Second Banana in Business

I’m what you call a “second banana” in the world of business. My job is to make the “top banana” look good. The top banana is usually the controller and sometimes owner of a company. They need help maintaining the company records as accurate as possible. They want to know where they are having successes and disappointments. They want to take credit for the successes. And they are always looking for ways to improve procedures and processes to make them more efficient and less error-prone.

This is where I, Mr. Second Banana, enter the picture. A controller whose business sells products with expiration dates asks me, “can you give me a list of all items that have a certain quantity of stock that is over a certain number of days old?” Or another will ask, “if I give you a spreadsheet of item codes and unit costs, can you import into the system new costs for the products we build as opposed to purchase for resale?” Or, “is there a way I can combine these four reports into one so I don’t have to run them separately?” Or, “how can I convert this information into separate spreadsheets to be sorted by sales rep so that they can be emailed to them?” Or, the real clincher, “is there a way to make all orders get inventory immediately allocated to them by bin as well have multiple bins for each item with their own unique quantity?”

Now that I’ve bored you with such detail, my usual answer to requests such as listed above is, “I can do anything for money”. In other words, if the client is willing to commit reasonable programming time to allow me to get the request done, I can do it. It’s my job to make him or her happy and look good to their bosses, creditors and/or auditors.

In the world of show business, the second banana is the guy who sets up the other fellow who makes you laugh and gets all the applause. The most famous second banana of all time, I think, is Bud Abbott who would ask the double entendre questions. His partner, Lou Costello, would generate stares, reactions and comments. The audience would look at both of them and fall on the floor from side-splitting laughter.

George Burns would always tell us that he made a living being his wife Gracie Allen’s second banana but I think Bud Abbott had the more difficult task. The act was based on the premise of Abbott setting up Costello for the joke. Burns and Allen’s comedic situations were never forced but more natural often based on the irony of the situation. A classic example was when Gracie tried to convince George that it was his birthday and that’s why she circled a date on a calendar a while back. It turned out that she had forgotten that it was the night they were invited to Jack Benny’s house for a rare party there. The joke started out on him but ended up on Gracie.

On the distaff side, one can make an argument for Vivian Vance as the best of the female second bananas. She’d put her hands on her hips and say, “oh, brother!” and you’d look back at Lucille Ball for her reaction and you just knew you were in for a good time.

The second banana must be willing to be subservient and allow the top banana to dominate. When the producer, director and cast of I Love Lucy first met, Lucy was adamant about wanting someone else to play off of rather than Vivian. Viv looked too young, healthy and pretty to act as a foil. Lucy was forced by Desi to give Viv a trial run. Within a short period, Lucy recognized that the audience liked the tandem and soon became comfortable with Vivian after she made changes to her look to play down her attractiveness.

Some comedians don’t always need a designated foil to work off. Bob Hope made several movies, live appearances, television and radio spots with Bing Crosby as his straight man. But, Bob was also very capable playing off others as well as doing standup monologues.

Jack Benny seemed to revel in playing straight man to his radio and television guests. His attitude was the more jokes they got the better it was because all people remembered the next day was how funny and good the show was. A classic television scene where Jack played both top and second banana well was when he went shopping for food in a grocery store. He let a couple of minor walk-on characters get laughs at his expense and then he had the audience rolling on the floor by staging hilarious interactions with food props. And, of course, there was Rochester Van Jones- Jack’s long time ‘valet’. Rochester got the laughs feeding off of Jack’s straight lines. The saving grace was Jack’s famous stare that returned the focus back to him

In business, the second banana is not allowed to flub his lines. I’ve always thought it unfair that you still pay the doctor even if he screwed up the diagnosis or, worse- the surgery. If I made one critical mistake out of hundreds of lines of programming code, I’m the culprit and my skills are questioned. But, I guess it’s better than a pie in the face.

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