On ‘Zoidbergs’

There’s a new sitcom archetype. Though it has roots in classic television, this specific characterization has become especially prevalent in the last decade or so. I will call characters that fit this archetype “Zoidbergs,” after the alien coworker from Futurama. Futurama was far from the first or only show to utilize this type of personality, but Dr. John Zoidberg is particularly distinct – an incompetent and penniless lobster doctor – which makes him emblematic in a helpful way. So, Zoidberg it is.

What exactly do I mean by a Zoidberg? Essentially, it’s a loser, but it goes further than that. To begin, it might be useful to define what a Zoidberg isn’t. Though Zoidbergs are dumb, they’re distinct from the affable idiot or man-child stock character – Phil Dunphy, for instance, is too beloved and too proactive to qualify. Though they’re hard up, Zoidbergs are not exactly sad sacks, either. Cyril Figgis serves as a punching bag for Archer and company, but his grouchiness, self-awareness and ultimate competency exclude him from entry. And while Zoidbergs are weirdoes, they’re not just nerds: Noel Shempsky from Frasier is too skeezy. Steve Urkel too dynamic.

No, to be a true Zoidberg, a character must fit several classifications. First, he (and typically Zoidbergs are male) must revel in the dull, outmoded, and embarrassing. John Zoidberg considers a bag of toenail clippings a feast. Jerry Gergich from Parks And Recreation loves Comic Sans and stuffing envelopes.

A Zoidberg must also be despised by the show’s other central characters. The intensity with which the cast hates him should be vociferous and inexplicable; while “Rickety Cricket” from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a bit of a nebbish, the gang’s gleeful destruction of him is wildly disproportionate.

This perpetual torment permeates all aspects of a Zoidberg’s life, going beyond social interactions to take on an almost cosmic weight. Butters Stotch – a Zoidberg if there ever was one – is often capriciously punished, has sociopathic monsters for parents, and was born on September 11th. If something can go wrong with a Zoidberg, it will: he has a perpetual target on his back.

Yet despite a lousy lot in life, a Zoidberg is relentlessly upbeat. On NewsRadio, Matthew is frequently the butt of the joke, but he loves the other members of the station, and reveres Bill, who treats him worst of all. No matter how much shit is thrown his way, he’s the most excited and loyal friend of the group – insults from others often don’t even register.

Ultimately, the Zoidberg characterization can seem somewhat mean-spirited. Its humor lies in someone who’s an inherent outsider, someone who is always less than the rest of the group. This places it squarely in a post-Seinfeld television landscape. Seinfeld itself doesn’t have a Zoidberg figure per se – the closest is probably hack comedian Kenny Bania, though he’s too malignant to count – but the show’s “no hugs, no lessons” philosophy paved the way for a character whose most tangible trait is that he sucks. You’re still unlikely to find Zoidbergs in sweeter and more mainstream comedies like Modern Family or How I Met Your Mother, perhaps because such thinly veiled hostility might be off-putting for some viewers.

This is unfortunate, since Zoidbergs often provide some of the highlights of the show; Michael Scott’s disgust with Toby is a constant delight. Beyond comedic potential, though, the secret strength of this archetype is in its empathy. Zoidbergs are idiotic, naïve, and disconcerting, yet they are fundamentally good, often in fact better than the rest of the cast. In most series, there comes a moment of reckoning – a central character realizes the altruism and importance of a Zoidberg. Jack Donaghy learns only Kenneth has a pure enough heart to run NBC. Michael Bluth learns that only Buster loves the family enough not to sell his company stock. The Planet Express crew learns that only Zoidberg was good enough to get a present from an evil robot Santa (for this reason, Meg Griffin is not a true Zoidberg – she’s a dud, but she’s loathed consistently without any redemption).

An especially illustrative example of this dynamic is the Ice King from Adventure Time. With his army of penguins and his propensity towards capturing princesses, this snowbound weirdo is the ostensible villain of the show’s earlier episodes. However, as more of his background is uncovered, a harrowing tale of heartbreak and obsession emerges. His heroic past and subsequent fall make him one of the most tragic and impactful figures in the land of Ooo as well as one of the funniest. Zoidbergs are often the secret heart of a series – proof that even the biggest dweebs are worthy of dignity and respect.

As an archetype, the rules of Zoidbergs are not hard and fast, and already some sitcoms are expanding the scope of this character. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has doubled up on Zoidbergs with Detectives Scully and Hitchcock – a dynamic that interestingly leads to a pair of conspirators that’s more guileful than a lone doofus. Bob’s Burgers, meanwhile, has a potential Zoidberg in Tina – she’s unlucky in life and love, she relishes things that are boring – but she’s treated with genuine warmth and surrounded by an equally freakish family, which makes her more relatable and less lame. As the television landscape progresses, it’ll be interesting to see how this character continues to evolve.

Futurama’s penultimate episode, “Stench And Stenchibility” is a Zoidberg love story, giving the lobster doctor a chance at lasting happiness and fulfillment as the series ends. It’s a sweet and unexpected sendoff that belies the antagonism with which he’d been treated previously. After all, if anyone deserves a happy ending, it’s Zoidberg. Hooray!

Matt Crowley is a writer and comic living in LA. He’s having a wonderful time.

On ‘Zoidbergs’