Television is a medium for escaping the trials and tribulations of every day life, and as a result, people have differing opinions on whether or not the entertainment it provides should try to tackle serious issues. Some TV shows have been created for that express purpose, and plenty of them have ended up as the most classic and beloved programs of all time, so we certainly don’t disagree with the concept in general. However, other TV shows have attempted to tackle these serious issues and failed miserably, and rarely can it get more offensive than when a show attempts to shed a spotlight on a serious illness, but ends up mocking it instead.
None of these shows set out to actually mock the ill people of the world, and some of them handled the topic better than others, but there’s no denying they all could be viewed as just a little bit offensive to people actually afflicted with the illnesses these TV shows present. Most of the programs on this list are sitcoms, which makes sense—it’s not too hard to bring up a disease for a dark but cheap laugh, using the potential for offense as the joke in and of itself. Only a few of the shows on this list are that crass about it, but many attempted to use something that actually ends a tragic amount of lives for a punch line, and the success rate of that kind of activity varies based on the viewer. Maybe you’re laughing hysterically, but maybe you know somebody who actually has whatever disease they’re talking about on television, and the joke is less funny for you personally. Keep reading to discover which 15 TV shows mocked serious illnesses, and decide for yourself whether or not it’s a laughing matter.
15. Shake It Up – Anorexia Is No Joke
Shake It Up was a teen sitcom that lasted 3 seasons on the Disney channel, starring archetypal Disney princesses Bella Thorne and Zendaya. As in many Disney shows starring young actors and actresses, Thorne and Zendaya play popular but quirky everyday kids who happen to have an extraordinary after-school job in the entertainment industry, in this case acting as backup dancers on a popular show within a show. The focus of the show was the teens’ dance careers, and a well-known cliché about dancers is the fact they all tend to be rather small people, something the show used in it’s humor by having the girls joke about their extreme thinness. While poking fun at a trope is what a sitcom is made for, some people felt this particular idea went a bit too far.
In an episode called “Party It Up,” one of the dancing teens made a joke that someone was cute enough to eat, with the punch line being that would only be true if she ever ate anything. A different Disney princess who had already left the fold, Demi Lovato, happened to be watching. Considering she’s had her own problems with eating disorders and mental illness herself, Lovato had a bit of trouble in seeing the humor. Other fans agreed, and Disney eventually pulled the episode from their rotation.
14. Jessie – Celiac Disease Makes Gluten-Allergies Fatal
Jessie lasted four seasons on the Disney Channel, essentially serving as a gender reversal on the ’80s sitcom Charles In Charge. The Disney Channel twist was that the titular Jessie also wanted to be an actress in addition to her normal everyday life interacting with children, but those children lived completely average lives away from her entertainment dreams. And every day lives occasionally include terrible diseases that make life a living hell, including deadly allergies that could easily kill a young child if he or she isn’t careful. Going gluten free might be trendy, but for some people, it’s a requirement to live into the early teenage years—people like Stuart, a character on Jessie.
Stuart’s character is regularly bullied by the others on the show for his allergies and perceived nerdiness, and one episode in particular saw the adults join in on the mockery, which many felt took things way too far. “Quitting Cold Koala” saw Jessie hired to babysit the gluten-allergic child, and even she mocked him for his disorder, annoyed with the laundry list of allergies she had to deal with. Parents complained that children with celiac disease could watch the episode and feel deeply alienated, leading to an online petition that successfully had the episode banned from being re-aired.
13. Will & Grace – Borderline Comedy Disorder
Will & Grace was a groundbreaking sitcom at the time of its inception, with some critics even hailing it as a gay-friendlier Seinfeld. With an increasingly accepting society eventually learning that gays don’t actually act that much like Will, and most of them act almost nothing like Jack, Will & Grace has fallen out of favor somewhat for its depiction of always flamboyant and perhaps derivatively offensive gay people. People who watched the show regularly know that gay people weren’t the only ones Will & Grace used as a constant punch line, as mental health was also deeply misunderstood by the writers of the show, and they let it get turned into a joke as well.
In season 3’s “Crazy In Love,” Grace gets out of jury duty by having her therapist forge a note diagnosing her with borderline personality disorder, and claiming Grace is at a high-risk for a psychotic break. Her friends instantly become paranoid she’ll snap and kill them all, and generally treat the concept of mental illness as turning a person into an uncontrollable monster. While mental illness can feel that way at times, it’s the support of people around a victim that can help them recover, and acting like the characters on Will & Grace is bound to only make things worse.
12. Full House – D.J.’s Crash Diet
Full House was a family sitcom that aired for eight seasons on ABC and focused on Danny Tanner’s family and their pursuits while raising his daughters. The girls on the show started very young, and thus the focus was how their quirky father and his friends dealt with the change of raising three children without a female influence for the first several seasons. An annoying neighbor helped flesh things out until the girls were old enough to have fully developed plot lines, and when that happened, the writers proved perhaps they were just like Danny Tanner in that they weren’t ready to handle the more serious issues that go into raising a teenage girl.
In the season 4 episode “Shake Up,” D.J. Tanner turns 14, and starts to get extremely conscious about her body. Fearing her friends will see her in a bathing suit at a pool party, she starts a crash diet and quickly develops an eating disorder. Although the point of the episode is that this behavior is bad, and D.J.’s friends basically act the right way in trying to get her help, the episode is emblematic of dozens of sitcoms that have attempted to tackle problems like this. Eating disorders don’t prop up because of a pool party and go away after a chat; they last people’s entire lives and sometimes take years of therapy to overcome.
11. Better Call Saul – Chuck’s Allergy To Electricity
Breaking Bad may well have been the greatest dramatic television program to come out of the US in the history of the medium, and its spin-off Better Call Saul is continuing to impress fans after the success of its second season. While Saul has turned out to have just as many dramatic and action-packed moments as its predecessor, one of the early reservations fans were voicing was the fact that Saul Goodman was always a comedy character in a serious world, and the feeling was that a show based around him might get too jokey to match the bar set by Breaking Bad. By and large that hasn’t been true, but a controversial disease suffered by one of the characters shows there may have been a point to that claim.
The future Saul Goodman, Jimmy McGill, is the star of the show, and his most interesting relationship is the one he shares with his brother, Chuck. Chuck suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or at least thinks he does, and that’s where the situation starts to get a little controversial. Electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a controversial disorder in and of itself, with medical science kind of unclear on what exactly the condition even is. It’s clear people are suffering, and Better Call Saul does its best to handle the questionable nature of their pain, but Jimmy has made enough jokes about Chuck’s “space blanket” that we feel the jokes can get a bit hurtful in their efforts at being completely honest about what the disease is.
10. The Office – Meredith Gets Rabies
Michael Scott was one of the most sublime comedic creations of this past decade, but part of his ability to entertain came from a complete lack of awareness to the social mores and customs that allow us to grow together as a society. Michael’s encounters with diseases like cancer proved comedy gold because the gag was that Michael always somehow thought things were even more serious than they were, and of course that seriousness affected him more so than whoever had the disease. When The Office decided to tackle the less deadly but still often fatal disease of rabies at the start of season 4, the usual comedy was taken into slapstick overdrive, to a level that might’ve clouded the point.
Meredith contracts rabies sometime after having been bit by a bat, a rat, and a raccoon, and her time in the hospital shows it’s a serious disease that requires an intense treatment. But the joke once again is that Michael completely overshoots just how serious that is, and immediately organizes a “fun run” to raise money for a disease that, as Jim pointed out, already has a cure. While the fact rabies has a cure makes it a little bit easier to laugh at, the level of Michael’s idiocy gets pretty high in the episode, and the people who’ve actually lost loved ones to the disease probably weren’t laughing with him.
9. Scrubs – Special Guest Star Diseases
Many fans of Scrubs loved the show for its dedication to emotions other than comedy, with the show often acting as one of the saddest and most tragic on television. The manner through which they accomplished this, like most shows based in hospitals, is by letting fans get deeply attached to very sick characters, who inevitably will either die or end up even sicker than they started. While any show that takes place in a hospital is going to do this, Scrubs took it to an extreme with endless special guest stars who basically were hired because of their ability to act out a disease.
The most blatant offender was the guest starring turn of Michael J. Fox, who played Dr. Cox’s med school rival turned lifelong friend, Dr. Kevin Casey. Casey suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the show claims he was so afflicted with the illness that it caused him to drop out of med school and nearly cost him his career. Scrubs takes the care to create several scenes based around how debilitating and difficult the disorder is for Casey, but his introduction is also the classic comedy of threes, as he struggles to walk into a room while exhaling at the same time he drops his right foot. Jokes like this made a gag of the same disorder presented as gravely serious throughout the episode, a regular occurrence on the show.
8. Monk – The Obsessive Compulsive Detective
Monk was the crowning achievement of the USA Network, and one of the first true unabashed success stories in cable comedy. The police-based “dramedy” focused on the life of Adrian Monk, a brilliant detective based on Sherlock Holmes, who happens to suffer from a particularly severe form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD isn’t Adrian’s only idiosyncrasy, as Monk also has a laundry list of phobias and neuroses that caused his relationship with his therapist to be one of the most important and compelling in the show. Although Monk was a show that clearly understood mental illness, virtually every episode featured a gag at Adrian’s expense.
While the majority of the recurring cast accepted Monk’s problems and dealt with him accordingly, the villains of the show would always mock him for his problems, and occasionally the police force couldn’t help but laugh along with them. As the show progressed, Monk’s problems were dealt with increasingly seriously, and the laughs were relegated to his personal relationships with the world around him, as they are in most sitcoms. For the first few years, though, Monk dug so deep into its OCD premise it might have gone too far.
7. Mr. Show with Bob and David – The Bob LaMonta Story
Sketch comedy shows are a strange medium when it comes to controversial topics, in that part of their purpose seems to be to act as controversially as possible. If that is indeed the case, then there may be no greater example of the medium than Mr. Show With Bob and David, and their crowning achievement just may be “The Bob LaMonta Story.” Bob LaMonta is a character played by David Cross who claims both of his parents were mentally challenged, and therefore created a made-for-TV movie detailing how he succeeded in life.
While the laughs in this sketch are nonstop, there’s no denying the fact they’re some of the most viciously mean on our list. Scenes with Bob and his younger brother aren’t that offensive, but when Bob Odenkirk and Jill Talley actually show up as the parents acting like Sean Penn in I Am Sam on overdrive, things get extremely offensive extremely fast. It’s hard to look at an absurd gag like a thermos full of spoons and think about how many people are being hurt, but every part of the Bob LaMonta Story exudes offensiveness in an almost proud manner. Of course, the ultimate punch line of the sketch is that LaMonta made it all up, and the real gag is how much of a jerk he would be to do that, but hearing the audience cackle at offensive caricatures makes this entry a no-brainer.
6. The Kids in the Hall – The Issue With Cancer Boy
The Kids in the Hall are a Canadian sketch comedy troupe who through live shows and at least two television shows have proven themselves as some of the most vital voices in comedy over the past 30-plus years. Their self-titled television show lasted five seasons in the early ’90s, and many sketches stand as a landmark of the genre to this day, lambasting topics still considered controversial and dangerous for a comedy troupe to tackle. Generally, this didn’t include diseases, but rather facets of social culture that generally aren’t treated so flippantly on television, like drug use, sexuality, and vocal aversion to mainstream religion.
The final episode of The Kids In The Hall featured a bit where Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald aired all the sketches that censors had “banned” over the years, and one of these sketches went into the well of mocking diseases the kids had otherwise avoided. Playing a character named “Cancer Boy,” Bruce McCulloch begged his favorite baseball player to hit a home run at the big game, but the stress of pleasing the kid gets to the player’s head. While the joke is on the pressure the baseball player receives, “Cancer Boy” ended up being one of the most controversial characters in Kids in the Hall history. In fact, including Cancer Boy in their subsequent movie Brain Candy was said to be a huge part of why that film wasn’t a success.
5. Sanford and Son – Redd Foxx Predicts His Own Death
Redd Foxx is remembered as one of the greatest comedians of all time, and his work on Sanford and Son has a great deal to do with that perception. Foxx starred as Fred Sanford, the middle aged owner of a junkyard, who lived in a run-down shack with his son, Lamont. The humor of the show was derived from Foxx’s well-established comic persona as a loud, angry, and often hilariously grumpy old man, regularly yelling at his son and various friends to great comic effect. Audiences howled with laughter every time Sanford called someone a “big dummy,” and that wasn’t the only catchphrase of his—Sanford also had a proclivity for grabbing his chest and telling his deceased wife Elizabeth he was coming to join her.
While the idea of faking a comedy heart attack didn’t exactly start with Sanford and Son, the series is undoubtedly the most common representation of the trope, and they utilized the joke nearly every episode. Later in his life, Foxx would actually die as a result of a heart attack, and rumors have it that people around him at first thought he was joking when he grabbed his chest and complained of serious pains. Heart disease remains the number one cause of death on the planet, and while hindsight is 20/20, it must have been a questionable move to joke about it even back in the 1970s.
4. Everybody Loves Raymond – Ray Has Anxiety About Heart Attacks
Everybody Loves Raymond has a reputation these days as one of the last true family sitcoms, which is to say it was completely inoffensive and could be enjoyed by people of any age at any era. While it’s true that the Barone family didn’t get into some of the more serious topics discussed on most other shows on this list, they did deal with the idea of death and growing old on several occasions, and it wasn’t always done with the greatest amount of sensitivity. While the growth and gradual decay of grandparents Frank and Marie was always a key point to the show’s humor, the idea of death itself became the punch line in “Golf,” when Ray suffers an anxiety attack.
Anxiety attacks can be serious in and of themselves, but Ray at first thinks he’s having a heart attack, which is obviously much more serious. Being the archetypal hapless husband, Ray highly hints to Debra that this is what happened to him, and uses his condition to trick her into having more sex with him and letting him go golfing more often, both of which aren’t really things people who recently suffered heart attacks shouldn’t be doing on a regular basis. Regardless of the poor medicine behind it, the joke here is on heart attacks, anxiety attacks, and the confusion often seen between the two—a confusion that can scare people into thinking they might be dying, or trick people into thinking they might be safe. Episodes like “Golf” only fuel that fire, and show the confusion is likely to last for a long time.
3. The Simpsons – Homer’s Multiple Heart Attacks
The Simpsons is one of the most vital cornerstones of American popular culture, with nearly 30 seasons having been made thus far and no end in sight. The show has been known for providing a smart take on nearly every social issue that has propped up since it was created, but usually those opinions are relegated to quick jokes and throwaway moments that prevented anything from getting too serious or political for too long. However, as early as season 4 the show had the potential to up the intensity in a heart beat, or lack thereof, as evidenced in “Homer’s Triple Bypass,” when the Simpson’s patriarch suffered a heart attack.
The episode was pitched by series producer James L. Brooks, and the other writers of the show openly admitted they weren’t sure they were ready to cover such a serious topic that early into their run. The focus of the episode is the Simpson family’s inability to pay for expensive surgeries, which is definitely a real topic that families of people who suffer early heart attacks have to deal with, but a few of the gags make it seem like heart attacks are funny in and of themselves. In particular, Homer responds to hearing his hospital bill by having another heart attack and seeing that bill get raised, which is clever, but once again has us laughing at the number one cause of death in the world.
2. South Park – Everyone Has AIDS
Some of the other shows on our list dabbled in controversy, but the phenomenon of getting the public to angrily debate over content has been the modus operandi of South Park from day one. At one point or another, the boys of South Park and Eric Cartman in particular have probably mocked every single disease imaginable, but we’re going to focus on the two times South Park tackled one of the deadliest and scariest diseases in the world—AIDS. First, South Park made a joke of the autoimmune deficiency syndrome in their season 6 episode “Jared Has Aides,” and they actually gave Cartman the disease for “Tonsil Trouble” six years later.
The punch line of the first episode was the decision that AIDS has existed long enough that it’s kind of funny now, and with that in mind, the second AIDS episode goes for the gold by having Cartman constantly joke about how he’s “not just sure, [he’s] HIV positive.” Kyle eventually can’t take Cartman’s jokes any longer, and he does what we’ve been doing this whole list, by telling his friend that AIDS is a serious disease, and there’s nothing funny about dying young the way Cartman could.
1. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – No One Has Cancer
While it may not be too different from many of the shows on this list, the thing that sets It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia apart from other television is that it, without question, focuses on the absolute worst people in the world. Most sitcoms have some claim towards this, and there’s usually one or two breakout characters who are particularly depraved, but no one on TV comes near Frank, Charlie, Mac, Dennis, or Dee. That reputation was firmly established in the very first season, when an episode titled “Charlie Has Cancer” was all about how Charlie definitely didn’t have cancer. Charlie faked the disease in a deeply misguided attempt at wooing “The Waitress,” and he wasn’t even the only one on the show to do it.
Eight seasons later, Bonnie Kelly copied her son’s antics for “Charlie’s Mom Has Cancer.” Mrs. Kelly was uncomfortable with pretending she had the disease from the start, but Mac and Charlie do everything they can to get her to fake it, this time to optimize the number of donations they receive for a charity barbecue. The Always Sunny crew shouldn’t be taken seriously in anything they do, and the point of showcasing their behavior is for audiences to avoid it, but episodes like these two might go a bit too far for people who actually have cancer.
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