10 Sitcom Characters With Surprisingly Traumatic Backstories

Mentions of sexual assault, kidnapping, grooming, homophobia, racism, and suicide.

Sitcoms are all about making the audience laugh, and while they are often led by bubbly characters, many of them actually have traumatic backstories. The world of sitcoms has been home to many TV shows that are now considered as some of the best, not just in the comedy genre, but in TV history in general. What makes sitcoms so successful are their lightness and their characters, though in many cases, the funniest ones are also the ones with the darkest backstories.

While the main purpose of sitcoms is to entertain and make people laugh, most of them have had more serious moments where some of the struggles of their characters come to light. In many other cases, however, the traumatic backstories of the characters are revealed in bits or in comedic contexts that, sometimes, can make the audience ignore the seriousness of the situation. Whatever the case, it can’t be denied that many sitcom characters have truly traumatic backstories, and here are 10 examples from different sitcoms.



10 Barney Stinson – How I Met Your Mother

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How I Met Your Mother follows Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) and the many ups and downs in his love life, always accompanied by his best friends, among them Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). Barney was the womanizer of the group, and though he came off as a cool guy, he carried a lot of trauma. Barney was raised by his single mother, who often lied to him about not only who his father was (at one point telling him it was TV host Bob Barker) but about himself in order to protect him, such as when she told him he couldn’t play basketball because he was too good, but in reality, he wasn’t good enough for the team.

Barney was also constantly bullied as a child, and years later, he caught his girlfriend cheating on him with a rich businessman named Greg. This man told Barney that the key to picking up women was to have money and suits, and this heartbreaking moment, as well as Greg’s questionable advice, led Barney to reinvent himself into the man everyone knows so well. Ultimately, Barney was looking for validation and love through an over-confident character he created for himself.

9 Twyla Sands – Schitt’s Creek

Schitts Creek Twyla Sands

Schitt’s Creek follows the formerly wealthy Rose family, who after losing their fortune, have to relocate to Schitt’s Creek, a small town they once bought as a joke. Schitt’s Creek is full of colorful characters, among them Twyla Sands (Sarah Levy), a waitress (and later owner) at the local Café Tropical. Twyla is friendly but air-headed, and throughout the series, she would casually drop disturbing family stories. It’s through them that the audience learned that Twyla’s father is in prison, her mother is a gambling addict involved in a cult, and one of her cousins got trampled while performing in Riverdance. Twyla thought all the marriages, dismemberments, and prison sentences in her family were normal, but this only makes her backstory quite disturbing.

Related: Schitt’s Creek: Why Twyla Didn’t Buy The Town (Or Help The Rose Family)

Community Alison Brie and Danny Pudi as Annie and Abed sitting on couch

Community takes the audience to a community college in the fictional town of Greendale, Colorado, where they meet the many students attending. Among them was Annie Edison (Alison Brie), an intelligent compulsive overachiever whose backstory perfectly explained her obsessive behaviors and need to prove herself all the time. Annie was pushed by her mother to succeed academically, leading her to develop an addiction to Adderall. This caused her anxiety and obsessive behaviors, and she eventually had a nervous breakdown, jumped through a plate glass window, and was sent to rehab. Annie lost her college scholarship and became estranged from her family.

7 Raymond Holt – Brooklyn Nine-Nine

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine took viewers to New York City to follow a group of NYCPD detectives as they adjust to life under their new commanding officer, Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher). Holt is calm, very formal, cold, and isn’t very expressive, but like many other characters on this list, all this is the result of trauma. As a young, gay, Black man, Holt had to deal with homophobia, discrimination, and racial profiling. Holt fought through all this with his head held high, and while his story is presented as one of success and to be inspired by, all those struggles had a major impact on his behavior and way of seeing the world.

6 Perry Cox – Scrubs

Scrubs Perry Cox

Scrubs followed the lives of employees at the fictional teaching hospital Sacred Heart Hospital. Among them was Perry Cox (John C. McGinley), an attending physician who J.D. (Zack Braff) saw as his mentor, even though he often criticized him and patronized him. Perry Cox’s tough-love style was a result of a lot of unresolved trauma, as he grew up in an abusive home with an alcoholic father who threw bottles at his head. Perry’s mother did nothing to prevent any of this, leading him to have attachment and intimacy issues as he grew up. Perry has a sister, Paige, who he once told that seeing her reminded him of the childhood he had tried so hard to forget.

5 Ron Swanson – Parks & Recreation

Parks and Rec Ron Swanson

Parks & Recreation followed cheerful bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her friends and coworkers at the Parks Department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Not all the Parks Department’s employees were as cheerful as Leslie, as is the case of Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), a man with an extremely deadpan and stereotypical masculine personality who actively worked to make the government less effective. Ron Swanson was born to Tammy Swanson and was delivered by a candy stripper at the hospital, also named Tammy (referred to as Tammy 1) who, years later, became Ron’s wife. Tammy 1 also taught Ron middle school math, Sunday, school driver’s ed, and “the art of sex”, revealing that she groomed him.

Ron claimed to have cried for the first time when he was seven, and only because he was hit by a school bus, and two years later, he started working in a sheet metal factory. At some point, Ron married Tammy 2, an extremely manipulative, ruthless, and conniving woman who used Ron to her advantage all the time.

4 Charlie Kelly – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Charlie looking concerned in It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows “The Gang”, a group of narcissistic and sociopathic friends who run an Irish dive bar called Paddy’s Pub in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of the members of the gang is Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day), whose problems are the result of a lot of trauma. Charlie’s mother was a sex worker, and though she was a loving mother, she left him unsupervised most of the time. Charlie developed substance abuse issues at an early age, inhaling glue, spray paint, and poppers, and he’s also an alcoholic.

In addition to that, at some point during Charlie’s childhood, his uncle, Jack Kelly, moved in with him and his mother. Jack and Charlie shared a room, and it’s heavily implied through Charlie’s musical about The Nightman that Jack molested Charlie during that time. It’s also revealed that Charlie’s mother tried to have an abortion, but a couple of months later, Charlie was born.

3 Punky Brewster – Punky Brewster

Punky Brewster

Punky Brewster followed Penelope “Punky” Brewster (Soleil Moon Frye), a bright and funny child, but the events of the series kick off due to traumatic events in Punky’s life. Punky’s father walked out on her family, and later, her mother abandoned her at a shopping center, leaving Punky completely alone with her dog, Brandon. Punky found a vacant apartment in a local building managed by Henry Warnimont (George Gaynes), where she made new friends and formed a special bond with Henry, who eventually adopted her.

2 Phoebe Buffay – Friends

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Friends took the audience to New York City to follow the many ups and downs in the lives of six young adults as they did their best to balance their social, personal, and professional lives. Among them was Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), the most eccentric one of the group and the most cheerful one as well – but behind all the laughs and weird but funny moments that Phoebe delivered was a traumatic backstory. Phoebe and her twin sister, Ursula, were the daughters of Phoebe and Frank Buffay, but as Phoebe wasn’t ready to be a mother, Frank and their best friend Lily adopted the twins.

Unfortunately, Frank abandoned them and remarried, and years later, Phoebe’s step-father went to prison and Lily committed suicide. Phoebe lived on the streets of New York City throughout her teenage years, and as such, she never went to high school or college. Phoebe had to resort to mugging sometimes in order to survive, and at one point mugged her future friend, Ross. At one point, Phoebe moved in with her grandmother, who never told her the truth about her parents.

1 Kimmy Schmidt – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Ellie Kemper smiling while wearing a blue and red outfit in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows the title character (Ellie Kemper) as she adjusts to life after being rescued from a doomsday cult in the fictional town of Durnsville, Indiana. When Kimmy was in eighth grade, she was kidnapped by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who held her and three other women captive for 15 years in an underground bunker, convincing them that a nuclear apocalypse had left them the sole survivors of humanity. Kimmy and the rest were eventually rescued and became known as the “Indiana Mole Women”, but refusing to be seen as a victim, Kimmy started a new life in New York City. Kimmy’s story is all about overcoming trauma and moving on with a new perspective on life, but it can’t be denied that her backstory is quite traumatic.

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