Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“I forget who I am—who am I?”: 23-plus alter egos of sitcom characters

Illustration for article titled “I forget who I am—who am I?”: 23-plus alter egos of sitcom characters

1. Art Vandelay (George Costanza, Seinfeld)
The average episode of Seinfeld has at least one good time-delayed punchline, a well-constructed payoff to seemingly unrelated story threads, coincidental character meetings, or the antisocial behavior of its main characters. George Costanza stepping into the identity of importer-exporter Art Vandelay takes that tradition several steps further, a big laugh that follows an eight-season-long trail of breadcrumbs stretching from the second episode of the series to its penultimate half-hour. For years, Jason Alexander’s character used Vandelay to bluff his way through sticky situations—helping a friend “stake out” a romantic interest, scamming unemployment money, covering for his lack of reading habits—but isn’t until “The Puerto Rican Day” that he takes the name and credentials as his own. And, in an appropriately Seinfeldian twist, it’s also the point where Vandelay meets face-to-face with two of the show’s other recurring alter egos, as his panicked path crosses that of Jerry and Kramer during an apartment open house.

2. Kel Varnsen (Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld)
The world of Seinfeld often seemed to run on weird aliases, to the point where Art Vandelay had such a fully developed life that one could imagine him heading up his own series, spinoff-style. But the series’ protagonist was not immune to the charms of a good pseudonym, and he would occasionally offer up the name “Kel Varnsen” as a fellow employee of Vandelay Industries, particularly when he needed to help George in a scheme. But when the two alternate personalities encounter one another in “The Puerto Rican Day,” Jerry’s ruffled reaction implies further backstory between fake people. Perhaps their relationship was soured by an import (or export) deal gone bad.

3-4. Dr. Martin Van Nostrand/H.E. Pennypacker (Cosmo Kramer, Seinfeld)
The twitchiness Michael Richards brought to his embodiment of Cosmo Kramer gave off the impression that he was a man uncomfortable in his own skin. The smooth sophistication that exudes from his most frequently used alias, Dr. Martin Van Nostrand, only reinforces that sense. The good doctor’s dermatology bona fides open plenty of doors for Kramer and the gang—though the ambiguous location of his practice (“I’m from the clinic”) bars him from passing an elusive diagnosis to Elaine in “The Package.” Perhaps that quest would’ve fared better if it were undertaken by H.E. Pennypacker, the bespectacled “wealthy American industrialist” who attempts to give Elaine a hand in “The Millennium.” Pennypacker carries his own air of regality and refinement, all the better to get him to that fateful meeting in the apartment with Vandelay and Varnsen.

5. Bert Macklin (Andy Dwyer, Parks And Recreation)
Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer is characterized by an abundance of enthusiasm and a dearth of brainpower, a combination that has made him one of Pawnee’s most endearing citizens. But where Andy is a lovable golden retriever, his alter ego, FBI super-agent Bert Macklin (code name: Eagle One), is a German shepherd, an aviator-shaded enforcer who brings swift justice to any and all wrongdoers who cross his path, including teenage vandal Greg Pikitis, the mysterious pie-thrower who threatens Leslie Knope’s city-council run, and aristocratic black widow Janet Snakehole. But Andy’s puppy-dog heart (and brain) still beats under Agent Macklin’s bared fangs, so he’s rarely the badass he so desperately wants to be, frequently falling victim to his wilier prey, his own clumsiness, or the exotic, ambiguously accented allure of Janet Snakehole.

6-7. Janet Snakehole/Judy Hitler (April Ludgate, Parks And Recreation)
The original, studiously aloof incarnation of April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) wouldn’t seem like the type to engage in alter-ego antics. But as Parks And Recreation progressed, April’s affection for goofball Andy brought out her playful side in the form of wealthy aristocrat Janet Snakehole, named for the skeezy Pawnee lounge where she makes her debut in the season-three episode “The Fight.” Originally, Janet’s haughty, affronted personality was meant to be a foil to Bert Macklin, but the uncontrollable animal attraction between predator and prey soon turned them into something more akin to partners in crime (much like Andy and April…), leaving Macklin without a proper adversary. Enter Judy Hitler, Adolf’s spoiled daughter who stole the necklace containing all of Germany’s war secrets.

8. Duke Silver (Ron Swanson, Parks And Recreation)
Pawnee Director of Parks and Recreation Ronald Ulysses Swanson is attracted to a specific kind of female: brunette, self-assured, and strong-willed. (If they happen to be holding a plate of breakfast foods at all times, all the better.) And it turns out that a specific kind of female is attracted to Ron—only they don’t know him by that name. In the guise of sax-blowing smooth talker Duke Silver (“It’s been a real gift making sonic love to you tonight”), Ron is catnip to the cougars of Southwest Indiana, the fedora-wearing eye candy responsible for albums like Hi-Ho, Duke and Memories… Of Now. To see him in this state would deflate the steely authority with which Ron runs his department (just the cover of Hi-Ho, Duke would do the trick), but his double life is the worst-kept secret in the office. Still, considering the lengths he’s gone to protect this secret identity—like hiding and/or destroying all Silver-related evidence in a Pawnee recording studio—it’s a true sign of Ron’s affections when he breaks from a date with current squeeze Diane Lewis to grab a saxophone, doff a hat, and introduce her to a good friend named Duke.


9. Julius Pepperwood (Nick Miller, New Girl)
Given Julius Pepperwood’s credentials—ex-cop, ex-Marine—and the fact that he represents an idealized version of New Girl’s Nick Miller, Pepperwood just might be Bert Macklin’s Chicago cousin. They have the same flair for investigation, too: In the second-season episode to which Pepperwood gives his surname, Nick affects the persona’s “Superfans” accent (with the shades to match) in order to get the dirt on a creative-writing student who might have sinister intentions for Nick’s roommate Jess. Pepperwood could use a little work on his backstory, though: If he’s ever to be an effective cover for Nick in future New Girl installments, the character ought to gather a few more facts about his own hometown. “I’m from Chicago,” goes his introduction, as if the nasally Midwestern affectations didn’t broadcast that fact. “Thin crust pizza? No thank you. I’m from Chicago.”

10. Theodore K. Mullins (Winston Bishop, New Girl)
The characters of New Girl assume names and adopt pseudonyms on a near-weekly basis: At the beginning of the show’s sophomore season, Zooey Deschanel’s Jess played at being “Katie” in order to secure a date with tall drink of water David Walton; one episode later, breakout character Schmidt introduced the world to Tuggb Romney, the lost son of then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the apparent key to scoring with conservative sorority sisters. (Like a lot of material given to Max Greenfield’s character, it’s morally repugnant but comedically winning.) The alpha alter ego in the New Girl world, however, belongs to the cast’s most underutilized regular: Theodore K. Mullins, a dramatic Southern gentleman and “lover on the down-low” who leaps out of Winston Bishop whenever one of his male roommates brings a woman home. The passionate Mr. Mullins isn’t just a player in an ongoing prank, though—he’s also a vessel for restoring order to the show’s universe. In the show’s 19th episode, “Secrets,” Theodore’s passionate plea to Nick serves as the prelude to a no-nonsense first-season-highlight for actor Lamorne Morris. Some alter egos create problems—Theodore K. Mullins fixes them, with the pretend power of pretend faith.

11. El Barto (Bart Simpson, The Simpsons)
It’s hard to prove that Springfield’s most infamous outlaw, El Barto, is actually one Bartholomew JoJo Simpson, given that he’s never been seen in person. But considering the two’s shared propensity for tagging the walls of Springfield Elementary, it’s a pretty decent assumption, albeit one that hasn’t yet been drawn by Principal Skinner, who considers Bart the “school’s second most-wanted criminal after the mysterious El Barto.” Despite the seemingly obvious connections, however, El Barto remains at large and seemingly ignored by Springfield’s law enforcement, who didn’t even manage to connect 23 years of vandalism to Bart in the graffiti-themed episode “Exit Through The Kwik-E-Mart.”

12. Max Power (Homer Simpson, The Simpsons)
Max Power is the man whose name you’d love to touch, but you mustn’t touch. Which is probably why Homer Simpson chooses it as his new persona when his real name is unfortunately linked to that of a fat, lazy, stupid slob on television. Much like the lusciously coiffed version of Homer seen in the second-season episode “Simpson And Delilah,” Max Power is far more successful and popular than plain ol’ Homer—that is, until he accidentally knocks down a forest of redwoods and pisses everyone off. Thankfully, he has his old persona to fall back on after he ruins everything, because Homer Simpson has never done anything to piss anyone off, ever.


13. Rory B. Bellows (Krusty The Clown, The Simpsons)
Considering the number of shoddy products and cash-siphoning scams Krusty The Clown has released into the world of The Simpsons, Springfield’s favorite children’s entertainer probably has a full roster of aliases ready to go for when the Krusty-brand shit hits the Krusty-brand fan. Of course, the big joke of Krusty adopting an alter ego is that Krusty is an alter ego: When the IRS pushes the tax cheat otherwise known as Herschel Krustofsky to fake his death and begin anew as the sea-faring Rory B. Bellows, only the clown’s biggest fan recognizes him without the greasepaint. “Bart The Fink” ends with Bart—whose innocent quest for an autograph kicks off Krusty’s downfall—appealing to his hero’s baser instincts and persuading him to return to show business, at which time the well-insured, fictional life of Rory Bellows comes to a lucrative end. It just goes to prove: Even when a person changes their identity, they never truly change.

14. Chareth Cutestory (Michael Bluth, Arrested Development
Sometimes, it’s hard to fool a blind attorney, which is why a character might need to take on an assumed identity based on the Neverland-based lawyer he once played in a musical version of Peter Pan. This is exactly what Michael Bluth does (cueing a cutaway to his big showstopper: “You’re a crook, Captain Hook!”). While he doesn’t hang onto the identity for very long (mostly just to trick the aforementioned blind attorney, Maggie Lizer, played in a great bit of physical comedy by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, well-versed in dealing with alter egos from her Seinfeld days), he does so long enough for viewers to learn that Chareth is a lawyer specializing in maritime law. As with much of Arrested Development, this personality is an undercutting of an old sitcom gag, with the name Michael adopts—by drawing on things in the room with him when he adopts it, in true sitcom fashion—being particularly ridiculous. But Maggie goes along with it. The world needs to be protected from pirates, after all.

15. Phyllidia Featherbottom (Tobias Fünke, Arrested Development)
Arrested Development is a farce, but one that’s both aware of the conventions of the form and willing to subvert them. Take, for example, Mrs. Featherbottom, the English-housekeeper disguise adopted by wannabe actor Tobias for a stretch of the show’s second season. Unlike a character hiding under an assumed identity in a classic farce, Tobias is only fooling himself with the Mrs. Featherbottom shtick: The family members with whom he wants to reconnect and wow with his acting chops merely humor Tobias because he’s keeping their model home clean. (Speaking to the flimsiness of the plan, the show’s narrator notes, “It was the exact plot of the film Mrs. Doubtfire.”) Tobias’ acting dreams feed into the notion that he’s been playing pretend for much of his life—pretending to be attracted to wife Lindsay, feigning poorly at fitting in with his in-laws—so it was only a matter of time before that desire spilled over into his everyday life and started squirting frosting down the Bluths’ throats. (There really has got to be a better way to say that.)

16-17. Surely Fünke/Surely Woolfbeak (Maeby Fünke, Arrested Development)
Much as she’d like to deny it, Tobias’ teenage daughter shares her dad’s propensity for dress-up—with the distinction that her alter ego actually gets the job done. It gets her paid, too: In the same episode that finds her uncle inventing Chareth Cutestory, it’s revealed that Maeby Fünke is scamming big checks (literally and figuratively) by posing as her heretofore unseen, wheelchair-bound twin Surely. Her motivations are fuzzy, but her methods are strong, seeing as no one at Maeby’s school dares to second-guess the girl who’s dying from “B.S.” When Surely re-emerges with the new surname “Woolfbeak” during the show’s final season, she has a clear-cut reason for doing so: illustrating the hypocrisy of a so-called “Inner Beauty Pageant” being held at a church-sponsored state fair. In this iteration, Maeby sports the same giant nose Nicole Kidman wore as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, a clever Pinocchio allusion underlining Maeby’s giant lie.

18. Stefan Urquelle (Steve Urkel, Family Matters)
Those who think Family Matters was just another boring family-friendly sitcom and not some batshit absurdist super-joke should turn their attention to the show’s later years, particularly a series of episodes surrounding Stefan Urquelle—the alter ego of Steve Urkel, the biggest nerd in television history. Rather than simply reinventing himself with new clothes and an attitude—like so many sitcom characters before him—Urkel actually synthesizes a chemical to transform him into the super-suave Stefan Urquelle. More than just a one-episode gag, the Urkel/Urquelle pair drove some major plot points into the show's insane final years. To wit: Eventually Urkel just cloned himself and make a separate Stefan, both of whom proposed to the love of Steve’s life, Laura Winslow. Did he do that?! Snort snort.

19. Vic Ferrari (Latka Gravas, Taxi)
In the decades before Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, and Tim Allen launched a wave of stand-up-fronted sitcoms, the best most comics could hope for was to land a recurring role as a wacky TV neighbor or co-worker. That’s what happened to Andy Kaufman, who was tapped to convert the adorably wide-eyed “Foreign Man” character from his avant-garde comedy act into the similarly gentle auto mechanic Latka Gravas on Taxi. But the multi-faceted Kaufman grew tired of having to play the same note over and over, so at the end of the third season, Taxi’s writers aimed to keep their star happy by giving Latka a multiple-personality disorder, which would flare up occasionally over the next year. The most common of those personalities was “Vic Ferrari,” a smarmy womanizer inspired by Latka’s thorough study of Playboy magazine. The character was Kaufman’s parody of a pervasive breed of self-centered bullshitters, who in the early ’80s were in the process of exchanging their love beads for yuppie duds. And given how little of Kaufman’s groundbreaking comedy was documented for posterity, Taxi’s Vic Ferrari also did fans the service of preserving another aspect of this complicated performer.

20. Lance Mannion (Sam Malone, Cheers)
In the fourth-season Cheers episode “Dark Imaginings,” the usually athletic and macho Boston bartender Sam Malone suffers a hernia, but tries to pretend he’s still healthy because he doesn’t want to be outclassed by his young employee Woody Boyd. Eventually, Sam has to check into a hospital, and does so secretly. But his ex-girlfriend Diane figures out where Sam is when she calls around and hears that the nurses of one hospital are being terrorized by a would-be stud named “Lance Mannion,” which Diane recognizes as Sam’s go-to pseudonym. It’s such a perfect alias for Mr. Malone, too: An over-the-top manly moniker that exemplifies Sam’s tendency to overcompensate, all in the name of maintaining his image.


21. El Kabong (Franklin Sherman, The Critic)
Al Jean and Mike Reiss were always among the most pop-culture-obsessed writers on the staff of The Simpsons. They carried that obsession to The Critic, which folded pop-culture references within pop-culture references, like when Franklin Sherman, the drunken, demented dad of critic protagonist Jay Sherman, introduces alter ego El Kabong. The mysterious, masked, caped Zorro-like figure behaves exactly like his inspiration and namesake, the similarly outfitted alternate identity of cartoon gunslinger Quick Draw McGraw: swashbuckling dramatically before climactically smashing people in the head with an acoustic guitar. It’s a reverent homage to alter egos from a show with an encyclopedic understanding of television’s past.

22. Dan Silversmith (Pete Hornberger, 30 Rock
While sitcom characters may have their fair share of fictional alter egos, it’s rare for them to disappear completely into those lives. Not so for Pete Hornberger, who reveals in the 30 Rock series finale that he’s been painstakingly setting up an alternate identity, Dan Silversmith, with Carolina Mutual insurance, and preparing to fake his own death. Since this is Pete, the reveal comes more in the form of clumsy admissions of what he’s doing disguised as talking about somebody else, as well as the occasional answer of a phone call with a newly adopted Southern twang. But it’s apparently enough to escape into that alternate life for a full year—at least until his wife Paula tracks him down and drags him into a van, thus ending the brief life of Dan Silversmith.


23-plus. The many faces of Roger (American Dad
Given the number of personas he’s adopted over American Dad’s eight seasons, it could be surmised that Roger is actually the one true alter ego of his many creations. After all, there’s only so many “other selves” one can possess; it makes much more sense that Roger himself is the alternate persona of Laura Vanderbooben, Braf Zachland, The Legman, Ricky Spanish, or any of the dozens of other characters who have emerged from the depths of Roger’s closet. Roger’s alter egos are his defining characteristic, his beloved wigs and costumes as integral to his existence as alcohol dependency and Paul Lyndian flamboyance. Without them, he’d just be another lightbulb-shaped gray alien living in an attic in Langley Falls, Virginia. Ho hum.