Comedy to Die For: When Death Rears Its Head in Sitcoms
With the recent series finale of the imaginative, funny, and thought-provoking sitcom The Good Place — which began with four recently deceased characters finding themselves in the afterlife — perhaps this is as good a time as any to take a look at how more conventional sitcoms through the years have handled the deaths of major (and minor) characters.
Until The Good Place came along, death wasn’t something many of us were likely to think about while relaxing in the evening to have a few laughs watching our favorite TV comedies. The simple reason is that we don’t often come across the death of a main or featured character in a sitcom. But the Grim Reaper has visited quite a number of network comedy series, resulting in either a temporary hold on the laughs, or, if done right, producing even more laughs than we might have otherwise expected. So, let’s take a stroll on the dark side of the street and consider the history of death in sitcoms.
Sitcom characters have, on occasion, been “killed off” for any number of reasons: An actor portraying a main or supporting character might decide to move on to greener pastures — with or without a salary dispute to influence the decision. Or, an actor might actually die while the series is still in production, giving the producers a major logistical dilemma as they mourn the loss. More rarely, the producers of a sitcom might deem it important for the main characters to experience the death of someone close to them, even if the actor portraying the character is well-liked by all (this has occurred far more often in soap operas and evening dramas than in sitcoms). So, a death of a sitcom character could be either a creative choice, the result of a real-life conflict on the set, or the actual death of the actor in question. Whatever the reason, there have been a number of ways sitcoms have handled the sudden and permanent departure of a starring or featured character.
The first example of a sitcom character’s death occurred in 1956, when Jean Hagen, co-starring with Danny Thomas on Make Room For Daddy (to be renamed The Danny Thomas Show) as Thomas’ wife, decided she was no longer happy on the series, and abruptly left after three seasons (during which she received three Emmy nominations). Thomas and co-producer Sheldon Leonard, somewhat taken aback by the sudden disruption of the show’s status quo, and with the topic of divorce on a sitcom out of the question, decided to have Hagen’s character die off-screen, which enabled Thomas’ character to enter the dating scene for a while. Marjorie Lord became his new onscreen wife at the beginning of the 1957–58 season.
Before we go much further, we should acknowledge that an actor leaving a series mid-stream hasn’t always resulted in his or her character being killed off. Sometimes, the character simply moves away — the easiest way to be out of sight, out of mind. Or, in what has shown to be a somewhat less successful option, the actor in question is simply replaced with a reasonable lookalike, without making so much as a peep about the character’s new look. For example, Beverly Owen, the original Marilyn on The Munsters, left the show halfway through the first season in 1964, due to unrelenting homesickness for her family and boyfriend on the east coast. She was replaced by Pat Priest (in what was truly a thankless role, regardless of who was playing it).
Dick York, the original Darrin Stevens on Bewitched, needed to leave the show during the fifth season, due to severe chronic back pain that made it virtually impossible for him to rehearse and film his scenes. Ironically, his replacement, Dick Sargent, was the original choice for Darrin, but Sargent was, at the time of the program’s casting, unavailable to take the role for the series premiere in 1964.
Another example of swapping one actor for another in the same role presented itself on Roseanne in 1992, when Leci Goranson, playing teenage daughter Becky Connor, left the series during the fifth season to attend Vassar College. Her replacement, Sarah Chalke (who would later do a brilliant job of comic acting as medical intern Elliot Reid on Scrubs), withstood the occasional quips on the show provided by the writers, slyly referring to the changeover, including the line in her first episode: “Is Becky okay? She doesn’t look herself.” Goranson eventually returned to the show, replacing Chalke — who, in the 2018 reboot, returned as the Connor family’s neighbor.
There have been a far greater number of instances, however, in which a sitcom character has simply needed to die, due to either storyline developments, or real-life issues. After the death of Jean Hagen’s character on Make Room for Daddy, a long stretch of about fifteen years kept sitcom viewers safe from the Angel of Death making a visit to their favorite comedy families. The first reappearance provides an example how death — as long as it’s an off-screen death of a character we’ve never met — can become the source of hysterically funny black comedy.
This came in September of 1971, with first episode of All in the Family’s second season, in which the Bunker household is plunged into chaos with the death of Archie’s visiting deadbeat cousin, Oscar. Upon learning that Oscar had passed away overnight in their attic, the family hurries to make funeral arrangements (without any financial help from Archie’s uninterested relatives). The ensuing flow of mourners arriving at the house triggers moments of hilarious dark humor, as only All in the Family could pull off.
Indeed, the Bunker’s house at 704 Hauser Street became a veritable morgue throughout its long run. But due to the program’s groundbreaking way of bringing issues from the real world into the sitcom format, death was, in retrospect, treated as an inevitable occurrence from time to time. In addition to Cousin Oscar, the Bunkers witnessed the shocking and violent death, via car bomb in front of their house, of a Jewish militant group leader (Gregory Sierra) who had arrived in reaction to the painting of a swastika on the Bunkers’ front door.
Archie’s goofy, joking co-worker, Stretch Cunningham (James Cromwell), made several appearances at the Bunker home until his sudden, off-camera death. Stretch’s funeral was played for laughs as well as tears, highlighted by both Archie’s surprise at the discovery that Stretch was Jewish, and by his earnest but fumbling eulogy at the synagogue.
Perhaps the program’s most poignant episode dealing with death came during its eighth season. Earlier in the series, Archie had helped resuscitate a female impersonator, Beverly LaSalle (Lori Shannon), who had passed out in his cab. Her “reveal” to him, and Archie’s reaction, became one of the program’s most memorable episodes. Beverly returned later in the series to help play a prank on one of Archie’s friends on a blind date. However, a Season 8 episode brought news that Beverly had been attacked and murdered by thugs who presumably deplored her lifestyle. The news shakes Edith’s religious faith, and, for some time, has her doubting the existence of God, who, in her eyes, allowed the violent death of her gentle friend. Ironically, it is atheist Mike who encourages her not to lose her faith over the tragedy.
Death visited the Bunkers again, in an episode late in the series’ run, in which Archie befriends a Jewish jeweler (Jack Gilford), looking for investors in a new invention. After falling ill while Archie and Edith bicker, he passes away on their living room sofa.
And, of course, there was the death of Edith herself, which technically occurs after All in the Family had morphed into Archie Bunker’s Place. Jean Stapleton, ready to leave her character behind, reportedly did not want to do an on-camera death scene unless Norman Lear wrote it himself. That was not to be, so at the beginning of the second season of Archie Bunker’s Place, we learn of Edith’s death by a stroke in her sleep, leaving behind a devastated Archie.
Another hit from the early 1970s, M*A*S*H, managed to have a main character bid his friends farewell and be killed off unexpectedly, in the same episode. This occurred at the end of the third season, with McLean Stevenson’s decision to leave the series. The writers decided to give his character, Col. Henry Blake, a discharge, and send him home. The other members of the M*A*S*H unit say their goodbyes as his helicopter awaits, and watch him depart. Shortly thereafter, however, word comes that Blake’s plane had been shot down, killing all on board (leaving the series pretty much killed Stevenson’s career as well).
Sometimes, when a dispute between actor and producer comes to a head — with the producer having the final say — the actor’s character is killed off to put the issue to rest, while serving as a reminder of who’s boss. This occurred on Good Times, another Norman Lear production, starring John Amos and Esther Rolles as James and Florida Evans, parents to a family living in the Chicago projects. Once Jimmie Walker, playing older son J.J., was given the silly catchphrase “Dy-no-mite” to blurt out triumphantly in virtually every episode, the emphasis of the show shifted to his lazy, irresponsible, and offensively stereotypical character. Both Rolles and Amos objected, insisting the program should focus more on the real-life issues facing poor black urban families. Amos’ battles with Lear led to his dismissal from the series after the third season. In the story, James is killed in an accident at a construction site (Lear had once threatened to kill off Archie Bunker’s character when Carroll O’Connor sat out several episodes in a demand for more money).
The most recent example of real-life controversy necessitating the death of a major character — in this case, the lead — came on the revival of Roseanne, which killed off family matriarch Roseanne Connor, only one season into the series’ new life on the air. This occurred in reaction to Roseanne Barr’s tweeting of racist comments. The backlash was strong and swift, resulting in her firing from the program, which was hastily re-titled The Connors. The death of the family matriarch was explained as the result of an accidental opioid overdose.
Of course, when an actor dies unexpectedly during a series’ run, the only real and honest choice is to have the character die as well. In September of 1974, stand-up comedian Freddie Prinze was riding high as the co-star (with Jack Albertson) of the new NBC sitcom Chico and the Man. Portraying a wisecracking but charming assistant auto mechanic in east L.A., Prinze found himself thrust into the national spotlight, and all that came with it — both good and bad. He became a regular drug user, and later found himself faced with divorce as 1976 came to an end. He shot himself in late January, 1977, while his character’s absence was given an unconvincing explanation on the show: Chico was supposedly away visiting his father in Mexico for the final three episodes of the third season. But since Prinze’s death had been a major news story, nothing short of the hard truth would have sufficed. The following season brought a much younger boy into the fold, who was also dubbed “Chico,” by Albertson’s character. The program limped along until a two-part episode finally acknowledged the original Chico’s death, with no further detail or explanation given. The series was canceled at the end of the season.
In more recent years, a far less central sitcom character — in fact, one who was never seen onscreen, but who provided countless laughs — also had to die. The Big Bang Theory’s Mrs. Wolowitz possessed a loud, grating voice which could often be heard calling from elsewhere in the family home, and usually with something cringe-worthy to say to son Howard, often in the presence of his friends. Actress Carol Ann Susi provided the unforgettable voice, but died unexpectedly during the series’ eighth season. Consequently, Mrs. Wolowitz was written out of the show with the news that she died while visiting relatives in Florida. It was indeed a stunning loss for the cast, crew, and audience, considering the character was never seen on camera.
Sometimes, when a recurring character is killed off as a purely creative decision, it’s to explore the issue of how the death would impact the others. The series Mom, a smart and funny show centering on fifty-ish, recovering alcoholic Bonnie Plunkett (Allison Janney) and her thirty-something, recovering alcoholic daughter Christie (Anna Faris), walked the emotional tightrope every week by generating big laughs from characters struggling with very real life challenges and situations. Death visited this series on a number of occasions. In the first season, Christie found her long-lost father, Alvin (Kevin Pollak), who skipped out on Bonnie while she was still pregnant with Christie, triggering years of Bonnie’s fuming resentment. After a rough reunion of sorts, Al, Christie, and Bonnie began to warm up to each other again, but just as things were looking bright, Al died suddenly of a heart attack (while in bed with Bonnie). Bonnie’s shock and sense of loss, just as she was rekindling the romance with Al following decades of anger and hurt, was especially compelling.
Another unexpected, and especially heartbreaking instance of death shaking up the Plunkett’s lives occured during the third season, when Bonnie and Christie took in a homeless twenty-something girl named Jodie (Emily Osment) in dire need of getting clean from a lifestyle of drinking and drugs. She was reluctant to accept their help at first, just as they were slow to trust her with their valuables at home. Over several weeks, Jodie began to get her life together and got a job, while attending A.A. meetings with Bonnie and Christie. But things went horribly wrong one night when Jodie failed to arrive at a meeting, much to Christie’s annoyance. Christie later learned that Jodie had overdosed and died. Her boyfriend, who had been in recovery for only six weeks before relapsing, coaxed Jodie join him, with tragic results. Christie was crushed with guilt, and held the boyfriend solely responsible, while the other characters felt equally devastated to see such a young person lose the battle they themselves had been fighting for years.
Sudden death also visited Modern Family more than once. In the second season, the Dunphy’s next door neighbor, a grouchy, elderly man named Walt (whom Luke had befriended some time before, initially to some concern of his parents) died; Luke’s curiously nonchalant reaction to his friend’s death provided the storyline for that episode.
At the end of the fourth season, Phil’s mom, who was never seen on the show, died at her retirement village in Florida, prompting the entire Dunphy/Pritchett clan to attend the funeral and console Phil’s father, Frank (Fred Willard). The episode deftly mixed comic situations with the simple sadness of having lost a loved one to old age.
More recently, word of the death of a more familiar character, Jay Pritchett’s ex-wife Dede (Shelley Long), sent reverberations through the family. Dede, an aging hippie still very much in tune with New Age philosophy, tended to wreak havoc (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) whenever she would drop by for an unexpected visit. Series co-creators/producers Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd decided on her death during what was meant to be the series’ final season, but with the extension of an extra year, they just might have later second-guessed themselves, without having the colorful Dede to insert into the family’s life as the series reached the finish line.
With the show in the homestretch, Phil’s father Frank, from whom Phil obviously inherited an oddball sense of humor — complete with bad puns, creaky jokes, and overall silliness — also passed away, after a decline in health. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Christopher Lloyd explained at the time,“We are in the final season, we’re looking to find more meaningful topics to deal with. And even more important than that, it gave us a chance to really take a look at how Phil came to be Phil. Phil has, in many ways, been really dead-center of the heart of the show…He learned this from his dad, that somebody can be the one who keeps life light.”
Its been said that we must accept death as a part of life, so must we also accept it as an occasional occurrence in the world of television comedy. And, as in life, each passing occurs under its own set of circumstances, leaving those who are left behind to eventually — or, sometimes, quickly — learn that it’s okay to laugh again, and make others laugh in the process.
Until next time…