As the years pile on, all sitcoms will start to rely on old tropes and recycled plots. Whether it’s the clip show, the very special episode, or a terrible spoof of Cyrano de Bergerac, we keep seeing the same things over and over again, and will almost certainly continue to do so until the Earth falls into the sun. But sometimes the repetitions are so bizarrely specific that we can’t help but wonder if something else is going on here …
Santa Is A Real, Magical Being … And No One Finds That Amazing
An absurd number of otherwise-straightforward sitcoms have Christmas episodes wherein Santa Claus reveals himself to be unambiguously real. And yet instead of rewriting everything these characters know about reality, they seem to accept it as an everyday part of life. They are perfectly comfortable living in a world where no one laughs at jokes, romantic tension between friends lasts for years, and magic is absolutely a thing.
In The Nanny, Mr. Sheffield injures his butt on Christmas Eve, and while the Nanny and Co. are in the hospital, a crazy old man in a Santa suit gets thrown in the bed beside his. The nurses, naturally, refuse to believe the man is the real Santa, but when the clock strikes midnight, he’s mysteriously flown out the window, and the characters all look up at him as he chants “HO HO HO!” Those people should be screaming, “No! NO! NO ONE WILL BELIEVE US!” as their entire understanding of all things is shattered. Instead they’re warmed by the Christmas spirit that lives inside each of us as a flying man laughs at them from the sky.
Sony Pictures Television“Yes, I am real. Which means I know of your dark deeds, little girl. All of them.”
In the SECOND EPISODE EVER of Night Court, a crazy ol’ drunk claiming to be Santa Claus gets taken downtown, but it’s gradually revealed that he knows everything about everyone’s childhoods, down to the last intimate detail. Then he offers Harry Anderson the opportunity to succeed him as Santa. Again, this is the second episode, and they have already established that this courtroom exists in a world where Kris Kringle wants the judge to take over as the actual, real Santa Claus. And the next 191 episodes take place with all the characters in the show knowing that.
Warner Bros. Television“Yes, I’m the real Santa. Live with that. And live with this: One of you is an impostor. You have one week to find it before it becomes you. Merry Christmas!”
In Home Improvement (in the very first season!), Mark starts questioning Santa’s existence after Brad and Randy tell him that Santa died before he was born. “Wilson” then shows up dressed as Santa and gives everyone early presents, thus restoring Mark’s faith. As Saint Nick leaves, Tim remarks that it’s really nice of his neighbor to do something, only for Jill to point out that Wilson is over behind the fence, as always. So holy shit, who was Santa??? Mark stares up at the sky in wonder …
ABC Studios“One day your father will kill me in a feature film, young man! And anything that kills Santa becomes Santa! Why, 17 years ago, I was diabetes!”
In a near-identical twist, a Christmas episode of Gilligan’s Island from almost 30 years earlier featured Santa visiting the castaways and bringing them gifts. They all assumed it was the Skipper dressing up to lift their spirits, but when Santa walks away, the Skipper immediately enters … from the other direction! HOLY WHAT THE WHOA NOW.
Warner Bros. Television
Warner Bros. Television“Wow, the real Santa was here!? You know what this means, Gilligan!?” “Yes. He … he could have flown us away but … he left us. He left us here to die, Skipper.”
Santa’s even real in an episode of fucking ER, a show that won 22 Emmys. A normally non-insane character screams into the night, “There’s no God, there’s no Christmas … THERE IS NO FRICKIN’ SANTA CLAUS!” Suddenly, snow starts to fall and he looks up to see how wrong he was. Santa is flying overhead, laughing at him. Seriously, this really happened. On ER. Watch this crazy shit.
Warner Bros. Television“This … isn’t, like, a metaphor? He’s … a flying present baron who watches us all?”
Each of these characters has a legitimate reality-shattering experience, and then proceeds to live the rest of their lives completely unaffected. Not ONE time in the subsequent episodes of any of these shows does one character turn to another and say, “Pretty crazy how Santa’s been real this whole time, huh? Puts your little two-dates-for-the-dance problem into perspective, huh?”
Cars Crash Into Houses All The Damn Time
In an episode of Full House from March 1990, Stephanie decides to drive Joey’s car without his permission. In a wacky mix-up that car manufacturers could have never predicted, she mistakes the “R” on the gearshift for the radio and backs the thing straight into the kitchen.
Warner Bros. Television“Let’s have Joey come in and say, ‘YOU CAN’T PARK THAT HERE!'” “I like that, but maybe instead Danny enters screaming, ‘WHAT THE- WHAT IS THIS! FUCK! FUCK!!! YOU STUPID GODDAMN KID!'” — Full House Writers Room, 1990
In an episode of Family Matters from later that same year, Eddie (who apparently didn’t watch the TGIF show right before his) also drives a car against his parents’ wishes, and does it straight into a house.
Warner Bros. Television“Let’s maybe have Urkel say, ‘YOU CAN’T PARK THAT HERE!'” “That’s good! I had the note Carl enters with gun drawn, firing six rounds into the windshield, screaming, ‘I’LL KILL YOU, MOTHERFUCK- wait, EDDIE!?’” — Family Matters Writers Room, 1990
But driving a car into your own home is a sitcom tradition going back decades. In an episode of the ’80s show Silver Spoons, Ricky Schroeder’s grandfather crashes the car into the house.
Sony Pictures Television“Let’s have Kate say, ‘Wha- wha!? You can’t park that in here!'” “What if instead she just dies? Dies from shock right there on the floor? Because life is nothing? All life is nothing? Ha ha, yeah. — Silver Spoons Writers Room, 1982
Marie manages to get the entire damn car into the house on Everybody Loves Raymond, which prompts a discussion about whether old people should still be driving. These people manage to turn the tiniest misunderstanding into 22 minutes of awkward hijinks, but they live in a world in which everyone they know gets killed by a speeding car while watching TV in their own home.
CBS Television“They have a bake sale? He gets a job as a Sherpa? I … I’m out of ideas.” “Me too. Let’s check to see if anyone’s driven a car into the house yet.” “Yeah! And then one of them goes, ‘YOU CAN’T PARK THAT HERE!'” “Ha ha ha ha ha ha! — Everybody Loves Raymond Writers Room, 1996
Something about a laugh track seems to attract vehicular manslaughter, because it happened again in The Suite Life Of Zack And Cody, when London drives into a building.
Walt Disney Television“I want to die. Kill me.” “We do it together. On three. One. Two.” *BANG* — The Suite Life Of Zack And Cody Writers Room, 2005
This doesn’t only happen when a stupid kid or an elderly idiot gets behind the wheel. Sometimes sitcom characters do it on purpose, like this jealous lover in the ’90s show Wings.
CBS Television“You can’t park that here?” “Fine.” — Wings Writers Room, 1990
Warner Bros. Television“How!? What!? Where are we!?” “The question isn’t where. It’s WHEN.” — Two And A Half Men Writers Room, 28,000 B.C.
There are many questions here, several about creative bankruptcy, but most pressing is: How fast does someone have to be driving to crash a car THROUGH a house? The answer, as any Mythbuster will tell you, is “any speed, so long as it’s a plot point.”
Basically Every ’90s Black Sitcom Had A Pool Hustling Episode
Of all the weirdly specific things to happen multiple times across multiple sitcoms, this might be the weirdest and most specific. The first time it happened was in a 1990 episode of Family Matters, when Eddie Winslow beats his friend at pool and gets cocky. He takes that cockiness to a local pool hall, where he promptly gets hustled out of $250 by a Texan named Boyd Higgins. Urkel then tries to win the money back, but Urkel is only magically good at chess, science, basketball, poker, and bowling. He sucks at pool. Luckily, Carl shows up, and it so happens that while this was never, ever mentioned before, he is in fact a world-class pool player. He sinks shot after shot, then turns the cue over to the family’s grandma, who hits a quadruple bank shot to win the money back. The kids and the hustler learn a valuable lesson about … how the last person to hustle someone in a chain of hustles is the good guy?
Warner Bros. Television“I sharked a kid.”
In an episode of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air that aired THREE MONTHS LATER, Will drives Uncle Phil’s Benz to a seedy pool hall, where he proceeds to crush a bunch of locals and become hilariously cocky. He then goes down $300 against a local hustler named Charlie Mack, and has to put up his uncle’s car for collateral. Uncle Phil then shows up and turns out to be … hold on a second … a world-class pool player? He sinks trick shot after trick shot and wins back the money (plus $600), teaching the kids and the hustler a lesson: The good guy is the hustler who’s holding the money when the credits roll.
Warner Bros. Television“That’s why they call me Bel-Air Fats.”
Half a decade later, in a 1996 episode of The Steve Harvey Show, a kid named Bullethead crushes some locals and gets lesson-learning cocky. He ends up losing the school’s field trip money to two hustlers named Raven and Jody. This prompts Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer to win back the money by dressing in African garb and pretending to be clueless Rwandan tribesmen who have never heard of pool. They win all the money back with a montage of trick shots and teach the same lesson: Only gamble against people who are worse than you at pool.
In 1995, there were episodes of Martin AND Living Single in which the main characters get hustled at pool halls. Queen Latifah’s sudden pool skills win back all the money in Living Single, but of all the wacky characters Martin knows, none of them are secretly world-class pool players. This was probably because his wig kept falling off when he played, and not because of a choice made by the writers. Still, it led to this being the only black sitcom of the ’90s wherein a character lost his or her money to a pool shark without winning it back via magically lucky circumstances. And so Martin remains, as ever, an unimpeachable bastion of realism.
There Are An Awful Lot Of Monkeys In Sitcom Worlds
Sitcom universes operate according to their own internal logic, but they overlap on one specific gag: Monkeys will be a part of your family or friend group at some point in your life. Which is odd, because monkeys are not really a fixture of the urban American landscape. In fact, in 19 states, it’s not even legal to own a monkey unless you’re a zoo. Which makes a lot of sitcom stories not only stupid, but also state monkey crimes.
Monkey plots in sitcoms fall into a few categories. One classic is the monkey-from-the-zoo episode, like the time Kramer has to apologize to one on Seinfeld.
Sony Pictures Television“I’m sorry, Jerry! I didn’t know Santa Claus was real when I made that wish!”
On Full House, they somehow end up bringing a chimpanzee home, which is cute, but also the reason we don’t call them the Olsen Triplets anymore.
Warner Bros. Television“Drop in to see the Tanners go BANANAS, Tuesdays at 8:30! My face! IT TOOK MY FACE.”
The zoo conceit works because it gives the show an air of plausibility. Zoos exist in cities, so it’s sort of possible that the animals might have to be temporarily placed into the homes of non-zookeepers with unpredictable, fragile children. But what’s really strange is how often we see sitcom characters straight up get a monkey as a pet. Monkeys are not great pets. They poop, throw poop, and screech maniacally as they tear out your eyes, which is why New York absolutely doesn’t allow them as pets. Yet here is Ross, palling around with little Marcel.
Warner Bros. TelevisionState crime? More like great time! Ross and Friends are Monkeyin’ around every Thursday at 8:30! My lips! Jesus Christ! It tore off my lips!
And here’s Jenna with her gibbon-son.
Universal Television“And this fall, 30 Rock is turning prime-time to PRIMATE time! AIIIEEE!
In Family Matters, Urkel ends up with a pet ape, which, according to Illinois law, means his home is classified as a research facility or zoo, making this only the 123rd most ridiculous thing to happen on that show.
Warner Bros. Television“How about … ‘SHE’S MUCH PRETTIER THAN YOUR LAST GIRLFRIEND, STEVE.'” “It’s good … but what if instead, the ape goes insane and tears off all of their genitalia? Absolutely all of them?” “WRITE IT. — Family Matters Writers Room, 1989
The Big Bang Theory, an abyss of diarrhea popular among the over-medicated, also has a pet monkey, and this one … smokes!? *laugh track*
Warner Bros. Television*laugh track* B A Z I N G A *laugh track continues*
Besides the visiting monkey and the illegal pet monkey, there’s a stock plot even more dangerously wacky: the evil monkey. Here’s one from the worst episode of How I Met Your Mother, in which a monkey villain robs Marshall at banana-point.
20th TelevisionIs that a gun, or did you tear off somebodys genitals again?
20th TelevisionSo at least its somewhat realistic.
And in Community, the school is terrorized by Annie’s Boobs, a kleptomaniac monkey living in the vents.
Sony Pictures TelevisionThe first thing it stole? Our hearts. The second thing? Our genitalia.
Of all the overused tropes, this is the easiest to forgive, because monkeys are the best. After all, if you had the opportunity to replace someone at your job with a monkey, wouldn’t you do it? They’re silly, they look hilarious in people clothes, and death by monkey is easily in the top 50 ways to die.
The Dumb Character Suddenly Becomes Smart
Every sitcom has a character who is helplessly, impossibly stupid. And somewhere in that grind of writing hundreds of episodes where the gang has to spend the night in a haunted house or inherits a race horse, some writer will eventually suggest, “What if they became, like, smart?” It’s like the plot to Lawnmower Man, which was a much more cyber version of the classic Daniel Keyes book Flowers For Algernon.
It happens in an episode of The Simpsons when they find a crayon has been lodged in Homer’s brain for over 30 years. The moment they remove it, he becomes supremely intelligent but also sort of an asshole, so everybody starts hating him except Lisa. So he does the only thing that makes any sense: He has Moe hammer a crayon back up into his brain to get dumb again. To make this more soul-crushing, he does it right after he bonds with Lisa over the loneliness caused by their unrelatable intelligence. Yes, in a beloved, long-running comedy cartoon, a father kills the only person who will ever understand his daughter so he can enjoy beer more. And it’s not the only time this smart-then-dumb-again trope got depressing.
In an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, it’s discovered that Patrick has had a piece of coral acting as his brain for years, thereby making him the dullest water creature in all of Bikini Bottom. At first he’s happy with his newfound intelligence, but when it starts making his friend miserable, he yanks out his brain and puts the coral back in. The point is, everyone hates the smart, so try to be dumber.
Futurama even did a version of this plotline wherein the monkey, Gunther, decides his intelligence comes with too much responsibility, so he reduces his brain power voluntarily.
John Stuart Mill, the Utilitarian philosopher, famously asked: Is it better to be a dissatisfied Socrates or a perfectly satisfied pig? It’s a complex problem worth discussing with the humans and pigs you know, but as you can see, cartoons vote pig every time.
Characters Always Get Stuck In Elevators (And Usually Assist in Childbirth)
If you ever find yourself in an elevator with a wacky neighbor, a monkey, or a pregnant woman, get the fuck out. That elevator is going to get stuck between floors. A sitcom actor gets trapped in an elevator with a crowning pregnant woman every eight minutes. Like in the Saved By The Bell episode “Earthquake,” where Zack and friends throw a baby shower for Mr. Belding’s wife in order to avoid a physics test. Unfortunately, they get in an elevator right as an earthquake strikes, and they end up turning the place into a maternity ward.
Universal Television“And that, kids, was my wife’s gaping, placenta-squirting birth canal!”
This has been happening for generations. In the All In The Family episode “The Elevator Story,” lovable racist Archie Bunker is trapped in an elevator with several nonwhites, and one of them starts pushing out a baby. It’s uncomfortable.
Sony Pictures TelevisionAll of it is very uncomfortable.
A slight variant happened on WKRP In Cincinnati. In an episode called “Fire,” a fire alarm sends the whole crew home early, except for Herb and the woman he sexually harasses on the show for laughs, Jennifer. They end up trapped in the elevator together, and while she doesn’t have a baby, Herb does confess to spreading rumors that he had sex with her. It’s less gooey than childbirth, but just as disgusting.
In “Porko II,” an amazingly titled episode of Gimme A Break, Nell Carter hosts a meeting for her weight loss group, PORKO. Yes, PORKO. The head of the group shows up, and they all mock him for regaining the weight he lost. But oh no! The PORKO members soon find themselves stuck in an elevator that can’t handle all their porking weight. In the end, Nell talks their leader out of suicide, and everyone agrees to lose two pounds a week. That’s what TV used to be like, kids.
Universal Television“Yes, this is Nell Carter, and YES, I am stuck in the elevator again! Oh no, you did NOT just laugh.”
In the Night Court episode “The Blizzard,” lady-chasing sex addict Dan gets stuck in an elevator with a … a gay man!?
Warner Bros. Television“Let’s have them sleep together?” “Like, full penetration!?” “That’s not what I meant, but maybe?” — Night Court Writers Room, 1984
And can you imagine getting stuck on an elevator with two sumo wrestlers!? The writers of Night Court could, in the episode “Earthquake!”
Warner Bros. Television“Are we crazy?” “Fuck you, talking bug monster.” — Night Court Writers Room, 1985
OK wait, this can’t be right. In yet another episode of Night Court, “The Blues Of The Birth,” Christine gets trapped in an elevator with two men and goes into labor. It took them a couple of tries, but Night Court, the industry leader in trapping actors in elevators, finally delivered its first elevator baby!
Warner Bros. Television“Oh! You know where we should have Christine give birth?” “Yes. Totally on the same page.” “Say it together on three. One. Two.” “ELEVATOR!” “CAR DRIVEN BY MONKEY CRASHING INTO COURTR- oh, thats OK, too, I guess … — Night Court Writers Room, 1986
Joel B. Kirk resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and thinks the retro ’80s music group The Midnight is too cool for words.