they were like, ‘Yo, what was that?’ And it was like, ‘Hey, that's how we greet each other.’ And they were like, ‘Well, do that.’”
Sidekicks have a tendency to play the fool or be the butt of the joke, and Jeff was no exception. He was known for getting thrown out of the house by Uncle Phil, and there were rumors it took 150 takes to do it. Jeff said that’s not true.
“Well, no, it didn't take 150 takes to get that done. I just probably did it 150 times, because once we got it, it got to a point that they were like, ‘OK, we want to do it the next episode,’ and then I had to get thrown out, depending on the clothes that I had on in that episode,” he said.
“They would put a mat outside the door and it wasn't anybody throwing me. I literally had to run and jump with my body sideways like someone threw me. And to get a good take might’ve took about 40 times. I did it the first time, it was good. I did it the second time, it was good. And then one time, they were like, ‘We want to film you being thrown out in all of these different outfits.’ And I may have done it 150 times and went to the hotel, and I was black and blue. And I was just like, ‘This really hurts. We're going to have to figure something out.’ And that's why every time I get thrown out, I'm wearing the same shirt, and they would just use the same take. That became kind of a staple that every time I walked in with the shirt on, everybody was like, ‘Uh-oh, here it comes.’”
Jeff is also quick to point out what makes a good sidekick, noting the bond between him and Smith translated on screen.
“I think it's really the chemistry,” he said. “Because to be a sidekick, there has to be a main (character) and you have to have a great relationship with the main, you have to almost be thought of that 'if I see one, I need to see the other.' So it needs to be that level of chemistry that comes across to people. And I think, because Will and I were like that as friends, Will and I were like that as a music group, it translated to television, because it wasn't fake.”
Jeff’s authenticity helped make the show what it was.
“I never looked at it like I was acting on ‘Fresh Prince,’” he said. “I might not have been as nimwitted on the show as I am in real life. But you know, that was me and Will's relationship.”
“I was comfortable being a sidekick, because my main game wasn't television,” he added.
And since he wasn’t necessarily interested in acting, you could imagine the role was a challenge, but Jeff said it was easy to play the character.
“I just read the lines. I literally read the lines, and everybody laughed,” he said. “And I would walk in my dressing room and say, ‘I have no idea what just happened, but I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing.’ But it was literally, I read the lines. And if they said, you know, do it like this, I did it like that. And everybody laughed. And that was it.”
On whether he patterned the character after anyone: “No, no, not at all. The greatest reference I had was myself. So, you know, it was just kind of like, ‘OK, if I was in this position, this is what I would do.’”
On the level of fame he got from the show: “Television fans are 80-year-old grandmothers. And that was the thing that was unexpected going to a mall. And people recognizing you because they love your music was one thing. Going to a mall and people recognize you from television was a completely different animal. So that was just something that I think it took a second to understand the magnitude of television.”
On whether he thinks sidekicks come with a negative connotation: “No, I don't, I don't look at things that deep. I use a lot of sports analogies. Everybody is the sidekick to the quarterback. At the end of the day, everybody has a role to play. And sometimes your role may not be as big as the main character. No one should complain being on a team with Michael Jordan. You got six championships, that if you take Michael Jordan off the team, obviously, no one could be the main character on that team. Everybody had to be a sidekick. So I don't really look at it like that. I'm like, This was the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ Will was the frontman in our group.”
Jenna von Oy
“Blossom” was a show that checked the boxes of a classic sitcom – namely, it revolved around family and teenagers, with heavy subject matter (Blossom's oldest brother was a recovering drug addict). Into this fray entered Jenna von Oy, playing a model sidekick to Mayim Bialik’s title character. Von Oy was her best friend, the memorably named, fast-talking and hat-wearing Six. For five seasons, she dutifully and memorably beamed into our living rooms.
Von Oy said one of the keys to the success of the show was that she and Bialik were the ages of the characters they were playing.
“That didn't happen as much in the ‘90s as it does now,” she said. “I think part of the reason that everybody fell in love with Blossom and Six together wasn't just because of the chemistry, although I would like to think that's part of it. But I think it was also that we really did represent sort of this generation of young girls and if you didn't relate to one of us you likely related to the other.”
Von Oy said she and Bialik had a connection that was obvious from the get-go.
“When Mayim and I first met, we actually met at the screen test for ‘Blossom,’” she said. “And that chemistry was immediate. And it was a really sort of magical thing that I don't think happens all that often.”
She said they played off each other well.
“It was really neat to sort of play the talkative and charismatic best friend to her sort of subtle and more astute and clever nature,” she said.
The relationship between the characters captured a type of interaction that people longed to have.
“I don't know if I've ever really experienced the type of ‘you’re my person, best friend’ that Blossom and Six were in that way,” von Oy said.
She also said Six’s appeal is not hard to explain.
“I think she was, really, very simply, approachable,” she said.
Von Oy said it’s vital not to underestimate the role a sidekick plays.
“I looked up the purpose of a sidekick because I was just interested in what they said. And interestingly enough, the first thing that popped up, said, though fairly ubiquitous in fiction, a sidekick isn't often essential to a story success,” she said.
“And I would actually challenge that. I think that a sidekick, you know, I would venture to say that Batman wouldn't be the same without Robin and Lucy certainly would not have been the same without Ethel. She would still have been hands-down one of the funniest women on television, but Ethel offered this really neat dynamic that pulled out a side of Lucy that you might not have otherwise seen.”
Von Oy also remains acutely aware that a sidekick must not be, well, normal.
“The other cool thing about a sidekick is that they offer a lot of really quirky characteristics that no one necessarily anticipates,” she said. “I think sometimes they end up stealing the show.
“I mean, you look at somebody like Jaleel White and he began as a sidekick. His role completely transcended I think anything they would have expected and he's, first of all, a force of nature who can likely be credited with keeping ‘Family Matters’ on the air for as long as it was. Sometimes sidekicks are just a standout player that can't be ignored and they become something even bigger.”
Was there a downside to playing Six?
“I feel so blessed to have been able to do that. What a cool thing,” she said. “What a cool, beautiful way to have spent my childhood because that really was what I wanted to do. I mean, I wanted to be an actress and I got to do that. And I got to work with these awesome people that I still talk to today.
“I think the only thing if you had asked me back then what might be an eye roll for me, I probably would have said that everybody expected me to be just like my character,” she added. “If I didn't talk fast, they were confused. ... And I'm sure that every single person on every single show could say the very same thing.”
On what fans tell her most about Six: “‘Oh, my God, I wore hats because of you.’ That's No. 1, followed closely by, ‘My second cousin's sister-in-law talks almost as fast as you used to.’ Followed by, ‘Oh, my gosh, my best friend and I used to watch your show together, because we were just like Blossom and Six.’ So those are really the top three.”
On how she wore a hat to her audition, which led to Six’s always wearing one: “I wore this very wide-brimmed purple hat, which I have somewhere in the depths of my attic, I imagine. And when I got the callback for it, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, and, and make sure she wears the hat.’ Obviously, something that kind of stuck out to them and separated me out and, and it stuck.”
On being remembered as a sidekick: “I really love the roles that I've played. And if that's what I get to play for the rest of my life, if that's, if that's my legacy, is being the sidekick, then damn it, I'm OK with that.”
As the amusingly and alliteratively named Cliff Clavin, John Ratzenberger was part of the legendary cast of “Cheers,” a sitcom that ran for over a decade and won 28 Emmy Awards. Ratzenberger was nominated for a pair of Emmys for his portrayal of Cliff, the postal carrier who can’t talk to women and spews useless trivia that is most likely not true while he and countless other barflies whittle away their days and nights at Cheers, the watering hole where everybody knows your name. He and best friend Norm, played by George Wendt, live a life of desperation, vicariously living through smooth-talking bartender Sam Malone, famously played by Ted Danson.
You can argue Cliff was a sidekick to Norm, but Ratzenberger isn’t exactly sold on that.
“I think we were both sidekicks to Ted Danson,” he said. “I don't think we were each other's sidekick. (It) depends on how you define sidekick.”
Ratzenberger said Norm and Cliff were always there for Danson’s character.
“A sidekick is really someone who supports you and enjoys your company and helps you get things done,” he said. “So that's why I say that Norm and Cliff were more sidekicks to Ted.”
Ratzenberger may not equate Cliff with being a traditional sidekick, but he understands what it means to be one and how it plays into the larger scheme of things.
“If you think of a jazz combo, you're the saxophone player, the trombone player, your job is to put focus on whatever is out front, whether it's a singer, or the piano player. Your job is not to take over,” he said. “Your job is not to lead the group. Your job is to support the group. So that was my job, in comedy terms. My job was not to jump in and draw all the focus. My job was to support other people.”
Ratzenberger brought the role of Cliff to life in more ways than one when he auditioned to be one of the barflies.
“I invented the character of Cliff in the audition,” he said.
“And on my way out the door, I said, ‘Do you have a bar know-it-all?’” he added. “And they looked up and one of them said, ‘What are you talking about?’ So then I improvised what I was talking about, which made them laugh.
“Two days later, I got a call. They say they want to try that character out for seven episodes. And 11 years later, I was still there.”
Ratzenberger thinks Cliff resonated with viewers because everyone knows someone like him.
“It was funny, because along the way, in the journey of life, you meet people like that, people that are know-it-alls, and they have to opine on whatever the subject is, even though everybody present kind of gets the idea that this guy doesn't know what he's talking about,” he said.
As one of the zany characters that frequented the bar, Cliff added life and enough laughs to fill a keg. And Ratzenberger thinks three decades later, Cliff is still a knucklehead.
“I think Cliff either won the lottery and then wasted it all on showgirls in Vegas, or invented something that was popular for a couple of years, and then made a lot of money and started another business, maybe a restaurant that only sells hot dogs,” he said.
Whether you think of him as a sidekick or a supporting character, one thing remains clear: playing Cliff provided a lot of laughs and happy moments for fans.
“I get a lot of ‘thank you.’ Because it was a bonding moment for them with their parents, fathers especially. And I get a lot of that. ‘My father was dying. We were watching “Cheers.” It gave him a lot of joy in his last days.’ For some reason, that sticks out of people who are older now, but remembering watching it with their dads,” he said.
On what “Cheers” did for him: “It does open other doors for you. And then it's up to you whether it's a walk through that door or not. Yeah, I mean, obviously. ‘Cheers’ is heralded as the greatest sitcom ever. To this day, it's still talked about in those terms.”
On whether he would do a “Cheers” reboot: “I would do it in a second. I think most of the cast would do it in a second, but for some reason, the people in control don't want to have it happen.”
On whether he was ever annoyed at being so identified with Cliff: “Yeah, I think it annoyed me for, like, 10 minutes. And then I realized, ‘What’s not to like here? I'm getting paid a good salary, and I get to make people laugh every week. That's what I set out to do.’”
One of the enduring traits of sidekicks is they can be dumb and audiences will laugh at their ineptitude and stupidity. Enter Waldo Geraldo (pronounced Huh-rahl-do) Faldo, a name that humorously rolls off the tongue that is befitting of this character from “Family Matters.” While the ABC sitcom is best known for bringing Steve Urkel into our living rooms, Shawn Harrison’s portrayal of Waldo, buddy to Darius McCrary’s Eddie Winslow, also played a key part in shaping the series.
But, first: the name. Where did it come from?
“I have absolutely no idea,” Harrison said. “In all of my time on the show, I never asked the writer-producers who was responsible for that character name.”
While the notion that a sidekick should provide comic relief is out there, Harrison said he was never hamstrung by the thought that he had to hold back in order to let the main characters shine.
“We were very much interested in mining as much comedy and comic relief as we could,” he said. “So when I came on the show, there was never a thought in my mind like, ‘Oh, I better tone it down. I better dial it back because I might upstage someone. I might step on their toes.’ My thought process was, ‘I'm here to do a job. My job is to pull laughs, if I can. And if I do that, then I have done to the fullest of my ability the very thing that I was hired to do.’”
Harrison may have been digging for laughs, but he also believes a sidekick can help shape other characters.
“I think a sidekick is just really that friend sometimes that is underdeveloped in a show, but provides the outlet for the main characters to show the growth that they're going to experience over an episode, over a series, over a season,” he said. “And you do that through the eyes, sometimes, of the peer.”
The stupid pal is a tried-and-true trope in TV history. Harrison said he had some inspiration before he even joined “Family Matters” that proved just how challenging it is to be someone so devoid of intelligence.
“One of my favorite sidekicks prior to me being on ‘Family Matters’ was Boner on ‘Growing Pains.’ I will always remember that character,” he said. “Maybe because of the goofiness, maybe because of what I came to know later on just how strong of a performance that was, it is not an easy thing to play a not-so-bright or dimwitted or a dumb character.”
Harrison pointed to a trio of episodes that stand out to him, including the one where Waldo and Laura go out on a date, as well as when Waldo and Laura's best friend, Maxine, who would go on to have a relationship, go on a date. He also singled out the one where Waldo has to take care of Eddie's cousin Richie, the kind of situation where things can clearly go wrong.
“Waldo was entrusted with taking Richie trick-or-treating because Eddie wanted to go hang out with some chick,” he said. “And so obviously, foolishness ensues because Waldo didn't do his job exceptionally well.”
Harrison spoke glowingly of his experience playing Waldo and said he never felt any resentment or grew tired of him. He is grateful for all he gained.
“One of the biggest benefits of being on ‘Family Matters’ is, I believe that it was the training ground for me for what I understand about comedy. So had I never played Waldo, who's to say that I would have become the comedic actor that I've become known for?” he said.
“Had I not had that experience — and I can't even say experience because it's experiences because of the number of episodes, the number of rehearsals, the number of performers that I got the benefit of performing with and beside, day in, day out, episode after episode,” he said.
Harrison said it can be a challenge trying to break away from a role an actor made famous.
“In some respects, a lot of it is fighting against the very thing that makes you unique and special,” he said.
And while he may have missed other opportunities, Harrison said what he learned along the way outpaced that.
“There were times when casting directors didn't want to see me for things or refused to see me for things,” he said. “I can do drama as well. But you won't bring me in for drama. Look at my résumé, I actually did dramatic stuff before I was on ‘Family Matters.’ So that's a real experience. That my point is all that I gained from being on the show, it far exceeds any frustration that I've felt on a professional level.”
On playing Waldo again if there was a “Family Matters” reboot: “I absolutely have no problems, no qualms about doing the character again.”
On what makes a good sidekick: “I think that the writing of the sidekick matters a great deal. I think that the performance of the sidekick matters a great deal. And it's the combination of those things that will I think make the difference in a sidekick that is endearing and a sidekick that's just there. Because let's be honest, there are plenty of programs that we watch where characters are just there. And the difference between, again, being endearing and just there as a character, as a placeholder for the lead character, is in the performance, is in the writing.”
On whether sidekicks tend to be too goofy: “I think that some of our more iconic ones that we remember from sitcom tend to be a bit goofy, but I don't know if that's a rule of thumb. I think that it's just been happenstance that that has occurred. … I think that what works so well in that them being goofy sometimes is that it gives the audience a nice little change of pace.”