The recipe to a great sitcom is usually pretty straightforward. Good actors + great writing = very funny TV. Of course, as every good storyteller knows, along with jokes, you also need a moral; a teachable moment to leave with your viewers.
From its earliest days, shows like The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy knew how to relate to an audience. As watching television together became a favorite family pastime, sitcoms evolved to keep up with the times – some, more so than others.
Certain sitcom moments live on in infamy. We all know about that time on Diff’rent Strokes when Arnold and Dudley made friends with “The Bicycle Man”. Or the time when Edith was celebrating her 50th birthday on All in the Family and unexpectedly came across a monster.
Sometimes, a poignant sitcom moment is important to have. TV is full of surprises, and we, as an audience, love to see where our favorite characters will take us. But then there are those other times; the times when the line between tasteful and disturbing is kind of hard to find.
Whether it was shocking, inappropriate or incredibly screwed up, these sitcoms knew how to test the boundaries of television and ended up proving that nothing is off limits. Here are 15 Sitcoms That Took Things WAY Too Far.
15. Friends’ Homophobia
If the only Friends memories you have are images of your favorite friends dancing in a fountain, try going back to re-watch episodes from any season, and you’ll see that one of TV’s greatest shows was actually quite homophobic.
Aside from the abundance of stereotypical gay jokes that are now really hard to miss, there were many moments on Friends that could make you question everything. From Ross swapping his son’s Barbie for a G.I. Joe, to jokes about Chandler’s transgender father (played by Kathleen Turner), it turns out the series was riddled with crass remarks.
14. The Sad Tale Of Punky Brewster
Punky Brewster already pushed the boundaries in the ‘80s just by being a kid whose mom abandoned her (and her dog) in a supermarket only so she can befriend an old widower who would eventually become her foster dad.
Right off the bat, most children knew this was no ordinary show. But the story didn’t stop there. Pulling from real-life events, like when the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up on TV or when Punky’s best friend got trapped in a refrigerator and suffocated (because apparently that was a thing), this show did not hold back at all when it came to sensitive material.
But the absolute worst had to be the episode where they killed off every one of Punky’s loved ones (even her dog). Luckily, it was a twisted episode that turned out to be just a ghost story – which, in reality, is actually just as frightening.
13. 2 Broke Girls Actually Go For Broke
When it comes to discrimination, 2 Broke Girls does not discriminate. It’s an equal opportunity offender and everyone is fair game. The adventures of Max and Caroline have taken us to some wild, graphic places that some would say are not suitable for network TV.
Han, (who was once referred to as Brice Lee) is the Asian-American character who owns the diner the girls work at and usually takes the brunt of things. If his broken English wasn’t offensive enough, Michael Patrick King made sure to double down and hit the audience with every racist undertone imaginable on top of that.
12. Are You There, Chelsea? It’s Me, Vodka
Chelsea Handler has always been a “Girl Behaving Badly.” The title of her sophomore book, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, was inspired by a children’s book (of all things) and laid the foundation for her sitcom. In 2012, Handler developed the show, loosely based off of her life, which delivered just as much shock and awe as most of her previous work. In it, she plays the character of her older sister, while “Chelsea,” is played by Laura Prepon.
The whole premise of the series kicks off with Prepon’s character obtaining a DUI – because when it comes to comedy, drunk driving apparently is a good jumping off point.
This failed experiment only lasted one risqué season. It was crude, offensive and had tons of jokes about men and substance abuse. A show that celebrates binge drinking can only go so far before it hits rock bottom.
11. How I Met Your Mother – And She Died So I Moved On
In nine seasons, How I Met Your Mother managed to manipulate our feelings to the point of unquestionable loyalty. It confused us, made us fall in love (over and over again), and totally surprised us, right up until the final episode.
At the beginning, we all pretty much assumed Robin and Ted would end up together. Then, knowing that “Aunt Robin” was out of the running as mom and seeing her eventually end up with Barney definitely threw us for a loop.
But, the moment that pushed us all over the edge came just after the big reveal. Not long after learning how Ted Mosby finally met the mother of his children, and who she was, we find out (in a quick montage no less) surprise – she’s actually been dead for six years.
10. Two And A Half Men Get Married
For a show that was shrouded in off-screen controversy, Two and a Half Men still proved to be a quality contender. Despite Charlie Sheen’s outbursts and Angus T. Jones’ plea for people to stop watching because the series was “filth,” it managed to keep its fanbase, and its ratings, at least for a little while.
Even though plenty considered the show’s content to be bawdy, it wasn’t until its final season that they really crossed the line with a surprising gay marriage plot twist.
The idea was for Walden to propose to Alan so that the two could adopt a child. After 12 seasons, the show had finally gone too far. Two heterosexual men posing as a gay couple, so they can raise a child? Things got even more awkward as we watched Ashton Kutcher and Jon Cryer display their affection for each other. The pair obviously had a hard time keeping a straight face.
9. Saved By The Bell Rings In Some Controversy
In the ‘90s, Saved by the Bell was like the G-rated version of Beverly Hills, 90210. The show primarily steered clear of scandalous topics and just left it to a few bad puns and peculiar “couple” moments to get the laughs. However, every once in a while they would tread into some questionable territory.
The famous episode where Jessie Spano gets addicted to caffeine pills and freaks out is one that people still talk about today. “Jessie’s Song”, takes kids on a deep dark path of what can happen when teenagers use substances in order to keep up with their studies… and their singing group, the inappropriately titled, “Hot Sundae.”
Even though this was considered over-the-top, it was actually toned down from the original concept. Executive producer Peter Engel initially had planned for Spano’s character to get hooked on speed. Standards and Practices, as well as NBC, vetoed it, making only some drugs suitable for Saturday mornings.
8. Family Guy Sings An Anti-Semitic Tune
Anyone who has even heard of Family Guy knows all about the brazen jokes laden throughout. Showrunner Seth MacFarlane has run into plenty of trouble before with episodes such as “Partial Terms of Endearment.” Surprising, being that abortion isn’t a touchy subject or anything. His controversial use of comedy has landed him in hot water with the censors on many occasions resulting in more than banned episodes; it’s even led to the show being both canceled AND revived.
However, “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein,” might just be one of the most racist moments an animated series has ever gotten away with. Even though the episode was pulled from Fox post-production, it did eventually air and made its way onto the DVD. With its opening number titled “I Need a Jew”, this episode glorified anti-Semitism.
7. The Big Bang Theory’s Dungeon Fantasies
The Big Bang Theory featured (among other things) a lot of awkward moments revolving around sex. Leonard and Penny, who dated on the down-low for two years in real-life, had a large part of the show orbit around their on-screen relationship, but Sheldon’s social ineptitude and sweet nativity made the whole sex thing even funnier to watch.
While Sheldon eventually had his own love life to attend to, the moments when he habitually ended up in the middle of a sexually-charged situation with Leonard and Penny were hilarious. That is, until that one time TBBT was banned in the UK for being too hot for TV.
The controversy came from Sheldon having a dream about Penny and Leonard. In it, they turned his room into a sex dungeon. Complete with bondage and leather and handcuffs, oh my. This episode gives the idea of Dungeons & Dragons an entirely new meaning.
6. South Park Crosses The Line… Again
In what is now 21 seasons of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker have managed to offend everybody. Right out of the gate, this show made no apologies and proved that no one was safe from exemption.
There was the time Scott Tenorman inadvertently ate his own parents, thanks to Cartman. And, of course, the time they upset an entire religion with their use of Muhammad.
But perhaps the one religion-based episode that caused an even bigger stir was the one centered on Scientology. In “Trapped in the Closet”, Tom Cruise, R. Kelly, and John Travolta are all the butt of the joke (so to speak).
The episode made one Scientologist so upset, he left the show. Although the late Isaac Hayes had asked to be released from his contract shortly after, we can take comfort that in the world of South Park, Chef and his “Salty Balls” continue to live on.
5. Black-ish Is Down With Chris Brown
Black-ish made a bold and somewhat offensive move this year by hiring Chris Brown to guest star on the show. Brown stepped in to play a rapper named Rich Youngsta, who is hired to collaborate on an ad campaign and is later called out for propagating some pretty negative stereotypes. Of course, after realizing the error of his ways, his character has a change of heart and decides to take the high road.
Unfortunately, while the message is a good one, according to most fans, the series went too far by bringing Brown on-board for this role. With his mountain of legal issues – including his well-publicized battery of ex-girlfriend Rihanna, Brown couldn’t be an odder choice when it comes to teaching a lesson in morality.
4. The Facts Of Life Taught Too Much
As a spin-off of Diff’rent Strokes, this show followed Edna Garret, the housemother at an all-female boarding school, while she advised a mismatched group of teenagers who were just trying to navigate their way through the world.
The ‘80s were filled with politically incorrect goodness and this series tackled all of the topics that would be considered off limits today. Shoplifting, drugs, drinking, assault; the list goes on. But, certain episodes went even further and surprised a lot of viewers with the content.
One had the character of Natalie losing her virginity to her boyfriend, “Snake.” And if that wasn’t a tough enough issue to talk to your kids about, imagine (following the movie Pretty Baby) an episode called “Pretty Babies”, where an older photographer attempts to get a 12-year-old, Tootie, without her clothes.
3. Growing Pains Of Substance Abuse
While eating disorders, adult photos, and divorce are all topics you’d expect to see on TV today, this is what the cast of Growing Pains was dealing with in the ‘80s, when the cameras were off. On-screen, they stuck to more traditional topics, except, of course, for a few episodes that stepped over the line.
Like that time when Mike Seaver and his friends, Eddie and Boner, were offered cocaine at a party. They skipped the marijuana and went straight for the hard stuff, in an episode appropriately titled, “Thank God It’s Friday”.
And in another episode, since art tends to imitate life, after the show’s producer had caught his 14-year-old experimenting with drinking, he decided to kill off Matthew Perry (who played Carol’s love interest) in a drunk-driving accident. Because what better way teach your kid not to drink than by driving home the point that if you do, you could die.
2. This One Time On The Golden Girls…
Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia made being “old” cool to children everywhere on The Golden Girls. Sure, they dove into adult issues: Blanche was a bit promiscuous and they also confronted topics like gay marriage, which was extremely controversial at the time, but it was innocent Rose Nylund who crossed the line.
Rose amused us with her sweet little stories about what it was like growing up in the small fictional town of St. Olaf, and would mention something every once in a while that would make your ears perk up. Like the time she innocently talked about how the doctor made her undress for no reason.
Or that one episode where Rose casually revealed she had been addicted to pain pills for decades. Thankfully, after some bizarre behavior and a trip to rehab, we learned that Rose was still Rose – with or without the drugs.
1. Family Ties Gets Too Close For Comfort
The Keaton’s were one of America’s favorite families in the ‘80s. While the show embraced the liberal viewpoints of the ‘60s with the parents, it also targeted the youth of the times with the kids, particularly Alex P. Keaton; a member of the Young Republicans who loved nothing more than Ronald Reagan and Capitalism.
Some episodes were a bit shocking, even for the ‘80s – like the time when Tom Hanks played drunken Uncle Ned, an alcoholic who ends up backhanding Alex. And then there was that other weird uncle episode where Mallory gets groped.
In “Give Uncle Arthur a Kiss”, 15-year-old Mallory is accosted by a longtime family friend. The weirdest part is that no one does anything about it. Good old Uncle Arthur only got a stern talking to and managed to avoid jail time by promising he would never do it again.
Can you think of any other sitcoms that took things too far? Leave us a comment and let us know!
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