T.V. Show Characters Inspired by Commedia Dell’Arte
Jaleel White as Steve Urkel in Family Matters. Source: (zap2it.com)
Commedia Dell’Arte was a form of improvisational theatre which relied heavily on stock characters and pre-established scenarios. While it was popular mostly from the 16th to 18th centuries, its influence can still be found in popular culture, including television show characters of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Arlecchino, also known as Harlequin, is one of the comedic servant characters known as Zanni. Their most prominent characteristics were their brightly colored costumes (usually checkered) and physical antics. While often portrayed as creative tricksters, they could also appear as bumbling sidekicks. Their modern counterparts may not be servants but will still be socially inferior to the other characters. They are usually not the main character but have big personalities which tend to steal the show. Steve Urkel from Family Matters is one of the best examples of an Arlecchino in modern(ish) television due to his physical comedy and social ineptitude. Other examples include Samuel “Screech” Powers from Saved by the Bell, Cody Lambert from Step by Step, and Dez from Austin & Ally.
In Commedia dell’Arte, Columbina is often the mistress of Arlecchino. She is a female servant, known to be mischievous and often clever. In modern television, they may not always appear as servants, but they do tend to be maids or nannies. Modern Columbina characters often double as the female lead, but they can also be found functioning as the comedic interlude. The title character of Jessie, a young woman who works as a nanny for a wealthy family, is an example of a Columbina who is also a lead character. Other Columbinas in television include Alice from The Brady Bunch, Florence from The Jeffersons, and Fran from The Nanny.
Ill Dottore, aka The Doctor, is one of the old men, called the Vecchi. He is characterized as a lover of food, drink, and women. While not always an actual doctor, he is generally educated or at least pretends to be. The other characters frequently find him boring. He is often the head of the household, usually the father of the inamorata (female young lover). Their modern counterparts are often employers or mentors of the main characters. The title character from House M.D., who was addicted to pain pills and often bragged about downloading porn from the internet, resembles the doctor of Commedia dell’Arte. Other modern characters that fit this type include Jerry Russo from Wizards of Waverly Place, Al Calavicci from Quantum Leap, and the many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes.
Il Capitano, aka The Captain, is another member of the Vecchi. He is known for being simultaneously boastful and cowardly and is known for having a rigid posture with straight back and chest forward. His attempts at impressing others often fall short of their mark and only succeed in elevating his own opinion of himself. They are often completely unaware that others do not hold them in as high regard as they hold themselves. This personality type can be used to describe Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, who frequently brags about his academic accomplishments while looking down upon the achievements of others and, at the same time, he is terrified of birds and dogs. Other examples of captains in modern television include Lemon Breland from Hart of Dixie, Frasier Crane from Frasier, and Carlton Lassiter from Psych.
Pantalone is another member of the Vecchi and is considered to be an old fool. His defining characteristic is his greed, as well as his uncaring treatment of the other characters. In the master/servant dynamic, he is the master. He is similar in personality to Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickins’ A Christmas Carol. A modern example of Pantalone is Eugene Krabs from SpongeBob who is obsessed with money and is known for underpaying his employees while expecting them to work long hours. Other examples of Pantalone in television are George Jefferson of The Jeffersons, Mr. Drysdale of The Beverly Hillbillies, and J.R. Ewing from Dallas.
Innamorati, or the young lovers, are generally the focus of the story. Their primary purpose is to fall in love and, as a result, they tend towards melodrama. They generally face several obstacles throughout the story, but their love wins out in the end. They are the most prevalent of the stock characters to have persisted over the years. One of the most well-known examples of this character type is Ross and Rachel from Friends, whose on-again-off-again relationship provided comedy fodder throughout the show’s ten-year run. Other examples of Innamorati include Corey and Topanga from Boy Meets World (though Corey’s friendship with Shawn might also qualify as a platonic version), Zack and Kelly from Saved by the Bell, and Logan and Veronica from Veronica Mars.
Despite the differences in set, plot, and delivery, the existence of personalities resembling the commedia dell’Arte stock characters in modern television proves that the art form is still alive and well today.