The springs of Springfield: Superintendent Chalmers

Superintendent Chalmers, the man who strikes fear in the heart of principal Seymour Skinner, is a thoroughly boring man. His no-nonsense attitude and stern demeanor do nothing to indicate that he has any sense of humour at all. This is exactly why he is such a funny character.

He proves this in the eighth season episode “Lisa’s Date with Density.” He says “I used to think a car was just a way of getting from point A to point B — and on weekends, point C” and “that man died the moment I laid eyes on a 1979 Honda Accord.” Of course, nobody would be excited about owning a 1979 Honda Accord, especially not in 1996 when “Lisa’s Date with Density” was first aired. Chalmers, the balding baritone from Utica, among other contrary places, is hilarious precisely because of how mundane he is. He is not remarkable or wacky in any way. This is because he typifies the comedic tradition of the “straight man.”

In any comedy duo, in this case, Superintendent Chalmers and Principal Skinner, the straight man will be uninteresting, level-headed and unremarkable in every way, while the other party will be wacky, zany and outrageous. There is a fine tradition of straight men. Some examples are Bud Abbott to Lou Costello, Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis, Dick Smothers to Tommy Smothers, Dr. Honeydew to Beaker, Bert to Ernie, Spock to Bones, and even Ron MacLean to goofy clown Don Cherry. Chalmers is often the butt of, comedic foil for, and setup for other characters’ jokes. Two funny characters onscreen are too many. The opposite is just as bad in a comedy. Having no funny characters onscreen is obviously too few, and you have The Big Bang Theory. Chalmers’ job, like so many straight men before him, is to attempt to establish order and reason in a situation which clearly has neither.

He is so mundane that he narrates how he is going to write a “10” moments before he is trampled: “I am going to give this school a perfect 10. I’ll just write the zero first . . . Now a vertical line to indicate the one . . . ”

But how can this be possible? Do not the same qualities of the straight man apply to Skinner as well? If anything, Skinner should be the straight man, and he usually is. He laughably spends a ridiculous amount of time picking out a laundry detergent when he is fired from Springfield Elementary: “Let’s see. Tide . . . Cheer . . . Bold . . . Biz . . . Fab . . . All . . . Gain . . . Wisk. I believe today I will try . . . Bold.” Skinner is anything but zany. That is, of course, except when Superintendent Chalmers is around.

Whenever Chalmers is around, he acts asbecomes the X factor that causesmakes Skinner to become flustered, crazy and desperate. Skinner will cover up Ralph Wiggum’s ignorance of what a “battle” is with an elaborate lie. He will also come up with a wild explanation for why hamburgers are called “steamed hams” and that Chalmers must have misheard him when he said “steamed clams.” Not only is Chalmers the straight man, but he transforms Skinner from the straight man into the zany member of the comedic duo.

This transformation is best articulated in the theme song to the Skinner/Chalmers segment Pulp Fiction-esque segment in “22 Short Films About Springfield:”:

Skinner, with his crazy explanations
The superintendent’s gonna need his medication
When he hears Skinner’s lame exaggerations
There’ll be trouble in town tonight.

Chalmers: “Seeeeey-mooooour!”