If a comedy show has three main characters, they will almost always fill stock roles in the plot. To get how it works, imagine this scenario:
Three people are in a car. The navigator considers himself The Leader and the smartest, who tries to get the three of them to their destination; but he's seriously out of touch with reality, or has no idea what he's doing but refuses to admit it, and shouts bizarre directions that will inevitably lead to the car going off a cliff.
The driver is a total moron who blindly does whatever he's told. So, with the navigator screaming directions at him, the car approaches the cliff. In theory, the driver could stop at any time, but he keeps following instructions out of stupidity, ignorance, or spinelessness.
Meanwhile, trapped in the back seat, is the Only Sane Man. He doesn't have to be smart, but he is the only guy who is fully aware they're about to fly off a cliff, and he's completely unable to stop it. He tries to alert the navigator, but he can't outshout that bullying idiot. He tries to reason with the driver, but since he obviously isn't the designated navigator, the driver happily ignores him. He then looks to the wheel to grab it from the driver, but he doesn't have the guts to try, and risk crashing the car himself. It is his reaction that is usually focused on most as the car goes sailing off the cliff...
Often the Only Sane Man resigns himself to his position of powerlessness, even Breaking the Fourth Wall to comment on the hopeless situation. This kind of third man orten becomes a Deadpan Snarker to deal with their inevitable and repeated doom, and is the most likely to remain calm as the car plummets to its doom.
That's the Comic Trio. One character powers the plot with their bizarre obsessions, one keeps it going by blindly following orders, and a Straight Man fails to prevent the disaster.
In clowning, these positions are referred to as Whiteface, Auguste, and Tramp.
- The Three Stooges may have been the original Comic Trio - certainly they're the guys we're most likely to think of. Moe comes up with dumb schemes, Curly carries them out (while making them even dumber), and Larry is just too spineless to avoid being dragged along. (Sometimes, but only sometimes, Larry's aware of the stupidity of a plan; he's got a less crippling case of Cloudcuckoolander than Curly does.)
- The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico and Harpo) became this as well a bit later in the 1930s when Zeppo left the group.
Anime and Manga
- The Team Rocket trio in the Pokémon anime: Jessie and Meowth alternate roles as scheming navigator and driver, though Jessie is often more loudmouthed, while James more often than not suffers in some way, frequently at the expense of his bottle cap collection. James also can act as the driver when Jessie is the navigator, with Meowth too nervous about getting yelled at by Jessie to do anything (often the scenario in earlier episodes). Whenever any one of them decides to enter a competition (other than Jessie's Pokémon Contests) and try to win fair and square for once, they can always count on the other two mess everything up by obliviously playing the villain right as the "good" third actually seems to have a chance at winning.
- It's also been well established that Brock can't follow a map to save his life and Ash (at least before Misty left) is more enthusiastic than smart. He actually even marched right off a cliff once, though, too his credit, he was in a dense fog.
- Shin-chan thinks Ryuko, Ogin and Mary (the Crimson Scorpions of Saitama) are this. Hilarity Ensues!
- The Yorozuya from Gintama qualifies. Kagura is the schemer, Gintoki is the follower (despite being the leader of the group), and Shinpachi is the voice of reason, but they change the roles every now and then.
- Also Ino-Shika-Cho in Naruto during the Chunin Exams specifically. Their first team battle when saving Sakura is amusing to say the least (the anime even gives it some quirky, fun background music) and in the Viz translation of the manga, Naruto even refers to them as 'The Three Stooges'.
- They even seem to fit the roles of the Comic Trio too: back then, Ino was definitely the hot-headed, driving force of the team, often shooting down the lazy but intelligent Shikamaru's ideas, while bossing Choji around
- Comic subversion: Jeff Smith's Bone. While it may seem that the Bone cousins each fill the workings of the Comic Trio early on (Phoney is a schemer, Smiley is stupid, Fone is powerless), it becomes more obvious as the series progresses that this is not the case: Fone can exert some power and definitely has a backbone, Phoney might only be greedy because all three of them were orphaned at an early age and, being the oldest of the three, he had the reponsibility of looking after the cousins himself. He also becomes slightly more sympathetic as the comic goes on. Smiley is more obvious, as he is not stupid, just very optimistic, and even later agrees with Fone that Phoney might not always be right.
- Played with in Planetary: Elijah Snow is eager to discover the secret history of the world and fight The Four., Jakita Wagner generally follows him because it stops her from getting bored, and The Drummer usually recognizes that it's dangerous but he's too crazy to make his case clearly (and they wouldn't listen if he did).
Films -- Animated
- Mulan: Yao, Chien-Po and Ling. In the sequel, they form a Five-Man Band with Mulan and Shang, and get romantically paired with the Three Faces of Eve.
- The Hyenas from The Lion King. Shenzi has the power as Navigator, Banzai does what she tells him, and while far from sane, Ed is the guy in the back seat, along for the ride.
Films -- Live-Action
- The Three Stooges must have been the original inspiration for this trope: Moe was the leader, Curly was the idiot blindly doing whatever he's told(as was his replacement Shemp to a lesser extent), and Larry was the Only Sane Man.
- Planet of the Apes has a whole society based on this. The orangutans run things, the gorillas carry their plans out, and the chimpanzees have all the brains and none of the power.
- The 2001 movie exchanges the orangutans and chimpanzees' roles, possibly as a response to Science Marches On.
- The three main characters of The Hangover: Phil leads the charge in finding Doug, Stu complains ineffectually throughout the film and Alan goes along with it all.
- The Three Caballeros: Donald, Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles.
- Mystery Team: Jason, Duncan and Charlie.
- The Bunnicula series: Chester is the leader, Howie follows him around, and Harold is the skeptic who can't stop Chester's wild imagination.
- The Golden Trio ended up being this in the early Harry Potter books, with Harry being the Leader, Ron being the Idiot and Hermione being the Complainer.
- In Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, Axel Lidenbrock sees himself as the sane guy, his uncle as the leader, and their guide Hans as the blind follower. It later turns out they're a more effective Power Trio than they look...
- Marunde, Abdel, and Lazy in Someone Elses War.
- In The Goodies, the three characters alternated these roles regularly.
- Most commonly, it seemed to be Graeme being the leader, Bill carrying through his schemes, and Tim disagreeing, but requiring the money for the job enough to go along. Then again, as Graeme was at times too distracted to carry through all the way, Tim was at times dedicated enough to serving England to take over leadership, and Bill had his moments of inspiration too, the roles did switch around a lot. Occasionally it would even avoid seperating the roles - in one episode, Graeme is a power mad pirate radio station owner, and both Bill and Tim are the powerless snarkers.
- In the classic Last of the Summer Wine trio Foggy comes up with the schemes, Compo is the one who knows it'll lead to disaster, but can't do anything to stop it, and Clegg is not so much clueless as content to offer wry observations from the sidelines, since he's never the one it's happening to.
- The Trio from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Warren is the schemer, Jonathan is powerless even though his conscience might otherwise lead him to speak up against Warren; and Andrew may not be stupider than the others, but he's by far the most out of touch with reality.
- Andrew's also the one most likely to do whatever Warren tells him to, no matter how stupid or evil, due to his idol crush on him (or just plain crush, depending on how you interpret Andrew's character).
- Later seasons of Mash have one in the form of Hawkeye (bizarre one), B.J. (the one who goes along), and Winchester (the smart one). Earlier seasons had the first two roles covered, but no one else at the 4077th was smart/sane enough to see what was coming (except for Radar on occasion).
- Top Gear has a lot of shuffling with this, although Jeremy's usually the schemer, with Richard and James trading off on the stupid/going along with it and the helpless.
- In a few episodes of Supernatural such as "Tall Tales" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me," Sam, Dean, and Bobby transition from a Power Trio to a Comic Trio. Sam comes up with an idea, Dean helps him carry it out, and then Bobby shows up when it goes wrong and tells them that they're idiots.
- The guys and the girls of Coupling tend to split off into separate comic trios. Specifically, Susan and Steve tend to be the sensible ones, whilst Patrick and Sally are the ditzy navigators, and Jeff and Jane are basically nuts.
- The Tanner sisters from Full House. Michelle is definitely the naïvely used one, but while DJ takes charge, she's pretty much the Only Sane Man. Stephanie is quite intelligent, but is more of a Ditzy Genius who makes things crazier by going along with DJ (often to her annoyance). In the end, both often share the blame for what happens. Lampshaded once where they were called "the Three Stooges in pantyhose".
- Heartbeat: A few seasons in, one formed between Claude, David and Bernie. Claude schemes, David gullibly does the dirty work, and Bernie is smart and powerless. After Claude left, Bernie's brother Vernon filled the role before David's Aunt Peggy replaced him.
- In Pigs in Space on The Muppet Show plays with the roles a bit. Link Hogthrob is the leader, Miss Piggy is loudmouthed and Dr. Strangepork is insane, so they all have characteristics of the navigator. Link is usually too dumb, though. Strangepork is the smartest, but Piggy is the sane one.
- Power Rangers Ninja Storm: Shane is the leader, Dustin is more laid back than dumb, and Tori is "the responsible one".
- In The Office, Michael, Dwight and Jim often act as this with Michael being the leader, Dwight being the blindly obedient one and Jim being the only one with sense, particularly evident when they team up in the 'Branch Wars' episode. Ironically, in another episode of that season Dwight acts as the smart man while Michael blindly obeys (and misinterprets) the directions of his GPS, driving directly into a clearly visible lake.
- Also the trio who start the Michael Scott Paper Company in Season Five. Michael is once again the leader. Ryan is usually the guy who follows him—or at least doesn't question him much—but arguably in the episode "Broke" he is analogous to a navigator as he formulates their unworkable company strategy. Pam is the closest thing this company has to an Only Sane Man although she is Not So Above It All by virtue of having joined in the first place. She even compares the company to a crashed car.
- 30 Rock loves this. See:
- The Tracy Jordan Entourage. Tracy is the unstable leader, Dot Com is the smart and powerless guy, Grizz is the enabler.
- The actors on the show. In this case, Tracy is the follower, while Jenna is the crazy leader and Danny is the smart one.
- In the writers room, we have Frank as the leader, Lutz as the follower, and Toofer as the smart guy.
- One could also make a case with Jack as the leader, Jonathan as the follower, and Liz as the smart one, but Jack also tends to be right.
- The Gang in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia shuffle roles around many episodes, but Mac, Dennis and Charlie are the most common trio. Dee, Artemis and The Waitress are the Distaff Counterpart.
- The Stellas fit this trope to a T. Michael Black is the leader, Michael Showalter the smart one, and poor David is the third guy.
- Team Fortress 2: The Soldier, Scout and Heavy seem to form this in several 'Meet the Team' videos.
- A more literal example appeared during Mac Update.
- The Chaotix of Sonic the Hedgehog. Vector is the schemer, Charmy is the follower, and Espio is usually powerless.
- In Sonic Colors, Eggman is the schemer, Cubot is the follower, and Orbot is powerless.
- Team Rose in Sonic Heroes: Amy is the schemer, Big is the follower, and Cream is powerless.
- Mario, Luigi, and Yoshi, under certain interpretations. Mario is the schemer, Yoshi the follower, and Luigi is powerless.
- Being one of the more light-hearted and comical iterations of the franchise, Final Fantasy X-2 has Yuna, who is meant to be the leader but typically ends up the follower to her cousin (or anyone else for that matter), while Paine is powerless.
- Subverted in Achewood with the three cats who started out as a real Comic Trio, but after some character development: Ray is the navigator (a subversion since his plans, no matter how insane, ALWAYS work out), Beef follows Ray's lead (he's a manic depressive with passivity to a fault—but still the only person capable of talking Ray out of anything), and Pat is the "smart one" (but so "smart" that he's unbearably obnoxious, and so unwilling to listen to other points of view that he ends up making the wrong calls in the end).
- Freefall plays Sam as the Schemer, Helix as the Follower, and Florence as the Sane (Wo)Man. Alternatively, Florence or Sawtooth play sane men to Qwerty and Dvorak.
- Two Guys and Guy typically has Guy as the leader/navigator, Frank the idiot/driver (though he enables the situation through his apathy rather than his ignorance), and Wayne the complainer/backseat, though the roles can shift depending on the joke.
- On Homestar Runner, in some cartoons Strong Bad is the schemer, Strong Mad is stupid, and The Cheat is the smart one who's powerless. Just as often, though, Homestar will be the stupid one, and Strong Bad will be smart and powerless.
- The side characters "The Unstoppable Three!" at Super-Hero School Whateley Academy in the Whateley Universe. Captain Bravo (flying brick with energy beams from his eyes) is the schemer (well, the leader), Hyper (speedster) is the follower, and Long John (stretchy 'Mister Fantastic' type) is powerless. Even the people they attack mock them.
Phase: "Long John? You named yourself after underwear? What, 'Fruit of the Loom' was taken?"
- Sort of subverted in Park Bench, since there's no real straight man, but the three take turns powering the plot (although it's barely ever Tully, and sometimes isn't anyone).
- The Balloon Shop are a three piece comedy troupe, formed by Olan Rogers (The loud and jovial one), Thomas Gore(The closest any of them can get to being a straight man), and Joshua Pursley(The butt of nearly every joke). The three made videos after meeting each other in High School. There are no solid roles for any of the characters, because the roles change depending on each video. Their videos range from fairly realistic (BBQ Fiesta) to insanely unrealistic and kooky (Birds, and The Sargentos)
Josh: Chris, couldja calm down? We TOLDJA what we do wit double crossers.
- The Red Team in Red Vs. Blue are often examples of this, with Sarge being the navigator, Simmons going along with it through thoughts of promotion and glory, and Grif being too lazy to stop them
- Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Shake is insane, Meatwad is stupid, Frylock is powerless.
- This is a possible Double Subversion, insofar as, as a superhero, Frylock is easily the most powerful of the three, with a great deal of inherent destructive potential plus gadgeteering. He's just completely ineffectual when it comes to stopping Shake's antics.
- To be fair, Frylock, as said, is far from powerless, he just has a lot of self-restraint.
- My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic has the mildly ditzy Sweetie Belle, the gung-ho Scootaloo, and the practical, sane Applebloom. Generally, Scootaloo will suggest something crazy, Applebloom will go along with it and Sweetie Belle (who despite being a bit ditzy actually has the most Common Sense of the three) won't complain loud enough to avoid getting dragged along. Apple Bloom isn't stupid by any means, she's just game for anything.
- Beast Wars: Inferno, Quickstrike and Waspinator are frequently paired together to carry out minor schemes of Megatron's. Inferno is in charge and gives the orders, but is absolutely batshit crazy. Quickstrike's a complete idiot who will blindly follow anyone who gives him a chance to slag somebody. Waspinator is aware of how ridiculous the two are but is too powerless to do anything but complain to himself, and usually suffers for it.
- Transformers has two more trios like this. In Transformers Armada, Rad is the ringleader, Carlos right behind him, Alexis trying to keep them out of trouble. In Transformers Prime, Too Dumb to Live Miko puts herself In Harm's Way explicitly because it's fun to her, Jack follows to save her butt (thrusting him into 'driver' role despite his not really thinking "let's go into the middle of a warzone because it's KEWL LOLZ!" is a great plan) while Raf takes the Alexis role.
- Futurama: Mom's sons, Walt, Larry and Igner. It's subverted in that the leader, Walt, is actually the most intelligent of the three. However, he still comes up with some pretty awful plans, usually revolving around ridiculous disguises, while Igner is retarded and Larry even more spineless than most comic trios to compensate. The main reason they succeed at all is because Fry is the frequent target of their plans.
Mom: "Be careful. You'll need all your stoogely cunning..."
- The main three characters often display this dynamic with Bender and Fry switching off between the driver and navigator, with Leela as the straight man.
- Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy: Eddy is the schemer, Ed is stupid, Edd is powerless.
- Catscratch: Mr. Blik is the schemer, Waffle is stupid, Gordon is powerless.
- Variant: SpongeBob SquarePants. SpongeBob is demented, Patrick is stupid, Squidward is powerless. The difference is that Squidward is the bossy, unsympathetic one. So the audience roots for SpongeBob instead, even as he leads the trio off the cliff.
- Alternately, the Krusty Krab trio can be considered this, with Mr. Krabs as the scheming leader, Spongebob as the idiot that goes along with everything, and Squidward as the straight man who's largely ignored by the other two.
- Alvin and The Chipmunks: Alvin is the schemer, Theodore is more timid than dumb, and Simon is the smart one who's powerless.
- Looney Tunes shorts would sometimes combine Bugs, Daffy and Elmer this way. Daffy is the pushy and loud one, Elmer is the stupid one who'll do anything, and Bugs is the smart one. In a bit of subversion, since he's the "hero" of the story, he doesn't end up going off the cliff as much as Daffy does in his place.
- Perhaps an even better example would be Chuck Jones' Three Bears series, with Pa as the bossy one, Junyer as the idiot, and Ma as the sane one who's ignored.
- Even with more than three main characters, this trope can pop up. In Kappa Mikey, for example, these tend to crystalize around Mikey as the crazy one, with Gonard generally the stupid one, and Guano. Lily, or Mitsuki as the powerless one, as the plot demands. The roles can switch around, though... One episode actually has Ozu as the crazy one, Mikey as the stupid one, and Yes Man as the powerless one.
- Mickey, Donald and Goofy arguably fit, but their roles don't play out the same. Donald Duck could be the loudmouthed jerk and Goofy could be the submissive idiot (Mickey Mouse is more or less the sensible but ineffectual straight man, anyway), but a lot of the time Donald is actually right; Goofy is the one to cause the trouble while Donald ends up suffering for it.
- The Justice Friends: Major Glory is the schemer, Krunk is stupid, and Valhallen is powerless.
- Fairly Oddparents - Timmy tries to navigate them to the destination (he wishes for stuff), Cosmo is the driver (he grants the wishes without thinking about the results because he's The Ditz) and Wanda's the powerless smart person. She tries to stop Timmy from making the dumb wishes but he never listens.
- Hank, Dale, and Bill from King of the Hill fit this trope. Dale is a paranoid schemer, Bill is a dolt who goes along with it, and Hank is the voice of reason that they almost always ignore.
- The Smoggies: Emma is a vain, greedy schemer, Polluto is a stupid strongman, and Captain Clarence is a spineless geek.
- Sonic, Sally, and Antoine in Sonic the Hedgehog are an actually 'Serious tv show' version. Sally leads, Sonic cheerfully follows (but busts her chops a lot) and Antoine is powerless to go against their ideas.
- Sometimes in the comics, Sally would be absent making Sonic the leader and Tails would fill in as the Yes-man with Antoine still being powerless.
- Clifford, Cleo, and T-Bone in Clifford the Big Red Dog are an example. Cleo's the impulsive one. Clifford's the dog who goes along. T-Bone's the voice of reason who usually gets ignored.
- Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog has Scratch, who originates most schemes independent of Robotnik, Grounder, who tries to carry them out, and Robotnik himself, who's left fuming at the mess they get into. When Robotnik dispatches all three of his robots to capture Sonic, Cocconuts, the smartest of the three, is usually powerless.
- The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron is a strange example as Jimmy is the schemer, Sheen goes along but the role of the voice of reason depends on the episode. If it's just Carl with them, then he's the powerless sense of reason. If Cindy and Libby come along though then those two (especially Cindy) are the voice of reason while Carl becomes just another follower.
- Megas XLR: Coop is the schemer. If he wants to do something, he will, and in his way. Jamie usually complies with a fist bump and horns of rocks. Kiva lets Coop know that what he's planning won't work, but to no avail.
- The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy is a good example. Mandy is a scheming evil genius, Billy is stupid (very stupid), and Grim is the Only Sane Man who is powerless because he lost a game¨of limbo.
- Gorillaz had this during the Plastic Beach/ Phase 3 story arc. Murdoc is an amoral, insane mastermind, Cyborg Noodle follows (in all fairness she's a robot and most likely has no sense or what's right and wrong), and 2D -who's become surprisingly more intelligent since being kidnapped- constantly snarks at and criticizes Murdoc but can't really do anything without getting the crap beaten out of him. The example at the top of the page is used almost exactly during the video for Stylo (only the leader is driving instead of the follower), in which Murdoc actually does drive like a madman whilst 2D slumps back in his seat, running his hands over his face.