TV

Julia Louis-Dreyfus And Ted Danson Are The Two Best TV Actors Of The Modern Era


Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Ted Danson are the best TV actors of the past 30 years.

Nobody is going to argue with me on this, not even on the internet. I polled every single person online and we all agree — there are no other contenders. Not even Bryan Cranston, who like Louis-Dreyfus and Danson, has put together a résumé of multiple long-running TV shows, and played at least one all-time iconic TV character.

Nope, not a single argument is to be had here, not even from Cranston-heads. Louis-Dreyfus and Danson are at the top, all hail Louis-Dreyfus and Danson.

Louis-Dreyfus and Danson just have a certain symmetry. They both starred in hugely successful NBC sitcoms, they both avoided being typecast to star on additional successful sitcoms on CBS, and they both subsequently put that behind them to appear on still more successful shows. Just last month, Louis-Dreyfus won her fifth Emmy for Veep, and Danson launched a new sitcom, the very funny The Good Place, for NBC.

Louis-Dreyfus and Danson both are universally adored by critics and viewers, due to their thoughtfulness, range, and the all-around decency they project, even when they play despicable people. Put it this way: Nobody has ever wished for less Louis-Dreyfus or less Danson. They both make whatever project with which they are presently associated better.

So, let’s pose a followup question: Louis-Dreyfus or Danson?

Important decisions like this can’t be made willy-nilly. Let’s think it through.

HARDWARE
Ted Danson has won two Emmys, out of 15 nominations, which makes me retroactively outraged. From 1982 to 1993, Danson was nominated every year for Best Lead Actor in a Comedy for Cheers, and lost to Judd Hirsch (okay), John Ritter (fine), Robert Guillaume (whatever), Michael J. Fox (okay), Michael J. Fox (um), Michael J. Fox (c’mon!), and Richard Mulligan (really?), before finally taking home his first trophy in 1990. (He won again in 1993.)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, meanwhile, has won ALL OF THE EMMYS.

Advantage: LOUIS-DREYFUS.

PRE-STARDOM
Danson got his start in the mid-’70s on the daytime soap Somerset, and then was a regular on NBC’s The Doctors from 1977 to ’82, the year Cheers premiered. The epitome of a reliable TV professional from the beginning, he also guested on Magnum P.I., Laverne & Shirley, Benson, Taxi, and B.J. and the Bear, among other shows, before his big break.

Louis-Dreyfus first appeared on television in what’s normally a high-profile gig; she was a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1982-85, acknowledged as some of the weakest years in SNL history. Louis-Dreyfus was 21 when she started on SNL, and later admitted that she wasn’t happy during her time there. (“Everybody was doing a lot of coke and smoking dope,” she says in Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.) But she did meet Larry David at SNL, and we all know how that turned out.

Advantage: DRAW.

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SAM MALONE VS. ELAINE BENES
Danson is somewhat at a historical disadvantage here, as the rise of Seinfeld as a cultural institution immediately followed Cheers‘ moment as TV’s reigning sitcom. This happened not once but twice — Seinfeld assumed Cheers‘ power position on NBC’s Thursday night lineup when Cheers went off the air in 1993, and Seinfeld supplanted Cheers again in syndication as the show that aired 27 times a day in most markets.

As a result, contemporary audiences remember Seinfeld more than Cheers. That’s an obvious edge for Louis-Dreyfus — Elaine Benes evolved into a meme in a way that Sam Malone has not.

The greatness of Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld can’t be overstated. She took what might’ve been a thankless character (i.e. “Jerry’s ex-girlfriend”) and made her genuinely weird, petty, and vulnerable. Nevertheless, Elaine was not the lead character of Seinfeld, whereas Sam Malone headed up Cheers. And in case it has been forgotten: Sam Malone is awesome. While the character as written is a bit of a creep — he’s a sex addict ex-jock who’s habitually propositioning his female co-workers — Danson’s performance pulls off that Han Solo jujitsu of making Sam’s jerkiness seem charming and even noble. Sam Malone made Danson the Bogart of ’80s sitcoms. In the end, Danson earned the tear-jerkiest exit in TV history.

Advantage: DANSON

BECKER VS. OLD CHRISTINE
I love Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I love Ted Danson. I will watch anything they do. However, I never watched Becker (1998-04) or The New Adventures of Old Christine (2006-10). Honestly, I was barely aware of their existence at the time. They both appeared on that obscure TV outpost known as CB-(does quick Google search)-S. Did anybody you know watch these shows? Is it possible that every show on CBS is automatically watched by 10 million phantoms who don’t yet realize that they’re dead?

Anyway, I obviously can’t remark on the quality of these shows. So, let’s rely again on hard numbers: Louis-Dreyfus collected her requisite Emmy for Old Christine‘s first season, while Danson collected no Emmys. However, Becker aired six seasons vs. Old Christine‘s five, though, again, I can’t confirm that any of this actually happened in our human dimension. Anyway, this isn’t a team competition, it’s all about me, myself, and I.

Advantage: LOUIS-DREYFUS

SELINA MEYER VS. DANSON’S MENAGERIE OF CHARACTER ROLES
This one probably shouldn’t be close: Veep is one of the most critically acclaimed comedies of the decade, and Louis-Dreyfus is fantastic in it. She’s won five Emmys so far, and will probably win one or two or 100 more, depending on how long the show runs. At this point, there might even be people who know Louis-Dreyfus more for “Axis of Dick” than Seinfeld, an incredible achievement.

Danson, meanwhile, has remade himself as a character actor. As Louis-Dreyfus built herself another franchise, Danson became the guy you hired to make your franchise run smoothly. He was an evil billionaire on Damages, an eccentric magazine editor on Bored to Death, and the lead guy who stares into the camera and makes dramatic pronouncements on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Cyber.

Then there’s the second season of Fargo, in which Danson played kindly small-town sheriff Hank Larsson. Danson is a wonder in the role — Hank is to gentleness what Sam was to swagger, and Danson’s performance is 10,000 percent Minnesota soul. In the end, Danson’s work was rewarded with one of the series’ defining moments. HERE COMES ANOTHER DANSON TEARJERKER.

The “Universal Language” monologue almost made this a fair fight. Almost.

Advantage: LOUIS-DREYFUS


FILM WORK

Back in the old days of the 20th century, TV actors all wanted to be in movies, because movies were considered a more prestigious medium than television. Seriously! Anyway, Louis-Dreyfus and Danson have both followed this route from time to time. The pinnacle of Louis-Dreyfus’ film career is 2013’s Enough Said, a stealth choice for the decade’s best romantic comedy, in which Louis-Dreyfus co-stars with another pantheon-level TV actor, James Gandolfini. They are both wonderful, and Enough Said is a wonderful film, and now I’m depressed because James Gandolfini is no longer with us.

In terms of popularity, Danson’s film career peaked with the Three Men and a [Insert Baby’s Age Here] series. Do these movies hold up? I have no idea. I would’ve revisited the films, but I ran out of time after falling down a YouTube rabbit hole of Three Men and a Baby “ghost” conspiracy theories.

Advantage: DANSON

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM
Here’s our “control” category, in which Louis-Dreyfus and Danson can be measured by their performances on the same show. Louis-Dreyfus and Danson both played somewhat unflattering versions of themselves on Curb — Louis-Dreyfus most notably appeared in the “Seinfeld reunion” season, arguably the best Curb season ever. Danson, meanwhile, appeared throughout Curb as Larry’s frenemy, arguing with Larry about signature sandwiches, pie, and Chet’s shirt.

Both Louis-Dreyfus and Danson are predictably hilarious on Curb. But only one of them has the benefit of “the freak book.”

Advantage: DANSON

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DEMERITS
Louis-Dreyfus once starred in a film that Roger Ebert called “one of the most unpleasant, contrived, artificial, cloying experiences I’ve had at the movies,” while Danson once donned blackface.

Advantage: LOUIS-DREYFUS

CONCLUSION
Louis-Dreyfus beats Danson 4-3, with one tie. CONGRATS, JLD.

Steven Hyden is Uproxx’s Cultural Critic and the author of Your Favorite Band is Killing Me and an upcoming book on the rise and fall of classic rock. Say hello to him on Twitter.

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