T.V. Show Characters Inspired by Commedia Dell’Arte

By | November 17, 2018

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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.

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Debby Ryan in Jessie. Source: (pinterest.com)

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.