A Sad, Slow Laugh Track: The Viewer, The Sitcom and The Funeral

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This week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother (“Last Words” 1/17/11) brought me to tears, and I loved every minute of it. I am not much of a crier, but when I see characters that I care about who make me laugh from week to week struggle with the emotional loss of a loved one, I get choked up. As the credits rolled and I dabbed my eyes and blew my nose, I thought of the other episodes of sitcoms I have seen dealing with death and the relationship between the viewer, the sitcom, and the funeral.

When a character loses a loved one, the sitcom stretches itself to not only include situations where laughter is present, but the absence of laughter. In the episode “Chuckles Bites The Dust” of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Chuckles the Clown, a minor character on the show, passes away and Mary struggles throughout the entire episode to convince her coworkers to maintain the day’s solemnity. Important note: Chuckles the Clown was killed by a rogue elephant while marching in a parade as Peter Peanut. Mary’s realistic portrayal of wanting to honor the idea that funerals are sad occasions, and eventually failing to uphold her own expectations is commendable because this show found humor where there usually is none. She scolds her coworkers for their tasteless jibes only to burst into laughter whilst delivering the eulogy for the fallen clown. I am young and only watched reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Nick at Nite, but this is one of the reruns I remember best. Funerals force the characters to be honest. While other episodes can become contrived from ridiculous plot twists and verbal miscommunications (I’m looking at you “Almost a Nun’s Story,” where Georgette decides to become a nun after catching Ted kissing another woman), funeral episodes are grounded in reality and allow the characters to behave as real people. I did not cry as I watched the newsroom cope with Chuckles’ most unfortunate demise, but I definitely enjoyed it.

The Office adopted the funeral episode by having a very genuine funeral for a dead bird (“Grief Counseling”). After Michael’s former boss Ed Truck passes away, he begins to question his own legacy and the impact his own death will have. Upon finding out that a bird flew into the door earlier that day, Michael places all of his own insecurities into performing a proper memorial. I appreciate how the office workers go from deriding Michael for his need to grieve (describing famous movie deaths from The Lion King and Weekend At Bernie’s as though they really happened to them) to seeing that he is genuinely in pain and comforting him. Pam’s comforting song at the funeral, “On The Wings of Love,” is very touching. Finding that balance between snark, sap, and sentiment is the struggle of an emotionally-driven episode of a sitcom.

No two shows know this relationship with the melancholy better than M*A*S*H and Scrubs, and they know that sometimes it does not work. Both are medical shows and deal with death on a regular basis. The episodes succeed when death registers with the characters on a personal level despite their professional detachment. Dozens of successful poignant moments come to mind in thinking of these shows: Col. Henry Blake dying, Hawkeye’s friend from home dying, Carla’s mom dying, Ben Sullivan (Brendan Fraser) dying, J.D.’s Dad dying (in concurrence with John Ritter’s actual death). I love these shows, but they are not without missteps. A funeral does not a poignant episode make. For M*A*S*H, death and funerals began to be used as symbols for larger political issues. Not to say that protest of the Korean War was not important, but it certainly lacked the ability to tug at heartstrings when every death of every single one-off character became a slightly different way to say “War is hell.” Scrubs faltered most notably when Nurse Laverne passed away in “My Long Goodbye.” Laverne’s death was marred by pettiness between J.D., Dr. Cox, Jordan, Carla, and nearly everyone else in that hospital. The conclusion of J.D. being named godfather of Dr. Cox’s daughter out of spite leaves an acrid taste in the viewer’s mouth. These episodes, though they contain the element of death, lack the emotional resonance and honesty with the characters therein. When the death is just another plot point and the characters do not exhibit any sort of variation from their behaviors in other madcap episodes, the viewer cannot be satisfied with the emotional journey.

Community learned from this sort of pettiness by emphasizing it. Of course, Community has made a name out of breaking television convention. In “The Psychology of Letting Go,” Winger wants to emphasize how dead Pierce’s mom is to him. He wants Pierce to feel the pain of loss. Why? Because Jeff Winger has moderately high cholesterol. Of course, leave it to Community to make the recipe for a heartwarming ending include a lava lamp, the horrible Gulf oil spill, and a CD left by a dying woman who crawled into a garage.

And so, back to How I Met Your Mother. As Marshall grappled with unsatisfactory last words from his father, I was struck by how much integrity the writers gave their characters. I applaud them. Early plot points of the episode foreshadowed a horrible replacement priest who used to bully Marshall in high school being punched in the nards by Barney and Ted, who were determined to make their grieving friend laugh. As the episode moved forward, Ted and Barney dropped their silly game. The priest storyline was never fulfilled. In short, the petty, unimportant happenings of this real-life situation disappeared due to the gravity and seriousness that the episode required. And yet, I do not sit here upset that I never saw that terd of a holyman punched in his yam bag. I am fulfilled because Marshall was taken to the brink of abandonment and brought back due to the comfort of his friends and family. The characters acted like people instead of punchlines and it was so refreshing to see. It may be morbid of me to enjoy funeral episodes so much, but that’s just a part of life.

Matt is a writer/performer living in Astoria, Queens. He writes for the UCB Maude Team Dweeb and works on the production staff of the Late Show with David Letterman.