If the archetype of The Jerk doesn’t appear within the ensemble cast of every TV sitcom…it certainly seems to appear in most TV sitcoms.
That is, unless the star of your comedy is the Jerk in question…
…or, perhaps, your entire series is populated by Jerks.
I. WHAT IS A TV SITCOM “JERK?”
At first blush, a Jerk in a television comedy is an asshole. Someone annoying, inconsiderate, and even occasionally mean for no good reason.
HOWEVER, per my personal rules (see: “The Rules For Everything: By Val”), a typical sitcom Jerk has an essential quality that sets him or her (but usually him) apart from other various malcontents and misanthropes—a certain degree of buffoonish self-delusion of grandeur.
Quite simply: the Jerk mistakenly thinks he or she (but usually he) is better than you. Smarter than you, stronger than you, classier than you. The joke is, of course: the Jerk is in actuality none of those things.
II. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TV SITCOM JERKS & BASTARDS
Now, when I first compiled my list of television Jerks, I had Roger the alien from American Dad on there. But this was, upon reflection, erroneous.
Roger is not a Jerk, though he might do any number of actions that are jerk-like.
Properly: Roger is a Bastard.
Roger actively enjoys endangering and fucking up the lives of those around him—especially members of his own adopted “family.” He does not do this, primarily, out of a misplaced sense of superiority…but rather, because he is a sociopath and a Bastard.
A Bastard in a TV sitcom is fucking Evil, a continual whirlwind of chaos and sadism. Danny Devito has played Bastards in both TAXI and Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Cartman from South Park does have a certain degree of superiority complex, but I would argue that he is ultimately a Bastard; ditto for Stewie on Family Guy.
On the other hand, Dwight from The Office is a Jerk.
Dwight continually thinks he’s better than his co-workers (especially Jim Halpert, who I previously roasted in another article), but he’s ultimately an ineffectual buffoon. He does not possess requisite Bastardity.
III. SOME PROMINENT TV SITCOM JERKS
Some more-or-less well-known Jerks include:
Herb Tarlek, WKRP In Cincinnati
I know what you’re thinking: what about Les Nessman? Les is not a Jerk; rather, he is a Poor Schmuck. Nessman lacks the over-the-top confidence-cum-narcissism that ad sales guy Tarlek has in spades. (Tarlek also made the “Classic Television’s Greatest Douchebags” list as well, I see.)
Ted Baxter, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
I think we can all agree that blowhard newscaster Ted Baxter—perhaps the template for News Radio’s equally jerky Bill McNeal—is a classic & quintessential TV sitcom Jerk. Like Herb Tarlek, he also is a real sharp dresser.
Clayton Endicott III, Benson
So far we’ve noted that Jerks—at least in the 70’s & 80’s—tend to wear suits.
Here is a classic scene featuring Clayton—played the the late great René Auberjonois—getting his jerky ass handed to him by Benson (the late great Robert Guillaume):
And of course, who can forget…Carlton Banks from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air?
IV: SOME MORE “CONTROVERSIAL” CHOICE OF SITCOM JERKS
I would argue that Ross from Friends is absolutely a TV sitcom Jerk:
Ross—he lets nobody forget—is the Friend with the highest level of education—and thus assumes a modest-to-middling air of superiority.
This makes Ross’s status as the series’ ostensible romantic lead somewhat problematic…in that it often is difficult to sympathize for the character, or even understand why romantic lead Rachel would want anything to do with him.
Similarly, Diane Chambers from Cheers—also a romantic lead—is, in my humble opinion, a Jerk.
Even moreso than Ross, Diane believes she is intellectually superior to the rest of her co-workers, customers, and especially her occasional lover whom she compares to a caveman.
This brings up an interesting topic…
V: FEMALE JERKS
My initial pass at this list didn’t contain one female character. Trying to figure out why that was, I came to the conclusion that the archetype of Jerk—at least in the parlance of mainstream television comedies—tends to be “male.” Whereas female Jerks tend to be piegeonholed as…”bitches.” Which hardly seems fair. Perhaps it is the lack of gaudy polyester ties.
Some female sitcom Jerks include:
Whitley Gilbert, A Different World
Blair Warner, The Facts Of Life
Jenna Maroney, 30 Rock
VI: SITCOMS POPULATED BY JERKS
As we entered the 1990s, a new trend emerged: entire TV comedies filled with Jerks as the protagonists (though to be fair, this might have started with 1982’s The Young Ones).
The mother of all such sitcoms, of course, is…
Then we have the Aughts version of Seinfeld: Always Sunny In Philadelphia (though arguably, Charlie is not really a Jerk but rather a Poor Schmuck).
While Arrested Development is only about 80% Jerk (with Michael Cera’s soulful eyes bleaching some of the jerkiness away), it is still a monumental series in the history of TV sitcom Jerks.
And while I was tempted to cite Chevy Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne as the Uber-Jerk…the whole cast of Community is, in a way, nothing but a bunch…of…JERKS!!!!!! (Thanks, Dan Harmon!)
I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of TV sitcom Jerks. Before I go, I do want to point out an essential quality of the Jerk that separates him or her (but usually him) from merely a Bastard…
…they usually, deep down, just want to be LOVED.