More than One Way to Steal a Scene: Thievery in Television Comedy
January 6th, 2010
Last night, when watching Better Off Ted, I tweeted the following:
When I made the comment, I was really only trying to say that while I enjoy Lynch’s work on Glee (for which she could well win a Golden Globe in under two weeks) I believe Portia de Rossi is doing some stunning work on Better Off Ted that is being comparatively ignored by the major voting bodies (I’m with James Poniewozik: we need to ensure she remains consistently employed on sitcoms for all of time). However, a few alternate suggestions for television’s best scene stealer made me realize that I was commenting less in terms of who is the better actor, and more on what precisely I consider “stealing a scene.”
The Chicago Tribune’s always spot-on Maureen Ryan made a case for Nick Offerman, whose Ron Swanson is an unquestionable highlight on Parks and Recreation. And my immediate reaction was that, as great as Offerman is and as hopeful as I am that he receives an Emmy nomination later this year, I don’t know if I consider him a scenestealer. Of course, as soon as I say that, she comes back with the example of Offerman simply raising an eyebrow and demanding your attention despite an only observational role in the scene in question, making me look like an idiot.
However, I’m going to argue that our differences of opinion on this issue are not simply the result of my poor memory or our subjectivity when it comes to what we enjoy on television, but rather the result of the various different ways one could define “stealing a scene.” Based on different intersections of acting, writing, and cinematography, I would argue that we all have our own impression of what this term means, as we all have our own readings of each individual show and who the scene in question actually belongs to.
Which is why I didn’t initially consider Nick Offerman a scene stealer, and why I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way.
On a show like The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parsons could be labeled a scene stealer: he’s the funniest thing about the show, and every scene he’s in is almost always going to be highlighted by something which Sheldon says or does. And yet, at this point in the show’s run, I don’t know if it’s fair to suggest that Parsons is stealing any scenes, as the show so much revolves around Sheldon that he pretty much owns the show already. This doesn’t mean that Parsons is any less funny, but it means that the audience’s expectations (and the writers’, for that matter) has shifted him from a scene stealer to the show’s star. It’s the same trajectory that Neil Patrick Harris took on How I Met Your Mother: as soon as the show fully woke up to the fact that Barney was such an engaging character, every scene was his for the taking, which sort of takes the theft part of things out of the equation (even if the takeover is as entertaining as it was before).
One of the reasons I think I react so strongly to Portia de Rossi is that Better Off Ted has maintained and even embraced her position as a scene stealer. Even though Veronica is a far more interesting character than Ted (just as Sheldon quickly became far more interesting than Leonard), the show knows that making the show about Veronica isn’t something it can do on a regular basis due to extreme number of licks it requires to find her moral centre (if you don’t get that reference, it means you didn’t watch last night’s Better Off Ted, which shame on you). As a result, actual Veronica scenes are actually quite rare: instead, she invades the scenes of others, actively taking over their conversations, their lives, and just about anything else she can get her hands on. When Veronica interacts with the other characters, there’s an energy that the show just can’t duplicate without her, and de Rossi and the writers revel in it. They love being able to have scenes turn into an excuse for Veronica to run wild, and de Rossi is up to the task every single time. There’s no stealth involved: with one or two swift moves and a large helping of wit, de Rossi steals our attention away and leaves us wondering what the actual point of the scene was to begin with.
What’s interesting about Nick Offerman is that Parks and Recreation’s documentary format makes stealing a scene both more and less effective. On the one hand, the sense that a crew is filming “reality” in Pawnee means that stealing a scene with an eyebrow feels more spontaneous; however, like with The Office, eyebrow raises and other reactions have become the cameraman’s raison d’etre when it comes to this show. The camera’s ability to move/zoom at a whim in order to follow and capture those reactions means that stealing a scene becomes a communication between writer/actor/director, and while it’s almost always extremely well-executed there comes a point where it feels more scripted than it should. The Office become overrun with this at a certain point – although it made for a great scene at the start of Season 3 where Karen questioned why Jim was always making silly faces – so I’m always worried about Parks overdoing it, which is why I didn’t necessarily consider Offerman as a scene stealer to the same degree as de Rossi. He’s a fantastic actor, and when the script asks him to turn a simple story into riotous comedy (see: the shoe shine scene), he’s more than capable of extending beyond the page. However, because so much of his scene-stealing is aided by camera moves, or isolated in interview segments that actively move the scene towards the character, I’d consider it a different kind of thievery.
As for Lynch, I find Sue Sylvester to be an interesting case that, as with Glee as a whole, doesn’t quite fit into any clear category. Like with Veronica, there’s a sense that every scene involving Sue Sylvester becomes about Sue Sylvester, however when she steals a scene you’re often reminded of what she’s stealing it away from. The show has always suffered with pacing, and sometimes the show allows Sue to steal scenes (or entire episodes) that might be better served with a character with a bit more subtlety. Lynch is always fantastic in the role, but I get the sense that the show’s writers fell too much in love with the character early on and only with time figured out what role they wanted her to play. They have developed a number of great devices (Sue’s Corner, her Diary) and some fantastic lines (the kitten/punch line is maybe by favourite line of the past year), but it sometimes felt like Sue needed to have more scenes of her own as opposed to just stealing scenes which were meant for Will (which is why I enjoyed when Sue got her own stories, involving her doomed love affair with the anchor and her relationship with her sister).
Sylvester is a reminder that stealing a scene isn’t always a good thing. While it defines Veronica’s character, and is one of Ron Swanson’s best qualities, I would argue that part of why Scrubs has struggled in its quasi-rebooted season is that it allowed Zach Braff to “steal” every scene he was in away from the show’s other characters. While Braff’s antics were often annoying when he was the actual star of the show, that J.D. was central to the narrative made his antics tolerable if not preferable; here, where the show has to introduce a whole set of new characters, Braff was a destructive distraction, and the show was immediately in better shape when Braff’s limited run of episodes came to an end. It’s one thing for a comic character to steal the show away from its more emotional roots; as some on Twitter pointed out, Dave Franco’s Cole is very much the kind of character who “takes over” every scene, but at the very least it feels like it’s a means to an end (familiarizing the audience with Cole, revealing some hidden nuances, etc.) rather than a useless tangent. Scenes need to be stolen for a reason, which isn’t to suggest that said reason needs needs to be complex but rather that said reason needs to be productive.
Jeremy Mongeau made the argument on Twitter that the cast of Party Down is entirely made up of scene stealers, which is an astute observation. The very premise of Party Down is out-of-work actors forced to cater to people who are more successful than they are, and part of the show’s charm is that in their need for attention, or their sense of feeling like their job is below them, or their simple cluelessness, they steal the event away from the attendees. And so the episode is one big scene that these characters are stealing, a party that is turning into an episode of a television show about cater waiters before our very eyes. And because that’s the point of the show, that those characters are supposed to be stealing scenes and shifting our focus from the “party of the week” to themselves, we look forward to seeing how they’re going to steal the show this time. It forms the ultimate test for judging scene stealers: do we consider Constance and Roman scene stealers because of how good they are at it, or do we chalk it up to the show’s premise highlighting these qualities in a particular way? If it isn’t a surprise, if we know it’s going to happen, does it have the same effect?
You’re probably sitting there reading this wondering why we can’t just agree that nearly every scene stealer mentioned is extremely funny, which makes this all pointless. And while you might well be correct, I would argue that there are enough nuances in terms of how one steals a scene, and how shows facilitate or potentially overfacilitate those thefts, that the issue is something about which we all, deep down, react to in a different way. Scene theft is something which changes as a show evolves, and differs from series to series, and so our response to it depends on how we feel about the show in question (do we want it to get stolen?) and what expectations we have for the performer (do we expect them to have to steal scenes?).
In the end, I feel de Rossi best fits into that criteria for me by constantly impressing me with how effortlessly scenes are stolen. However, as always, I’m sure others would disagree, so I’d love to hear from you below. (And, I apologize for not being able to offer video: no access to Hulu means that getting actual episode clips to demonstrate the above is a bit challenging).