Lou Costello needed Bud Abbott. Tommy Smothers depended on his brother, Dick. And in the new FX series "Legit," Australian comic Jim Jefferies leans heavily on Minnesotan Dan Bakkedahl, the "normal" guy who reacts in bewilderment to Jefferies' outrageous behavior. Like: musing out loud about the advantages of marrying a dying woman so he could raise a child without being tied down to a wife, or taking a young man with muscular dystrophy to a brothel.
Bakkedahl may not be the star of the show, but his contributions are absolutely essential if "Legit," which premieres Thursday, has any hope of breaking out of television's ever-growing pack of dark-hearted sitcoms.
"The hardest challenge in comedy is always going to be being the straight man," said the show's executive producer, Peter O'Fallon, a veteran of more than 10 TV series. "You're the pivot on the joke."
Not that Bakkedahl doesn't generate laughs of his own. In one scene from an early episode, he awkwardly drops insults in a desperate attempt to pick up a co-worker. Later in the season, he has a nervous breakdown on the witness stand, confessing out of nowhere that he once stole a "Casper" comic book.
But the 43-year-old Twin Cities native, who was born in Rochester and moved to Mound when he was 2, is well aware that the show revolves around Jefferies and that his primary job is making sure the up-and-coming comic gets a chance to show off his anything-goes sense of humor.
"There's a selfish desire to get the laughs, but you've got to really be focused on the big picture," Bakkedahl said by phone during a break from his second-to-last day of shooting. "If I'm shaking my head or clucking my tongue, then I've served a need and hopefully am representing the same feeling the audience has."
As someone with six older siblings, Bakkedahl learned from an early age how to play well with others.
His sisters amused themselves by dressing him up in silly costumes and snapping pictures. When his oldest brother got hold of a video camera, the family turned into the cast of something akin to "Lake Minnetonka Live," with 8-year-old Dan slipping into John Belushi's role as the deli-counter samurai. When he inherited the camera in the late '70s, he produced, edited and starred in his own version of "Laugh-In."
"My family let my freak flag fly," he said.
But despite his interest in performing, Bakkedahl didn't think he could make a career out of it.
"Having never won a game of anything, I assumed I was unlucky," he said. "Why bother?"
That attitude changed when he transferred from St. Cloud State University to Florida State University, where a professor persuaded him that he could make a living as an actor.
"I heard him, I believed him and I finally started applying myself to something," he said. "When I got this gig, he was the second person I called, after my mom."
Success didn't come easy. Bakkedahl took odd jobs in Chicago and would drive up to Minnesota every three weeks to get more than moral support from relatives.
"I was sometimes broke, exhausted and ready to quit," he siad. "But they'd send me home with a plateful of food, an extra $20 and the feeling that I could do this."
By 2003, he was a regular at Chicago's Second City, which helped launch the careers of Dan Aykroyd, Steve Carell and Tina Fey.
Two years later, he became a correspondent for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," taking over the office that once was Stephen Colbert's.
His family's die-hard support was finally paying off.
"We were so proud of him," said stepbrother Jon Bakkedahl, who owns Riley's Cannibal Junction, a bar in Deer River, Minn. "We'd sit around the bar when 'The Daily Show' came on, unplug the jukebox and tell everyone to shut up."
Bakkedahl is well aware that most people outside Minnesota won't know his name, even after "Legit" hits the air. This is Jefferies' shot at the big time. But Bakkedahl is more than ready to go along for the ride.
"I'm certainly not the most important person on this show," he said. "But I may be equally as important."
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