The 15 Best Thanksgiving-Themed Sitcom Episodes
Thanksgiving is one of the most American of American holidays, so it stands to reason that it’s been widely celebrated in one of the most American screen genres: the sitcom. This playlist should keep you entertained while you shell green beans or baste your turkey: bon appétit!
(Note: many of these shows produced multiple Thanksgiving episodes; I’ve selected my personal favorites without repeating any show, but lots — particularly Friends, Bob’s Burgers, New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — are worth drilling further down on if you run through all of these.)
Though the skyrocketing fame of star Michael J. Fox would, as Family Ties went on, privilege his character Alex and sideline his parents, in the show’s first season we would still hear quite a bit about their hippie years. In this very early episode, Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter) break up their Thanksgiving long weekend with a trip to an anti-nuke rally. Elyse’s parents Kate (Priscilla Morrill) and Charlie (Dick Sargent), who are visiting, are about as respectful of their daughter and son-in-law’s values as Alex is. But when Elyse and Steven are arrested at the protest, everyone is pretty much forced to respect their beliefs.
It’s not exactly a hard-hitting episode, but it is nice to see sitcom royals Sargent (Bewitched) and Morrill (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) lending their shine to a show that hadn’t yet proven itself.
Junior (John Randolph) and Aggie (Ann Rutherford) decide to journey from Seattle to Chicago to surprise their daughter Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) for the holiday, arriving just in time for Bob’s mother Martha (Martha Scott) to have completed all her extremely exacting plans on Thanksgiving Eve. Bob (Bob Newhart) — Sonny, as Martha calls him — does his best to placate her, but her Type A tendencies resist meshing with Aggie and Junior’s boisterous, freewheeling style. The hassle of merging two families’ traditions is well-known to, well, anyone who’s tried to do it. “An American Family” hilariously dramatizes everyone’s irritation, leading to a laugh-out-loud moment for Martha and her mostly taciturn husband Herbert (Barnard Hughes).
Watch this one with whichever parents you happen to be spending Thanksgiving with this year: If it proves to be the multi-generational crowd-pleaser in your household that it was in mine, you can slide over to the show’s other Thanksgiving episode: Season Four’s “Over the River and Through the Woods.”
With any holiday sitcom episode, part of the potential fun is to open up the world of the show by portraying the characters we know with their family members — or, in this case, without them. Terry (Terry Crews) and Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) have been sent to Rikers Island on police business. The timing is inconvenient, since Terry’s wife Sharon (Merrin Dungey) is very pregnant, so of course she goes into labor while Terry’s away, forcing “godhusband” Jake (Andy Samberg) to look after her in Terry’s absence. Circumstances eventually force Jake to involve Holt (Andre Braugher) so that he can ask a favor of Frederick (Nick Offerman), Holt’s doctor ex-boyfriend, at the risk of reopening old wounds from their former relationship. And while all of that is both funny and emotionally satisfying, you might not remember it as clearly as you do this A+ cold open featuring a seasonally festive Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio).
Though it was immediately clear, in the pilot of New Girl, that Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) were destined to end up together, the show couldn’t give us what we wanted right away. The two of them (and all their roommates) dated lots of other people, some of whom managed to make an impression during special holiday episodes. Such was the case with New Girl’s first of many Thanksgiving episodes, simply titled “Thanksgiving.” After a bad breakup in the series premiere, Jess has started crushing on Paul (Justin Long), a colleague at her school. There are probably lots of better settings for the two of them to get to know each other outside of their professional dealings than over a Thanksgiving dinner Jess doesn’t actually know how to cook, but since Paul is just as big a nerd as Jess is, he’s willing to take a chance.
Jess’s ineptitude in the kitchen is only one of the many disasters that Paul, Jess and her roommates have to contend with in this well-stuffed episode.
Pity Bob (voice of H. Jon Benjamin): as a Thanksgiving obsessive who’s also a sitcom character, every time we see him on the holiday, he’s about to have a terrible day. This time is especially cruel, since the rest of the family’s departure to enjoy the town’s first Turk-Tacular Turkey Town Festival means Bob has the luxury of enjoying solitude at home. While he gets tipsy and tries to make Thanksgiving dinner on his own, the rest of his family and all the festival revelers are set upon by furious turkeys, which (as the episode title suggests) soon take on the attributes of zombies in a horror movie.
Several recurring guest characters get moments to show off gifts we never knew they had before order is restored. Delicious!
Remarkably, one of the most famous Thanksgiving sitcom episodes of all time is only the seventh episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump), determined to prove he actually deserves the job he definitely only got through nepotism, conceives a very special promotion for the Thanksgiving holiday: He’s going to pack a helicopter full of live turkeys and drop them onto a shopping mall parking lot. As WKRP news reporter Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) reports live from the scene, Mr. Carlson’s misapprehensions about turkeys become shockingly clear.
The rest is sitcom history.
Marie (Doris Roberts) realizes, belatedly, that the dishes she’s been cooking all her life for herself and her husband Frank (Peter Boyle) might be too rich, and that she needs to make some changes. Unfortunately for the rest of the family, this realization arrives just in time for Thanksgiving, and Marie is so resolved to the changes she’s made to her lifestyle that she refuses to relax them, even for the holiday. Cue the tofu “turkey”!
There should be room at every holiday table for dietary choices of all kinds… in theory. In practice, an entree probably shouldn’t wobble.
Friends never let a Thanksgiving pass without marking the occasion, and some of their most memorable episodes revolved around the holiday. It may be controversial for me to select an episode for this list that ISN’T “The One With All the Thanksgivings,” aka the one where Monica (Courteney Cox) makes up with Chandler (Matthew Perry) for a long-ago disaster by sticking her head in a turkey. I’ve just never been able to get past the physics of what we’re watching; never mind how Monica is avoiding suffocation — how did she even GET HER HEAD IN THERE?!
Anyway, my favorite Friends Thanksgiving is the first one, which also happens to be the first one Monica plans to host herself. Said plans, unfortunately, go awry: When everyone runs out to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade’s Underdog floating untethered over the city, Monica and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) have a misunderstanding that results in everyone getting locked out while the entire dinner burns.
Future Friends Thanksgivings will be marked by other kinds of catastrophes, but the simplicity of this one, and the sweetness of its resolution, are still close to my heart.
Since Insecure was always a show that revolved around the tiny cracks that can open into enormous chasms in relationships, its Season Four Thanksgiving episode jumps off from the occasion to draw even more loved ones into the discomfort and awkwardness. Yes, of course, our regular cast members are chafing: Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) have been off for a while, and pledge to get together for pie to try to talk things out; Lawrence (Jay Ellis) still feels caught between his ex, Issa, and his new girlfriend Condola (Christina Elmore) — or is she, because once he finds out she’s holding a Friendsgiving and neglected to invite him, he’s not so sure. Thanksgiving means there are also tensions with characters we usually only hear about: Issa and her brother Ahmal (Jean Elie) are dreading a meal with their mother’s new boyfriend and his adult children; and even though the rest of Molly’s family, including her mother, have forgiven her father for his infidelity, Molly can’t get over it. By the end of the episode, good intentions (or grim resolve) have crumbled like pie crust.
It’s an off-model episode that brings Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), Martin (John Mahoney) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) to Boston for the holiday: Frederick (Trevor Einhorn) is up for admission at an extremely prestigious private school, and Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) has asked Frasier to accompany her on an interview with Dr. Campbell (Paxton Whitehead), the school’s headmaster. Due to the holiday, this takes place in his home while he tries to make dinner, requiring him to leave the room long enough for an upholstery-related mishap. Knowing they’ve made a bad impression, Lilith and Frasier keep returning to try to undo it as, back home at Lilith’s, Niles and Martin’s dinner prep has collateral effects on poor, fragile Freddy. Watching it now, you might feel even worse for Einhorn that he didn’t book the role of grown-up Freddy in the current Frasier revival. Despite being a very small child, he more than holds his own in the slapstick department even among the theater-trained actors who make up the rest of the cast.
As in “An American Family,” “Giblets for Murray” starts with the premise that two sets of temperamentally disparate in-laws are coming together for the holiday dinner. Jamie (Helen Hunt) warns her husband Paul (Paul Reiser) that her mother’s extreme emotional repression means the happier she seems, the more furious she actually is. Paul’s mother Sylvia (Cynthia Harris) objects to the buffet service and the lack of marshmallows in the sweet potatoes. And without spoiling some of the episode’s best comic setpieces… it’s a very bad day for turkeys in the Buchman apartment. A hilarious episode that also makes room for some of its most challenging characters to be their best selves.
My favorite of the many excellent King of Queens Thanksgiving episodes is also Nick Offerman’s second appearance on this list as a guest star. Carrie (Leah Remini) and Doug (Kevin James) are hosting family and friends for Thanksgiving when a stranger (Offerman, credited as The Man) comes to the door asking to use the phone: He’s had car trouble and needs to call a friend for a ride. Doug has no problem inviting him in, but suspicious Carrie demands that he wait on the porch. Once the guests arrive, they all feel awkward about The Man sitting in the cold and drift outside to keep him company, irritating Carrie with their implicit judgment. As always, Offerman does a lot with a necessarily small amount of dialogue; and the perfectly-in-character reactions his presence elicits from the rest of the cast makes this a great first episode to screen for someone who’s not familiar with the show, but should be.
Pam (Ever Carradine) is in a bar weeping about her breakup — they had so much in common! They were both dance majors!. Though Will (Eric McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) don’t know her, they decide to help her out by telling the story of one of their very memorable Thanksgivings, which we see in a flashback. Grace and Will are college sweethearts when she invites him home to Schenectady for the holiday. She wants to have sex for the first time during the visit, but Will — who’s resistant to the idea but not quite yet ready to admit why — dodges the issue with an extremely risky dodge. A still high school-aged Jack (Sean Hayes) offers counsel over the phone; Debbie Reynolds is hilarious as always playing Grace’s showstopping mother Bobbi; and Karen (Megan Mullally), who hadn’t yet met the rest of the opening-credits characters at the time of the flashback, gets some of the biggest laughs despite having essentially no connection to the A story. All this and a cameo by Martina Navratilova as herself!
One of the most consistently hilarious running gags in How I Met Your Mother’s long run is the slap bet. First introduced, appropriately enough, in the Season Two episode “Slap Bet,” the concept is that two friends — or combatants — can, instead of money, bet slaps. In this instance, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) thinks he’s won a bet and slaps Marshall (Jason Segel). But when further information reveals that Barney has actually lost and slapped Marshall prematurely, Lily (Alyson Hannigan), in her capacity as Slap Bet Commissioner, gives Barney a choice on his punishment: He can either accept 10 slaps immediately, or five to be administered at times of Marshall’s choosing — and one of the times of his choosing is at the first Thanksgiving of Marshall and Lily’s marriage. But when Marshall relishes torturing Barney about it a little too much — a website with a countdown clock is one notably bad decision — Lily has to assert her authority over him in a way he doesn’t feel very thankful about.
Diane (Shelley Long) convinces Carla (Rhea Perlman) to host Thanksgiving dinner at Carla’s new house. Had she declined, Carla would have been alone — her children are spending the holiday with Carla’s ex-husband, Nick — but given how the day turns out, that might have been preferable. Diane crashes after she thought she’d been invited to an elegant dinner at her professor’s house, only to find out he expected her to serve it; being a late addition doesn’t stop Diane from trying to direct the proceedings, which is especially annoying given that Norm (George Wendt) arrived with a raw turkey and Diane won’t let anyone eat sides until it’s ready. As everyone’s nerves get increasingly frayed, food that isn’t being eaten gets put to other use, culminating in a historic moment for one of the show’s most important, least-seen characters.