6 Classic Sitcom Episodes That Are Wildly Offensive by Today's Standards
These storylines wouldn't even get past censors now.
Culture changes, and one of the best gauges of just how much and how quickly that happens is by examining what used to be able to fly on television. While TV is seen by some as merely a source of entertainment, it's also historically been an outlet for examining social issues, including racism, women's rights, and LGBTQIA+ rights. Some envelope-pushing episodes that were controversial in their time—the 1972 episode of Maude that tackled abortion, for example—started conversations about aspects of life that had previously been considered too touchy to bring up. At the same time, there are plenty of shows, episodes, and storylines from decades past that are considered controversial, not because they're progressive and brave, but because they now seem so dated and, in some cases, downright offensive. Read on for six classic sitcom episodes that could never be made today.
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Seinfeld, "The Merv Griffin Show"
Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) had a lot of humiliating and strange dating experiences on Seinfeld, whether it was because a woman ate her peas one by one with a fork or because he refused to believe that her assets were real. But it wasn't until the Season 9 episode "The Merv Griffin Show" that he was able to get the better of one his new girlfriends—albeit somewhat criminally.
In this episode, Kramer (Michael Richards) finds the set of The Merv Griffin Show and brings it into his apartment, and George (Jason Alexander) runs over a bunch of pigeons in his car. Meanwhile, Jerry's storyline involves him drugging his new girlfriend Celia (Julia Pennington) in order to play with her collection of vintage toys, that she otherwise wouldn't let him touch. True that he only slips her a sleeping medication to indulge his inner child while she snoozes on the couch and that it might have been amusing at the time—the Seinfeld gang is not known for their ethics. But while there are a lot worse reasons to knock someone out, a similar storyline wouldn't go over so smoothly these days.
Cheers, "Show Down"
Jackie Gleason might have made barking that he was going to send his onscreen wife "to the moon" famous on The Honeymooners, but Sam Malone (Ted Danson) picked up that comedic torch with his character's will-they-won't-they flirtation with Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) on Cheers.
Sam and Diane's relationship was built on passive aggression and throwing not-so-veiled barbs at each other before giving (and after) giving into their mutual attraction. While this dynamic made for a classic sitcom couple in the 1980s, today we might just call their relationship "toxic." The best example of an exchange that's not up to today's standards occurs in the Season 1 finale "Show Down," in which the two really throw down, including Sam telling Diane that he's going to "bounce" her all around the room, before they finally share their first kiss. Some might call it "banter," others might call it "verbal abuse"—it all depends on who's watching and when.
Saved by the Bell, "Running Zack"
Zack Morris made a lot of bad decisions on Saved by the Bell, but the worst of all might be in the 1990 Season 2 episode "Running Zack." In that one, the high schooler discovers that he has Native American heritage and then proceeds to don a headdress, among other pieces of cultural garb, for school.
Actor Mark-Paul Gosselear has since apologized for plotline. In a 2021 episode of the Zack to the Future podcast, the now-48-year-old said that he "cringed" while re-watching "Running Zack."
"This is one of those that I don't—I don't remember putting on the headdress," he said, as reported by Us Weekly. "I don't remember putting face paint on. I don't remember standing in that awkward way that I was standing where my arms are folded in, like, a very stereotypical way." He also said that the episode couldn't be made today "for good reason."
Friends, "The One With the Male Nanny"
Much has been said about the several elements of Friends that are unacceptable by today's standards. The fact that "Fat Monica" was a recurring punchline, the treatment of Chandler's transgender father, and the slippery grasp that many of the male characters have on consent prove that the '90s sitcom is anything but timeless.
Another example is a key plot point in the Season 9 episode "The One With The Male Nanny." Guest star Freddie Prinze Jr. plays Sandy, a kind and qualified candidate Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) interviews to be for Emma's nanny. Ross (David Schwimmer) is completely against this, however. Why? Because Sandy is a man. In addition to making fun of his career choice, Ross interrogates Sandy about his sexuality and ultimately turns him down, because he wouldn't be "man enough" to take Ross' place while he's at work. While other characters take Ross to task for his antiquated gender roles, all of his objections are played for laughs.
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Tiny Toons, "One Beer"
You might assume that it would be almost impossible for a kids show like Tiny Toons to offend, but the episode "One Beer" would prove you wrong. In this episode of the Looney Tunes spinoff, Buster peer pressures his underage, furry friends to drink beer and even makes an aside to the audience—and the censors—saying that they're "showing the evils of alcohol" while sprouting a pair of horns.
Plucky, Hampton, and Buster then proceed to get drunk and end up in a car, eventually running off the road and bursting into flames. It's weirdly dark for the usually lighthearted show and didn't even go down well at the time. "One Beer" does not appear on any Tiny Toons U.S. DVD collections, nor did it re-air in syndication. But it can be found in full online.
Married…with Children, "I'll See You in Court"
Almost nothing about Married…with Children is considered politically correct in 2022, but the Season 3 episode "I'll See You In Court" just about takes the cake. In this one, Peggy (Katey Sagal) and Al (Ed O'Neill) are encouraged by their neighbors to go to a sleazy hotel for a "romantic" weekend. They later find out that someone filmed them being intimate. The storyline culminates with Peggy and Al having sex in an empty courtroom, the joke being that they are again being recorded.
The episode was so raunchy that it was pulled before it was meant to air in the U.S. The network censors were especially strict with the show in 1989, following a campaign by a woman named Terry Rakolta, who was offended by an earlier Season 3 episode titled "Her Cups Runneth Over."
"I'll See You in Court" premiered in other countries in 1990 but wasn't aired in the U.S. until 2002, by FX.