Buffy the Vampire Slayer is known for its trademark wit. Much of this comes from series creator Joss Whedon, but the whole writing staff really brought something to the table. It was one of the smartest and funniest shows on TV at the time, and really one of the major series to establish the notion that drama and humor didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Over the course of seven seasons, Buffy defied genre trends at virtually every turn. It was sad, it was funny, it tackled serious and hard-hitting issues. But it never explored these themes for the sake of a statement, it explored them as things that teenagers actually have to deal with. It could be sad when it was funny and funny when it was sad, even at the most horrific and emotionally exhausting times. There would always be something in there to make the audience laugh, at least for a little while.
Here are some of the episodes that truly shine as examples of the kind of genre-bending Buffy was capable of at its best. It should also be clear that these episodes weren’t unintentionally funny. The wit was very clear, but wouldn’t have worked on paper due to the serious subject matter, making each one of these a near-impossible feat to pull off.
Anya pretty much took over as the comic relief character that speaks her mind no matter what anybody thinks, after Cordelia left the show to join the cast of Angel. She was also defined by being Xander’s girlfriend, which isn’t so great for such a feminist show. After Xander left her at the altar, though, Anya became really interesting as she tried to put her life together, addressing the question of who she was without him. “Selfless” went even deeper, providing flashbacks as Anya and the audience attempt to discover if she was ever anything more than a demon or somebody’s girlfriend, and if there’s actually an unselfish bone in her body. For such a self-reflective episode, it still bears her trademark sense of humor and the pre-demon flashbacks are some of the funniest moments of the entire series.
“Beer Bad” is funny for a different reason than a lot of the episodes on this list. Joss Whedon always promised there would never be a “Very Special Episode” of Buffy. There would never be an episode that felt like an After School Special, designed to explain the dangers of a specific thing, a “Don’t do Drugs” episode, or something along those lines. That was until FOX came to Whedon and demanded an episode about the dangers of underage drinking because Buffy was a role model for young people. When they forced his hand, he delivered the stupidest episode in the most sarcastic way possible, as people who drink this magic beer (including Buffy herself) revert into cavemen—and women, in her case. The best moment comes at the end, a direct response to FOX, when Xander asks ‘What did we learn about beer?” and Cave Buffy replies “Foamy.”
Most of Buffy’s episodes devoted to first loves and crushes got incredibly dramatic and heart-wrenching. Her sister, Dawn, rarely got to explore that. But, “Him” is an episode very much suited to Dawn’s first crush, in that as soon as a guy starts noticing her, everyone else starts noticing him and takes the attention away from her. It’s a ridiculous episode, way funnier than it should be, especially as the girls decide what they’re going to do to prove they love this boy the most—Willow, for example, is going to turn him into a girl and Buffy is going to kill the principal.
While “The Prom” is designed to be heartfelt first and foremost and is really centered on being the end of an era in a couple of different ways, there’s still something incredibly funny about a teenager training hell hounds to attack people in formal wear because a girl refused to go with him. Despite Buffy and Angel breaking up and the senior class’s long overdue acknowledgement of Buffy and everything she has done for them, the fact that these hounds were shown both Prom Night and Prom Night IV is hilarious.
Some of the funniest episodes of Buffy were also the most self-deprecating. “The Zeppo” is one of the funniest of the entire series, easily. Yet it’s also an introspective look at Xander’s place in the group and the fact that he probably isn’t even needed there. It’s a whole episode of seeing the world through his eyes, as he goes off on his own adventure that nobody knows about. At the same time, it’s a parody of itself and a brilliant one. The emotions, the angst, all of it becomes hilarious as Xander keeps interrupting the gang during what appears to be some of their most doomed and darkest moments up to that point.
Definitely the most beloved episode of the entire series, “Once More With Feeling” is a perfect example of what we’re looking at on this list. It’s fun, it’s incredibly funny—particularly that mustard number—and yet what the episode actually is, is a brutally honest and truthful examination of depression. It is about Buffy not even knowing if she wants to live anymore or if she even knows how. It’s soul crushing and exactly the way Whedon would approach finally doing a musical episode, because God knows people can’t sing when they’re happy.
“Earshot” is one of the most unsung, most perfect episodes of the entire series. In it, Buffy develops psychic abilities and learns that someone is going to take out the entire student body the next day. It’s a serious hour of television, one of the heaviest of the show, dealing with both school shootings and teen suicide. And yet, the humor works absolutely perfectly. The issue is handled with absolute care, but there’s a moment early on when Xander jokes “I always knew the lunch lady was going to take us out with that Mulligan Stew.” And after a gorgeous scene of Buffy talking down a boy about to kill himself, it turns out that that is in fact what is happening, as Xander sneaks into the cafeteria for some Jell-O and discovers the lunch lady pouring rat poison into the stew. It’s hilarious and it doesn’t have to make light of the situation or undercut what has happened in order to be such.