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Official Article

Sitcom Characters Who Got Stupid

In classic TV sitcoms there is always the dum-dum. You know, the goofy friend or neighbor that doesn't have a clue and tickles our funny bones with their stupidity. These modern day court jesters like Waldo Geraldo Faldo (love that name) from Family Matters or Joey from Blossom were designed to make the main characters look like the voice of reason in a sea of morons and played their parts very well. But in the case of many of our favorite 80's TV shows, the characters didn't start out as idiots, they went through a process of "Dumbification" from one season to the next in order to boost ratings. 

Sitcoms "re-tool" all the time and we notice when a character is replaced or disappears entirely, but the slow leak of IQ points is a little more sneaky. It happened more often than you probably noticed, so let's explore some of the most glaring examples of 80's and 90's Sitcom Characters Who Got Stupid.

Case #1: Buddy Lembeck, Charles in Charge

The first season of Charles In Charge that premiered in 1984 was a very different animal from the subsequent syndicated seasons. By the time season 2 rolled around they had eliminated every character on the show with the exception of Scott Baio as the title character and Willie Aames, as his womanizing sidekick, Buddy Lembeck. Now Buddy was always a little eccentric, but it usually revolved around his obsession with getting some action from the female co-eds. One could even say he was clever, often providing witty and scandalous one-liners to contrast against the more straight-laced attitudes of Charles. But this is likely not how you remember him.

By the time the show was in it's 4th season, Buddy was behaving like a child who had eaten too many Pixie Sticks. Spouting off hyper-active nonsense and getting into ridiculous situations like gaining psychic powers or dressing like a freaky Richard Simmons to pick up girls in an aerobics class. This exchange from one later season episode pretty much says it all Buddy: I have a mind like a sponge. Charles: No, you have the mind of a sponge. In the end, the character became the the joke, instead of making them.

Case #2: Kelly Bundy, Married...With Children

Dumb blondes are a dime a dozen in the world of television, but Kelly Bundy was a brash young woman cut down in her prime by this longstanding stereotype. The first season of Married...With Children in 1987 presented the Bundy family as a group of snarky, sour-faced suburbanites, but they were in no way idiots. Especially the tough, teenaged daughter who knew her way around a can of hairspray. Well-timed jabs at her parents and annoying brother, Bud showed that this girl had it all figured out and wasn't afraid to put the simpletons who were taking up her oxygen in their place. Then, the 90's hit.

By season 5, Kelly had started huffing gasoline...or so it would seem. Brain cells had to have been lost when you consider that Kelly's moments on the show were spent with conversations like this Kelly: Bud, what is this word? Bud: 'A.' Kelly: Oh cool, just like the letter. It was as if all the hair bleach had seeped into her brain or more likely she had inhaled all the roach killing fog from her gig as The Verminator. I'm not saying she wasn't funny, Christina Applegate is hilarious, but it was such a change from how the Kelly character was originally presented that she had to be part of this discussion.

Case #3: Samuel "Screech" Powers, Saved By The Bell

The nerd character is often more clueless than straight up dumb. On the contrary, it's usually their brain being crammed with book smarts that causes them to wear the funny clothes and goofy hairstyles. Screech had both. though he is often remembered for his wild parachute pants, t-shirt and suspenders combo, it was not always so. In the early days of Saved By the Bell he was just the genius runt that couldn't get Lisa Turtle to give him the time of day. Dressing up like Michael Jackson to get a girl to notice you, that's not a totally foreign concept, right? (says the guy who wore skinny ties and vests in 4th grade to get some Uncle Jesse from Full House action). In seasons 1 and 2 Screech wore the standard fashion of the day and even shot back some clever one-liners at people who insulted him. But when puberty hit in Season 3, the kid suddenly he went "Full Screech" (you never go full Screech).

For the remainder of the show's run, the now possibly special needs version of Screech could be counted on to break down into an infantile whimper at the drop of a hat or bust out his Shaggy from Scooby-Doo impression with a close-up on his "Zoinks" face. Where Screech was once treated mostly like an equal, he was now the focus of everyone's scorn. If the Bayside gang weren't rolling their eyes at his nonsensical comments, they were finding ways to take advantage of the poor kid. Remember when Zack entered him in the Miss Bayside pageant, just to win a bet? Sure, he won, but that's not really something that should boost the kid's confidence, y'know? It's like giving People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive cover to the St. Bernard from the Beethoven movies. Anyway, it was just sad to see an actual character devolve into a cartoon. Speaking of which...

Case #4: Homer Simpson, The Simpsons

Now you may say that an animated character shouldn't be taken too seriously to begin with, but remember that The Simpsons started out as a sitcom that just happened to be animated. Early episodes had morals, instead of being just 30 minutes of wacky vignettes and Homer was often at the center of the story. Back then he was just an oafish, grouchy, blue-collar worker trying to do the best for his family and making hilariously poor decisions along the way. Think about it, season 1 had episodes with Homer's morality being called into question when caught partying with an exotic dancer, getting fired from his job and being embarrassed by his family at the company picnic.Though by Season 5 it was his family that was embarrassed by him.

Ironically, the moment I recognized Homer's IQ drop significantly was the 5th season episode where he went to college. In a flashback where Homer meets with a high school guidance counselor, he is shown to be easily distracted by a dog with a ham in it's mouth, causing him to grapple with the animal for the meat. A scene which is then repeated as an adult when he leaves a conversation to chase a squirrel frolicking outside the window, while giddily laughing like a lunatic. Also in that episode, Homer becomes enamored by a pig's tail, repeating the words, "Curly, Straight, Curly Straight" over and over again and showing that he can't even spell the word "Smart". Going forward from this episode, Homer's stupidity becomes his greatest character trait, with his illiteracy and lack of common sense on full display.  I actually stopped watching the show after Season 12 because all endearing character traits had been jettisoned in favor of random humor inserted into contrived "plots" that usually featured homer popping in to say or do something stupid, then disappearing until needed again.

While it may sound like I am down on these types of characters, the truth is I have laughed a lot at their antics. Each of them has had their moment to shine and contributed to the successful run of the shows they were on. At the same time, the continuity of the character development is always in the back of my mind. Then I remember that the sitcom is meant to be mindless by design, entertaining above all else and providing consistent characterizations second. It's in these moments that I take the advice of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song, "Repeat to yourself it's just a show, I should really just relax". 

So tell me, did you ever notice the "dumbification" of a character from your favorite sitcom? Do you agree or disagree with my examples above?

Catch more of my ramblings about old TV show characters I waste more time worrying about than my taxes on Twitter @hojukoolander
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rakesh Posted on Jul 05, 2021 at 11:42 AM

rakesh Posted on Jul 05, 2021 at 11:41 AM


Dalek227 Posted on Dec 16, 2018 at 06:23 AM

Like a few others I always think of Erik Matthews as well! At the start he was a clean cut handsome typical highschool boy. Maybe not straight A student, probably more like average. By the time it was time for college they had him acting insane.

Another one was Becky from Roseanne. Now you could say the personality varied depending which actress was playing Becky, but Lacey played a very smart Becky at the start of the series and by the end she wasn't the same at all. In the updated version she's a total moron.

While I'm are talking about Roseanne, I have to say similar for Jackie. She started out a friendly and funny woman who was strongly independent if maybe a little neurotic. By the middle of the series she was a total emotional wreck and completely goofy.

outcastjon Posted on Sep 08, 2015 at 04:01 AM

A character that I always had this issue with was Eric Matthews on Boy Meets World. At the beginning of the show he started off as being the cool older brother, but when the show got to their college years Eric became a moron where he was dumb, and no longer cool. I always hated what they did to him.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Aug 23, 2015 at 10:12 PM

@Rick Ace Rhodes He was actually on my list originally, but as ridiculous as he got, they still gave him character building episodes in later seasons to show he had some depth. After all, it was Monica who got the turkey stuck on her head, not Joey, so he still had some dignity.

Rick Ace Rhodes Posted on Aug 23, 2015 at 05:44 PM

Cool article, but no Joey Tribbiani? In the early days of Friends they didn't make him out to be stupid at all. He was more naïve then really stupid.

Vaporman87 Posted on Aug 22, 2015 at 04:23 PM

I don't know how much truth there is to it, but it seems like, if memory serves, that Justine Bateman's character on Family Ties got a bit less intelligent as the show progressed. Particularly when she was joined by the reoccurring boyfriend (whose name escapes me... Nick maybe?).

Mr Magic Posted on Aug 22, 2015 at 12:06 PM

It was Kimmy who was the dumb one, not Joey.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Aug 21, 2015 at 09:34 PM

@thecrow174 Really, Joey? Of all the adult characters, i found him to be the most consistent, but he did start out kind of goofy. Jesse on the other hand really took a dive though by the end, where everything was about "the hair".

@pikachulover Yeah, the whole Seinfeld cast got pretty out there by the end, I guess having Kramer in the mix made George's decline less noticeable.

@comic_book_fan So did Erik's hair get floppier or shorter by the end? I have to imagine there is a correlation there.

comic_book_fan Posted on Aug 21, 2015 at 08:00 PM

you forgot Erick Mathews from bmw

pikachulover Posted on Aug 21, 2015 at 06:02 PM

George Costanza; when the series began he was pretty witty and clever, but he still had his schemes like in the episode "The Stake Out" This is the episode when he invents the alias Art Vandelay. Then think about a later episode in the series like "The Abstinence". Where you would watch it and think "How does this character even live?"

Mr Magic Posted on Aug 21, 2015 at 01:20 PM

Let's not forget Joey Gladstone from Full House. There are times when he isn't smart or doesn't dress smart either. It's the cartoon he's been watching. When they say cartoons will rot your brain, they ain't kiddin'.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Aug 21, 2015 at 02:19 AM

@Vaporman87 Yeah, that different seasons in sucession situation was a great way to notice those changes. The other scenario is when the breakout character takes over the show, like Urkel or The Fonz or when they ditched the main character siblings on California Dreams and made Sam, the exchange student the main character.

Vaporman87 Posted on Aug 20, 2015 at 07:22 PM

I absolutely picked up on this phenomena, even in my youth. This was especially prevalent when stations would air back-to-back episodes from completely different seasons. The characters would seem totally out of whack.

This was such a fun read. I liked this line: "Sure, he won, but that's not really something that should boost the kid's confidence, y'know? It's like giving People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive cover to the St. Bernard from the Beethoven movies."

Sometimes the character development would go in a different direction too. Maybe a character would become more bossy or become the "leader". Sometimes one character would begin to become the focus of the show, leaving other characters with the crumbs. These types of blatant changes would sometimes annoy me. Other times, it might seem to suit the direction of the show.

I suppose the cast and crew of a show don't really know what the audience will respond to better until it's been on the air for a while. And then they attempt to adjust things to suit what they believe is the desire of the consumer. All part of showbiz.

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