Every TV show leans on tropes to fill out their season. For the standard dramatic hour, it’s brilliant doctors/lawyers/cops with a complicating flaw. For animated sitcoms, it’s copying The Simpsons or copying the copies of The Simpsons. And for critically acclaimed premium cable, it’s so many naked breasts.
That’s why network shows pioneered the holiday episode. If you’ve got 23 episodes of funny! to do from fall to spring, it makes life a lot easier when Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and even Groundhog Day give you jumping-off points.
Now most shows do their holiday episodes with plenty of standard cheer. It’s like, why buck the intense social pressure to be super happy on the days banks are closed? But these twelve specials are all about finding joy in Turkey Day’s sadness, because nothing feels better than sharing some dark comedy with your favorite characters.
12. How I Met Your Mother, “Slapsgiving” and “Slapsgiving 2: Revenge Of The Slap”
The core five characters on HIMYM are aggressively fun people. They’re the types to wear a suit for every occasion (including sleep) and give their firstborn son the middle name “Waitforit”. So the show’s “Slapsgiving” episode never comes off as cruel, even though it’s Marshall celebrating Thanksgiving by cashing in the third of five (eventually eight) Barney-slaps he won in a bet, and then singing a song about it. It’s a running joke which will finally end next year, according to the official slap bet countdown. And it came back with a vengeance two seasons after the first “Slapsgiving”, because everybody loves leftovers.
11. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
The Peanuts gang never avoided sad times, whether in the funny pages or on TV. But this Thanksgiving special might be their darkest outing. Why? Maybe it’s the “feast” Charlie Brown serves his friends, made up of toast, pretzel sticks, and stray jelly beans. Maybe it’s the part where Snoopy almost kills somebody with an accidental musket shot. Either way, the heaviest part of all comes right at the beginning, where Lucy makes her ONLY APPERANCE in the special just to pull the old football trick on Charlie Brown. It’s her classic pull-the-ball-away dupe, but with a twist of “I wouldn’t do that today because everyone cares about everyone on Thanksgiving.” The producers must have opted not to name this special Your Friends Will Always Disappoint You In The End, Charlie Brown at the last minute.
10. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, “The Pillgrums”
Of course those Peanuts specials are some of the most soulful childrens’ entertainment of all time, whereas the usual movie we plop kids in front of these days is a cold, calculated, CGI cash grab. That’s what Tim and Eric are deconstructing with this sketch starring Late Night with Jimmy Fallon head writer A.D. Miles. He plays Crystal Shyps director Glen Tennis, who’s got a new project to show us starring the nightmare version of Shrek. And I know, this is just a sketch and not a whole special episode, but Tim and Eric don’t have time to give every holiday the Chrimbus treatment.
9. Bewitched, “Samantha’s Thanksgiving To Remember”
For this Thanksgiving episode, ditzy old Aunt Clara teleports domesticated witch Samantha, her husband Darrin, their toddler daughter Tabitha, and their neighbor Gladys Kravitz back in time to the original Pilgrim Thanksgiving in 1620 (what is this, Doctor Who?). “Maybe they’ll learn about history and eat squash and stuff? Right?” Well sorry, TV Viewer in 1967. This thing takes a dark turn FAST, with Darrin being accused of witchcraft and put on trial by Plymouth’s fundamentalist nutjobs. You can see how it’s a total lolz plot move, because he’s the only non-witch in the group. But it’s also having a laugh about burning heretics at the stake, which is a pretty Python-ish subject for a show now living on TV Land. And this Thanksgiving adventure doubles as the scariest example of Bewitched using the Mrs. Kravitz character for their “slowly drive the nosy neighbor insane with secret witchcraft” trope. Having weirdos next door is one thing, but how’s poor old Gladys supposed to keep it together after time traveling to The Crucible and back?
8. Northern Exposure, “Thanksgiving”
You don’t always have to travel through time to experience the old traumas of colonialism. This 1992 episode of Northern Exposure creates a Thanksgiving tradition in fictional Cicely, Alaska where the Inuits throw tomatoes at the white people (you know, for revenge!). Main character Joel Fleischman then claims he’s exempt from the tradition because he’s Jewish, which is fun because what any viewer wants out of Thanksgiving TV is a discussion of whether Jewish people are “the same” as “white” people. The action gets even more sardonic in this clip, where before getting tomatoed Joel goes out of his way to convince a pretty lady that we only have good feelings at Thanksgiving because of the chemicals in food.
7. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Pangs”
Speaking of legitimately furious Native Americans, Buffy builds this whole Season 4 episode around Xander accidentally disturbing an Indian heritage site on his construction job. He goes on to catch every disease that wiped the native tribe out, unleash a shapeshifting warrior’s spirit on Sunnydale, and totally mess up Thanksgiving for everyone. The Whedonisms keep this Buffy episode as lighthearted as any of the series’ best, but it still takes some wonderfully cynical turns, like when Anya dismisses the entire Thanksgiving holiday as “a ritual sacrifice, with pie.”
6. Seinfeld, “The Mom & Pop Store”
You might think “The Butter Shave” is a Thanksgiving episode of Seinfeld, considering it’s the one where Kramer drives Newman mad with his delicious turkey-like smell. But “The Mom & Pop Store” is actually about Thanksgiving, and has Jerry knocking a trophy out a window with the back of his head, which falls and pops the Woody Woodpecker float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It proves there’s no animated character balloon that’s more fun to epically deflate.
5. Family Guy, “Thanksgiving”
It takes until Season 10 for Seth MacFarlane to really bring the sad-funny in a Family Guy Thanksgiving episode. Once he gets around to it, it’s as good as anything from the early seasons you actually liked. Not only does the episode reveal that Joe and Bonnie’s son Kevin died in Iraq on Thanksgiving (fun!), it turns out that Kevin faked the whole thing to desert the army and show up unannounced at Peter’s door. Roll the relevant cutaway!
4. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, “The Dressing”
This episode’s storyline is intensely disjointed, filled with shaggy dog stories told by a “Turkatron” that’s not unlike the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past From The Future. But the plot’s not the point. It’s the sad, dystopian Thanksgiving meal that we’re laughing at most: three mutant fast food items sitting down to a meal of taco pie and bad wine, while their neighbor eats outside in the yard because he doesn’t feel safe without witnesses around.
3. The League, “Thanksgiving”
This episode’s packed with as many dirty plot threads as possible. It’s also got choice guest-starring roles for Jeff Goldblum (as Ruxin’s horndog dad) and Sarah Silverman (as Andre’s slutty sister). Then they use Thanksgiving dinner as the perfect way to up the tension, and let a class pet guinea pig get stuck in the turkey’s open cavity. If you’re looking for the grossest of many, many gross situations in this heartwarmer, it’s Taco’s doo-wop music video about “The Vinegar Stroke”, which is slang for when you…well, just watch Jeff Goldblum. You’ll see.
2. WKRP in Cincinnati, “Turkeys Away”
“As God is my witness…I thought turkeys could fly.” It’s the killer line of the funniest episode of WKRP, which may be the only show in television history where the highlight of the entire series is its Thanksgiving special. Here’s the short version of it, complete with newsman Les Nessman’s combat zone-style coverage of the drop-live-turkeys-from-a-helicopter giveaway that seemed like such a good idea at the time.
1. South Park, “Starvin’ Marvin”
If Thanksgiving’s all about being thankful for what we have, let’s be grateful for all 16 bountiful seasons (and counting) of Matt Stone and Trey Parker being TV comedy geniuses. And remember, South Park kicked ass right out of the gate in 1997 (YOU’RE OLD). An early standout is this Season 1 Thanksgiving special where the boys donate to Sally Struthers to get a sports watch, but end up adopting “an Ethernopian” instead. From there we get a horde of killer turkeys, the “secret” behind African hunger, a satire of American slacktivism, Kenny’s death, a show-within-the-show Terrance and Phillip Thanksgiving special, and a happy ending. Not every genetic engineering project gone wrong leads to Cartman feeding Ethiopia, but hey, not every day can be Thanksgiving.
Alex Schmidt writes all over the Internet, does stand-up all over New York City, and Tweets all over your browser if you let him at @AlexSchmidty.