NEW YORK — – There are some job titles you just don't see very much anymore: bank teller, filing clerk...sidekick.
The TV talk show hosts keep coming — comedienne Caroline Rhea and MTV VJ Ananda Lewis, to name two — but who will be sitting next to them onstage? Most likely, no one: And as Regis Philbin has proven, that's not such a bad thing.
Philbin used to be a sidekick himself, playing sympathetic ear to host Joey Bishop in the late '60s. Then he graduated to host — well, "co-host," along with Kathie Lee Gifford, on Live With Regis & Kathie Lee.
But now that the show is just Live With Regis since Gifford left in August, it has seen a surge in ratings. And since the solo Kathie Lee seems to attract about as much attention as, say, Charles Grodin, it could be argued that Gifford was a sidekick all along. We just never knew it.
And another show is also doing fine without its former sidekick: Andy Richter left Late Night With Conan O'Brien last May after seven years as the last one in the row of guest chairs.
Richter was the anti-McMahon. Where Johnny Carson's famously jocular counterpart Ed could always be counted on for a booming laugh and a hearty agreement, Richter's passive style made him a scapegoat in the show's early bad reviews.
But in true sidekick form, Richter rallied. He sat his ground, so to speak, and grew in appeal along with the show. But even a sidekick needs to ride his own horse: With nothing but kind words for Late Night, he turned in his chair.
"I love this show, I'm proud of this show, and I'm proud of my involvement," Richter said when he left. "I didn't want to start becoming bitter about it. I thought if I stick around here I'm going to start becoming an unpleasant person, and this place doesn't deserve that."
Philbin, perhaps not thinking of his own co-host, lamented Richter's departure. "He may be the last official sidekick," he said to The New York Times.
So what's an aspiring joke-polisher to do? Learn a useful skill. When in need of banter or someone to mock, hosts Jay Leno, Rosie O'Donnell, David Letterman and O'Brien have long relied on their musical sidemen. And Martin Short occasionally made announcer Michael McGrath his straight man.
Trevor Rieger, a talk show aficionado who runs TVTalkShows.com, thinks fickle and indifferent audiences have contributed to the sidekick's decline. "[Without a sidekick], viewers focus better on the host, and the networks don't have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for 'another' talk show host," he asserts. "In this instance, money talks and sidekicks play their instruments out of the 'eye' of the camera."
It also make sense to consider the genesis of the sidekick. When Jack Paar was opening his show with jokes disguised as anecdotes in the '50s, he needed future 20/20 anchor Hugh Downs as a listener. TV was still relatively new, after all, and the old straight-man conventions of vaudeville and radio were entrenched.
Today comedy, like everything else, is faster paced and more interactive, with media-savvy audiences who don't require as much set-up. On MTV's Tom Green Show, for example, sidekicks Phil and Glenn aren't sounding boards so much as human gags prone to impromptu torture at the hands of their host.
Since leaving the Late Night nest, Richter has had a small role in Robert Altman's summer release Dr. T and the Women. An animated sitcom gig, Dog Days, got scuttled in development; but he is set to appear in Chris Rock's upcoming feature Pootie Tang.
That's not bad when you consider the career trajectories of recent sidekicks Howard Feller and Craig Shoemaker. Who are they, you ask? Exactly.