Television has gotten a lot of mileage out of the loveable drunk archetype. Today, it’s viewed as a comedy gray area as sensitivity to alcoholism has pushed shows to at least attempt to be somewhat more responsible in their portrayals. The past, however, has some doozies. Naming them all would be a mighty task. So for this list, we’re going to stick to the most iconic prime time drinkers.
In compiling the list, I stuck to sitcoms (with a couple exceptions), as a character’s drinking on dramas tends to be more complicated. Sure, Jimmy McNulty and Rust Cohle liked to throw them back, but to be glib about their apparent alcoholism undermines both the characters and their respective series. This is, after all, a listicle; so let’s keep it light.
The Andy Griffith Show
Otis (Hal Smith) was the town drunk of Mayberry whose weekend binges landed him in the drunk tank on a regular basis. Apparently, the character was so over the top that sponsors eventually protested. Subsequently, Otis was absent from the show’s final seasons. But there’s a happy ending. The 1986, TV movie Return to Mayberry revealed that Otis had finally sobered up and was gainfully employed as the town’s ice cream man.
Here’s a little showbiz secret: Dean Martin was not a big drinker. Despite the boozy persona he cultivated on the dais Friar’s Club Roasts and his eponymous variety show, the swingin’ Rat Pack member was usually drinking apple juice on camera.
Foster Brooks’ “Lovable Lush” character was a staple of 1970s TV with numerous appearances on The Dean Martin Show as well as other talk shows, sitcoms, celebrity roasts and films. Like Dean Martin, it was all an act. Even so, it’s hard to imagine Brooks’ shtick being as warmly received by TV audiences today.
The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
Stories of Ed McMahon’s drinking on the set of The Tonight Show are nothing new. But unlike Dean Martin and Foster Brooks, there’s a good chance they’re true. We may never know whether or McMahon and Carson were just giving in to silliness or if he was actually sauced, but some pretty compelling video evidence does exist.
War is hell. So it only made sense that the 4077th often chose to unwind with a drink from time to time. With his makeshift still and ubiquitous martinis, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) was the smart aleck face of those wartime happy hours.
Every bar has a Norm. Beloved by all and greeted with a hearty “Norm!” every time he entered, Norm (George Wendt) was a fixture of the Cheers crew. For a show that took place in a bar, its writers showed restraint. Few laughs came at the expense of its cast of barflies. Maybe it was the result of Reagan-era moralizing, or maybe the writers preferred not to go for obvious jokes.
For 25 years, Barney Gumble (Dan Castellaneta) has been the Otis Campbell of Springfield. But as we’ve seen, there’s more to him than meets the bloodshot eye. He’s got a beautiful (and Grammy-winning) singing voice, and the gentle heart of an artist. He even gave a guest lecture at Villanova — or maybe it was a street corner. While Barney managed to sober up for a few seasons, it didn’t stick, and he soon reclaimed his old barstool at Moe’s.
Barney may be Springfield’s token lush, but Homer (Dan Castellaneta) is no slouch either. His love of Duff Beer is as great as the lengths he’ll go get a buzz. It was such desperation that led Homer to invent the Flaming Moe cocktail. And when Springfield reinstated Prohibition, it was Homer’s ingenuity as the Beer Baron that kept the suds flowing. Plus, Homer gave us possibly one of most important quotes in the history of human civilization: “To alcohol: the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.”
Patsy and Eddie (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley) are the party girls who never left the party. As they stumbled into middle age, the duo kept a foot on the gas, living it up while shirking responsibility and tenaciously clinging to the last shreds of their youth. But didn’t they look fabulous doing it, darling?
Will and Grace
Karen (Megan Mullally) was living proof that money doesn’t buy happiness — but it does buy a hell of a lot of liquor. Mullally’s loopy performance as a deranged socialite was a breakout role, often outshining the show’s lead actors.
When Bender says he needs alcohol to live, he’s not joking. Robots of the future are powered by alcohol. Not consuming enough has the opposite effect it has on humans, leading them to act drunk. Bender, however, seems to relish drinking more than his fellow machines. If you got a problem with that, you can bite his shiny, metal ass.
While most of the Bluth clan was almost always drinking, matriarch Lucille’s (Jessica Walter) booze game was on point. After all, she is the propagator of not one but two urban myths regarding alcohol: 1) Vodka goes bad once it’s opened, and 2) wine only turns into alcohol if you let it sit.
Another waspy matriarch, Emily’s (Kelly Bishop) love for a good cocktail was only outmatched by her love for a snarky quip. Like Lucille Bluth, Emily proves that it’s not a drinking problem if you’re rich.
Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) reasons for drinking were simple: “My generation, we drink because it’s good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do.” On a show of big drinkers, Sterling was the OG.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
While Charlie’s adult substance of choice will always be huffing spray paint, the rest of the Gang sure can knock ’em back. It’s amazing that Paddy’s Pub has stayed in businesses for as long as it has given how much of the profits these idiots drink.
In this neighborhood, every occasion is an occasion to crack open a bottle of wine. Seriously, they drink so much on this show they should list “Red Wine” as a featured character in the opening credits.
Parks and Recreation
Ron Swanson is a man’s man. He builds things, eats steaks, and drinks whiskey. Dude keeps a bottle of Lagavulin in his office desk. Plus, he never gets drunk. Except when he drinks Snake Juice, but let’s face it, not even the mighty Ron Swanson can stand up to that poison.
Considering all the other dysfunctions Mallory (Jessica Walter) and her son Sterling (H. Jon Benjamin) share, excessive drinking seems rather minor. Still, these two can hold their booze. Mallory’s Steuben tumblers only ever leave her hand when she’s hurling them at subordinates. Sterling, meanwhile, drinks his way through missions without stopping for fear that the “cumulative hangover may literally kill” him.
Linda’s enthusiasm for drinking is an extension of her enthusiasm for living. She’s game for anything, especially when singing is involved. Add some wine, and all the better. Always a responsible parent, Linda keeps her drinking in check around her kids, explaining, “Mommy doesn’t get drunk. She just has fun.”
Given the insane life Olivia Pope leads, it’s amazing she doesn’t drink more than she already does. Still, she’s probably the biggest quaffer of red wine this side of Cougar Town. In a show of absurd plot twists and shocking revelations, how Olivia manages to keep those white suits wine-free is the most unbelievable part of this show.