Sitcoms aren’t supposed to make you think. Generally, their sole purpose is to make you laugh, one half-hour increment at a time, while building a core cast of characters to whom you’ll want to return for a new episode each week. But in building those characters, many shows will include details, whether as throwaway gags or parts of an established backstory, that raise increasingly troubling questions about the characters’ pasts — if and when you do bother to think about them.
In some series, these troubling implications are part of the joke, built into the show’s darkly humorous DNA, and in others, they’re unintentional, often a sign of the times in which the series was made. In either case, however, these unusual backstories give viewers extra layers to peel away and discover unexpected nuggets of implied tragedy hiding within some seemingly lighthearted television comedy. Here are 15 sitcom characters with disturbing backstories that give viewers plenty to unpack in their respective series.
15. Charlie Kelly (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)
It’s Always Sunny is one of those shows with comic darkness built into its DNA, centered on a gang of unrepentant narcissists doomed to codependent, delusional failure. But only Charlie, the gang’s squeaky-voiced janitor and self-proclaimed “wild card,” seems undeserving of his fate. Raised by a protective yet promiscuous mother, Charlie was almost certainly molested by his creepy Uncle Jack, with whom he avoids any physical contact after sharing a room with him as a child.
Though illiterate, Charlie shows occasional flashes of brilliance, particularly when it comes to music. He even wrote an entire musical, “The Nightman Cometh,” to woo his longtime stalking-victim The Waitress – but in fact, it only makes his molestation all the more explicit with songs about getting “into this boy’s hole.” To top it all off, Charlie now sleeps in the same bed with a man who is likely his illegitimate father. Seems healthy.
14. Helga Pataki (Hey Arnold!)
As Hey Arnold‘s secondary protagonist, Helga Pataki traded off duties as the titular football-head’s tormentor and secret admirer, only letting down her tough, tomboyish exterior to soliloquize about her love for Arnold in her moments alone. And her frequently antisocial, bullying behavior makes perfect sense given the glimpses we see of her miserable home life.
She refers to her father only as “Bob,” likely because he’s too busy watching television and worrying about his work as a beeper salesman to do any actual fathering. Her mother Miriam is heavily implied to be an alcoholic, being depressed, forgetful, and prone to drinking “smoothies” or “coffee,” her only parental affection usually reserved for Helga’s overachieving older sister Olga. Helga’s love for Arnold stems directly from this neglectful home life — in the episode “Helga on the Couch,” we learn she developed feelings for Arnold their first day of preschool, all because he showed her the kindness and affection her parents regularly deny her.
13. Ron Swanson (Parks & Recreation)
Parks Director of Pawnee, Indiana’s resident red-meat-eating libertarian Ron Swanson is usually a bastion of self-control and strength for his friends and subordinates — except when it comes to women named Tammy, with whom he has an uncomfortably Oedipal relationship. Like his mother, both of Ron’s ex-wives were named Tammy, and throughout the series, each provides an enlightening glimpse into how even the ever-stoic Ron can lose control of himself.
The more frequently-recurring Tammy Two (Megan Mullally) can turn Ron into an impulsive, corn-row-wearing sex fiend with her mere presence, while his first wife Tammy One (Patricia Clarkson) uses her cold stare to emasculate Ron into a mustache-less, polo-shirted wimp incapable of making his own decisions. Maybe that’s because she has known Ron literally since he was born, having delivered him as a nurse and subsequently taught him “everything he knows,” including middle school math, driver’s ed, and “the art of sex.”
12. Marge Simpson (The Simpsons)
Marge Simpson may be the epitome of that tried-and-true sitcom cliche of the beautiful, intelligent wife married to an undeserving, overweight doofus. For all his idiocies, Homer does actually love Marge, but that doesn’t take all the sting away from her blatantly wasted potential. Before she got knocked up and married her high school sweetheart in a sleazy one-room wedding chapel, she aspired to be a painter, and seemingly had the talent necessary to achieve her dream.
Instead, she’s settled into the thankless task of being a housewife for a man she originally got with in part because her overbearing, under-loving parents disapproved of him. Marge even shows signs of delusion about her marriage to Homer, in one episode boasting to Lisa that she changed him from being “crude and piggish” into a “whole new person.” At any rate, all of Marge’s missed opportunities and wasted potential seems to manifest itself in the form of her occasional struggles with alcoholism and gambling addiction.
11. Joey Tribbiani (Friends)
The revelation that Joey was molested by his family’s tailor from the age of 15 is played almost exclusively for laughs in a season two episode of Friends. Here’s how it goes: Joey sends Chandler to his family’s long-time tailor, only for Chandler to return complaining of the tailor making “definite cupping” movements while fitting his pants. “That’s how they do pants!” Joey responds, only gradually realizing that he and his entire family have been taken advantage of, much to the delight of Friends‘ studio audience. Even his father was oblivious to their tailors’ chronic fondling.
All this only becomes more disturbing when contextualized with the rest of Joey’s behavior. Might this be the reason Joey is the only Friend who never commits to a monogamous relationship? Might this be why he’s constantly wooing and then discarding drunk women for meaningless one-night stands? Maybe not, but it’s an amusingly dark way to read the series either way.
10. Jared Dunn (Silicon Valley)
The joke of Jared is his traumatic past. The timid head of business development at Pied Piper is constantly dropping unnerving hints as to his troubled past in conversation, making it difficult to even keep track of the many wrinkles within his disturbing backstory. Online fans have pieced together at least this much: Jared was raised in a series of foster homes, his birth certificate having been permanently lost and his biological father gone to join a militia in the Ozarks. His friends as a child were a ziploc bag and an imaginary Harriet Tubman, with whom he was always “planning our big escape.”
He was bullied through high school and college (eventually learning that screaming his own name repeatedly would force his tormentors to acknowledge him as a human) before finding success in his career at Hooli, a company he likens to “an abusive spouse.” All those years of abuse have certainly taken a psychological toll on Jared, but none of it quite explains other unresolved details about his character — like why he screams in German, a language he claims not to know, while sleeping.
9. Britta Perry (Community)
Community is all about a group of damaged individuals who establish quasi-familial bonds within the unexpected framework of a community college study group. Every main character has their own past to struggle with, though none quite as unusual as that of the group’s resident activist, Britta. On her eleventh birthday, Britta was molested by “an enterprising transient wearing a dinosaur costume,” and still struggles with the psychological fallout of the incident as an adult.
In one episode, she dresses for Halloween as a T-Rex — possibly in an attempt to overcome a lingering phobia– and in another, she cuts off a shrink before he can reveal her trauma to the rest of the group. Later Abed, doing his best to “darken their timeline,” suggests this may be why Britta dropped out of high school to pursue her interests in activism and radicalism.
8. Bud Bundy (Married… With Children)
The horndog tendencies of teenage Bud Bundy become a little less funny when you realize he was apparently raped several times throughout the series. It was almost a running joke, as there are several episodes in which Bud’s storyline ends in him being unwillingly dragged away to do the deed with comically overweight or unattractive women. “Now I know how Tom Arnold feels,” he quips in reference to Rosanne Barr’s former spouse after one incident. In another, he is unwilling to have sex with an attractive woman after having slept with another too recently, but of course, she drags him off too.
Considering Bud never has a real girlfriend while in high school, many of his earliest sexual experiences fall into the category of female-on-male rape, which can’t be healthy for his future relationships.
7. Morgan Tookers (The Mindy Project)
Morgan Tookers has a reminder tattooed across his chest: “No More Stealing Cars.” This is in reference to his adolescent struggles with the law, which led to his incarceration as a teenager in Otisville prison for motor vehicle theft. One of his close friends also went to prison for a crime in which Morgan was complicit, but got off scot-free.
Now working as a nurse at Mindy’s obstetrics practice, he’s generally sunny and positive but still prone to making creepy remarks (in one case, about chaining people up in his basement) and unwarranted threats for the sake of protecting his close friends. If anything, the rehabilitated Morgan is too kind and open, particularly when it comes to his love of dogs. In the series, it’s revealed he owns not one, not two, but a whopping 40 canines.
6. Creed Bratton (The Office)
A minor player at Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch, quality assurance manager Creed Bratton didn’t say or do much in most episodes of The Office, but when he did, it was always memorably insane. Based in part on the actor of same name who plays him, Creed is a former rock musician whose years of drug abuse landed him with a notoriously faulty memory, on one occasion causing him to forget his own work title.
Creed is also an apparent kleptomaniac, regularly stealing from coworkers and describing it as “just something I do.” He’s also been involved in multiple religious cults — dispensing the wisdom that “you have more fun as a follower, but you make more money as a leader” — and saying in one episode that he changes his name whenever he is in fear of being “found out.” Whether this is the truth or just another example of Creed’s drug-induced senility, no one can say.
5. Kimmy Schmidt (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)
The disturbing backstory is built into the premise in this case. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt focuses on a Midwestern girl kidnapped and kept with three others in an underground bunker for years by the criminally insane would-be reverend John Wayne Gary Wayne. From the eighth grade onward, the titular Kimmy was told the entire world had been destroyed in a nuclear apocalypse.
Of course, the series doesn’t focus on Kimmy’s experiences in the bunker, but rather on the life she tries to build after being rescued and discovering the world hadn’t been reduced to nuclear vapor. The show walks a fine line in acknowledging the damage done by her abduction while still painting Kimmy as an unbeatable (or unbreakable?) optimist living in a cartoonish version of Manhattan.
4. Kenneth Parcell (30 Rock)
Another unrealistically sunny optimist from a Tina Fey series, Kenneth is the unceasingly devoted page at 30 Rockefeller Center, ever-willing to help out his superiors with his innocent positivity and folksy wisdom. As played by Jack McBrayer, Kenneth looks to be in his 20s or early-30s, but as the series went on, the writers found creative ways of implying that he is much, MUCH older.
For example, he’s seen covering his ears and shouting when a high-pitched tone audible to only those over 40-years-old is played. Elsewhere in the series, he frets about Tracy and Jenna killing a bird he owned “for almost 60 years” and snapped defensively when caught off-guard, “Who said I’ve been alive forever?!” If that wasn’t clear enough, in another episode, Kenneth briefly dies, and we catch a glimpse of his unused tombstone, with a birth date reading May 27, 1781.
3. Punky Brewster (Punky Brewster)
Punky Brewster is about a strong, smart, resourceful young girl abandoned by her parents. Since this is a sitcom, she has a beloved foster parent in the form of grumpy building manager Henry P. Warnimont, but even that can’t undo the lasting emotional trauma little Punky surely endured after being abandoned by both parents.
In the pilot episode, Punky’s father is already gone, and her mother leaves her and her dog alone in a Chicago shopping center. She only met her eventual caretaker after finding shelter in one of the vacant apartments in Henry’s building, and throughout the series, she works against various social workers and foster-system red tape to maintain what little stability she has there. Her life is much darker than the above-pictured photo would suggest.
2. Arnold and Willis Drummond (Diff’rent Strokes)
At the start of NBC’s decidedly-70s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, the series’ child stars Arnold and Willis Drummond are left orphaned after their mother’s untimely death. Luckily, they’re adopted by their mother’s previous employer, a wealthy widower who rescues them from abject poverty living in Harlem. Many children weren’t so lucky to have their very own rich white savior.
Of course, living with the rich Mr. Drummond doesn’t protect them from other potential traumas, one of which came in the series’ most regrettable “very special episode.” In “The Bicycle Man,” Arnold nearly falls prey to a sexual predator luring him and a friend, Dudley, in with temptations of comic books, ice cream, and wine. Only Arnold realizes the shockingly-plausible danger he’s in and departs before things can go further, leaving Dudley to play a bathtub-set game called “Neptune, King of the Sea” with the Bicycle Man. The whole thing is all the more disturbing with a poorly-timed laugh track tittering under it all.
1. Joey Gladstone (Full House)
As soon as he moves in with his old friend and recent widower Danny Tanner, Full House‘s clueless comedian Joey Gladstone takes a decidedly active role in raising his his pal’s children, helping with homework, preparing meals, driving to school, and insisting they call him “Uncle Joey” despite their lack of a familial relationship. Or maybe not.
A popular fan theory suggests that Joey is the real father of the Tanner girls, as evidenced by the fact that all three have blond hair while their father and maternal uncle have dark hair. And since Danny was a morning DJ and Joey a late-night comedian, he would certainly have had the opportunity to get with Danny’s wife while she was still alive.
What other sitcom stars have a particular dark history hidden away in their closets? Let us know in the comments.
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