'Modern Family' Season 4 Finale: Can a Death in the Family Be Funny?

With a funeral-themed finale, can ‘Modern Family’ match these classic sitcom episodes about death?

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This TV publicity image released by ABC shows Eric Stonestreet, as Cameron, left, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Mitchell in a scene from the comedy "Modern Family."  The ACLU is lobbying for the gay couple on “Modern Family” to get married. ACLU Action started a campaign to urge the show's producers to script a wedding episode for Mitchell and Cameron, already fathers of an adopted child and one of three couples at the heart of the show. (AP Photo/ABC, Jordin Althaus)
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This TV publicity image released by ABC shows Eric Stonestreet, as Cameron, left, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Mitchell in a scene from the comedy "Modern Family." The ACLU is lobbying for the gay couple on “Modern Family” to get married. ACLU Action started a campaign to urge the show's producers to script a wedding episode for Mitchell and Cameron, already fathers of an adopted child and one of three couples at the heart of the show. (AP Photo/ABC, Jordin Althaus)

There's already been a wedding and a birth this season on "Modern Family," so perhaps it's only fitting that Season 4 will sign off with a death.

According to ABC News, actor Ed O'Neill, who plays patriarch Jay Pritchett on the show, said the sitcom's season finale "involves a death, which doesn't seem like it's funny, but it's a very funny show, and it's a very touching show."

The episode, titled "Goodnight, Gracie," will address the death of Phil Dunphy's mom -- a character that viewers have never met -- as the family flies to Florida for the funeral, where out-of-state hijinks will undoubtedly ensue. But even on TV's top-rated comedy, is it possible to make a funeral funny?

Well, it has been done before.

Friends 'til the end

In the 1995 "Friends" episode "The One Where Heckles Dies," the gang's grumpy downstairs neighbor dropped dead, and they discovered he'd left all of his belongs to "the noisy girls in the apartment above me." (That'd be Rachel and Monica!) Of course, the bequeathed items -- a mountainous pile of junk that included his "Big Book of Grievances" and a tacky lamp made of seashells -- had the girls thinking Heckles was getting a his final revenge on them from beyond the grave.

"Would you look at this dump? He hated us. This is his final revenge!" Monica exclaimed, while Rachel pondered, "Have you ever seen so much crap?" (Chandler's response: "Actually, I think this apartment sullies the good name of crap.")

In the end, the semi-psychic Phoebe tried to help the dead neighbor find his way: "OK, it's very faint, but I can still sense him in the building," she said, before screaming, "Go into the light, Mr. Heckles!"

And Chandler's farewell? "Goodbye, Mr. Heckles," he said as he flipped off the apartment lights. "We'll try to keep it down."

You can see a clip from "The One Where Heckles Dies" here.

A clown in a casket

Who can forget the 1975 " Mary Tyler Moore Show" episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust?" In this classic episode, the oft-mentioned WJM-TV kiddie show host was killed in a freak accident during a local parade.

The episode (you can see it here) featured a funny scene with Ted Baxter's ad-libbed on-air obituary: "Ladies and gentlemen, sad news. One of our most beloved entertainers and close personal friend of mine is dead. Chuckles the Clown died today from, from uh, he died a broken man. Chuckles leaves a wife. At least I assume he was married; he didn't seem like the other kind. I don't know his age, but I guess he was probably in his early 60s. It's kind of hard to judge a guy's face, especially when he's wearing big lips and a light bulb for a nose. … You know what I'd like to think; I'd like to think that somewhere, up there tonight, in his honor, a choir of angels is sitting on a whoopee cushion."

The episode's funeral scene is remembered as one of the top comedy scenes of all time, after Chuckles's bizarre death (he was dressed as a peanut and attacked by a rogue parade elephant) had the news staff stifling laughter -- and Mary later breaking into hysterics -- during his eulogy. (Luckily, Chuckles "lived to make people laugh.")

In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Mary Tyler Moore -- who won an Emmy for her performance in this episode -- said, "I think it's everybody's favorite episode."

See the classic eulogy scene from "Chuckles Bites the Dust" here.

Family funeral matters

And in 1971, the controversial sitcom "All in the Family" aired a hilarious episode called "The Saga of Cousin Oscar." In this memorable episode, Archie Bunker's freeloading cousin (who we never see on camera) died in the Bunker's guest room -- but not before ordering up a steak lunch, swiping Archie's cigars, and sending Edith out on a liquor run.

"He's got relations in 16 cities, but he's got to pick my attic to die in," Archie complained, before realizing he might get stuck paying for cuz's funeral costs -- to the tune of $600. While casket shopping, he asked the mortician, "Can a guy buy something such as used? Got any floor models? Demonstrators?"

In the end, the frugal Archie nearly put the kibosh on a funeral and let the coroner dispose of his cousin's body free of charge, until his mortician pal, Whitehead, reminded him, "Don't you see? Funerals aren't for the dead, they're for the living. Maybe you didn't like Oscar, but he doesn't matter now. What matters are your friends and your relatives and the man upstairs. That matters, Arch. That matters."

You can watch the complete "The Saga of Cousin Oscar" episode here.

Perhaps the best death-themed sitcom episodes are the ones in which we've never actually "met" the deceased. We're thinking since we've never laid eyes on Mama Dunphy, our mourning will be minimal and our grief brief. In fact, "Modern Family's" funeral-themed finale may be a perfect way for this season to rest in peace.

The "Modern Family" Season 4 finale airs on Wednesday, 5/22 at 9 PM ET on ABC.

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