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Life Lessons from Second Bananas

Quick, name a ‘second banana’ who transcended the ‘sidekick’ or second-in-command role into superstardom, after breaking from the partnership that gave him or her a sense of identity, that ‘household name-ness’.



Don Knotts? Nope. Once he left The Andy Griffith Show, and struck out on his own, his star didn’t rise. Occasionally, you’d see him as a ‘guest star’ on later Andy Griffith episodes; the Three’s Company years were just an embarrassment, IMO.

I always got the feeling that Don later regretted ditching his regular meal ticket for the thrill of going out on his own, but that’s only natural. He was a talented actor; I don’t blame him for wanting to see what would happen in his career if he stepped out from behind Andy Griffith’s long shadow. If he’d had the right vehicle, he could have been big.

Not just big, but big-big,” as Barney would say.

According to the writer Amos Barshad, the role of the ‘second banana’ can be wonderful for that person; the key is in self-acceptance. Being a second banana “is a paean to the joys of lowered expectations and minimized responsibilities,” he says in his article, Who is the Top Second Banana?

But that’s not such a bad thing. You see, the goal of ‘greatness’ can be a burden, he continues; not everyone is equipped to handle the responsibilities that come with it. That doesn’t mean that one is destined for the ‘less-than’ life. “The key to happiness isn’t being great. The key to happiness is being near greatness. The key to happiness is being really, really, really good,” Barshad said.

When I read that, do you know who came to mind?

Vivian Vance.

Now there was one person always considered a second banana to the great Lucille Ball.

The wonderful, 'near-great' Vivian Vance. Source:

The wonderful, ‘near-great’ Vivian Vance. Source:

Vivian never was the superstar that Lucille Ball was; I don’t know if she even aspired to ‘great,’ but she never seemed, to me, to mind the second banana role; in fact, she made it look like fun. She seemed comfortable with her near-greatness, and it looked really good on her. Not everyone can pull that off, you know.

For some folks, though, ambition is too sexy, too alluring to get over in their professional lives, and so, being ‘really, really, really good’ would never be good enough. Sometimes, the addiction to ambition can kill you, if one cannot accept near greatness.

Yeah, I’m getting close to something, folks. Yesterday, in the Sterling Daily Gazette from 1905, I found a clue that may clarify why Emmett decided to leave life as he knew it in Marianna, Florida, for the winterlands of Illinois in January.

Paul Drake, second banana and owner of a successful detective agency.

Paul Drake, second banana and owner of a successful detective agency. Source here.

I think it has to do with the idea that Emmett was a Young Man in a Hurry. I haven’t confirmed it with my contacts in Marianna just yet, but I have an impression that life in Marianna was a tad too confining for our Emmett. Our freshly minted lawyer was tired of being Paul Drake to big brother CephasPerry Mason. Heck, Emmett wasn’t even up to a Paul Drake, really, as Paul had his own successful detective agency when he worked with Perry. But I digress.

I’m talking about all this second banana stuff because I think that was part of Emmett’s problem: He wanted to be the top banana, in a big hurry. I get the idea it wasn’t one trigger event that made Emmett move 1500 miles away to start over; it was just an opportunity he could not turn down, a chance to be a top banana.

For most of us, near greatness is a good thing, but we truly don’t understand that until we’ve been up and down the career ladder, until we’ve made some spectacular mistakes that cost a lot of money, an important client, or the job itself. It is only through making dumb-ass mistakes that we learn not to be such dumb asses. Something tells me that Emmett didn’t make enough dumb ass mistakes just yet to evolve himself into someone more able to handle the complexities of working in a busy law office. Cephas probably knew that, too.  In other words, I don’t think Ceph was keeping his baby brother under his thumb so much for the power trip, as he was trying to nurture him into a competent professional.

Emmett might not have seen all that, though. I have the impression that he was impatient, and tired of being ‘near greatness,’ i.e., working for The Great Cephas Wilson.  Ceph was smart, successful, and everyone knew it.

It had to be a bit stifling, and so, I can empathize with Emmett wanting to break away. Imagine going to work for a sibling who was considered a genius, for whom everything seemed to turn to gold at the touch. Now, imagine living with that person, 24/7. This person provides your job, your meals, your board, your paycheck, your work assignments, ad nauseum.

Some people would find it comforting that their lives were arranged for them to this degree. We do it for our children until they are old enough to make decisions for themselves, to fend for themselves. Emmett was 23 years old at this point — I can imagine him feeling impatient to cut loose from TGCW, to make make his own decisions; to show everyone back home in Marianna that he was The Great Emmett Wilson.

Anyway — I continue reading The Sterling Gazette from 1906 today. More will certainly be revealed. Stay tuned.


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Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
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