March 21, 2004 by Allen George
Playing the Foil
Ever read the book “Fifth Business”? There are certain characters in life who meld into the background. Whose life, words and thoughts are lost amongst the throng of stronger, more arresting characters around them. These ‘neutral’ characters are known as Fifth Business – essential to the pace and path of the plot, yet forever destined to be removed from its center. The spotlight doesn’t shine on them, they’re in the shadow of someone funnier, wittier, faster – name any characteristic. They’re the lubricant on life’s giant cogs. The essential elements that keep the story going.
Have you ever wondered what its like to be like this? Perhaps we all have our illusions that life plays out around us. But if so, step back and watch. Think about events in a different perspective. What part would you play? And that’s when you notice it. First incredulity, then denial and perhaps shame – even shame – as you realize that you are Fifth Business. There, as the straight man. Playing the foil, in a role you’re not sure you’re suited for, thinking, maybe hoping that the focus shifts from time to time. Picking up the scraps as it were. Whatever the protagonists don’t get, you do.
Ever wonder what the straight man feels?
Give it a little thought. Think Laurel and Hardy. Abbot and Costello. Seinfeld and the little troupe around him. The straight man’s the foil. Sit and take it. If you replaced them with someone else, would the audience notice? Would they even care? It’s an uneasy feeling being expendable.
The straight man, by definition, lacks the same level of humor, speed and wit of the star. It’s a destructive feeling – always being eclipsed (ignored?). And yet, you get used to it. Par on course. It becomes part of you. Your life and your identity.
The foil never says the right thing. Maybe it should get used to that.