What makes a great television buffoon? It’s an inexact science, but a true sitcom idiot incorporates elements of stupidity, eccentricity, egomania, and misplaced self-importance. Sometimes these people—men, mostly, for reasons that are best left for another article—have hearts of gold, and sometimes they skew evil. Goodness is irrelevant. What matters is that they remain totally self-assured and optimistic despite the fact that everything they touch turns immediately to shit. Where others would be chastened and learn a bit of discretion, they press on, tilting at windmills, confident in a warm cocoon of their own delusion.
With that in mind, I convened a special meeting of Paste staffers to determine the 25 best tv buffoons in history. What follows is our countdown to the greatest idiot of all time. We’re pretty sure everyone will agree with us, but feel free to share your opinions in the comments below.
According to Paste’s Garrett Martin, Baxter is the “prototype for the sitcom buffoon.” Played by Ted Knight, he’s a legend of the genre, and seemed like a good choice to kick off our list.
We’re pretty indie and cool here at Paste, so it wasn’t easy getting over ourselves and admitting that Joey had some hilarious moments. We did it, though, because it seemed unfair to punish Matt LeBlanc simply because he had the good fortune of appearing on a blockbuster.
If I can peel back the curtain for a moment, Bachman is the character that inspired this list. TJ Miller has been unbelievable as the blustering “entrepreneur” with the inflated ego and the flowing locks to match (and the ability to slap a child and make some truly disturbing threats, when necessary). The HBO comedy is still in its first season, but if it fulfills the promise of its first seven episodes, Bachman will be skyrocketing up this list each year.
This is probably the best example of a character matching his real-life persona, since by all accounts Chevy Chase is a pretty huge asshole, but that doesn’t detract from the comedy of Pierce’s top-notch buffoonery.
Randy is one of just two animated characters on this list, and he makes the cut because he exists on the thin line between a caricature of the out-of-touch liberal and someone who is truly insane.
If you’ve never seen The Larry Sanders Show, here’s the best description of Hank: Jeffrey Tambor playing GOB Bluth before he existed.
Look at the man’s Mick Jagger! It’s perfect!
There was a real rager of a staff debate (read: three emails) about which Cheers character should make this list between Cliff and Coach, and it was finally determined by consensus (read: I made the choice without further consultation) that Cliff’s total lack of self-awareness put him over the top. He’s not just dumb; he believes he’s smart. A key to buffoonery.
Another classic prototype buffoon. Jackie Gleason’s got that Jerry Lewis thing going where he really hams it up with his expressions and movements, but somehow it still seems timeless.
Amy Sedaris, we love you forever. And we’re also pretty terrified of you.
There’s part of me that will always consider Michael Scott a watered-down version of his British progenitor (I told you we were too cool for school), but there’s no denying that Steve Carrell made the regional manager a compelling character of his own.
It’s not easy to play a company man and still be a complete, occasionally lovable buffoon, but Larry Linville was the perfect man for the job.
He is, simply, the ultimate.
Comedy Central finally found a comedy vehicle for Andy Daly, and the first season, which recently ended, was spectacular. Daly plays a critic who reviews not food or movies or music, but life experiences. He takes his job, and himself, so seriously that he accepts any and all requests from viewers, whether that’s eating an obscene amount of pancakes, getting a divorce, or becoming addicted to cocaine. The payoff is just as good as the premise, and like Erlich Bachman, Forrest MacNeil only stands to rise up this list as the show continues. Here he is, above, becoming a racist.
This will sound like a backhanded compliment, but what Ty Burrell has done with this character in a show that skews mainstream is totally brilliant. Unlike many on this list, Phil is a nice guy, but his buffoon nature shines through every good intention. It’s a total tour de force.
Delocated is an absurdist masterpiece, though it’s under-viewed due to its home on Adult Swim. Jon Glaser stars as a member of the witness protection program who has agreed to make a reality show, and thus has to wear a black mask at all times (again, killer premise that pays off). Check out the final prank of his prank show, “This is Jon He Does It.”
How can someone so officious be so hilarious? PRIZZZINT.
It’s a small tragedy that Chris Lilley’s shows haven’t become big hits in America despite their success in his native Australia. He’s a monumental comedic actor, playing every major role himself in all his shows, but the character that truly topped the buffoon charts was Mr. G., the effeminate high school drama teacher from Summer Heights High. He has to be one of the most self-important people in comedic history, and that’s saying a lot. Here’s a full improvised DVD extra where he does a long, bizarre interpretative dance in front of his students, who try and fail not to break up laughing as he “performs.” (For the clip from the show that came from it, check here.)
Do I even need to sell Tobias? He’s the world’s first analrapist!
Jonah is the most detested character on Armando Iannucci’s Veep, but he never stops thinking of himself as a suave mover and shaker. “David Letterman described him as “a self-aggrandizing putz, which is pretty perfect. I want so badly to spoil the latest episode from last Sunday, but I’m a good person so I won’t. Suffice it to say, though, that Timothy Simon’s character somehow keeps heightening. I’m starting to think there is no comedic ceiling for Jonah. Here’s a minute of Selina telling him to “fuck off.”
Dennis is unique among characters on this list in that he’s a complete and total sociopath. You only have to watch the famous “Implication” scene once to understand the shallow, invisible nature of his morals. Another great example is the DENNIS system, which is romantic manipulation at its worst. Still, what makes him a buffoon is what he has in common with everyone else: All of schemes become disasters. And when they do, he really, really flips out. The above clip is only 32 seconds long, but it always slays me for the sheer, psychopathic intensity of his anger.
I know the Brent vs. Scott debate is a provocative one, so all I’ll say is that there’s something so sinister, and sad, about Brent that elevates him to another level. Michael Scott is a caricature (a lovable goof), while Ricky Gervais makes Brent someone so relatable that you have to cringe. He’s not, really, a “good guy” in any sense of the word. I’m not a British comedy snob by any means, but I think one thing they have over us is a willingness to resist making everything uplifting. It’s just not part of the established narrative arc, I guess, or maybe American idealism and exceptionalism is to blame. In any case, I think Brent’s behavior elevates the comedy. I know there’s room for disagreement, but that’s my RED HOT TAKE. Now that I’ve argued for his “realness,” here’s Brent doing a dance that almost nobody would ever attempt in real life.
Again, no explanation needed. Here he is in donut hell.
Two characters from one show! Controversial! G.O.B. is simply one of the best buffoons in tv history, and anyone who has watched Arrested Development can immediately conjure up anywhere from three to five moments that still make us laugh. Mine, off the top of my head: G.O.B. on a segway, G.O.B. trying to throw a letter into the ocean, G.O.B. blowing up a boat, G.O.B. splashing pennies on the conference table, G.O.B. trying to do a chicken impression, G.O.B. doing racist ventriloquism. He’s incredible.
You always knew how this list would end, right? Nobody tops the K-Man. There are no words that could ever come close to the glory of this top 50 moments video put together by “yehcantsleep,” who I consider the greatest hero in YouTube history.