Can Comedy Shows Please Stop Killing Dogs for Laughs?

To all these showrunners: Watch me. Leave it
Can Comedy Shows Please Stop Killing Dogs for Laughs?

WARNING (AND MAYBE A TRIGGER WARNING, TOO?): Spoilers ahead for threatened and actual animal deaths in several TV shows from the recent-ish past.

In 1989, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner starred as Oliver and Barbara Rose in The War of the Roses, the feature film adaptation of Warren Adler’s novel. The titular Roses are in the process of divorcing, and not amicably. Having fixed up their handsome mansion together, each is so determined not to let the other end up with it that they’re prepared to destroy it instead. Also, a legal loophole means they’re also occupying the house together while the divorce is in progress, so both scheme to drive the other out. Antique porcelain is smashed. Cars are crushed. Over a dinner at which the two are supposedly going to try to clear the air, Barbara serves Oliver homemade pâté that she leads him to believe she made by butchering his beloved dog, Benny. A cutaway to Benny lets us know he’s alive and well in the yard, though, because of course Barbara couldn’t be so monstrous as to kill a dog — who could?! 

A few decades later, we have our answer: Protagonists in several current TV comedies. And I wish they would stop. 

Our horror at animal cruelty is the reason those infamous ASPCA ads with Sarah McLachlan have such impact (so much that McLachlan herself has said she can’t handle watching them). Audience revulsion at dogs’ deaths is so common, in fact, that a catch-all site for pop-culture content warnings takes its name from what must have been a widely asked, very anxious question: Does the Dog Die? The answer is so often “no” that the “disaster-dodging dog” is a recognized pop-culture trope.

If any show were going to lead a trend about subverting expectations, it stands to reason that it would be Ramy. The Hulu series was created by and stars comic Ramy Youssef, whose overarching project seems to be seeing how much he can humiliate his alter ego without driving viewers away permanently. In the second season, during a period when Ramy is trying to reaffirm his Muslim faith, he meets Dennis (Jared Abrahamson), an armed forces veteran who lives in his car with his beloved pit bull, Boomer. When the troubled Dennis is incarcerated after beating a mosque protester to death, Sheikh Ali Malik (Mahershala Ali) bequeaths her to Ramy, telling him she should be his teacher in the faith: Ramy will know he’s on the right path if he can be more like her. 

But if you thought Ramy’s lowest ebb came in the Season Two finale, when he told his new wife Zainab (MaameYaa Boafo), hours after their wedding, about his on-and-off affair with his cousin Amani (Rosaline Elbay), think again. In Season Three, after a self-hating Ramy has a debaucherous night with sex worker Olivia (Sarita Choudhury), he wakes up to find out Boomer has eaten cocaine off his coffee table, and died. In keeping with the “pet the dog” trope, Ramy’s reaction to Boomer’s death shows us he may not be too far gone for redemption. He takes responsibility at his sex addicts’ support group. He travels to prison to tell Dennis an abridged version of what happened. His catharsis with Olivia at Boomer’s grave in the Season Three finale occurs right before he realizes that, though he’s supposed to deliver a buyer the most obscenely expensive watch he’s ever seen, he’s lost it. This leads to an emotional epiphany about his place in the larger Muslim community and how he can be of service. 

The portrayal of Boomer’s death is as upsetting an event in the show as it would be in reality; it’s not played for nihilistic laughs. (That said, when Ramy has to clarify to his sex addicts’ group that “My problem killed my dog” doesn’t mean he tried to have sex with her, it’s pretty funny.)

Ramy, in other words, is a comedy that earns this storyline by treating it seriously, making it a catalyst for Ramy’s self-discovery as the season ends. More recent instances of dog deaths in comedy have far less artistic or comedic merit. Peacock’s Based on A True Story revolves around Ava (Kaley Cuoco) and Nathan (Chris Messina), Angelenos whose anxiety about the size of their house drives them to resentfulness about their wealthier friends, and even against one another. Early on, we learn that their stress about their inadequate lodgings even led them to re-home their beloved dog McEnroe with Simon (Aaron Staton) and Ruby (Priscilla Quintana) because their yard is so much bigger. Ava and Nathan’s desperation to make enough money to buy a larger house inspires the morally reprehensible idea that gives the show its premise: having stumbled upon an actual serial killer (Tom Bateman’s Matt), they’re going to collaborate with him to make the most authentic true crime podcast ever — one in which the killer tells his own story. 

Integrated among Ava and Nathan’s social circle, Matt is present at a party in the sixth episode, which devolves into a huge fight between Ruby and Simon over their dead marriage. When McEnroe gets agitated by their yelling, Nathan leads him to the guest house, and no one notices Simon has fatally shot McEnroe until Simon returns to the group and states, “I shut the dog up.” As Matt’s graphic murders stack up, each has less impact than the one before; McEnroe’s death takes place entirely off-screen, and we never see his body, but if a viewer has an outsized reaction to it, that seems to be part of the show’s overall indictment of anyone who’s ever been titillated by a true true crime story about a human victim. Is Simon, on some level, worse than Matt? Are we worse than either one of them for finding any entertainment value in death?!

More recently, Peacock launched another violent comedy: Twisted Metal. Based on the video-game series of the same name, the show takes place in what’s left of the U.S. after the internet goes down and society collapses. The twisted metal of the title refers to battles on the road among drivers attempting to travel between heavily fortified cities. The most feared of the country’s survivors is Sweet Tooth (Will Arnett’s voice/Joe Seanoa’s body), a wisecracking lunatic with a clown mask strapped to his face. When John Doe (Anthony Mackie) and Quiet (Stephanie Beatriz) end up on Sweet Tooth’s turf, Las Vegas, he says the sound he misses most is applause, and subjects them to his one-person show: a dramatic recitation of the in-room information programming from the hotel where he lives. 

Later in the series, we get a flashback to the set of a late 1980s multi-cam sitcom. Originally titled Two Scoops in reference to its treat-loving protagonist, it’s been renamed Billy and Two Scoops to foreground the lead’s canine co-star. Little thought has apparently been expended on preparing the show’s spoiled tween star, Marcus (Beau Hart), for this change in his status. When the cameras roll for the day’s first setup, Marcus gets nothing from the studio audience for spouting his catchphrase, whereas Billy gets a huge ovation for exiting the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to a back paw. Furious at being upstaged, Marcus snatches the knitting needles from his elderly co-star and uses them to stab Billy to death — and that little boy grows up to be Sweet Tooth, who apparently arrived at the post-apocalypse straight from the mental institution where he was sentenced following this incident. By this point in the series, Sweet Tooth has raised an army of murderous acolytes. We probably could have understood without seeing it that Sweet Tooth has always been capable of taking lives without remorse; does a killer clown really need any backstory at all?

Generally speaking, animals other than dogs have always been expendable in comedies. Before the pâté fake-out in The War of the Roses, for instance, Oliver has already accidentally killed Barbara’s cat by backing his car over it. Dumb & Dumber’s Lloyd and Harry (Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels) blithely set off on their road trip having sold Harry’s headless pet bird Petey to a blind neighbor, who can’t tell that Lloyd taped Petey’s head back on. (We should probably just be grateful we never find out how Petey was decapitated in the first place.) In 2019, HBO’s High Maintenance aired the cautionary tale of a vet getting too high on chocolate laced with magic mushrooms and killing one of his patients: a kitten that has fallen inside a tuba. The catastrophe makes this the worst episode of an excellent show, and yet the notion of an otherwise decent man accidentally causing the death of a puppy in a brass instrument is entirely unthinkable. 

Now, however, the seal has broken. The series sequel to The Full Monty can close its premiere episode with a desperate dad holding a famous dog at gunpoint for the promise of a £10,000 payment — and I guess what keeps the show a sweet, heartwarming story about the resilient human spirit is the fact that the dad isn’t quite desperate enough to pull the trigger. Given the grimness of the current political and social climate in this country (to say nothing of the literal climate itself), one can certainly read all the recent “comic” dog murders as a sign of the cynical times. But the next time I sit down to watch even a very edgy comedy, I would love to know the taboo against fictional dog deaths is back in place.

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