Back in the day, you couldn’t show a toilet on TV– nowadays, characters are shot talking by them, sitting on them, or puking into them… whatever works to get the job done. So much of what makes a television episode controversial has a lot to do with timing. We wanted to go through the archives of what are considered the most controversial sitcom episodes of all time and doing so took us back a number of decades.
In many cases, a controversial episode helps to propel a conversation forward or even push the envelope for censorship further towards Carlin’s 7 Dirty Words, which is something we can all enjoy. Of course, they could also lead to a series cancellation and an outcry from the public demanding an apology from the show’s creators.
While some of these may not seem controversial nowadays, they were fairly devastating to the viewing public when they aired. These episodes deal with everything from abortion to insulting entire nations and above all raised the ire of advertisers and viewers. Here are 15 Most Controversial Sitcom Episodes ever aired on television.
15. “Blame it on Lisa” – The Simpsons
The Simpsons has had its share of controversial episodes over the years. The show has been on for so long, it has insulted and offended just about everyone on the planet. That’s usually not a big deal, but the episode “Blame it on Lisa” from the 13th season flat-out enraged the entire country of Brazil.
Riotur, the tourist board for the city of Rio de Janeiro, planned on suing Fox for broadcasting the episode, which they contended damaged the reputation of the city. They backed down in their lawsuit after James L. Brooks, the executive producer of the show, issued an apology. Brazil was upset over the depiction of their culture and their city in “Blame it on Lisa.”
In the episode, Homer is kidnapped for a $50,000 ransom, the city is shown to be rat-infested, and numerous clichés and stereotypes run rampant. The episode isn’t controversial to many Americans, but for anyone from Brazil, it was pretty outlandish.
One of the biggest complaints was that the show grouped various cultural stereotypes from surrounding Latin nations in with Brazil, weakening its own cultural identity. It took another 11 years before the family returned to the country in “You Don’t Have to Live Like a Referee.”
14. “Maude’s Dilemma” – Maude
And then there’s Maude. For a sitcom that came from the creators of All in the Family, it’s difficult to imagine a less funny topic than abortion. It’s controversial now and it was exceptionally controversial in November of 1972, when this two-part episode aired. The state of New York had only recently legalized the procedure and Roe v. Wade was still months away making it a subject of national interest and debate.
Bea Arthur’s Maude Findlay, a grandmother, found herself pregnant at the ripe old age of 47, which carries with it some health risks as well as the prospect of raising a baby well into the couple’s ’60s. Throughout the episode, the couple struggled with the decision (while somehow keeping the show comedic), but ultimately decided to abort the child.
Toward the end of the episode, her husband said, “For you, Maude, for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.” Strangely, the episode wasn’t as controversial then as it is now. Abortion in the United States will likely remain a hot-button issue forever so people continue to recall this episode with reverence or hatred… depending on their point of view.
13. “I’ll See You in Court” – Married… with Children
Married With Children was a controversial series in its entirety when it aired until it ended. Nowadays, most of the topics covered, from misogyny to overt sexuality, are fairly blasée in a post-Game of Thrones World, but in the 1980s and ’90s, it was fairly controversial. Regardless, the show was popular and could usually pull in the laughs and the ratings, which is probably why it remained on television for just over a decade.
In the episode “I’ll See You In Court”, the Bundys decide to have sex outside of their normal environment so they run over to the Hop-On-Inn for a little tryst. While there, they discover a sex tape of their neighbors, the Rhoades, but decide to fool around anyways. They are also secretly taped and when it comes out, the two couples take the Inn’s proprietor to court.
The content is what made this episode controversial and the network refused to air it for more than a decade. When it finally aired in 2002 on American television (five years after the series ended), four lines of dialogue were omitted.
12. “The Puppy Episode” – Ellen
Ellen DeGeneres is gay. Yes, we all know this and most people nowadays don’t care. Back when she had her own self-titled sitcom, Ellen being gay was a really big deal. In the two-part arc, “The Puppy Episode,” Ellen struggles to finally reveal to her friends (and the rest of the world) that she is gay. The episode was so-named so that the content would be kept secret from the public. “The Puppy Episode” was an incredible success, but it did create a great deal of criticism that eventually led to the series’ cancellation.
The episode itself flows somewhat naturally for the character. Ellen struggles to reveal her sexuality to her friends while receiving encouragement from her therapist to do so. Her revelation comes as something of a comedic surprise initially when she accidentally broadcasts it over an airport’s loudspeaker simply saying, “I’m gay” to her crush, Susan, played by Laura Dern. She then has her friends over and is outed by her gay neighbor whom she confided in shortly before everyone arrived.
11. “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra” – How I Met Your Mother
We live in a society where “black face” is no longer acceptable and that’s a good thing. You might think that depictions of Asian stereotypes, often called “yellow face” wouldn’t make it to prime time anymore, but the creators behind the hit series How I Met Your Mother didn’t hold back in the season nine episode, “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra”.
The episode revolves around a tale told by Marshall and his quest to learn the Slap of a Million Exploding Suns so that the next slap he delivers to Barney will be one to remember. The two had a “slap bet”, which allowed Marshall to slap Barney five times whenever he wanted, and Marshall enjoyed tormenting Barney with the anticipation.
Through the tale, Marshall travels to Shanghai and meets the other characters in the show who are dressed up as Asian stereotypes. As you can see from the picture, Ted is sporting a Fu Manchu. The episode received a ton of backlash over the depictions and the Twitter topic #HowIMetYourRacism began trending. One of the show’s creators, Carter Bays, posted an apology on Twitter, but many fans were left offended.
10. “Stevil” – Family Matters
Family Matters was an endearing show about a family like many others, but with one added annoyance: Steve Urkel. Urkel was a character who pretty much defined the ’90s sitcom scene. He was weird, annoying, and not someone you would want over for dinner too often. To be fair, he was also funny and a nice guy, but that’s not really the issue when it comes to the Halloween Special that aired in October of 1997, during the show’s eighth season.
Urkel shows up with a ventriloquist dummy that looks exactly like him. While that’s enough to make most people turn off the television and put the remote in the freezer, the doll was evil. When Urkel’s comedy act doesn’t go over too well, he goes to bed, the doll is struck by lightning and is animated, then goes on to torment its creator. The doll reveals that it wants to kill the Winslow family… which it does in various ways meant to be comedic, but end up being creepy as hell.
9. “Pamela (Part 1)” – Louie
There are some shows that shouldn’t take on controversial subjects and then there are those that embrace them and make them work. Louie was most often the latter, but in the episode “Pamela (Part 1)”, fans were quick to call it the “Date Rape Episode” instead of what star Louie C.K. called it: “… a kiss on the mouth.” While it’s true that his character did kiss Pamela in the scene, what led up to it is what made the episode particularly difficult to watch.
The episode kicks off with C.K. delivering a feminist standup routine before heading home to wake his friend, Pamela, who was watching his daughters. She wants to return home for the night, but he attempts to keep her in the apartment. He even holds her so she can’t leave, pulls up her shirt, keeps the door closed without letting her out, and forcibly kisses her on the mouth before she is able to fully reject him and leave.
8. “Edith’s 50th Birthday” – All in the Family
It isn’t unusual for a sitcom to deal with a contentious issue like rape, but when a show handles the topic, it can be controversial and upset a lot of people. That’s what happened in the eighth season episode of All in the Family called “Edith’s 50th Birthday.” In the episode, the family’s matriarch, Edith is nearly raped by a man pretending to be a police officer. This occurs while her family is preparing a surprise party for Edith at their next-door neighbor’s house. The family is completely unaware of the assault as it is happening and for a comedy, there is nothing funny going on.
The rest of the episode dealt with Edith’s handling of the attempted assault and her family’s support in dealing with the aftermath. The episode was one of the earliest portrayals of rape on television, attempted or otherwise, which is why it lands on this list. The episode is still shown to women at rape crisis centers and it stands as one of the most memorable of the entire series.
7. “I Slipped” – The Mindy Project
If the picture and the title of the episode didn’t immediately give this one away, it deals with anal sex. Actually, it’s the first depiction of anal sex in a network sitcom, which is why this particular episode of The Mindy Project met with such controversy. “I Slipped” is all about a guy accidentally sliding into Fifth Base. To be clear, this isn’t a “Just the tip” situation and the show received a tremendous amount of backlash for the portrayal.
The episode itself is pretty funny and the scene must have had the network censors in a fit. They can’t outright say that anal sex was going o, so the following dialogue was all that was needed to make it work: “Wait, Danny, Danny, that doesn’t go there!”
Danny’s defense: “I slipped.”
6. “Partial Terms of Endearment” – Family Guy
If you thought we could get through a list about controversial episodes and only deal with abortion once, you were way off! Family Guy is not a safe show for pretty much any topic. Like The Simpsons, the series doesn’t hold back so an episode about abortion was inevitable. The show finally tackled the subject in the eighth season episode, “Partial Terms of Endearment”.
The episode introduces Naomi Robinson, with whom Lois had a lesbian relationship in college. This piques Peter’s interest and after Naomi mentions an important matter she would like to discuss, Peter’s hopes of a threesome are quashed when it is revealed that Naomi and her husband Dale would like Lois to be their surrogate. Lois agrees, but shortly after she becomes pregnant, the couple is killed in a car accident.
This sets off the discussion about having an abortion and ends with Lois talking about “The wonderful new member of the Griffin Family” only to have Peter break the fourth wall by looking at the camera and closing the episode with “We had the abortion.”
5. “201” – South Park
Of course we had to get to South Park eventually. For animated sitcoms, South Park is pretty much at the top of its game when it comes to controversial episodes, but none could stand up to the episode titled “201” from the show’s fourteenth season. The episode follows the adventures of the children as the city of South Park is beset by angry celebrities demanding the city produce the prophet Muhammad. The city is saved by the pictured group of superhero saviors, but the most controversial aspect of all was the depiction of the prophet.
Due to controversies in 2005 and 2007 relating to the depiction of the prophet that led to several deaths, Comedy Central heavily censored the episode. They obscured images of the character and bleeped out mention of his name. The censorship was itself heavily criticized and Comedy Central has never released the episode in its entirety. That doesn’t mean you can’t watch it, though, because someone leaked it off their servers in 2014.
4. “The Bicycle Man” – ‘Diff’rent Strokes
Sitcoms like to send a message. Sometimes this is overt and obvious, while at other times, it remains subtle until the very end. “The Bicycle Man” was an episode that was glaringly obvious to the viewers, but not to the folks mucking about on the screen a, which made things terribly disturbing. Arnold meets Mr. Dudley, the proprietor of the local bicycle shop, and the two take a shine to one another. Arnold begins doing favors for the old fellow, like passing around leaflets at his school, and is rewarded with a shiny new radio for his bike.
Eventually, Arnold brings along his friend Dudley and things get bad quickly. Arnold is asked not to tell Mr. Drummond about the time they have been spending together. He provides the children with porn and wine… you see where this is going, right? The kids didn’t, but in the end, Arnold finally tells Mr. Drummond and the cops arrive to find a half-naked and drugged Dudley about to learn a lesson about not trusting strangers.
3. “The China Problem” – South Park
We wanted to limit this list to only one South Park episode, but that just wasn’t possible. We really did try, but the episode titled “The China Problem” from the series’ twelfth season simply couldn’t be left off. Kyle begins his quest for justice in the “raping” of Indiana Jones thanks to the recently released (and almost universally despised) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The kids start having flashbacks of Indiana Jones being raped by George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg following their viewing of the film, but recall this from different scenes in other films. It’s graphic and disturbing, but it’s not the only reason the episode is on the list.
Cartman believes the Chinese are going to invade the United States following the 2008 Olympics held at Beijing so he does the responsible thing and dons some yellow face as they head to their local P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. Their plan is to trick the Chinese people into telling them the invasion plans and end up taking everyone hostage. Butters, who is along for the ride, accidentally shoots a warning shot at a cop and shoots him in the dick.
2. “The Peurto Rican Day” – Seinfeld
Seinfeld prided itself as being a show about nothing and the last episode to air during the final season before the clip show and the finale returned to that form. The gang are on their way back from a Mets game they left early to beat the traffic. This backfires when they run into massive gridlock thanks to the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Their car is essentially in park and the gang go about doing their various antics trying to either watch the rest of the Mets game in a nearby open house or getting home any way they can.
Kramer gets himself into a whole mess of trouble when he accidentally sets a flag on fire after lighting his cigar. The problem is magnified as it turns out to be a Puerto Rican flag. This gets Kramer into some hot water with the surrounding people as he tried to put out the flames by stomping on the flag.
The network was also in some hot water over the episode and they had to apologize to the Puerto Rican people for the desecration of their flag, even going so far as to promise to never air the episode again.
1. “Pilot” – Heil Honey I’m Home
Finally, in the “What the hell were they thinking” category, we have the pilot episode from the doomed series, Heil Honey I’m Home. The sitcom, which has been called “perhaps the world’s most tasteless situation comedy” by television historian Marian Calabro, centers around fictionalized versions of Adolf Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun. The two live in the suburbs next door to a Jewish couple, Arny and Rosa Goldenstein, and oddly enough, they don’t really get along! The story-arc for the first season was intended to be about Hitler’s plans to kill the Goldensteins… like all wacky neighbor sitcoms!
The show was intended to spoof American sitcoms and doesn’t really play the characters off like their historical counterparts, but it’s incredibly crass and insensitive to literally millions upon millions of people. The setting is Berlin in 1937, which was not a good time to be Jewish– certainly not in Berlin, and definitely not next door to Hitler.
The show only ever aired the pilot episode before thankfully being cancelled by Galaxy in 1990 proving that a sitcom starring Hitler is never a good idea. Ever.
Did we miss any of your favorite controversial television shows? Let us know in the comments!