Sitcoms are formulaic. Producers find a winning combination (winning being profitable) of character archetypes, and they milk that combination of characters until the cash cow runs dry, or until it’s time move the cow to a different pasture. Nearly every show that enjoys immense success, and a long television run, is reliant on at least one dumb character. Some shows do better with two. Ultimately, we find humor in doltish caricatures of individuals, and it’s because we all know that person in life. Here are 10 of the dumbest characters in TV history.
10. Wile E. Coyote – Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies
We’ll start in the world of animation, and tip the cap toward Warner Brothers and the sheer joy they brought to millions with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Within that cast of characters there lived the dumbest wild dog in the history animated characters: Wile E. Coyote. Of course, Mr. Coyote would merely be blip on the radar if he hadn’t a nemesis as savvy and cunning as The Road Runner. We know what you’re thinking—we were all thinking the same thing: why is this coyote obsessed with eating a bird? Psychologists would suggest it’s more about the chase and conquest than the actual reward of eating The Road Runner, alas, the chase…what a chase. Wile E. Coyote took cartoon violence to another level, and offered more advertising for ACME than he could have possibly imagined. The beauty of this animated short series: it’s a true classic.
9. Roscoe P. Coltrane – The Dukes of Hazzard
Let’s stick with characters boasting proud middle initials for another moment: Roscoe P. Coltrane. He was the lovable and idiotic sheriff of Hazzard County, and the nemesis of the Duke boys, who always got ole Roscoe’s goat. Before we look at the man who portrayed Roscoe, we best address the thing you’re most curious about: what did the P. stand for? Purvis. Roscoe Purvis Coltrane. James Best offered his services to the character of Roscoe for the duration of the show, and the Kentucky native surely had plenty country livin’ on which to base his numskull character. The best thing about Roscoe were his half-brained schemes to catch the Duke boys, and deliver good news to Boss Hogg. The writers would let James improv and flow when it came to his mumbling frustrations, his absurd laugh and the insults he would hurl at his fellow deputies. Some great outtakes exist.
8. Barney Fife – The Andy Griffith Show
No, we’re not picking on police officers. We applaud the good men in blue, but every time a police story laden with WTF hits national news media, it is easy to wonder if Barney Fife was running the scene before Sheriff Andy Taylor showed up to lock it down. Barney Fife was played by the legendary comedic actor Don Knotts. In fairness to Don’s character, he was anything but an idiot; rather, he was idiotic in his role as a deputy sheriff. He was somewhat incapable and completely in over his head, but he was seemingly the only man who wanted the job, so he became the physical comedian of The Andy Griffith Show. The last time we saw Don on the big screen it was in Pleasantville in 1998, but The Andy Griffith Show continues to run in syndication, 10 years after his death.
7. Chrissy Snow – Three’s Company
“Come and knock on our door…” Three’s Company was something William Shakespeare would have appreciated. The classic comedy of errors starring a subtly physical clown was a hit from 1977-1984. It’s another show that continues to run in syndication. Shout out to Don Knotts, who was also a member of this cast, playing the lovable and overly excitable Ralph Furley, but the true fool’s gold of this show was the character of Chrissy Snow, played by Suzanne Somers. Chrissy Snow made the dumb, ditzy blonde hugely popular. Fortunately, the writers on Three’s Company also allowed her some impressive insight, which played well as shock comedy. Mostly, Chrissy misunderstood everything, snorted when she laughed and looked good in her costumes. Her run on the show came to a premature end, however, following a contract dispute in which she asked for a raise and reached an impasse with ABC.
6. Michael Kelso – That ’70s Show
That ’70s Show offered up some serious A-List talent, didn’t it? Ashton Kutcher caught the wave of stupid, and rode it all the way in to the shore. Once there, he started his own company, and bought a piece of everything. Ashton was a perfect mix of dunce and physical comedian. He played the role of Michael Kelso to relative perfection, and even when he was overly over-the-top, he remained charming as Eric Forman’s doltish friend. That ’70s Show employed and empowered a lot of dumb caricaturization, while using misunderstanding as its go-to comedic device. Thinking about the entire character lineup, Laurie was dumb, Fez was a bit dumb, Jackie wasn’t as dumb as she was self-absorbed (but she was still dumb) and Donna’s mom, Midge Pinciotti, was as smart as a box of rocks. Still, few have done dumb like Michael Kelso.
5. Kelly Bundy – Married… with Children
Christina Applegate is a true talent. She can pretty much do it all: sing, dance, act, host, riff, improv, survive cancer…she’s a badass. She was perfectly cast to play Kelly Bundy in Married… with Children, because it takes someone smart to play someone dumb. It’s true. You can’t cast dumb to play dumb. And in addition to playing dumb, Christina was a hot blonde who became the “it” girl for several years. And the talent on Married… with Children!? Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal were Emmy nominated powerhouses waiting to happen. Christina, the future Miss Veronica Corningstone. About the devolving character of Kelly Bundy: as seasons progressed, the writers really ramped up the dumb. In the first season of the show, she was more of a savvy bad girl, using adjectives like “haggard,” but as her dumb increased, so did the show’s popularity.
4. Homer Simpson – The Simpsons
Homer Simpson is the man. A character offering razor sharp wit, which rests on a complete misunderstanding of his surrounding reality, but fits perfectly into that of the audience. Homer Simpson has become a part of the American fabric. He is one of the most popular, and longest-running TV dads in television history. You could put Danny Tanner in that mix, now that the Full House franchise is back, but when it comes to Mr. Dependability, the honor goes to Homer Simpson. Over the years, Homer hasn’t aged, but his wit and asinine antics have greatly evolved. He is somehow dumber, by being smarter and more insightful. Figure that paradox. A favorite Homer Simpson moment of dumb? How about “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer” from season eight, when Homer ingests several Guatemalan insanity peppers at the annual chili cook off?
3. Woody Boyd – Cheers
Woody Harrelson is a virtuoso performer. There is nothing the man cannot do when cameras are rolling. A true character actor, Woody offered depth to the innocent, and naive, yet fully formed and functional Woody Boyd on Cheers. Woody joined the cast in season four and stayed on until the very end. Woody Boyd was voted the smartest student in his high school, but his book smarts didn’t translate to the real world, or the one-upmanship of his peers and patrons at Cheers. Woody’s comedy was rooted in misunderstanding, like so many on this list; however, Woody Harrelson offered Boyd more dimension than the stereotypical doofus found in most sitcoms. The best of the best: Woody trying to rub elbows with his girlfriend’s highfalutin friends and family at a birthday party, his gift being a song he wrote—one of the greatest moments in the show’s illustrious run.
2. Joey Tribbiani – Friends
It’s fascinating to go back and look at the first season of Friends. Unlike most sitcoms, in which characters are introduced, the writers of Friends simply injected the audience into their main characters’ status quo. Friends is another show presenting to dumb characters—one being somewhat naive due to a lack of knowledge (Joey Tribbiani), and the other marching to the beat of her own drum and refusing to conform (Phoebe Buffay). This was obvious from the first episode moving forward, though it is still interesting to see the evolution of both characters as the seasons progress. Joey became the dumb one, and Matt LeBlanc did it with such ease and expertise, he probably hurt his own acting career moving forward. How do you shed that image? Joey was so popular, the character earned a short-lived spinoff. At its conclusion, Matt took a five year break from acting.
1. Rose Nylund – The Golden Girls
The top spot on this list is going to a lovely lady—a comedic queen who has become a cultural icon: Betty White. For those who have never enjoyed an episode of The Golden Girls, you’re missing out. Four distinctly different women living together, enjoying their golden years and treating audiences to their comedy of errors. Betty’s character, Rose Nylund, was as naive as they came. She was a former resident of St. Olaf Township, Minnesota, and her entire existence was about the ways of St. Olaf. Why this worked: Betty White and Bea Arthur could go rounds. We imagine Betty was allowed tremendous leeway when embarking on her diatribes, and we imagine the same for Bea Arthur in response to those diatribes. The character of Rose took everything literally, and when juxtaposed with three of the most sarcastic characters in TV history, it worked to perfection.