The Designated Punching Bag: Why Every Sitcom Has One Abused Character
Since the beginning of television, writers have stocked their sitcoms with a variety of archetypes. One of the most popular: the poor, abused fool.
It’s a classic trope: every comedy on television has at least one character who just can’t win — and sometimes, it seems like the universe is out to get them. Sometimes that abuse is deserved, and sometimes it’s borderline unfathomable.
For millennia, smart people have broken their brains to distill the magic of comedy into a set of philosophical rules as they dig to the root of what makes us laugh. Throughout the study of humor, notable thinkers have determined that feelings of superiority are essential in getting audiences to chuckle. Plato called it “the malice of amusement,” but modern philosophers have dubbed it superiority theory, or the assumption that feeling superior to the subject is an absolute necessity for comedy.
These characters may not be protagonists, but they’re definitely valuable fixtures. Here are ten of the recent best.
Meg Griffin, Family Guy
You could probably make a case for Meg Griffin (voiced by Mila Kunis) as the single most abused character in the history of television. After all, who actually likes Meg? No one, that’s who (not even Meg herself).
Whether she’s plotting her own suicide (or just talking about it to be a drama queen) or her Dad is farting in her face, Meg Griffin is the designated punching bag gone nuclear.
Toby, The Office
Toby may not have been universally reviled among the Dunder Mifflin staffers, but he was definitely in the crosshairs of boss Michael Scott, and that hatred burned fiercely. Played to hapless perfection by one of the show’s EP’s, Paul Lieberstein, Toby was constantly being abused over his personal life, being called a traitor, or just being told to get the fuck out of the room. Here’s how Michael reacted when he discovered Toby had returned after a long absence:
Maybe that explains why Toby always seemed at his happiest when he was simply being ignored.
Jerry, Parks and Recreation
Jim O’Heir lent a subtle brilliance to Jerry Gurgich, who is a rare variety of punching bag, given that he is the king of his castle outside the office. Inside the office, even the most sensitive bureaucrat, Leslie Knope, can’t help but attack the guy. Ron Swanson said it best:
Who’s a registered sex offender? Jerry. Who was too polite to correct his boss when the guy mispronounced his name? Gerry. Who found out he was adopted in front of all of his coworkers? Terry.
George Constanza (Jason Alexander) just might be the most enjoyable punching in TV history, if only because he’s a wretched little man and you root for his downfall. Okay, he may have had a truly cracked upbringing, but it’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who’s completely unwilling to accept to a little help.
He’s a short, angry little man who’s ready to blame all of his ills on his height, lack of hair, or his parents — nevermind that he’s lazy, selfish, and happily ignorant. In the words of that disgusted fireman, how does he live with himself?
Milhouse, The Simpsons
Milhouse Mussolini van Houten is that one kid we all knew growing up, the one who seemed destined for a sad, lonely life. Maybe the most brutal thing about the character is that he hasn’t realized he’s doomed yet, a trait that comes across beautifully in Pamela Hayden’s enthusiastic, oblivious performance. Milhouse maintains completely unfounded hope, and it’s tragic.
Of course, it’s hard to respect a character who was named after Richard Nixon. As legend goes, the sad sack earned the name Milhouse because it was, “the most ‘unfortunate name Matt Groening could think of for a child.’”
Frank Burns, MASH
One of the most obnoxious entries on this list, Burns belongs to the Constanza school of abuse (or maybe it’s vice versa). Either way, Burns is one of those characters that you just hope will step on a landmine, which is actually a possibility because he’s in a war zone.
Burns is an elitist fool who sucks at his job and treats everyone else terribly. If not portrayed by the talented Larry Linville, he may have been completely worthless.
Barney Fife, The Andy Griffith Show
Barney Fife, one of the first and most legendary DPBs, was a gift to audiences from Don Knotts. Fife was loud and opinionated, even if he was almost always on the wrong side of the argument. Given his love for his gun, it was also a miracle no one was murdered on his watch.
If he wasn’t skinny, clumsy and otherwise incompetent, he’d be extremely dangerous. As it is, he’s just a huffy, ineffectual sidekick.
Kenneth, 30 Rock
Easily the most cheerful member of this list, Kenneth was the quintessential cheerful goober on the surface, but that’s a veneer. Kenneth is from the darkest part of Georgia’s woods. Even if he wasn’t possessed by an ancient spirit, Kenneth had already seen some shit as a kid.
In spite of all that, though, Kenneth is perhaps the one punching bag on this list who mostly loves his lot in life. He may lean into darkness from time to time, but — as played by Jack McBrayer — you never really buy it. He’s a gleeful follower of orders who’s just proud to be a tiny cog in the magical wheel of television production.
Chris, Everybody Hates Chris
Poor freaking Chris, man. Loosely based on some standup comedian, Chris is a poor nerd living in Bed Stuy in the mid-eighties. He’s bussed to a white school where he gets the crap kicked out of him on a regular basis. At home, he’s treated like a third parent with all the responsibilities and none of the perks. He seriously gets no respect; even the actor who plays him, Tyler James Williams, is billed last in the credits.
It would almost be unbearable to watch Chris’ friends and family laugh at his pain, if you didn’t know he’d eventually turn his anguish into some of the best comedy in the world.
Ah, Ross Gellar. If ever there were a textbook sitcom psycho, he’s your winner. He may have been a golden boy growing up, but as an adult he’s easily the least respected Friend. Of course, he brings that misfortune on himself. David Schwimmer plays him as a total basketcase who’s quick to anger (and shriek-y when it happens) and very slow to admit he’s wrong.
Ross is such a nut that there’s even a fan theory going around about his emotional problems. Poor, poor Ben.