Top 10 TV comedy episodes about death
All this talk about Locke dying on “Lost” or whether he’s still around as a spirit or not dead because he’s alive in the dual world got us thinking about the great TV episodes that have dealt with death. There’re too many terrific dramatic shows with people dying in them -- any show with Dennis Franz or Michael C. Hall in it, for example -- for us to make a list of those best episodes, so we concentrated on comedies. Besides, paraphrasing that famous quote, dying is easy (except if you’re Tony or the Russian), comedy is hard, and combining the two successfully is near impossible.
A great comedy death episode can be touching, poignant, cynical, dark, hysterical, sadistic, heartbreaking, exhilarating, anticipated and/or shocking -- how’s that for narrowing it down? It was painful not to have some shows represented. We also had to draw the line somewhere, so we stuck to the deaths of people, not animals. That eliminated the Cosby show where Rudy’s goldfish, Lamont, dies and the family throws a formal toilet funeral for him. And we couldn’t include “WKRP’s” great episode “Turkeys Away” where the radio station dropped turkeys from a helicopter as a Thanksgiving advertising stunt.
Here are our 10 best comedy shows dealing with death. They are all awarded five Golden Caskets.
10. “The Saga of Cousin Oscar” -- “All in the Family.” This landmark sitcom had several great death episodes, but the one where an annoying relative of Archie’s dies in his house and the Bunkers are stuck with the funeral costs was, for us, the best of the bunch.
Archie: “You want me to spend over 600 bucks for a funeral for a cousin who sat on my face?”
Edith: “He’ll never do it again.”
Archie discovers he can bury Oscar for free in Potter’s Field but finally decides to do the right thing. This episode was hilarious, poignant and nasty like most family gatherings.
9. “Abyssinia, Henry” -- “MASH.” Lt. Col. Blake was finally being discharged and sent home. However, in the last scene, Radar walked into the operating room and told everyone that Henry’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan and there were no survivors. Some viewers felt blindsided, while others thought it was brilliant. This episode created hatred, praise, anger, tears, support -- like war itself.
8. “Grief Counseling” -- “The Office.” Michael’s neediness, grandiosity and flair for the melodramatic form a perfect storm when he learns his former boss has died. Michael forces his uninterested co-workers into a grief counseling session where he explains, “I lost Ed Truck. And it feels like somebody took my heart and dropped it into a bucket of boiling tears. . . .” The episode builds to a hysterical climax when Michael holds a memorial service for a dead bird. Surprisingly, the staff shows up and after seeing Michael’s actual pain, Pam delivers a sweet eulogy culminated by her singing Jeffrey Osborne’s “On the Wings of Love.” Uncomfortable, odd, strangely touching and completely funny.
7. “The Gang Finds a Dead Guy” -- “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” The show takes depravity to a new level in this twisted tale of old age, death, dating and Nazis. The morally challenged gang finds a random dead guy slumped over a booth in the bar. Mac and Dennis then proceed to try to get a date with the deceased’s attractive granddaughter, sparking a lie-fueled rivalry that culminates in an awkwardly hilarious funeral. In the subplot, Dee misses her grandpa despite her phobia about visiting him: “I have a little bit of a problem with old people. It sounds a little mean, but I find them kinda creepy. And scary. And gross. . . . It’s their hands, mostly. You know how you can see right through them to all their inside business.” In this case her phobia is justified as sweet old “pop-pop” is really an anti-Semitic Nazi lover. Dark, demented and absolutely entertaining.
6. “Jim’s Inheritance” -- “Taxi.” Jim, going through a trunk his father left him, first finds his graduation picture: “I didn’t know Dad kept that. . . . I didn’t know I graduated.” He then discovers one of his dad’s extra-extra-large suits. Wondering what his father really thought of him, Jim finds a cassette in the suit and plays it. It’s Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” The joy on Jim’s face is unforgettable.
5. “Goodbye” -- “The Wonder Years.” For all of you who had that one special teacher who encouraged you or for most of us who only wish we had, this is the episode to watch. Kevin’s math teacher, Mr. Collins, thinks Kevin, “who wasn’t exactly God’s gift to polynomials,” can get an A and offers him private tutoring. However, when Collins abruptly cancels the sessions, Kevin feels betrayed and purposely fails the test. After a terrible weekend, Kevin discovers Mr. Collins was very sick and had died. He also discovers that Mr. Collins didn’t turn in his test. In a final scene, Kevin takes the test again and aces it. Like the “Taxi” and “Office” episodes, there’s a great song at the end: Linda Ronstadt’s “Goodbye My Friend.”
4. “My Old Lady” -- “Scrubs.” Maybe it’s not fair to include a series set in a hospital because they have so many chances to get a death show right, but this one really stands out. Turk, Elliot and J.D. all had to deal with losing a patient for the first time. When J.D.'s patient tells him she’s 74 and ready to die, he desperately responds, “Yeah, but with dialysis you could live another 80 or 90 years.” (As a side note, the writer, Matt Tarses, is the son of Jay Tarses, who co-wrote with Tom Patchett the terrific “Bob Newhart Show” episode “Death of a Fruitman.”)
3. “Beloved Aunt” -- “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “Curb” has had several great death episodes, but for nasty fun none can beat “Beloved Aunt,” which has the best typo joke in TV history. Larry was in charge of getting the obit of Cheryl’s aunt in the paper and the A became a C and you can figure out the rest. The great thing about this series is that even when Larry makes the most outrageous observation, there’s a small part of us that agrees with him; like when he tells Jeff that it was rude of Cheryl’s aunt not to leave a suicide note.
2. “Death Is a Bitch” -- “Family Guy.” It’s not poignant, touching or meaningful. It’s just funny. When a skeletal Death sarcastically introduces himself as Calista Flockhart, we know we’re in for a nasty, hilarious ride. There are porn jokes, necrophilia jokes and Stewie-trying-to-kill-his-mom jokes. And when Meg suggests to Death that he kill all the girls who are prettier than her, Death replies, “Well, that would just leave England.” In the main plot, Peter, filling in for Death, who has a sprained ankle, is ordered to kill the cast of “Dawson’s Creek.” Peter refuses because he would have nothing to watch on Wednesday nights, “except the fine programs on Fox.”
1. “Chuckles Bites the Dust” -- “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It’s not only the best death comedy but probably the best half-hour comedy of all time. Chuckles the Clown was the grand marshal of a local parade and, dressed up as Peter Peanut, was shelled to death by a rogue elephant. To relieve the tension, the members of the newsroom start joking about it. When Lou comments it’s lucky more people weren’t killed, Murray agrees: “After all, you know how hard it is to stop after just one peanut.” The only one not laughing was Mary, until, of course, the funeral. In a brilliant performance, she goes from unsuccessfully hiding her laughter to uncontrollable tears. And no one cries realer and sadder and funnier than Mary Tyler Moore.
Sy and Katie, father and daughter, have written for TV, film, the theater and magazines. Sadly for them, they have not worked on any of the 10 episodes chosen.