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Sitcoms’ Importance Of Being Earnest

One of the odder things I’ve seen this week has been the online reaction to this week’s episode of CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Am I the only person who thinks that all the best comedies deal with tragedy in one way or another? (Spoilers for HIMYM follow, be warned.)

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, this week’s HIMYM ended with the death of lead character Marshall’s father, who himself had been a recurring guest in the series to date. The scene where this was revealed was handled with impressive sensitivity, and the show’s creators have promised that it’ll be a plot that’ll continue to run through the next few episodes, but a response I’ve been seeing a lot this week is along the lines of “Hey! Sitcoms aren’t supposed to be sad!”

Thing is, this just isn’t true.

There’s a grand history to “Very Special Episodes” of sitcoms, and I’m sure that everyone can remember at least one episode of a favorite sitcom where things suddenly got… well, not necessarily real, but at least more serious than usual (Normally involving one or more characters temporarily giving into temptation and/or peer pressure before realizing how wrong it is), but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Instead, I’m talking about the necessity for great sitcoms – the really, really good ones that people remember and talk about years after they’ve gone off-air – to occasionally step outside of comedy and into drama, in order to keep the characters grounded.

For a lot of great sitcoms, it’s not that far a stretch: M*A*S*H, Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development and The Larry Sanders Show, to name a handful off the top of my head, were all pretty much born from sadnesses of various types, and the comedy that they provided was always tinged with more than a little tragedy. For others – and I think HIMYM falls into this category – it’s an unexpected lurch that underscores how well-drawn the characters are, and reminds the audience that the show is something more than just a yockfest you tune into every now and again (Cheers‘ “Birth, Death, Love and Rice,” about the death of Coach, is a great example of this).

See, sitcoms need sadness. Sitcoms may not need to be sad on a regular basis, but they should be sad, every now and again, if only to remind us that the characters we’re watching are like us; It’s only through seeing the character deal with genuine sadness, trouble and worry do we really feel as if they’re anything approaching real people that we can care about, as opposed to machines set up to delivery set-ups or punchlines on a regular basis. Good writing doesn’t work in an emotional extreme – Remember how randomly funny Battlestar Galactica could be? Same thing – and tragedy makes comedy all the more powerful, not only through making it easier to define, but through making it all the more important.

I don’t know where HIMYM is going with the characters’ reactions to the death of Marshall’s father, but I’m looking forward to finding out, and seeing what the writers and actors do with the journey along the way.


  • pDUB

    well put, sir, i agree.

  • Mark_whittington0607

    Best example of this is Only Fools and Horses. That show could do both comedy and tragedy so well, even I found myself welling up during the episode where Cassandra miscarries.

  • Jaded Devil

    Well, great comedy can’t exist without drama and vice versa. Without the other element, you’re either a shallow farce or wallowing in suffering. You need the other element to offset the primary one and shine a greater light on it.

    The problem is that too many sitcoms can’t pull it off and it lapses into mawkish “very special episodes.” But I do remember episodes like the death of Coach on “Cheers” and the final episode of “Family Ties” (as well as some other FT shows as well) that handled the occasional step into drama very well. More recently, I’ve come to realize that my favorite episodes of “The Office” tend to be the ones where Michael Scott has his act together (like advising Jim to go after Pam on the “Booze Cruise” episode, or bargaining for his, Pam, and Ryan’s jobs at the end of the Michael Scott Paper Company storyline). Even more recently, they had a great episode of “Community” where Troy turned 21 and became the mature one for that episode as he witnessed all of his older, jaded friends lashing out while drunk. It was a nice spin for the character and the show.

  • tom

    I don’t think there’s a more extreme example of this than One Foot In the Grave – where situations would range from the hysterically funny to the utterly bleak in the space of a single episode. And usually, the humour and the horror were deeply interconnected.

  • Steve

    One of the “best” episodes of NewsRadio was the first episode of the fifth season. In it, the staff at WNYX deal with the sudden loss of their colleague Bill McNeal, played by the late Phil Hartman. You couldn’t help but share their heartache as the series AND the cast and crew paid tribute to their friend. Sure, it was funny, but the tender moments stand out to me the most.

  • Anonymous

    I think the one exception would be Seinfeld. I can’t remember a serious moment in the whole show.

  • Brian

    I don’t think people are complaining that it got sad. I think the problem was the countdown. It was a 22-minute set-up that had a tragedy as it’s punchline. That’s not a joke, that’s terrible.

  • niteman56

    Have to say taht American comedies tend to do the rare special episodes more now than in the 50’s and sixties,primarily due to Norman Lear’s shows. Edith’s rape, Gloria’s miscarriage and the infamous Maude’s abortion come to mind.
    Best funny death? Mary Tyle Moore show’s Chuckles the Clown.
    And as far as HIMYM goes, I seem to find this show nothing more than a Scrubs wanna be mixed with Friends. Come on, High Five Barney? That was The Todd, right down to the sexual innuendos.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah! I always was reminded and now I know of what. Thanks.You´re right.

  • SNL

    I totally agree. I think Scrubs is a perfect example of the comedy/sad moment balance. xx

  • SNL

    I’m not sure that’s how it was meant though, I think it was used right at the end to punch the back out of the elation at the test results. And in my opinion it was eluded to the whole way through, and was perfectly executed. I might just watch too much TV, but I did have a feeling that it was coming from the way it kept showing his dad in the workshop. Plus Marshall’s parents have been featured quite prominently this season. xx

  • Zach

    Not so. The Todd’s joke was how pathetic and clumsy he was. Barney is a smooth and effective ladies’ man. The high fives do not make them the same character.

  • Omar

    How could you not mention All in the family?? The king of being sad and funny.

  • Blotcho84

    I think some of my favorite sitcom episodes had sad or touching moments – look at NewsRadio, when Phil Hartman died.

    But, really? HIMYM being “not funny”? Sounds like every other episode to me.

  • Jacob

    I’ll never forget the episode where JT and Turk stay in the hospital all night with the dying black guy. I haven’t seen it in forever, but I won’t forget it.

  • Jacob

    I can’t remember a moment that would make me consider Seinfeld to be one of the greats (of course, to me, a “great” has to be worthy of being in the same sentence as M*A*S*H).

  • Randy Watson

    For the life of me I can’t see the appeal of HIMYM.

  • Fndloasdhl

    It’s ok, well-written, well-acted, funny shows aren’t for everyone. That’s why American Idol comes around in January, right? :)

  • Jeremy Henderson

    It’s a derivative, Friends-lite with a gimmick that is largely meaningless (is there really any reason for the Saget voiceovers anymore? Does anyone even care whether whatshisface meets his wife anymore?).

    But it’s still better than Big Bang Theory.

  • Jeremy Henderson

    C’mon, a discussion of great sad sitcom episodes, and no mention of Futurama’s Jurassic Bark, the episode so gut-wrenchingly sad they had to retcon it with a time travel plot?

  • Jaded Devil

    Oh, Jesus, I forgot about that one. I can’t even watch it again. I can get emotional watching shows if I’m caught off-guard and that one had me crying like a damn baby.

  • sitcoms should ALWAYS be funE

    MASH was always a comedic drama. Seinfeild was pure fun like Family guy or Southpark.

  • Jacob

    They never retconned him. They just expanded on what happened. Seymour was still petrified in the dolomite. The show established that he lived an additional twelve years after Fry was frozen. When Fry traveled to the past in Bender’s Big Score, Seymour lived those twelve years with Fry. If he had been cloned in Jurassic Bark, the memories Seymour had made would have been related to the events of Benders Big Score. Thankfully, we never saw those memories, so the movie was able to fit snugly inside established continuity.

  • NickP

    No one has mentioned the final episode of Blackadder – Perhaps that hasn’t made it to the US.

  • John

    Really no one is gonna mention Arnold, Dudley, and the Bike Shop?

  • SNL

    That’s got to be one of my favourite episodes from the whole run. It’s heartbreaking when the Death Cab For Cutie song comes on at the end, it still manages to be a funny episode though. Another one is the episode where Kelso is being forced out of the hospital, and sits on the bench telling his memories to an intern.

  • Whangw88

    I personally can’t stand these very special episodes. But than HIMYM is never very funny to begin with and seems to stick in at least one serious scene every episode. I’ll take Seinfeld’s handling of Susan’s death any day of the week.

  • Anonymous

    Not even a mention of Scrubs? No show handles the balance of comedy and drama better.

  • Anonymous

    The sitcom has historically been able to expand into extremes of the human condition. Think of something as lightly regarded for its drama as THAT 70’S SHOW: behind the drug and sex jokes, the cast dealt with long-term (not just one-and-done) ramifications of things like immigration, divorce, open relationships, failed relationships, emotional abuse, child abandonment, deaths of family members, even both the potential and limits of feminism.

    And all while appearing to be nothing more than a sex-and-drug show. If they can do it, I’m sure HIMYM can. (Although a better tack for the show to take would be to get to actually fulfilling the title premise after all these years…)

  • tom

    “No hugging, no learning” was Seinfeld’s mantra. They chose that format entirely intentionally. I don’t really see how that disqualifies it from being “one of the greats” because the format is different from MASH. Most people that work in entertainment seem to put it in their top three.

  • tom

    Susan’s death was serious… for about a minute…

  • Paul1963

    Another great example of this is the “Scrubs” episode, “My Screw Up.” That moment when J.D. asks Cox, “Where do you think you are?” and suddenly Ben is gone…

  • tom

    That wasn’t a “very special episode”, it wasn’t even a whole episode, it was the end…

  • Paul1963

    I literally cannot watch the very end of that episode without tearing up. When the time-lapse sequence starts up, I have to go away until it’s over.

  • Paul1963

    That was deliberate. Their motto through the whole run was “No hugs, no learning.”

  • Guest1001

    The UK versions of “very special episodes” don’t last the entire episode. Cassandra’s miscarriage in Only Fools And Horses is a prime example and the final episode of Blackadder WAS touching, with jokes throughout.

  • Magnusjragnarok

    But even Family Guy has serious moments. The episode where Peter has the birds living in his beard and Brian goes virtual and lives an entire life growing old with the aged commercial singer is a great example of how to do it right even on a completely absurd show.

  • Anonymous

    One of the single most gut wrenching moments I’ve seen on ANYTHING. The episode has a nice backstory too.

  • Mou101

    Well said.

    The episode in question was fantastic–and the death of Marshall’s father was handled incredibly well, illustrating just how talented Jason Segal and Allison Hannigan are.

  • stealthwise

    That was just phenomenal work.

    The most heart-wrenching Scrubs, to me, is the one where Dr. Cox uses a woman’s organs to save four patients, but loses them all when he discovers that she had rabies.

  • chris

    I agree. High fives is where the similarities end. NPH brings so much nuance to a character that could have been so shallow. The first season episode with flashbacks to “granola Barney” really exemplifies this.

  • chris

    This, my friend, is a retcon. Just because they didn’t change anything we saw doesn’t mean they didn’t alter the way events were perceived by the audience. There’s no way Jurassic Bark was written with the events of Bender’s Big Score in mind.