The leader, the complainer, and the dingbat.
Try to guess which one's which.
If a comedy show has three main characters, they will almost always fill stock roles in the plot. To get how it works, imagine this scenario:
Three people are in a car. The Leader
of the group considers himself the the smartest, and appoints himself navigator. He tries to get the three of them to their destination; but he's seriously out of touch with reality, or has no idea what he's doing but refuses to admit it, and shouts bizarre directions that will inevitably lead to the car going off a cliff.
In the driver's seat is The Fool
, a total moron who blindly does whatever he's told
. So, with the navigator screaming directions at him, the car approaches the cliff. In theory, the driver could stop at any time, but due to either ignorance or stupidity he's confident that heading towards a cliff is all part of the plan, so he soldiers on.
Meanwhile, trapped in the back seat, is the Only Sane Man
. He doesn't have to be smart, but he is the only guy who is fully aware they're about to fly off a cliff, and he's completely unable to stop it. He tries to alert the navigator, but he can't outshout that bullying idiot. He tries to reason with the driver, but the driver happily ignores him, maybe cheerfully explaining: "Thanks, but I already have a navigator!" He then looks to the wheel to grab it from the driver, but he doesn't have the guts to try, and risk crashing the car himself. He often resigns himself to his powerless position, offering a witty comment
, shrugging at the audience
or just remaining strangely calm as the car goes sailing off the cliff and falls to its doom.
That's the Comic Trio
. One character powers the plot with their bizarre obsessions, one keeps it going by blindly following orders, and a Straight Man fails
to prevent the disaster.
The most common set-up is for the navigator to be a Pointy-Haired Boss
and incompetent Schemer
whose schemes always backfire, but there are other ways to do it.
In clowning, these positions are referred to as Whiteface, Auguste, and Tramp.
This is a type of Power Trio
. Contrast with Freudian Trio
, a much less dysfunctional variation. Also compare with Terrible Trio
. Add another complainer and you have a Four-Man Band
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- The Three Stooges may have been the original Comic Trio - certainly they're the guys we're most likely to think of. Moe comes up with dumb schemes, Curly carries them out (while making them even dumber), and Larry is just too spineless to avoid being dragged along. (Sometimes, but only sometimes, Larry's aware of the stupidity of a plan; he's got a less crippling case of Cloud Cuckoolander than Curly does.)
- The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico and Harpo) became this as well a bit later in the 1930s when Zeppo left the group.
Anime and Manga
- The Team Rocket trio in the Pokémon anime: Jessie and Meowth alternate roles as scheming navigator and driver, though Jessie is often more loudmouthed, while James more often than not suffers in some way, frequently at the expense of his bottle cap collection. James also can act as the driver when Jessie is the navigator, with Meowth too nervous about getting yelled at by Jessie to do anything (often the scenario in earlier episodes). Whenever any one of them decides to enter a competition (other than Jessie's Pokémon Contests) and try to win fair and square for once, they can always count on the other two mess everything up by obliviously playing the villain right as the "good" third actually seems to have a chance at winning.
- It's also been well established that Brock can't follow a map to save his life and Ash (at least before Misty left) is more enthusiastic than smart. He actually even marched right off a cliff once, though, too his credit, he was in a dense fog.
- Shin-chan thinks Ryuko, Ogin and Mary (the Crimson Scorpions of Saitama) are this. Hilarity Ensues!
- The Yorozuya from Gintama qualifies. Kagura is the schemer, Gintoki is the follower (despite being the leader of the group), and Shinpachi is the voice of reason, but they change the roles every now and then.
- Also Ino-Shika-Cho in Naruto during the Chunin Exams specifically. Their first team battle when saving Sakura is amusing to say the least (the anime even gives it some quirky, fun background music) and in the Viz translation of the manga, Naruto even refers to them as 'The Three Stooges'.
- They even seem to fit the roles of the Comic Trio too: back then, Ino was definitely the hot-headed, driving force of the team, often shooting down the lazy but intelligent Shikamaru's ideas, while bossing Choji around
- The main trio in Daily Lives of High School Boys have shades of this. Hidenori is the loudest and usually comes up with zany schemes, making him The Leader; Yoshitake is somewhat dense and goes along with whatever Hidenori suggests, making him The Fool; and Tadakuni is the Only Sane Man who get's dragged into everything whether he likes it or not.
- The Axis in Hetalia are this more often than they would like. With Germany as the leader, Italy as the one who blindly follows orders (or surrenders and having the leader bail him out) and Japan as the one who cannot understand Western Culture.
- The four senior K-On! girls come very close to this. Yui and Ritsu are dual leaders, bouncing their energy off each other and running wild. Mio is the ever-suffering sane man, and Mugi will happily go along with pretty much anything. Alternately, Yui is The Fool.
- Comic subversion: Jeff Smith's Bone. While it may seem that the Bone cousins each fill the workings of the Comic Trio early on (Phoney is a schemer, Smiley is stupid, Fone is powerless), it becomes more obvious as the series progresses that this is not the case: Fone can exert some power and definitely has a backbone, Phoney might only be greedy because all three of them were orphaned at an early age and, being the oldest of the three, he had the reponsibility of looking after the cousins himself. He also becomes slightly more sympathetic as the comic goes on. Smiley is more obvious, as he is not stupid, just very optimistic, and even later agrees with Fone that Phoney might not always be right.
- Played with in Planetary: Elijah Snow is eager to discover the secret history of the world and fight The Four., Jakita Wagner generally follows him because it stops her from getting bored, and The Drummer usually recognizes that it's dangerous but he's too crazy to make his case clearly (and they wouldn't listen if he did).
- The pirate crew in Astérix - Redbeard is the leader, the crow's nest pirate is the follower, and Pegleg is the Only Sane Man. Lampshaded in Obelix All At Sea, when a centurion describes them as "those stupid [Redbeard], impudent [crow's-nest] and pretentious [Pegleg] pirates".
- This is a common interpretation of The Hitchhiking Ghosts from The Haunted Mansion at Disney Theme Parks. Ezra as the schemer, Gus as the follower, and Phineas as the powerless one. Seeing as how much of the Haunted Mansion's fanon becomes ascended, this might become official someday.
Films — Animated
- Mulan gives us Yao, Chien-Po and Ling. They served largely as the comic relief, often involving slapstick humor that made them reminiscent of the Three Stooges. Yao is the self-appointed leader of the trio. Ling and Yao occasionally have disagreements, but Ling grows to accept Yao as their leader. Chien-Po is either naive compared to the two of them, or he's serene enough to accept whatever they do without fuss (it's established that he's very physically strong, so whatever mischief they get into, he could probably rely on his force to get them out of it).
- The Hyenas from The Lion King. Shenzi has the power as Navigator, Banzai does what she tells him, and while far from sane, Ed is the guy in the back seat, along for the ride.
- A Goofy Movie, particularly in the scene where Max gets onstage to impress Roxanne, has one in the form of Max (the schemer), PJ (the powerless), and Bobby (the follower). Strangely, though the trio gets more screentime in the sequel, they don't play this as much, though they still do have the personalities to match. This is evident when Bradley is impressed by Max's charisma, and unimpressed by Bobby's weirdness and PJ's timidity.
Films — Live-Action
- As mentioned in the Trope Maker folder, The Three Stooges must have been the original inspiration for this trope: Moe was the leader, Curly was the idiot blindly doing whatever he's told (as was Shemp, who continued the trend), and Larry was the Only Sane Man.
- Planet of the Apes has a whole society based on this. The orangutans run things, the gorillas carry their plans out, and the chimpanzees have all the brains and none of the power.
- The 2001 movie exchanges the orangutans and chimpanzees' roles, possibly as a response to Science Marches On.
- The three main characters of The Hangover: Phil leads the charge in finding Doug, Stu complains ineffectually throughout the film and Alan goes along with it all.
- In the third, Stu leads the charge, Phil complains, and Alan goes along (and at times, makes things worse).
- The Three Caballeros: Donald, Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles.
- Mystery Team: Jason, Duncan and Charlie.
- Vitsin, Nikulin, and Morgunov. A.K.A. The Coward, the Fool and the Experienced. Morgunov is the leader, Nikulin is the dingbat and Vitsin is the complainer.
- The ¡Three Amigos!: Lucky Day, Dusty Bottoms and Ned Nederlander.
- Horrible Bosses: Kurt, Dale, and Nick.
- The pre-Winston Ghostbusters: Peter (the navigator); Ray (the driver); and Egon (the Only Sane Man). Uniquely, they balance the Comic Trio qualities with those of a more traditional Power Trio: Ray combines massive amounts of paranormal knowledge with very practical real-world skills (he rebuilds that old ambulance into the team's Cool Car); Egon comes up with the calculations and science that allow for Ghostbusting; and Peter, the schmoozer, facilitates the actual business side of the Ghostbusters operation. Most importantly, their Crazy Scheme succeeds.
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?: Everett (George Clooney) is The Leader, Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) is The Fool, and Pete (John Turturro) is the Only Sane Man (compared to the other two, at least).
- The Bunnicula series: Chester is the leader, Howie follows him around, and Harold is the skeptic who can't stop Chester's wild imagination.
- The Golden Trio ended up being this in the early Harry Potter books, with Harry being the Leader, Ron being the Idiot and Hermione being the Complainer.
- In Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, Axel Lidenbrock sees himself as the sane guy, his uncle as the leader, and their guide Hans as the blind follower. It later turns out they're a more effective Power Trio than they look...
- Marunde, Abdel, and Lazy in Someone Else's War.
Live Action TV
- In The Goodies, the three characters alternated these roles regularly.
- Most commonly, it seemed to be Graeme being the leader, Bill carrying through his schemes, and Tim disagreeing, but requiring the money for the job enough to go along. Then again, as Graeme was at times too distracted to carry through all the way, Tim was at times dedicated enough to serving England to take over leadership, and Bill had his moments of inspiration too, the roles did switch around a lot. Occasionally it would even avoid seperating the roles - in one episode, Graeme is a power mad pirate radio station owner, and both Bill and Tim are the powerless snarkers.
- In the classic Last of the Summer Wine trio Foggy comes up with the schemes, Compo is the one who knows it'll lead to disaster, but can't do anything to stop it, and Clegg is not so much clueless as content to offer wry observations from the sidelines, since he's never the one it's happening to.
- The Trio from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Warren is the schemer, Jonathan is powerless even though his conscience might otherwise lead him to speak up against Warren; and Andrew may not be stupider than the others, but he's by far the most out of touch with reality.
- Andrew's also the one most likely to do whatever Warren tells him to, no matter how stupid or evil, due to his idol crush on him (or just plain crush, depending on how you interpret Andrew's character).
- Later seasons of M*A*S*H have one in the form of Hawkeye (bizarre one), B.J. (the one who goes along), and Winchester (the smart one). Earlier seasons had the first two roles covered, but no one else at the 4077th was smart/sane enough to see what was coming (except for Radar on occasion).
- Top Gear has a lot of shuffling with this, although Jeremy's usually the schemer, with Richard and James trading off on the stupid/going along with it and the helpless.
- In a few episodes of Supernatural such as "Tall Tales" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me," Sam, Dean, and Bobby transition from a Power Trio to a Comic Trio. Sam comes up with an idea, Dean helps him carry it out, and then Bobby shows up when it goes wrong and tells them that they're idiots.
- The guys and the girls of Coupling tend to split off into separate comic trios. Specifically, Susan and Steve tend to be the sensible ones, whilst Patrick and Sally are the ditzy navigators, and Jeff and Jane are basically nuts.
- The Tanner sisters from Full House. Michelle is definitely the naïvely used one, but while DJ takes charge, she's pretty much the Only Sane Man. Stephanie is quite intelligent, but is more of a Ditzy Genius who makes things crazier by going along with DJ (often to her annoyance). In the end, both often share the blame for what happens. Lampshaded once where they were called "the Three Stooges in pantyhose".
- Heartbeat: A few seasons in, one formed between Claude, David and Bernie. Claude schemes, David gullibly does the dirty work, and Bernie is smart and powerless. After Claude left, Bernie's brother Vernon filled the role before David's Aunt Peggy replaced him.
- In Pigs in Space on The Muppet Show plays with the roles a bit. Link Hogthrob is the leader, Miss Piggy is loudmouthed and Dr. Strangepork is insane, so they all have characteristics of the navigator. Link is usually too dumb, though. Strangepork is the smartest, but Piggy is the sane one.
- Power Rangers Ninja Storm: Shane is the leader, Dustin is more laid back than dumb, and Tori is "the responsible one".
- In The Office, Michael, Dwight and Jim often act as this with Michael being the leader, Dwight being the blindly obedient one and Jim being the only one with sense, particularly evident when they team up in the 'Branch Wars' episode. Ironically, in another episode of that season Dwight acts as the smart man while Michael blindly obeys (and misinterprets) the directions of his GPS, driving directly into a clearly visible lake.
- Also the trio who start the Michael Scott Paper Company in Season Five. Michael is once again the leader. Ryan is usually the guy who follows him — or at least doesn't question him much — but arguably in the episode "Broke" he is analogous to a navigator as he formulates their unworkable company strategy. Pam is the closest thing this company has to an Only Sane Man although she is Not so Above It All by virtue of having joined in the first place. She even compares the company to a crashed car.
- 30 Rock loves this. See:
- The Tracy Jordan Entourage. Tracy is the unstable leader, Dot Com is the smart and powerless guy, Grizz is the enabler (although Grizz is almost as smart and just as sane as Dot Com, he's less troubled by letting Tracy do what he wants).
- The actors on the show. In this case, Tracy is the follower, while Jenna is the crazy leader and Danny is the smart one. Lampshaded by Jenna.
Liz:I don't know who's worse, you or Tracy.
Jenna: Oh, definitely me. I'm more aware of what I'm doing.
- In the writers room, we have Frank as the leader, Lutz as the follower, and Toofer as the smart guy.
- One could also make a case with Jack as the leader, Jonathan as the follower, and Liz as the smart one, but Jack also tends to be right.
- The Gang in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia shuffle roles around many episodes, but Mac, Dennis and Charlie are the most common trio. Dee, Artemis and The Waitress are the Distaff Counterpart.
- The Stellas fit this trope to a T. Michael Black is the leader, Michael Showalter the smart one, and poor David is the third guy.
- Blackadder has the titular character, Baldrick, and Percy in the first two series, with George replacing Percy in series three and four.
- A truly bizarre example is the three Daleks in the Doctor Who serial "The Chase" - there's a permanently frustrated Pointy-Haired Boss Dalek, a stupid Dalek who gets confused easily, stumbles over his words and falls over and a Dalek who is better at exterminating but is powerless to resist orders from his superiors. "The Chase" is a pretty weird Dalek story.
- Team Fortress 2: The Soldier, Scout and Heavy seem to form this in several 'Meet the Team' videos.
- The Chaotix of Sonic the Hedgehog. Vector is the schemer, Charmy is the follower, and Espio is usually powerless, but pretty badass.
- In Sonic Colors, Eggman is the schemer, Cubot is the follower, and Orbot is powerless.
- Team Rose in Sonic Heroes: Amy is the schemer, Big is the follower, and Cream is powerless.
- Mario, Luigi, and Yoshi, under certain interpretations. Mario is the schemer, Yoshi the follower, and Luigi is powerless.
- Bully introduces Jimmy, Gary, and Pete. In chapter one, Gary is clearly the leader, Jimmy is at times the idiot, and Pete is obviously the victim and the only sane man, being the one who clearly never wants to take part in Gary's schemes.
- Being one of the more light-hearted and comical iterations of the franchise, Final Fantasy X-2 has Yuna, who is meant to be the leader but typically ends up the follower to her cousin (or anyone else for that matter), while Paine is powerless.
- In BlazBlue, the Academy Trio - Noel, Tsubaki and Makoto - fit. Makoto is the assertive one who comes up with all the zany and often stupid plans, Noel just goes along with what Makoto says, and poor Tsubaki sits there snarking, knowing full well that she can't stop them. This is most apparent in the Teach Me, Miss Litchi segments.
- The Materials have this dynamic in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's Portable: The Gears of Destiny and all related Spin Offs, with Lord Dearche as the leader, Levi the Slasher as the dumb and obedient one, and Stern the Destructor as the smart yet usually passive one. They provide the majority of the game's comic relief, until the situation proves serious enough for Stern to take charge of the planning so that they could have a chance to defeat the Arc Villain.
- Subverted in Achewood with the three cats who started out as a real Comic Trio, but after some character development: Ray is the navigator (a subversion since his plans, no matter how insane, ALWAYS work out), Beef follows Ray's lead (he's a manic depressive with passivity to a fault — but still the only person capable of talking Ray out of anything), and Pat is the "smart one" (but so "smart" that he's unbearably obnoxious, and so unwilling to listen to other points of view that he ends up making the wrong calls in the end).
- Freefall plays Sam as the Schemer, Helix as the Follower, and Florence as the Sane (Wo)Man. Alternatively, Florence or Sawtooth play sane men to Qwerty and Dvorak.
- Two Guys and Guy typically has Guy as the leader/navigator, Frank the idiot/driver (though he enables the situation through his apathy rather than his ignorance), and Wayne the complainer/backseat, though the roles can shift depending on the joke.
- Romantically Apocalyptic has The Captain as The Leader, The Pilot...as the pilot, and Mr. Snippy as the Only Sane Man.
- The Light Warriors of 8-Bit Theater are a rare attempt of translating this into a quartet — although many times one is left out to make sure it fits. Red Mage is the Schemer, Fighter is the Follower, Thief is the Sane Man (with Schemer moments too), and Black Mage is the Somewhat Sane Man.
- From Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic, Chimera manages the exploit of being this all by himself. The lion head is the leader, the dragon head is the idiot, and the goat head is the complainer.
- On Homestar Runner, in some cartoons Strong Bad is the schemer, Strong Mad is stupid, and the smart one who's powerless will either be The Cheat or Strong Sad (usually the former, since the latter doubles as Strong Bad's favorite target). Just as often, though, Homestar will be the stupid one, and Strong Bad will be smart and powerless.
- The side characters "The Unstoppable Three!" at Superhero School Whateley Academy in the Whateley Universe. Captain Bravo (flying brick with energy beams from his eyes) is the schemer (well, the leader), Hyper (speedster) is the follower, and Long John (stretchy 'Mister Fantastic' type) is powerless. Even the people they attack mock them.
Phase: "Long John? You named yourself after underwear? What, 'Fruit of the Loom' was taken?"
- Sort of subverted in Park Bench, since there's no real straight man, but the three take turns powering the plot (although it's barely ever Tully, and sometimes isn't anyone).
- The Balloon Shop are a three piece comedy troupe, formed by Olan Rogers (The loud and jovial one), Thomas Gore(The closest any of them can get to being a straight man), and Joshua Pursley(The butt of nearly every joke). The three made videos after meeting each other in High School. There are no solid roles for any of the characters, because the roles change depending on each video. Their videos range from fairly realistic (BBQ Fiesta) to insanely unrealistic and kooky (Birds, and The Sargentos)
Josh: Chris, couldja calm down? We TOLDJA what we do wit double crossers.
Thomas: You people, just shot me, in the chest!
Josh: Wait a second Chris, what seems to be the problem here?
(It should be noted that before this scene, Olan gets offended and shoots "Chris", however, he seems to be perfectly fine.)
- The Red Team in Red vs. Blue are often examples of this, with Sarge being the navigator, Simmons going along with it through thoughts of promotion and glory, and Grif being too lazy to stop them.
- During the Yogscast's Jaffa Factory videos, Honeydew Inc. was run this way, with Lewis Brindley coming up with the plans, Duncan Jones being smart enough to make them work but never questioning orders, and Simon Lane doing all the heavy lifting and just sort of fooling around in the meantime. Or, as one commenter put it:
DUNCAN: The smart one.
LEWIS: Has a plan!
SIMON: DIGGY DIGGY HOLE!
- Most story-driven YTP's featuring Zelda CD-i will have this with King Harkinian (crazy), Link (doofus), and Zelda (serious).