One of the things that brought my husband and me together was a mutual love of the film Fletch. That’s probably not surprising—it’s a classic, and well-known to most people our age who grew up watching comedy.
But the other day in the car, my husband said something offhandedly that made me reconsider more deeply why he and I loved this film in particular, and what it said about my comedic sensibilities (and my compatability with my husband in this regard).
“I know people like Clark Griswold, but I think Fletch is so much funnier as a character,” he said.
I agreed immediately, even though I also grew up watching and loving National Lampoon’s European Vacation ("Be a pig! Be a pig!"). And since my immediate agreement surprised me, I asked myself where it came from. The answer came to me hours later: Clark Griswold is the butt of the joke, a clown, a fool, while Fletch is a special kind of straight man I’ve come to realize is one of my favorite characters to watch on stage or screen. I call him The Preposterous Straight Man.
The Preposterous Straight Man is different from the standard “straight man as comedic foil” made famous by Abbott (of Abbott and Costello), Dick Smothers, or Bob Newhart. While the traditional straight man’s job is to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the comedic situation or character in order to both make the audience feel vindicated in their interpretation of it as ridiculous and to allow the ridiculous situation or character to continue to escalate, the Preposterous Straight Man is a reasonable, highly intelligent person who responds to the absurdity of the people or world around him not by simply calling out its absurdity, but by immersing himself within it. Rather than pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, the PSM adopts a “When in Rome” philosophy in response to the craziness of his world, and in doing so, out-crazies that world into submission.
This response can be wholly conscious or partly unconscious, a “survival instinct” that allows the straight man to stay in the crazy world without completely succumbing to it. Surrounded by liars and thieves, Fletch alternates between calling out their hypocrisy and out-lying them all. One moment he is the traditional straight man calling out the joke, the next moment he’s posing as a doctor, a tennis pro, and insurance investigator, talking himself into ridiculously hilarious one-liner knots as he tries to uncover the truth.
The PSM plays to the height of her intelligence. The PSM is smart and savvy. She “gets it,” and when she doesn’t get it, her confusion is sincere. The comedy emerges in part from the conflict between her usual confidence and control and her sense of confusion or powerlessness in the moment. Her attempts to solve the problem or discover the solution are often thwarted, leading to more and more ridiculous attempts. She becomes a clown because the rabbit hole she’s fallen down demands it of her, or treats her wisdom as folly, not because she is an actual fool. And when she finally comes to the end of the adventure and reveals the ridiculousness of her world—“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” she cries in triumph—everything falls away and she emerges intact and victorious. (Yes, Alice in Wonderland is a Preposterous Straight Man.)
The PSM surprises himself as much as he surprises us. Because the PSM is generally a reasonable and intelligent human being, when he’s forced to act in ways that make him the clown, he is genuinely surprised by his behavior. A pure clown/comedic character is generally unaware of his own ridiculousness (Costello or Michael Scott from The Office), and a pure straight man is only too painfully aware of his straightness. But the PSM (who usually doesn’t even have a comedic foil, since he acts as his own), toggling between frustration at the absurdity of his world and a willingness to live by its rules in order to master it, can surprise himself with his own ridiculousness. Watching Fletch making up lie after lie, inventing more and more absurd characters and premises in an attempt to make sense of the tangled web of lies and characters with which he is confronted, is a master class in riding the PSM line. Sure, Fletch has his weaknesses (he owes his ex alimony he can’t pay, he’s a dick to his boss, although he is clearly good at his job), but he’s also smart, sexy, noble, and, above all, right about pretty much everything in the end. Still, in the moment of playing a character in an attempt to dupe someone into revealing a clue to him, he says things that are more absurd than many comedic characters’ lines. And they come as a surprise to him, too—a result of his own cleverness and inventiveness, and his fearlessness at making himself look foolish in the pursuit of the truth.
The PSM is a shapeshifter. Like Alice, who can shrink and grow to either fit into Wonderland or stand apart from it, the PSM, knowing full well the ridiculousness of her circumstances, can give herself over to them for as long as she chooses. When she does so, she has the freedom to behave as ridiculously as the world in which she finds herself, since, in that world, such behavior is the norm. It’s like a character-Mardi Gras, a free pass to give in to the silliness that resides within even the most reasonable of people but that is often kept at bay by our desire in our regular, non-performing lives to be or appear “reasonable” or “right” (when I notice the tendency of some improvisers to always gravitate toward playing the classic straight man, I wonder whether they need to be given more explicit permission to “lose,” to “be wrong,” to “play the fool,” and I wonder whether they have the same difficulty giving ground in their off-stage lives). The PSM knows that playing it straight sometimes means leaning into the madness.
In fact, this leaning in to the madness is one of my all time favorite kinds of improv scenes—the “Straight Men in a Crazy World” scene—where both characters accept an absurd premise as “normal” and proceed through the scene as though something other than that absurd premise is the real “problem.” E.g. Two men discussing how one of the man’s mother-in-law is an actual dragon where the issue is that she’s a typical overbearing mother-in-law, but where her dragonness is only the issue inasmuch as it complicates her already annoying stay at his house; two men building cars out of human body parts and complaining that they can’t keep up with quality standards because corporate keeps sending them overly-decayed appendages (two scenes I actually saw played out to great effect in two different rehearsals by three lovely PSMs, Jeff Perry, Ken Breese, and Mike Zakarian). When both characters play such a scene completely straight, the absurdity is revealed by the disconnect between how one would normally react to the situation and how they are reacting to it. And the straighter the more dead-pan the reactions, the funnier this kind of scene (“Isn’t there a children’s book about an elephant named Babar?” “I don’t know. I don’t have any.” “Children?” “No, elephant books.”)
And that may be the most fun and fulfilling thing about the PSM—he reminds us that none of us is as silly or as serious as we seem. No one is so crazy that there isn’t some context in which he is sane, and no one is so sober that he can never succumb to the pleasure of playing the fool. The Preposterous Straight Man navigates through a world gone mad (and really, aren’t they all?) not by denying its propositions, but by affirming its existence, which is in itself another secret of what it means to say “yes.”