Years ago, The Dick Van Dyke show had a classic episode where Laura (played by Mary Tyler Moore) got her toe stuck in a bathtub. What made this brilliant was that Carl Reiner kept Laura off screen for a fair amount of the episode. We could hear her, but did not see her which added to the comedy since the audience had to imagine what was going on.
This idea of having a character we can hear, or we hear about, but never see is a very popular one in sitcoms. When the viewer has to imagine what the person looks like it adds mystique to the character, and makes the jokes broader since you can practically make anything up as long we never see the person.
Sometimes these characters are nothing more than a voice, or we may see parts of the character but no face. In some instances we don’t even hear the person but they are spoken of so often and in such detail they have are as much of a character as anyone on the show. The soap opera â€œPassionsâ€ did this with its main villain Alistair; we only saw his legs or the back of his head until his face was finally revealed. In the world of TV Tropes, this is known as He Who Must Not Be Seen. I wanted to take a look at just how often this has been done over the years.
Laverne & Shirley-The girls worked at Schotz brewery, and the owner was never seen (aside from a portrait). We only heard his voice over a loud speaker when he addressed the staff.
Mork & Mindy-Every week, Mork would report to Orson. Apparently his superior, Mork would basically summarize the events of the episode we had just seen. Orson was only heard, never seen.
Rhoda-For those who don’t know, Rhoda was a spin-off of Mary Tyler Moore staring Valerie Harper. Rhoda lived in a building which had a doorman named Carlton who was only heard over the intercom. He was never seen. If you ever catch an episode, you may think the voice sounds an awful like Garfield. That’s because they were both played by Lorenzo Music.
MASH-The camp’s PA announcer was never seen, but heard in pretty much every episode. Of course there were family members especially Col Potter’s wife, Mildred, who was spoken of frequently.
Cheers-Well, you knew this show was going to be on here. I think this show set the standard for how these kinds of characters would be treated. Norm was married to a very patient woman named Vera. Vera was never seen, the closest being that classic Thanksgiving episode when she had her face covered by a pie. Another episode we did see her legs. She was heard occasionally. The one thing about Vera was that she was never described in any outlandish way. Norm hated spending any time with her and never said anything nice about her but he never really put her down either. One almost felt she was a nice woman who just tolerated being married to a guy who was never home and fled from any and all responsibility (I admit I have hardly seen every episode of Cheers, so if I am incorrect then please let me know).
Out of This World-Does anyone remember this cheesy 80’s sitcom? Donna Pescow was the star, and in the show she has a daughter who has magical abilities because her father was an alien. Eve could freeze time (I loved that power!) and as the series went on do other things. Her father was never seen, only heard through a crystal communication thing where his voice would come out. I know, doesn’t sound like a typical family sitcom. The strangest thing, is that Burt Reynolds was the voice of the father
Seinfeld-There were actually a few of these in this show. First was Jerry’s much talked about Cousin Jeffrey. I believe he worked for the parks department? Kidding, thanks to Uncle Leo we know all about Jeffrey. Then there was Elaine’s sister who we never saw. Kramer had a bunch of friends we never saw, the most notable example would be Bob Sacamano. Finally, George Steinbrenner was only seen from the back. We never saw what he looked like from the front.
Frasier-I guess it stands to reason that the Cheers spin-off would copy some of the same gags. However this show took that gag and took it up a notch. This time it’s Niles wife, Maris, who is never seen (or heard, in this case). The difference here is that Maris is given some very harsh character traits. Her physical appearance is apparently very very thin. She is also a snobby, rich socialite who has a very important place in upper Seattle society. She is from all accounts paranoid and very neurotic. Not to mention mean and vindictive. Where Vera had little control over anything Norm did, Maris controlled Niles like a puppet in the years they were married. Maris was simply a horrible person.
Friends-One of the regular gags in the early days of this show was the neighbor who the friends all spied on. Known simply as Ugly Naked Guy, he was the brunt of several punch lines over the years. The closest we ever get to seeing was in his last appearance, and that was from behind. He is apparently very obese, but has an active lifestyle.
Home Improvement-I had to mention Wilson. For the eight years the show was on we never got a good look at his face. It was always blocked by a fence (and other things). We also never got to really see Al’s mother, however we sure heard a lot about her. As usual with these kinds of characters, she was described as a very heavy set woman.
Will & Grace-Karen Walker was married to the wealthy Stan Walker, who is never seen or heard. The most we ever saw was a hand or a foot. As usual, he has been described as being very obese, almost a metric ton by the end of the series. From all accounts he seems like a nice enough guy. Of course he did get thrown in jail where he had an affair and cheated on his wife, so I guess he wasn’t perfect. However, where Karen is only with him for the money, it is made clear he truly loves her, only heaven knows why.
Big Bang Theory-Yes, this trope is alive and well. Howard Wolowitzâ€™z mother is never seen but is heard, very loudly, off screen. Some of the funniest moments of this show come from scenes where Howard and his mother are screaming at each other. Again, she is described as a very large, almost obese woman. It really seems to be required that characters like these have to either be very obese or have some other bizarre body shape. The voice is provided by a character actress who has done tons of bit parts.
The Office-This doesn’t really count, but I had to ask, who are these filmmakers anyway? I would like to see the series finale end with the camera being turned around so we can see who has been filming and interviewing these people this whole time!
As we can see, this is very common. Very often these shows have family members often spoken of for punch lines but never seen. We had Rudyâ€™s friend Kenny’s male chauvinist brother in The Cosby Show, Steve Urkel’s parents in Family Matters, Kimmy Gibbler’s family in Full House, Sophia’s cross-dressing son Phil on The Golden Girls, Phyllis’s much talked about husband Lars on Mary Tyler Moore, Margaret’s husband Lewis on Becker, and even Peg’s mother in Married…with Children (who was, once again, reportedly very obese).
Of course this is not confined to sitcoms. TV’s most famous example was from Charlie’s Angels. We never saw Charlie, only heard his voice. We never met the elusive Robin Masters who hired Magnum P.I. although the final episode hinted it was Higgins all along. Orson Wells provided this voice.
Cartoons have this also. In the classic Peanuts cartoons we know everyone has parents and teachers but the adults hardly appear. When they do we never see their faces and if they have to speak, the words are mumbled with that classic sound effect everyone knows. We never saw the face of Dr.Claw in Inspector Gadget. Nanny in Muppet Babies was only shown from the legs down. This kind of thing happened often in old MGM cartoons such as Tom & Jerry.