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Lauren Sarner Headshot

An Ode To The Snarky Sidekick

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Originally published on 20SomethingReads

"Romeo and Juliet" is now playing on Broadway, starring Orlando Bloom. It seems like an excellent casting choice, considering the fact that Orlando always seems to play the Handsome, Bland Leading Man--and what else is Romeo, if not the original Bland Leading Man?

Now, I'm not criticizing Orlando. In fact, I was lucky enough to see the play and I was pleasantly surprised that he managed to make Romeo dynamic and interesting (more Jack Sparrow and less Will Turner). However, it also made me wonder: If Orlando has the capacity to be a Jack Sparrow, why is he always a Will Turner?

Or, for those of you who weren't obsessed with Pirates when you were thirteen, here are some other ways of putting it: why be Romeo when you could be Mercutio? Why be Captain America when you could be Iron Man? Why be Mikael Blomkvist when you could be Lisbeth Salander? Why be Angel when you could be Spike?

(Yes, I realize that array of references is very random. Hopefully there is something in it for everyone. If you didn't see one you recognize, then, sorry, I tried my best).

In other words, why does the Bland Leading Man prevail in pop culture, and why is the zany, wacky, more interesting jokester / trickster character usually relegated to the sidelines? What is the point of having a "scene stealing" friend or sidekick--if he steals every scenes he's in, then wouldn't it make more sense to focus every scene on him?

Recently, it's become a trend to focus on villainous characters. In the TV world, see: "Dexter," "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men." Even the novel and play "Wicked," or this summer's controversial novel Tampa are unafraid to put sociopathic or villainous characters--who traditionally occupy side roles--at the forefront. So if the villains are having their moment, why not the sidekicks?

If Romeo was the original Bland Leading Man, then Mercutio was the original Jokester/ Trickster/ Smartass-Friend. In every rendition of "Romeo and Juliet," Mercutio is the scene-stealer. Irreverent and snarky, he mocks everyone around him and never fails to provide laughs. However, he also contains unexpected depth and even tragedy. He is a fascinating, multi-layered, and hilarious character. So why aren't there more books and films that aren't afraid to make the Mercutio the star and make the Romeo the sidekick friend?

Of course this isn't always the case. Iron Man and Captain Jack Sparrow both got their own movies (and, as much as it pains me to admit to my former 13-year old self, Captain Jack possibly shouldn't have. Or, he should at least have had better writers for it). The book series and accompanying show True Blood briefly dallied with making snarky Eric the love interest instead of the other valiant, bland nice guys. But in these examples, something didn't quite click--too much of a good thing, perhaps. Sometimes, the jokester/ trickster character works best in small doses. Sometimes, the mystery is part of the charm, and when he becomes the primary focus, he looses some of his allure.

But when it works well, it produces some of the best pieces of art; not to mention the best characters in pop culture. Shakespeare learned his lesson and made the Wacky Guy the protagonist and the Bland Nice Guy the sidelined friend in Hamlet, which is arguably his best work. (By arguably, I mean, if you don't agree with that, I will argue with you). The fabulous Mona Lisa Vito in the film My Cousin Vinny may have been a scene-stealing side character, but the actress got enough recognition to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. When Spike got elevated to Leading Man status on Buffy, he still held onto the snark. Every Sexy Vampire book, show, or movie today (and I don't think you need me to tell you, there are a lot) hearkens back to Spike and Angel. In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, protagonist Mikael Blomkvist is a rather forgettable character--it's the unconventional Lisbeth Salander who lives on in pop-culture memory. And the quintessential star of the B-movie world, Bruce Campbell, has the patent on Leading Man Snark--although perhaps for that very reason, he has never been a mainstream star.
Even in classic novels like Daphne du Maruier's 1938 "Rebecca," the leading man Maxim de Winter is a hybrid character of the Romeo and the Mercutio. Most notably, when he proposes to the heroine in an un-romantic fashion, and then says, "I'm being rather a brute to you, aren't I? This isn't your idea of a proposal. We ought to be in a conservatory, you in a white frock with a rose in your hand, and a violin playing the waltz in the distance. And I should make violent love to you beneath a palm tree." He is a typical brooding, Byronic hero and yet he has moments of wacky wit.

Yet still, even in those successful examples of making the jokester character into a leading man, he is either part of an ensemble cast, or, like in Rebecca, his character isn't a full Mercutio but a hybridization of him and Romeo.

There's nothing wrong with being The Nice Guy. In fact, there are far too many people in this world who haven't tried it and really need to. But when we read books or watch movies or plays, we seek two main things: art and entertainment. The function of art is to present truth through lies. It uses flashy spectacles and made-up stories to reflect truths in a way that you can accept them. The function of entertainment is to temporarily bring you outside of yourself and your own life story and immerse you in another story or another person's shoes. The jokester/trickster character accomplishes both of these things in a way that the Bland Leading Man can't. He or she speaks with the kind of honesty that might piss you off in real life--but on the page, stage, screen, it simply makes you laugh. The jokester/trickster character always mocks the other characters and the social conventions in their world, and it thus causes you to examine yourself and your own world in a new light.

If you take anything away from this, it should be 1) a recommendation to see "Romeo and Juliet." If you're looking to see quality Shakespeare, it doesn't get much better--or more fun--than Orlando Bloom onstage on a motorcycle. Both he and the wonderful Christian Carmago, who plays Mercutio, knock it out of the ballpark. And the ticket prices (at least at the time that I am writing this) are not as outlandishly high as they are for "The Book of Mormon." And 2) if you're composing your own work, whether it's a book, film, or play, and you're including a snarky sidekick, pause for a moment and consider making them the protagonist instead. Screw Romeo, give Mercutio the spotlight.