From 'Silverman' to 'Seinfeld' actors create alter-egos

Sarah Silverman loves to audition for projects, if for no other reason than to show people she’s not like the character she plays on her Comedy Central television show.

“People don’t think I’m acting on the show or in my standup,” Silverman says. “And when I work with people on other stuff, inevitably somebody will say, ‘I thought you were going to be mean.’ They think the way I am on the show is me, which is kind of scary since I’m playing such a terrible person.”

Emmy voters seem to have made the distinction between Silverman and her self-absorbed character on “The Sarah Silverman Program,” rewarding her this year with a nomination in the lead comedy actress category. She’s the latest in a long line of thesps — mostly comedians — recognized for playing a variation of themselves on television.

“There has been a tradition of comedians playing themselves on television because, let’s face it, a lot of these people can’t necessarily act,” says Miami Herald television critic Glenn Garvin. “So what better than to give them a show where all they have to do is stand up and be themselves.”

Garvin cites Jerry Seinfeld as a prime example.

“You watch him on ‘Seinfeld,’ and a lot of the time he’s having a hard time keeping a straight face,” Garvin says. “But the guy is a talented comedian.”

So talented, in fact, that Seinfeld received five acting nominations for his work on the show. Larry David, co-creator of “Seinfeld,” has gone on to be recognized himself, winning three comedic actor nominations for his HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

David is famously neurotic, but David’s neurotic alter ego doesn’t possess the self-control to curb his worst impulses. It’s enough of a distinction to separate the two — at least in voters’ minds.

Sometimes, though, the public has a more difficult time separating fiction from fact. Comedian Gracie Allen was nominated five times during the run of the 1950s comedy hit “The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show.” The television show, an extension of the married couple’s vaudeville routine and long-running radio program, had Burns playing the straight man reacting to his wife’s ditzy antics. In his memoir, Burns wrote that people always expected Allen to be daffy when they met her.

Allen was no fool, but she was so skilled at her craft, at inhabiting what Burns called a parallel universe of “illogical logic,” that she even landed a nod in 1958 in the one-shot special Emmy category for “continuing performance (female) in a series by a comedienne, singer, hostess, dancer, M.C., announcer, narrator, panelist, or any person who essentially plays herself.”

Allen lost to Dinah Shore, who was in fact herself hosting her own variety show. On the men’s side, honors went to Jack Benny, who like Burns and Allen was merely taking his radio show over to television. Another nominee was Lucille Ball, who played the wacky wife on CBS Radio’s “My Favorite Husband” two years before partnering with husband Desi Arnaz on “I Love Lucy.”

These programs defined television comedy in that era, much like “Seinfeld,” “Silverman,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Garry Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show” have in more recent years.

“We’ve gone from a more traditional format to one in which all the characters are self-aware, not to mention self-absorbed,” the Herald’s Garvin says.

Silverman, though, says the roots of her selfish TV alter ego can be traced to a character that originated a good 70 years ago.

“We always had Bugs Bunny in mind,” Silverman says. “He’s the greatest character. He’s not nice to anyone. He’s totally arrogant. He walks in his own reality and thinks nothing of blowing everyone else up. And somehow, the sexiest woman he can imagine is himself wearing a wig. Yet you root for him. That’s my model –on TV, not for real life.”

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