Stars make any TV sitcom a hit, but it’s the supporting cast who gives a truffle its creamy center. By the very definition, second bananas don’t get top billing, but their sidekick antics gives them all the flava–entering Stage Right, exiting Stage Left, leaving the audience either in stitches, or somehow caught in their feelings. Show enough classic sass and/or funny fortitude while balancing moral compass, and a super sidekick might just get a spinoff, leaving a the door open for another young actor to break in. It’s the circle of TV life. Here are the seven sassiest sitcom sidekicks over the past four decades.
LaWanda Page, Aunt Esther, Sanford & Son (1972-77)
At age 53, LaWanda Page got her big career break when childhood friend, Red Foxx insisted she play his judgmental Bible-thumping sister-in-law to Fred, and beloved Aunt to Lamont in Sanford and Son. More foe than fam, more stank-eye than sass, Aunt Esther went toe-to-toe with the caustic curmudgeon, Fred Sanford. Often the butt of his jokes (with his fallback insult “You ug-leee!”), she’d fire back by calling him a “fish-eyed fool” or “snaggle-toothed jackass.” While wearing a church hat. AND praying. That’s just extra extra.
Signature sass sample: Epic side-eye. Pause. Then… “Watch it, sucka!”
Marla Gibbs, Florence, The Jeffersons (1976-85)
The Jeffersons was a spinoff of not one, but two classic Norman Lear sitcoms: Maude and All in the Family. So while it had built-in dual star-power, once Florence Johnston showed up for her “job interview” for George and Weezy’s maid, she slayed so hard that a walk-on role turned into a regular character. From her muscatel-and-ginger-ale drinking, Billy Dee Williams-loving ways, Florence is to sassy like fire is to hot–cutting George to the quick with a fusillade of short, balding and cheapskate jokes. Eventually, Marla would move Flo-Jo on up to the short-lived spinoff flop, Checking In, then boomerang back to The Jeffersons. Once the show was abruptly canceled in 1985, she landed another classic sitcom, 227.
Signature sass sample: “How come we overcame and nobody told me?”
Jackee Harry, Sandra Clark, 227 (1985-89)
With Marla Gibbs now center stage, who could possibly outsass her? Enter Jackee Harry, whose neighborhood vamp was classic 80’s: big wigs, Dayglo spandex dresses, and that bad-girl-baby-talk that women hate and men lust over. A pre-Kanye gold-digger, Saaaandra was always looking to upgrade. As Jackee’s popularity eclipsed Marla’s, on- and offscreen tension between the actresses were real, ending in an early exit from the show. Still, she parlayed her over-the-top sex-kitten antics into an 1987 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series–the first, and still only, African American woman to do so.
Signature sass sample: Always elongating syllables and referring to herself in the third person: “Saaaandra!” “Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaary!” “Ewwwwwwwww!”
Robert Guillaume, Benson, Soap (1977-79)
Benson representing for the brothers here. As the wisecracking butler on the dueling-family farce, Soap, Benson flipped the script of the subservient servant to steal practically every scene he was in. Benson refused to cook, serve or get the door, but often served up sober advice and asides to the messed-up family to which he was indentured (as Black maids and butlers always seem to do). After a few seasons, Guillaume upgraded to his own spinoff, Benson where he served at the Governor’s mansion and eventually became Lieutenant Governor. That’s a come-up.
Signature sass sample: “You want me to get that?”
Shirley Hemphill, Shirley Wilson, What’s Happening? (1976-79) One In A Million (1980) What’s Happening Now! (1985-89)
Rob’s Diner was the afterschool hangout where nerdy fools, Raj, Dwayne and Rerun would plot their juvenile schemes: getting girls, getting rich, or the infamous bootlegging of a Doobie Brothers concert. But the diner’s waitress (turned owner) Shirley Wilson always served a side of sass along with burgers, shakes and fries. When not trading fat jokes with Rerun (Fred Barry), “Big Shirly” pointed out the consequences to the trio’s teenaged actions. After What’s Happening’s cancellation, Hemphill starred briefly in her own show, One In a Million, as a taxi driver who inherits a fortune from a customer. It ran 13 episodes. What’s Happening Now rebooted the series and ran three more seasons.
Signature sass sample: Taking bites out the boys’ sandwiches or sips of their sodas unapologetically.
Niecy Nash, Deputy Raineesha Williams, Reno 911 (2003-09)
Niecy Nash has made a career out of being bodacious, loud and brash. She’s got her own reality show now, and she played Bernie Mac’s sassy sister, Benita, but her role as Deputy Williams on the hilarious faux-documentary Reno 911 catapulted her to arresting sidekick status. Using her full-figured assets to the fullest–from the skintight cop uniform that accentuated her lips, hips and tig ol’ bitties, Niecy’s comedic chops proved even more fabulous than those spit-curl sideburns. The fact that most of Reno was all improv made Niecy’s performance even more bawse.
Signature sass sample: “White people are crazy.”
Sherri Shepard, Angie Jordan, 30 Rock (2007-present)
Her sketchy viewpoints on The View may be a bit tough to swallow (as is The View in general), but like her BFF/bridesmaid Niecey, Sherri carved out a solid career out of being the Sassy Sidekick Extraordinaire–from Sheila on The Jamie Foxx Show, to Sergeant Judy on Everybody Loves Raymond, to Ramona on Less Than Perfect. But coming on as Tracy Jordan’s wife Angie on 30 Rock has been a comedic tour de force. Her current storyline has Angie filming a reality show, Queen of Jordan at 30 Rock, a fictional reality show about an SNL-type comedy sketch show. So meta is this, Queen spawned its own cast of sassy side-sidekicks, from the effeminate D’Fwan to “rude” Baby Virginia.
Signature sass sample: The tag line to Queen of Jordan says it all: “It’s my way… till payday.”