Sitcoms, especially through the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, tended to repeat things that other shows had already done. While these types of comedies tend to be more artistic and experimental today, such as Atlanta which is barely a comedy much of the time, the typical 24-episodes a season situational comedies of the past had to write a ton of material in a very short window of time. That’s why characters, most of whom who lived in huge rent-controlled apartments in New York City, tended to end up in the same sorts of scenarios again and again. Sometimes these plots would even occur multiple times in the exact same series.
There are hundreds of sitcoms out there, so this time we will be focusing on live action shows from a similar era like Seinfeld, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, The Office, Scrubs, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Parks and Recreation, Frasier, Will & Grace, Girls, Broad City, Workaholics, Roseanne, The Conners, Full House, Everybody Loves Raymond, Blackish, The Bernie Mac Show, Modern Family and their various contemporaries. So here are 20 of the most-often repeated storylines from that rough era of television.
20The Dungeons and Dragons Episode
It’s kind of strange to think that there used to be a day when Dungeons and Dragons was kind of an obscure reference. You could never imagine characters from Friends or Seinfeld gathering around to play the game for an episode. Nowadays, it’s kind of weird if there isn’t an episode that at least references the game. This was one of many fun activities that The Big Bang Theory referenced throughout its run. One episode had a christmas theme, one had celebrity impressions and on and on the joke went. Though the best of these was the episode where the gang infiltrated a secret celebrity game with special guest stars William Shatner, Wil Wheaton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Joe Manganiello.
This was one of MANY subjects that The Big Bang Theory overlapped with Community. That series committed to the concept a bit more with actual sound effects that emulated Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Though pretty much every time they play the game on television, they tend to be suuuuper inaccurate about the actual rules.
19The Runaway Bride
In the sitcom world, at least 50% of all weddings have a runaway bride who literally wanders around the streets of New York City in their wedding dress. Friends and Will & Grace both began with Grace and Rachel running away from a wedding only to start a new life with an old friend. It is perhaps one of the most blatant rip-offs of one show to another on the same network, only a few years apart.
It’s rather strange how often this joke was repeated, even in the same series. Friends repeated it by having Ross’s second wife, Emily, sneak out of the reception. Though that one may be the most understandable since Ross said Rachel’s name at the altar. The most egregious example of this was in How I Met Your Mother when Ted was left at the altar, something that was depicted as a trauma Ted would carry for YEARS, only for Ted to assist Victoria in doing the same thing to another man. Victoria even arrived at their bar in full bride regalia. Because that certainly wasn’t awkward in a cab.
18The Cowardly Groom
Brides might run away in sitcom world, but grooms stick around even though they desperately want to get out of the marriage. They then spend at least an entire season discussing it with their friends and trying to figure out ways to get out of the engagement without actually breaking it off in person. It is an amazing feat of cowardice that lasts until the oncoming wedding date is treated like a train that’s bearing down on them.
While there are several examples of this there are two shows that commit to this harder than any other. The first would be Seinfeld where George proposes to Susan after a conversation with Jerry at the coffee shop. George tries several ways of getting Susan to drop out of the engagement, but she is inexplicably committed to marrying the world’s worst groom. That is until poison wedding invitations end her life. An act that definitely wasn’t done on purpose by George. Right?
Peep Show did pretty much the same thing with Mark and Sophie except we actually got to see the horrifyin
17The Disney Theme Park Episode
Are you even a family show on ABC if you haven’t had an episode that basically doubles as a shameless advertisement for Disney World or Disneyland? It is practically a staple of every series on the network that centers on the family. You can practically play BINGO with all the tropes that are repeated across the various shows that take place at a Disney park. They have to meet at least one costumed character, have a shot of them really riding one of the rides, someone has to get lost, and there has to be some familial conflict that is solved with a little dash of Disney magic.
Some of the shows that center on a Disney park for an episode include Full House, Modern Family, The Middle, Family Matters, Roseanne, The Goldbergs, Blackish, Boy Meets World, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch all have their families make a trip to Disney. Even The Big Bang Theory, which isn’t even on ABC, references the park constantly with characters visiting the park offscreen or even having full princess makeovers.
Old school claymation Christmas specials like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer are a staple of American Christmas popular culture. So it’s no surprise that several different sitcoms have had either brief snippets of a claymation scene or a full episode. Shows like That ’70s Show, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and even Ted Lasso have all introduced a bit of claymation Christmas joy. Though Frank Reynolds in a claymation North Pole ended up being pretty terrifying.
Once again, the show that committed to this idea harder than any other was Community. They had an entire episode that was set inside Abed’s imagination as he perceived an entire day in claymation while his friends saw the real world. While this special is a true classic, arguably the funnier references come when we see how the other characters perceived this same day, only awkwardly pretending to see what Abed did.
15Running a 5k/Marathon
What has to be the least favorite running gag for actors in sitcoms is the literal running gag of having characters run in a 5k, marathon, triathlon, fun run, or any other competitive running event. New Girl, The Office, Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, and The League all had episodes that centered either on these events themselves or the ridiculous efforts of characters to train for them.
For some reason, Seinfeld has several episodes that either directly show a race or reference that it is happening offscreen. Jerry helps an Olympic athlete make it to a race after he nearly sleeps through it, Kramer is beaten up because he won’t wear a ribbon for the race’s charity, and Jerry ends up racing an old rival while the Superman theme plays. For a show about people who do nothing, they sure did a lot of running…
14Adults Are Going to the School Dance
Most people never go to a school dance again after they leave school. This is very different in the sitcom world. It’s actually really normal for adults to find themselves at a school dance or a prom as chaperons, dates of students, or even just participants with few people batting an eye. It actually happens with alarming regularity. How I Met Your Mother, That ’70s Show, New Girl, Parks and Recreation, Will & Grace, and many other shows have had an “adults crashing the dance” storyline that seems perhaps a bit inappropriate upon reflection.
Maybe the sweetest riff on this came in The Big Bang Theory when the gang recreates prom on the apartment’s roof because most of them did not enjoy their own. It is a sweet way of reclaiming a part of the past without having to infiltrate a school event full of minors.
13The Date Auction
In sitcom world, the most normal thing to do for charity is to auction of someone for a date. It’s frankly astounding how often this plotline is repeated across so many sitcoms seeing as it is not something that happens very often in most social circles. Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, Will & Grace, Friends, Arrested Development, Full House, The Golden Girls, The Nanny, Home Improvement, The Steve Harvey Show, NewsRadio, and Saved by the Bell all did some version of this exact same bit.
The show that did the ABSOLUTE WORST version of this was Parks and Recreation where the sitcom symbol for female empowerment, Leslie Knope, tried to sell off her best friend in the entire world, Anne Perkins, against her will to the creepiest guy in Pawnee. Which is really saying something. Anne ran away from that and no one could blame her.
12The Musical Episode
Television sitcoms share a lot with theater. They are often performed in front of a live studio audience and use sets that recreate a lot of techniques used for plays. So it’s no surprise that sitcoms tend to have episodes that break out into huge musical numbers. Most of these shows simply have a song appear in a special episode, but a few have full musical episodes. How I Met Your Mother, That ’70s Show, Even Stevens, Malcolm in the Middle, One Day at a Time, Community, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia all did versions of this. Perhaps the show that did the best version of it (since Buffy: The Vampire Slayer doesn’t count for this list) is Scrubs which put on a musical so lavish that it deserves to be on Broadway. Though Charlie Kelly’s “Dayman” musical has to be a close contender.
Today, it seems as though sitcoms may be a little sick of musical episodes. The overuse of the television musical for Glee may have worn this concept out a little bit.
11The Live Episode
Live episodes are a proud tradition that runs back to the very beginning of television history. There are a ton of live comedy shows that have appeared throughout television history like Saturday Night Live, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Dana Carvey Show were all massively influential on the sitcoms that would follow them. Many of the actors from shows like that went on to become famous talents who had their own sitcoms like Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Betty White, and Andy Samberg all had backgrounds in live television variety shows before they landed sitcom gold. So it’s no surprise that sitcoms themselves would put on a live show that usually winked to the fact that the episode was in a different format. 30 Rock, Will & Grace, The Drew Carrey Show, and The Conners all did live episodes that were pretty spectacular.
Now that many sitcoms are looking to nab the attention of people who watch streaming services instead of live television, this trend is likely to pretty much end in the near future.
10The Party Episode
Seeing as so many shows center on characters in their 20s that navigate the social and dating worlds, it’s no surprise that the party episode, which depicts the drama of either showing up to a party, finding a party, or throwing a party, is depicted in sitcoms all the time. Seinfeld, Frasier, Peep Show, Community, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Broad City, Girls, Silicon Valley, The Office, Parks and Recreation, That ’70s Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, The League, and so many other shows have this play out not just once but often multiple times throughout the show.
Then there’s Workaholics which is pretty much either a workplace comedy or a party episode depending on what the plot is. Often it’s both. The show even references this in the meta finale that shows how frustrated the creative team was by having to be boxed into this party-all-the-time plot line throughout the show.
9The Flashback Episode
The “Clip Show” episode is the awful option that show runners turn to when they run out of time or money. Instead of featuring a full episode of new material, they simply reminisce about things that happened in the past, with a clip from an old episode playing as they do. It is usually the episode that gets skipped during a Netflix binge or results in a quickly changed channel if its found on a syndication marathon.
The only thing good to come from this trend is the hilarious way shows parody this kind of episode. They feature characters reminiscing about events from earlier in the show, but instead of playing a clip from a previous episode, they offer a brief look at the plot of an unseen story that wasn’t on-screen. Friends and Community both did an excellent job of making fun of this series, but Friends has to be the winner since it led to Joey and Monica wearing a full turkey on their heads and Chandler telling Monica he loved her for the first time.
8The Friends with Benefits Episode
In real life, it can be almost impossible for a couple to transition from being in a relationship to being normal friends again. In the sitcom world though, it happens all the time with only a few issues here and there. That is until the characters inevitably try to recreate one aspect of the relationship without really getting back together. That would, of course, be the “friends with benefits” episode where the characters try to sleep together without having any complications. This always blows up in their faces in a hilarious way. How I Met Your Mother, Seinfeld, and Friends are all famous for this very thing.
Modern shows tend to have this same thing play out as if it is much more normal. Characters in shows like Broad City, The League, New Girl and Girls are frequently shown in physical relationships that have no emotional component as if it’s a perfectly normal thing to do. No hijinks required.
7The High School Reunion
It’s the ultimate fantasy for someone who wasn’t that popular in high school to return for a reunion to prove just how successful they have become. That never ever works out though. At least not in the sitcom world. 30 Rock, Peep Show, The League, and many other shows have had this play out in a hilariously embarrassing way. There’s often an attempt to recreate the scene from Carrie.
BY FAR the show that has done the best job with this concept was It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Not only is it a hilarious two-parter, but it reveals crucial information about the characters such as Mac’s full name, Ronald MacDonald, and how Dennis wasn’t really popular because of his obsession that he was a “golden god” that seemed to confirm he at least fantasized about being a full-blown serial killer. The entire thing culminates with an excellent dance sequence…that unfortunately wasn’t real.
6The Leia Fantasy…
There are a lot of repeated jokes across multiple series, but few as blatant as the recreation of a man’s “Princess Leia fantasy” by his significant other. Two shows that had this done in extremely similar ways were Friends and That ’70s Show. Both of these shows had Donna and Rachel dress up for Eric and Ross in movie-accurate Leia outfits complete with the hair buns.
As for who wore it better, there’s no doubt that Rachel’s look is superior, even if the hair buns are a bit inaccurate for a Return of the Jedi look. Donna’s white A New Hope outfit can’t possibly hope to compete with that. Though the scene is quickly ruined when Ross imagines Rachel is his own mother thanks to Chandler.
5The Paintball Episode
A ton of sitcoms have done an episode where characters played paintball. It’s a hilarious way to put comedic characters into a pretend-war environment. Shows like The Office, Peep Show, The League, The Bernie Mac Show, and many more have had this hobby on full display. Only a few shows have committed to the concept for more than one episode. The Big Bang Theory was one of the trailblazers for this type of sitcom story. We see the gang return from a round of paintball in the first season and then see them go out and play many times over the series, often settling disputes or starting romances in the midst of pretend battle.
BY FAR the show that has done the best with the “paintball episode” concept is Community. This series committed to the concept so much that Justin Lin, the director for the first paintball episode, went on to become a full-fledged action movie director. Things got better from there as Community came back around in the second season for another epic round of paintball fun, this time inspired by the likes of westerns and Star Wars. It’s doubtful any show will ever top what Community did with the paintball episode. It’s as synonymous with the show as the “Chinese Restaurant” is with Seinfeld.
4The Die Hard Episode
There are plenty of movies that are just destined to be referenced by pretty much every sitcom out there. Batman, Star Trek, and James Bond all tend to get at least a passing reference. Nowadays, there’s a much more specific film that is referenced with a deep, deep sense of reverence. :That would be Die Hard. The shows usually feature a riff on the famous ventilation scene, the duct taped gun, or the movie’s iconic catchphrase with the curse word replaced with something else. Though sometimes they are just watching the film or openly discussing how it’s the coolest movie ever. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Workaholics, Community, Friends, and many many more shows are as obsessed with Die Hard as everyone else is.
There’s one show where that Die Hard obsession is next level though. In Brooklyn 99, Die Hard is practically Jake Peralta’s inspiration for his entire life. In fact, his greatest aspiration as a cop is to relive the film in real life. The movie is blatantly referenced throughout the series and even recreated several times. No show will ever love Die Hard more
3The Character We Never See
Throughout the 80s and 90s it was THE THING to have a character who was often mentioned but never seen in person. This was popularized in Cheers when Norm would often complain about his wife at the bar, but we never actually met her in person. This joke even made it into the spin-off Frasier. In the Seattle-based sequel, we meet Niles Crane, Frasier Crane’s even more fastidious brother. He also has a domineering wife that is never seen, Maris. While we never see her, they paint such a vivid picture of the cold, freakishly thin woman that it’s easy to imagine her. Later on, Will & Grace pulls the same gag with Karen’s first husband, the morbidly obese businessman Stanley Walker.
This gag has been repeated time and time again from Phil’s unseen mother from Modern Family, to all of Kramer’s friends in Seinfeld who are referenced constantly but never actually seen. Jerry even asks why he never sees any of these people to which Kramer responds “they wonder why they never see you”. Perhaps the most notable play on this trend is when Howard’s mother is heard but never seen. She becomes an actual character on the series, and it is genuinely heartbreaking when she passes away. It’s hard to say the same about Stanley, that’s for sure.
2The Model UN Episode
One of the stranger repeats that has crossed from one sitcom to another is the Model UN episode. Both Community and Parks & Recreation have over-the-top Model UN episodes that play out unlike any real Model UN ever has. Despite the fact that this is a rather dry event in real life, it is usually overtaken completely by the adult characters who are having very childlike issues. The entire thing becomes even more ridiculous as they will inevitably feature a strange scifi concept that for some reason is just accepted by everyone. That would include Abed suggesting they travel to an alternate Model UN to April Ludgate claiming to represent the nation of the moon.
It’s very clear that pretty much no sitcom writer actually did Model UN in high school or even has the vaguest of ideas of how the activity is actually played.
1The High in Public Episode
While sitcoms tend to focus on alcohol and bar culture, there are several episodes that feature normally straight-edged characters indulging in 420-friendly activities. Though this is rarely shown itself, we frequently see the characters struggle to handle being out in the world after trying the drug out. They are typically so out of it that it seems like they had the strongest stuff imaginable. New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and many more shows, typically after 2000, have done this exact same joke with nearly the exact same over-the-top beats.
While these are rare occurrences for more mainstream sitcoms, for shows like That ’70s Show, Workaholics, and Broad City, this was basically a thing that happened in every single episode, with very little difference shown on the character who use the substance on a daily basis. That ’70s Show even had special moving sets that depicted how strange it was to talk to your parents under the influence.