TV's louts make our sins seem small

George was co-host of the Emmys.

OK, it was really Jason Alexander, who plays George Costanza on "Seinfeld," but you can't convince me there wasn't a deeper message behind his selection:


That maybe the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences got past the big names to see the selfless contributions of sitcom second-bananas who brave the moral nether world to make us laugh.

That maybe the choice of George was an effort to make amends for the academy's past neglect of such talents as Milburn Drysdale, the greedy banker from "The Beverly Hillbillies"; Larry Tate, the obsequious ad man from "Bewitched"; and Mr. Haney, the duplicitous snake-oil salesman from "Green Acres."


I prefer to see George's selection as a tribute to TV's vice squad, the oft-neglected, low-grade louts who not only make us laugh but send us a much deeper message:

Yes, there are people out there worse than we are.

Take George's show (which, I know, is Jerry's show -- technically). Sure, Jerry Seinfeld is a funny comic with a great program concept, but who watches "Seinfeld" for Seinfeld? What's to watch? Jerry eating cereal. Jerry going to the movies. Jerry watching TV. If I wanted that, I could just camcord myself.

With apologies to antic fans of Kramer, who has his own flaws, I watch for George. He lies about what he does for a living, has sex with the cleaning lady on his desk at work, and makes believe he's related to a dead person so he can get a cheaper airline ticket. Now that's entertainment.

By being so bad, George Costanza is so good. He embodies one of TV comedy's noblest traditions: the morally flawed -- even repugnant -- supporting character.

We can rejoice in the imperfectibility of man, as exhibited by George and his ilk. Warning: There may be no moral(s) to this story.

Pick a deadly sin:

* Pride (Niles Crane, "Frasier"; Ted Baxter, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"; George Jefferson, "The Jeffersons").


* Avarice (Mr. Drysdale; Hank Kingsley, "The Larry Sanders Show").

* Lust (Dan Fielding, "Night Court"; Maryann Thorpe, "Cybill").

* Anger (Louie DePalma, "Taxi"; Lou Grant, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show").

* Gluttony (Norm Peterson, "Cheers").

* Envy (George, "Seinfeld"; Frank Burns, "M*A*S*H").

* Sloth (Homer Simpson, "The Simpsons," who is proficient at several sins).


Although these character-deformed characters exhibit a socially redeeming value just by making us laugh, maybe, in a not very noble way, they also make us feel better about ourselves.

"We feel smug. It's the superiority theory," said Joanne Gilbert, assistant professor of communications at Alma College in Alma, Mich. "It goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. "When we see people like George, we can laugh because, at some level, we feel superior to them," said Gilbert, who also has worked as a stand-up comic.

Such moral ineptitude is "a staple of humor because it allows us to say, 'However bad I am, I don't do that,' " said Regina Barreca, associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut and author of "Perfect Husbands (and Other Fairy Tales)."

"The secondary characters are allowed to be much more flawed and morally corrupt than the main characters," Ms. Barreca said.

For the most part, the second banana gets covered with moral slime toiling in the shadow of the show's star, who is almost always more attractive, more secure and more decent. (In rare cases, the supporting character can be handsome -- hello, Ted Baxter! -- but only when vanity is the foible of choice.)

Although Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz skirted the fringes of duplicity and envy back in the '50s, comedic moral turpitude has been a male endeavor over the years -- which means that women missed out on the juiciest roles.


Until recently, "You could only be the good girl. And the good-girl role is really boring," Ms. Barreca said.

But that's changing. Both jealous Rhoda and deceitful Sue Ann paved the way on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," while Blanche Deveraux took lust to a new low on "The Golden Girls."

These days, Roseanne can be nasty, while Emmy nominee Christine Baranski (Maryann Thorpe on "Cybill") takes a back seat to no one when it comes to greed, lust and reservations at the Betty Ford Clinic.

While we revel in the exquisite pettiness of these sitcom boors, we also can relate to the pedestrian nature of their flaws. Most of us don't commit murders, but a white lie -- that's a different story.

"We like to see those kinds of foibles," said Stephanie Gibson, assistant professor of communications at the University of Baltimore.

"We like George. Of course, he's kind of smarmy. But," she said, sometimes, "we're all kind of smarmy."