Scott Payne sings the praises of How I Met Your Mother, which really is a great show. His emphasis on Barney reminds me of something that I’ve been meaning to write about for at least a couple of years now. In many of the truly great sitcoms, their greatness is defined far less by the main characters than the supporting casts. This is one of the reasons that shows that tend to revolve around someone that is already a star so frequently fail. Particularly when the show is given to someone that has historically played secondary characters (or a single one) and they’re trying to give them a shot at “prime time”.
In some ways, I think that it’s best to reserve your best talent for secondary roles. The main reason for this is that supporting roles are generally allowed to be far more interesting. The main characters of the show are people that we are supposed to relate to, but the supporting characters are people that we know but are laughing at. Main characters have some personality quirks, but secondary characters - by virtue of the fact that they are not the protagonist that we are supposed to somewhat identify with - can be extreme variations of various archetypes.
The best example of this that I am aware of is a show called Davis Rules. It was given the enviable position of premiering after the Superbowl. A lot of money was pumped into making everyone aware of its existence. But it failed despite being given two chances (once on ABC and once on CBS) and is largely forgotten now. The main reason for this is that it relied on the star power of Randy Quaid… but it boxed Quaid in as the role of the protagonist. He was the single father of three, responsible, and all that wasn’t the persona that Quaid adopted and perfected in nearly every role that made him well-known.
On the other side, though, you have the examples of Just Shoot Me. The first was a fantastic show that didn’t find its audience and the second a so-so show that managed to hang in there longer than most would have guessed. Phil Hartmann was the draw to NewsRadio and, because he was a side character, they were able to take advantage of his comedic talent while giving the protagonist role to the more low-key Dave Foley. In the case of Just Shoot Me, the draw was David Spade. Spade’s character was not really secondary, but he was more a part of the ensemble than the protagonist (who was Laura San Giacomo). In fact, the storyboard was written without his character and he was put in there at the last minute.
A David Spade show never would have made it seven seasons. A Phil Hartmann show would not have lasted to the point of his death, much less an additional year. Shows built around a strong name certain can succeed, but they depend on large part on a good supporting cast or another lightning rod for humor, such as David Hyde Pierce as a more extreme variant of Kelsey Grammar’s protagonist in Frasier. But as often as not - even in ensemble casts - the real talent lies in characters that take a bigger role but nonetheless stand off to the side while we’re mostly rooting for someone else. Steve Carrell was the only name actor on The Office, but the role of protagonist was given to the somewhat less interesting but far more likable Jim Halpert character.
And so it goes with Neil Patrick Harris. Harris was, of course, the star of his own sitcom when he was a kid, but attempts to use him as a draw were unsuccessful. He seemed like the sort of guy to be able to carry his own show, and he probably could have if given the right part, but instead ended up playing second-fiddle to a relative no-name on How I Met Your Mother. But with Josh Radnor taking the role of the relatable protagonist, Harris was freed to become a hilarious degenerate.
I think it’s often the case that the bigger names want to be the protagonist in order not to cede the limelight to someone else. I remember being surprised that Harris was willing to take a secondary role, but it turned out to be the best thing he could have done. It’s impossible to know what will happen with Josh Radnor’s career, but the adult Neil Patrick Harris has been immortalized and as a result has become of the few child stars that went on to be a success in adulthood instead of just Doogie Howser grown up.