TV Comedy’s Ten Most Tragic Characters

There is a very fine line between comedy and tragedy. Like sleep and death, laughter and crying are cousins. However, deep sadness isn’t always easy to show in television comedy; there’s only so much a non-sociopathic audience can see one character take before all the pain stops being funny. Sometimes, though, the schadenfreude can’t be resisted. These ten characters have been shit on, humiliated, and abused over and over again, but we can’t stop laughing at them. How else would we be able to tell ourselves it isn’t so bad?

1. Stevie Janowski, Eastbound and Down (played by Steve Little)

Most tragic moment: Kenny Powers telling him he can’t continue his relationship with Maria.

Poor Stevie’s life is a series of small embarrassments interrupted by huge humiliations. From the moment we’re introduced to his vacant expression and inherently dorky body shape, we see nothing but terrible things happen to Stevie, mostly at the hands of his idol, washed-up pitcher Kenny Powers. Stevie can’t see that the reason his life is so bad is because the man he perceives as his only friend sees him as an assistant at best and a roadblock to his own happiness at worst. Over Eastbound and Down’s two seasons, Stevie has taken a drunk driving charge, lost his job, been robbed, been shot, and forced to give up the only woman he’s been close to, all of which are Kenny’s fault. If Stevie could just stay away from Kenny Powers, things would be slightly better for him, but he’s helpless to recognize this fact or do anything to change it.

2. Ron Donald, Party Down (played by Ken Marino)

Most tragic moment: Getting alcohol poisoning at his high school reunion he catered in a misguided attempt to impress his former classmates.

Ron Donald is a man who can’t realize even the most modest of dreams. In Party Down’s first season, his goal is to open a Soup ‘R’ Crackers franchise (“Southern California’s fastest-growing non-poultry, non-coffee chain”), but his terrible decision making makes that a constant struggle. His only blessing in life is his giant penis, but even that only brings him more pain. By the second season, the business has failed, and he’s broke, drunk, and suicidal. He does start to get it together, but that’s sparked by the humbling spectacle of getting locked inside a coffin. He finds and loses love, and somehow manages to get kicked out of AA. Perhaps most tragically, we’ll never know what becomes of Ron, unless the Party Down movie actually gets made.

3. Lizzie, Lizzie & Sarah (played by Julia Davis)

Most tragic moment: Walking in on her husband and housekeeper having sex at her friend’s birthday party.

Lizzie & Sarah was a pilot that aired on the BBC last year, but wasn’t picked up.  Network executives were worried it was too bleak. They probably weren’t wrong. The show wallows in the abject despair inflicted on two stringy-haired housewives whose husbands hate and torture them. Their conversations consist of lists of the miserable events that have befallen them told through half-hearted laughs that poorly mask the pain inside. Both of the titular characters are plenty tragic, but Julia Davis’ Lizzie gets the edge over Jessica Hynes’ Sarah due to the abuse she takes from her monstrous live-in housekeeper and how cold-bloodedly she takes to torture and murder once the opportunity arises. The pilot works well as a standalone episode, but it probably would have been too much to watch more than once.

4. Frank Grimes, The Simpsons (voiced by Hank Azaria)

Most tragic moment: Being upstaged by Homer Simpson at his own funeral.

There are plenty of Simpsons characters who have had terrible things happen over and over for years and years (Moe, Skinner, etc.), but ol’ Grimey only needed one episode to perfectly articulate how unfair the world is. “The man who had to struggle for everything he ever got” put in years of hard work and always did the right thing despite endless tragedy and hardship, only to die when he sarcastically acted like Homer, his antithesis. Everything Frank had to work hard for and never got, Homer had handed to him. Every time Frank was right and Homer was wrong, Frank was made to look like a fool. The only time he overstepped his boundaries, he was swiftly, utterly punished. He’s probably in Heaven sitting on a tiny raincloud surrounded fluffy white cloud mansions.

5. Rickety Cricket, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (played by David Hornsby)

Most tragic moment: Getting his throat slashed with a garbage can.

Rickety Cricket would have been fine if he hadn’t gotten mixed up with the wrong people. His fate was sealed the first time Mac and Dennis’ balls entered his mouth. Born Matthew Mara, his leg braces earned him his cruel nickname. He started to shed his old, pathetic identity while he was training to enter the priesthood, but that vocation was ruined by the Gang’s destructive antics. Since then, things have only gotten worse for Cricket, who has slid into homelessness, crack addiction, and several near-death experiences including getting his throat slashed during a bumfight gone wrong(er) and being hunted for sport by Mac and Dennis. Through it all, he has retained his capacity for love, but Dee, his object of affection, is utterly repulsed by him. It’s important to have faith, but Cricket may want to try something else, too. Like rehab.

6.  Karl, Pulling (played by Cavan Clerkin)

Most tragic moment: His ex-fiance finding him during his attempted suicide in the house he’d purchased for them to start a family.

The thrust of Pulling (which aired on BBC for two seasons during 2006 to 2009) is about three very fucked up women (Donna, Karen, and Louise) living together. While the show’s central focus is the belligerent broads, there are many moments where it takes a dark look at the men these women choose to let into their lives and, well, pants. Karl is Donna’s ex-fiance, and within the first few minutes of the show’s pilot you know it isn’t going to go well for Karl. He’s stogy and boring, sitting in the kitchen eating eggs. Karl is a great tragic character because of where the show takes him. You never expect that you’ll be watching this man debate whether he’ll pick a razor out of a pee-soaked toilet to continue shaving his face so that he doesn’t have a Hitler mustache. It’s watching Karl fumble in his own element where the show does some of its best comedy.

7. Matthew, NewsRadio (played by Andy Dick)

Most tragic moment: Almost being fired from NewsRadio.

There is something absolutely awful about watching a character try so hard and fail every time. I’m not a fan of Andy Dick and was, until relatively recently, offended by those who defended his comic merit. That was until I watched NewsRadio. Mr. Dick’s Matthew wants so desperately to be able to do his job well enough (so that he isn’t fired) but he’s just too weird for any of it to work. His tragedy lies in his ambition, or lack thereof. Matthew wants to do his job, and tries (in most episodes he’ll pitch a story or try to interview someone and it all goes wrong), but he doesn’t care enough. He’s a squirrelly cat man and that’s really all.

(If you haven’t taken the time to watch NewsRadio please, at the very least, watch this. It’s one of those moments of television gold.)

8. Dr. Steve Brule, Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule (played by John C. Reilly)

Most tragic moment: Constructing a fake interview with himself as his own “cool” brother, who is almost as pathetic as he is.

Some characters aren’t tragic because of what happens to them so much as they just are. Dr. Steve Brule, while less disturbing than some of Tim & Eric’s other creations, is a man who is too bizarre to connect with any other living soul. He has no friends, a profoundly dysfunctional family (his mother used to poison him to “slow him down”), and a host of physical, mental, and verbal abnormalities that alienate him from society. He occasionally rails against the “hunks” that try to hold him down, but the reality is that a lot of his failings are inherent within him. He makes his best attempts to project a happy appearance, but there’s a core of deep sadness inside of him.

9. Cliff Clavin, Cheers (played by John Ratzenberger)

Most tragic moment: Losing on Jeopardy.

Cliff is a man of many useless facts, ones that normally wouldn’t be featured on the game show for the mind, but somehow all of the categories on this particular episode are areas of Cliff’s expertise. Though, when it comes down to final jeopardy Cliff answers a question by saying, “Three people who have never been in my kitchen.” While correct, it’s so obviously not the answer that Trebek was looking for so, after making $22,000, Cliff loses it all.

All Cliff wants is for people to listen to him. He tries and tries but he’s shut down and made fun of almost every episode. He isn’t the type to get upset about it but for a man who desperately wants someone to listen he’s never satisfied with his fellow bar folk. Even after he went on a vacation to Florida he couldn’t find one person to listen to the whole spiel he’d taken time to plan out. Cliff is there for the others to get in that one-two punch of wit but he never gets to be witty himself, and that, for a show that worked so well almost completely due to wordplay (and Sam and Diane), Cliff’s character is tragic.

10. Fred Figglehorn, iCarly (played by Lucas Cruikshank)

Most tragic moment: Becoming so successful on YouTube that he showed up on television.

This one is maybe a stretch as a TV character, but Fred, the relentlessly irritating character that originated on YouTube, has appeared on iCarly and his movie premiered on Nickelodeon, so he counts. If you can get past the eardrum-rupturing shrieking, you’ll find that Fred is a profoundly fucked-up kid. He’s the fatherless son of an alcoholic and drug-addicted mother. He’s heavily medicated due to his severe emotional issues. He’s dealing with a lot of stuff no six-year-old should have to go through. Worst of all, kids love him. He’s the most successful crossover from YouTube to television ever. Fred provokes a lot of questions, some hard, some easy. What will happen to him as he grows up? What does it mean that something this dark was created by a kid for kids? Has anyone older than twelve ever been able to watch him for more than thirty seconds?

Liam Mathews and Kristina Jean Monllos are really glad their lives are only occasionally like Ron Donald’s.

TV Comedy’s Ten Most Tragic Characters