This is a sad topic but one worth addressing. We don’t usually associate memorable character deaths with comedy shows. Sitcoms are supposed to be, well, funny! But very often a sitcom will kill off a character unexpectedly, and that will stay with us more powerfully than any funny moment from the show. I want to talk about some examples today, and there is one important thing that all of these examples have in common but I will save that discussion for the end.
A few things to remember about this list before I begin. I am talking only about character deaths, where the actor was just fine. No episodes dedicated to a real death in the cast will be discussed, because those are naturally going to be sad. Besides that topic could be its own list. Also these have to be regular moments from ordinary episodes and the death has to be story related and not a stunt. And no episode where a character is killed off due to behind the scenes problems. Shows like Hogan Family and Two and a Half Men did this and in one case the death was just glossed over while in the other case the death was made into a huge joke and not taken seriously. Good Times at least took it seriously when they killed off John Amos’s character, that episode is chilling. And finally, no cop out’s, the character has to have stayed dead.
So with all that said, here are moments that sneak up on you when you least expect it. These are in no specific order. Oh, and we can argue whether or not some of these are really “sitcoms” all day, but they are considered comedies and that is enough for me.
This was leaked by the tabloids, and when I first heard it I was apalled! I refused to believe it! Alas, it was true. When the time for the end to the George is getting married arc came, Larry David decided the only way out was to kill Susan off! How did this happen? She dies from licking poisoned envelopes that George picked out. Even for Seinfeld this was dark, and what really got people’s attention was the reaction. In most of these examples the death’s are met with tears. Of course, you can’t have that on Seinfeld where Susan Ross’s death is met with…apathy if anything. Of course who can forget the Pony Remark episode where Jerry accidently offends an aunt, who passes away the next day!
If you are AT ALL familiar with this show then you know what I am going to discuss, I could just stop here. But let’s discuss it anyway. When McLean Stevenson decided to leave the series, his character of Henry Blake got a great send off. In a very good episode that ends with him saying goodbye to everyone, before boarding a helicopter for home. What happened next wasn’t just a surprise to the audience, but to the cast themselves! They literally got the script seconds before shooting! As it turns out, the helicopter got shot down over enemy territory. After Radar gives this news (barely able to speak), the camera simply pans over the operating room. Not another word is said. It didn’t have to. One of the strongest and most powerful moments ever.
The Wonder Years
This episode won for Best Writing in a comedy series, and it deserved it. We had a series of episodes dealing with Kevin and his new math teacher, Mr.Collins. At first he hates Mr.Collins. Then he agrees to personally help Kevin after school.Â As his grades improve Kevin learns to really respect the guy. Then one day Kevin arrive at school and when Mr.Collins doesn’t show up, Kevin is mad at him. Until he finds out why he isn’t there, the shocking news that Mr.Collins passed away suddenly.Â As time has gone by there is very little from this show I really remember. Meet the exception. Kevin learns a few lessons in this episode. In the end he aced the test and will always have respect for his favorite teacher. What a sweet and very well written show.
For such a crazy and funny show, man could it bring on the drama! There are several examples I could talk about but today I wanted to specifically discuss the infamous Brendan Fraser episode. I think Doug Walker called it the Sixth Sense episode, and he didn’t like it. I admit it, the episode tricked me and I was moved by it. I will try to summarize this one briefly. Brendan Fraser’s character is visiting, and before the end of act 1 we are led to believe that JD lost a patient we saw earlier. Dr Cox is upset at him while Fraser’s character tries to convince Perry to forgive him and deal with his feelings. He does, and we realize that the person who died was Fraser’s character! I guess Fraser had been a figment of Perry’s imagination the whole second act because Perry refused to accept it. I admit this one got me, and I missed the telltale clue that the character’s camera was missing after act 1, the camera he said he would have until he died. Nice touch and I liked this well done episode.
I talked about this one a long time ago, but there was no way I could avoid talking about here.Â When you watch this episode you never, ever see this coming, it is one of the most shocking deaths I have ever see in a show. This is the famous episode where Carol’s boyfriend ends up in a hospital after a night of drinking. For the most part it’s a pretty average episode. At the hospital we see Carol talking to her boyfriend, named Sandy, and all seems fine. He is laughing and in good spirits. Everything looks like it will work out, until the Seaver’s return home. Mike appears, and informs everyone that Sandy died while they were headed home. It seems he had been bleeding internally the whole time. The rest is one of the most emotional scenes ever see on a sitcom. This scene is about as sad and poignant as you can get, and Tracy Gold really sells it. The family hugs as the screen goes to black and it gives me chills to this day.
I put this one here for a simple reason which I will explain in a second. First, the premise. Jessie’s uncle from Greece has come to spend time with the family. After doing just that, just before the first act ends we find that the grandfather had passed away between transitions. Obviously there is more to the episode but that is the gist. The reason I talk about this episode is because this is a VERY GOOD episode. I mean Full House has its problems but they don’t kid around with this story. The family is devastated and grieving, and it was just a well done show. One small gripe with that episode has always been that Joey really is useless in it. But aside from that, great episode.
Will & Grace
When Will & Grace was nearing the end of its run, it got really dramatic for some reason. And boring, but that’s another article. In one episode Will gets into an argument with his father. There is a misunderstanding and some things are said, and Will ends up leaving angry. At the end of the episode Will finally decides to take a call from his father who he had been avoiding since the fight. However, the call turns out to be Will’s mother who informs him that his father just had a heart attack and didn’t make it. Of course the follow up episode deals with Will trying to deal with the fact he never made peace with his dad.
Boy Meets World
Man was this show dramatic! This was a TGIF comedy right? This show had a teacher in a horrible accident, Cory’s baby brother having trouble after being born, and Topanga’s parents splitting up. But one of the saddest and unexpected moments has to be when Sean’s father suddenly passed away. Much like Will & Grace, it happens after an argument between Sean and his dad. But unlike the other show Sean at least got to see him one last time before the end and make peace.
Of course, sitcoms having parents suddenly pass away is nothing new. Webster, Growing Pains, Roseanne, The Golden Girls, Home Improvement, and How I Met Your Mother all did strong episodes where a parent suddenly passes away. Each of these shows did a different take on what is a tragic yet inevitable part of life. The odd thing is most of these shows it’s the father who dies. Except for Webster which did involve Katharine’s mother.Â The way that episode handled the sudden loss of a parent made it one of the most memorable episode of that show for me. Roseanne was unique because she had major issues with her father, issues she was forced to leave unresolved except for a letter she reads to his casket. And Home Improvement had Jill having to accept the fact the last thing she told her father was a lie meant to keep him from visiting. At least on Growing Pains Maggie got some things resolved, even if her father still died before they could go on a planned father/daughter fishing trip. And while How I Met Your Mother was the most recent, it was as powerful as these other shows when Marshallâ€™s father suddenly passed away in a haunting and heartbreaking episode. Strong stuff.
Kind of odd to see this show appearing, especially in a category like this. But in one interesting episode we got a rather sudden death. Ned Flanders had a wife, but she was not seen often or fleshed out much. Plus the voice actress left the show. So the creators decided to use that as a basis in this one episode, where Homer accidentally causes her death! How? His antics cause her to fall off the top row of a stadium and plummet to the parking lot below. Of course Ned can’t bring himself to blame Homer though he does almost lose his faith which is a big deal for this character. I almost didn’t include this because of my rule at the beginning, but this was sort of a unique situation so I decided to mention it.
By the way, pets are not exempt from this. One of the running gags on Alf was how he kept trying to eat the family cat, Lucky. Lucky almost became a supporting character, making cameos every so often. In one episode the poor kitty turns up dead. It’s actually a very heartwarming episode, after all we care for our pets just as much as people. I especially like one scene where a grief stricken Brian is mad at Alf and accuses him of hating Lucky. Alf assures him that was not true, and later when he adopts some kittens for meat he can’t bring himself to eat them. Losing a pet is a tough thing especially for a kid and nice to see a series tackle it. Everybody Loves Raymond had a good episode about Allyâ€™s hamster dying, of course Ray is a dufus through the whole show. Natually adults are not immune to pet death’s, which an episode of Murphy Brown reminded us in one episode about Jim losing his beloved dog Trickster.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the most famous sitcom episodes in history which centered around a sudden character death. The episode is the famous Chuckles the Clown episode. It is impossible for me to convey how funny this is in print, but here is the basic story. Chuckles the Clown was a favorite TV personality as host of a kids show and was a regular on MTM for a few years (in the sense that he was mentioned often, he appeared sparingly). After he suddenly dies after an incident with an elephant at a parade, everyone shares stories and laughs remembering him. Except Mary, who is aghast that people are laughing and carrying on. Then we get to the funeral, where everyone is grieving except Mary herself who gets a case of the giggles. Seriously this has to be seen so you can appreciate it, and besides the laughs the commentary on death is pretty profound. It was a very smart script full of laughs and TV Guide ranked it as the Greates Episode of All Time (in 1997). The real impressive part for me was that this was in the sixth season, how many classic episodes come from series that long into their run?
Finally, a lot of people may be thinking “What about Edith Bunker from All in the Family?” A lot of people may not realize Edith died after “All in the Family” morphed into “Archie Bunker’s Place”. As you may know I was not a fan of that show and just don’t know enough about that to comment. I have seen the clips and it was a sad and beautiful episode, but wasn’t it on the spin-off? Was it a surprise? I decided that to pretend to discuss it would be in bad taste especially seeing how the amazing Jean Stapleton really did pass away recently. She was fantastic; in fact she may have been the best thing on that show.
So what do all these examples have in common? What is the one thing they all do that makes these moments so memorable? All of the characters that died were characters we were familiar with. This is obvious with the MASH one, but even with the othesr we spent some time with these characterd and got to know them. Thus when we suddenly hear they died, it affects us more. In all the examples above these were recurring characters we liked, making their death’s much sadder. Brendan Fraser had already appeared in Scrubs, Matthew Perry was in a few episodes of Growing Pains, and so on.
Very often in sitcoms a show will kill off a character we never met, and the effect is not as strong. Take the classic Family Ties episode “A My Name is Alex” where Alex mourns the sudden passing of a friend. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s a very strong episode. One of the best in the series. But imagine how much stronger that episode would have been if we had met that friend before and spent some time with him? How about the Perfect Strangers episode where Balki has to accept the loss of his grandmother, a woman we never met which kind of dampens the otherwise somber and moving episode. And of course one of the first episodes of Friends had Ross and Monica’s grandmother die. Not only did we not know the grandmother but we didn’t even know Ross and Monica very well yet, making this episode a bore and one of the low points of season one. When the show killed of Mr.Heckles in season two we got a much better episode, because we had become familiar with Heckles as a character not to mention Chandler.
And of course there are times when a character death is so out of the blue or just plain ridiculous that it does not work at all and is even insulting to the character that has died. Designing Women killed off Hal Holbrook’s character Reese for no reason in what is a lame episode about Julia and a bratty child. On Cheers Carla lost her husband Eddie by a ridiculous means in a not so terrible episode which inexplicably turned him into a two timer. When Night Court was getting god awful, the show killed off a popular character, the derelict named Phil. This started a horrible story arc for Dan which I need a whole article to describe how stupid it was. Just Shoot Me had a horrible episode centered on a murder mystery, but a neighbor really dies. The rest of the group thinks itâ€™s part of the show and it’s dumb. And do we really need to discuss what happened to Dan Connor at the end of Roseanne??
I know I have missed other examples, but I think that will do. If you remember one I missed please feel free to share and comment.
Well, this was a depressing article. I need something to cheer me up. Hey, wait a minute…..I just remembered! My next article is going to be my 300th!! Got something a little special for that, which will be appearing soon.