TV’s Best Recurring Characters

Many television shows have charismatic, funny, and memorable stars and a great supporting cast. Some great shows also feature hilarious and impactful recurring characters. These are the ones that show up for a short time or every few episodes but leave a lasting impression. Here are my favorite recurring characters from some of my favorite TV shows.

Everyone recognizes Central Perk as the go-to hangout on Friends, but the best part of the famous coffee shop was its resident barista, Gunther. He charmed us with his snarky one-liners and endearing Rachel obsession. The frequent scenes with the cast gathered around the couch just wouldn’t have been the same without him.

For most of the series, Futurama‘s Nibbler only made whimpering noises, ate anything in sight, and pooped dark matter. Then, in the episode The Day the Earth Stood Stupid, we find out he is actually the super-intelligent Nibblonian ambassador to Earth, in charge of keeping the universe in existence. Not too bad for a little guy.

Never before has a character made such an impact with such little screen time and basically no speaking. Who couldn’t love the weirder, dirtier, and dim-witted Schrute cousin? Everything he does is hilarious: running beside Jim and Pam’s car as they arrive at Schrute Farms, sitting in the outhouse as the door flaps open in the wind, and instilling FEAR in the heart of temp Ryan.

While Arrested Development features a crazy cast of characters, one of my favorites is Barry Zuckerkorn, the Bluth’s incompetent family lawyer. While he never seems to fully understand anything, he remains likable even with his affinity for rest stops and inability to do anything right.

All the doctors of Seattle Grace unwind at Joe’s. He’s the blunt, wise uncle everyone needs to pour them a drink and put things in perspective. He’s a grounded, relatively normal character in a sea of neurotic, narcissistic, and damaged doctors. Grey’s Anatomy is better with his balance.

Although Lost had a very large cast of very different and memorable characters, one character’s influence pervaded the last several seasons of the show, despite having very little screen time. Penelope Widmore was the driving force that kept Desmond going, saved him from the brink of insanity, and ultimately ended up saving the Oceanic Six.

In a world of show tunes and flamboyant dance routines, Glee‘s Burt Hummel provides some normalcy. He’s a flannel-wearing, car-fixing, donut-loving everyman, who wants nothing more than to protect his family and see his son Kurt happy.

Even though Wilson appears in every episode of Home Improvement, I still couldn’t leave him off this list. He’s the Taylor’s famously mysterious next door neighbor who offers insanely wise advice and keeps an impressive amount of knowledge in his half-concealed noggin. He added a fun part to every episode that we could all look forward to.

181 thoughts on “TV’s Best Recurring Characters

  1. I often wondered why Gunther wasn’t given a show as a spinoff. I think it would have been a viable concept, better than “Joey” that’s for sure.

    Great thoughts, congrats on being pressed!

  2. In the spirit of the current mania for Betty White, I’ve got to speak up for Sue Ann Niven. One of the best characters for a character actress ever written. 🙂

  3. These are all great memorable characters. I’d have a tough time deciding between Gunther and Janice for my “Friends” pick. I love how she never fails to make an entrance.

  4. Gunther! I miss him. I’d have to say I’m partial to Bob Loblaw on Arrested Development though. Man, I miss that show!

  5. Gunther … on my GOD I had a total schoolgirl crush on Gunther! The combination of his snarky comments yet total Rachel-devotion stole my heart!

    Thanks for the reminder…


  6. Cool one.. Gunther was really funny… Indeed one of the best recurring characters .. Among the other recurring characters in ‘Friends’ I like Janice and The Gellers…
    Anyway … nice list!

  7. Loved Gunther and have to agree for the other comments about what a great spin off that would have been. My favorite recurring characters though, has to be The Lone Gunman from the X-Files. Not such a great spin off granted, but the characters made 9 seasons of unforgettable episodes. Jonathon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer also right up there

    • Omigosh, I totally agree! The Lone Gunmen are such great recurring characters on The X-Files, especially Frohike.

      I’m not much for Gunther on Friends but I love Janice! She cracks me up every time she makes an entrance and laughs.

  8. And how about Dr Leo Spaceman in 30 Rock? The crazy doc is one of the best recurring characters I’ve ever seen. Also, from Futurama, while Nibbler was brilliant, my favourite was Zap Branigan…what a class-A jerk and what a clown! Super hilarious!

    • I second Dr. Spaceman. He has some of the best one liners on television.
      *stares at lungs x-ray while smoking cigarette.* Damnit, where are my car keys?

  9. Gunther and Wilson!!!! Love those characters! Friends and Home Improvement were great sitcoms. Thanks for reminding me about them 🙂

  10. Glee would not be the show it is without Burt (Mike O’Malley). He is warm, sweet, complex, and believable! For me all the stand-out episodes have been the ones with him.

  11. Great post idea! I love the characters on this list, and I nominate Janice from FRIENDS for an honorable mention spot. Maggie Wheeler did a fantastic job with the character, and I thought Janice and Chandler were a hilarious couple. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  12. I loved Penny and Wilson! I miss those shows.

    I do have to agree with pleasebekindrewind about Janice. Plus we can’t forget about Richard, though he wasn’t as recurring as I would have liked..

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  14. Very nice list, but I must complain about the absence of any Seinfeld characters… Even just Newman would have sufficed.
    Also, I love Barry Zuckerkorn, but my favorite from Arrested Development has to be either J. Walter Weatherman or Franklin… but then again you could probably make this list using only Arrested Development characters.
    Nice work!

    • I actually did have Newman on my original list! But I had to cut him because I just didn’t LOVE him the way I do the others.

      And I agree about Arrested Development characters. So many memorable ones!

  15. Sideshow Bob!

    I also really liked two on “Boston Legal”, Lincoln Meyer and Clarence/Clarice, the latter of whom lost a lot when he became a regular.

  16. In the first season of Friends Gunther can be seen walking around the background. He doesn’t speak of have a name until season 2 though.

  17. I have always liked
    “Hooch” in Scrubs, for Hooch is crazy.
    “Ranjit” the car driver in How I Met Your Mother, loved him for the mockery of Indian accent.

  18. Gunther was too funny. One of my most memorable was “the soup nazi guy” from Seinfeld. I think because I meet so many people like that in real life. When ever we get a crazy customer we’re like “no makeup for you…come back one year” haha. Great post.

  19. I loved and agreed with most of your characters. Not Wilson though. I feel like the show missed out on a TREMENDOUS opportunity to reveal, in the season finale, that he never really existed but was a therapeutic measure of Tim’s psyche. Of course this would have meant consistently clever writing when he “appeared” to interact with other characters… Oh well. I just think it would have been pretty epic.

  20. Even though we, thankfully, never got to see him, I’d nominate “ugly naked guy” that the “Friends” couldn’t keep their eyes off when he was parading around his apartment. Also, one of the best lines ever from any comedy was when Gunther was the only one with enough courage to matter-of-factly tell the guy (one of the “Friends'” friends?) who kept exposing himself by wearing shorts and going commando and sitting with his leg up: “Hey buddy, this is a family place–keep the mouse in the house.” Probably not his exact words, but I know he used the term “keep the mouse in the house.”

  21. I nominate Caroline Julian from Bones. She adds so much wit and life to every episode she appears in, telling all the neurotic main characters just where to get off. Not to mention her “puckish” side…

  22. A slightly different take … In Joan of Arcadia, I enjoyed how God showed up as a different individual each episode. A janitor, an old lady even a bookstore owner. Made the point well.

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  24. If I could choose between the Ugly Naked Guy and Gunther, I think the Ugly Naked Guy has a much more interesting personality even though through the series you never see him. Probably a good thing, but he was never seen or heard.

  25. Wilson & Gunther were my top to tv show favorites! I always wondered what Wilson looked like, my sisters and I would always try and guess! Great memories! Awesome post!

  26. Glee’s the only one of any of these I’ve seen with any regularity. So, without a doubt, I have to go with Stargate SG-1’s Doctor Janet Fraiser.

  27. I loved the Bluth family lawyer. Did you see the episode where, in an homage to the Fonz, as the Bluth lawyer, Henry Winkler literally “jumped the shark?”

    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  28. I saw a few comments that mentioned Seinfeld. Seinfeld’s brilliance was in its recurring use of recurring characters: in addition to Newman and Frank Costanza, there was Puddy, Uncle Leo, Crazy Joe Davola, the Maestro, Jackie Chiles…even Susan, George’s hapless fiancee. This is fun. Great post, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  29. Barry Zuckerkorn! I love him. But I think I’d have to disagree with you and say that Ann Veal is my favourite recurring character. I die laughing every time she comes on screen.

  30. Okay, I’m REALLY gonna show my age–do you realize that one character is really Arthur Fonzarelli? lol Now Fonzie was the ultimate recurring character on Happy Days because he recurred a few times, then stayed to totally take over the show! 🙂

  31. I also vote for caracters on Stargate, there is plenty of fun caracters that are really loveable, for instant the sargent in chargo o f stargate, almost every one of the strange scientist in SG-1 and atlantis.
    Autolycus in “Hercules”

  32. Home improvement is one of my favourite comedy shows to come out of the States. Wilson gets my vote – what a fantastic idea to have a character who can be funny with just two eyes, a hat and a fantastic script!

  33. I had to laugh when I read that Wilson made your list because I happen to be watching reruns of Home Improvement right now! Such a great show with no cussing or nudity. Amazing that this show lasted for so long with only great actors and humor 🙂 I want a Home Improvement movie!

  34. I’ll toss my support behind Penny just because Lost was perhaps the most dynamic and ambitious thing ever to air on television. Gotta say, though, Richard Alpert and The Man In Black both topped Penny in my mind. “Across The Sea” and “Ab Aeterna” were two of the best episodes of the entire show, and both so close to the end.

    Also, The Simpsons? Has there ever been a show with more iconic characters? Moe, Smithers, Flanders, Principal Skinner, Mr. Burns, Duff Man (Oh yeah!), Lionel Hutz, kings among men all.

  35. Great post. Burt Hummel is a really great recurring character on Glee – funny how some of the people you see least on shows are some of the most instrumental in getting across an important message.

  36. My name is Maggie, and I approve of this list.
    Though I might also add Claudia and Stewart from How I Met Your Mother. They tend to catalyze a TON of drama on that show.
    Or – to show my own age a little – Mel Brooks as Uncle Phil on Mad About You. You know a recurring side character is good when he makes the main cast crack up.

  37. Larry, Darryl and Darryl from ‘Newhart’
    another show, another time, just as hilarious in their simplistic but profound view of life!

  38. We are completely from a different age, but Otis on the Andy Griffith show was great. In fact, that show had a host of recurring characters that would be impossible to duplicate today.
    Good post, good writing

  39. How about a blog showcasing TV’s best recurring actors and actresses? LOL. There have been so many failed series lately that I feel like some actors/actresses are recurring. Summer Glau for example.

  40. I’ve been sitting here now for about 5 minutes thinking about who I’d add to this list. I have no idea, I need more time! Great job, you really got me thinking about the little character drop-ins I always looked forward to on my favorite series.

  41. I love this review. I concur about Wilson and the dad from Glee. I also applaud a couple of those mentioned in the comments: Sue Ann Nivens, the psychiatrist from 2 and a half men, and Larry, Darryl and my other brother Darryl. In the shows from another time category, I would add Carlton the Doorman from Rhoda and Suzanne Pleshette in the conclusion of Newhart: the whole inn in VT things was all a dream!

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  44. I just thought of someone to add–without a doubt, it would have to be Charlie & Alan’s off and on therapist on Two and a Half Men, played by Jane Lynch. HILARIOUS! Especially in that first episode she was on where they brought her in the see what was wrong with Jake. lol

  45. Gunther was hilarious. Seriously I don’t even think I have ever met someone with that name. As above in comments,….Larry, Darryl and Darryl were too funny also…now I’m dating myself.

  46. Let’s not forget the science fiction category, and the inimitable Q from Star Trek: Next Generation. “Just your average crewman…with an IQ of 2000.”

  47. Wilson on Home Improvement hands down best reoccuring character..always said stuff that sounded silly but made sense when you thought of it…plus the actor that played Wilson (Earl Hindeman- died in 03) always wrote the line that he explained to Time..zman sends

  48. what a fun blog! whoever said the lone gunmen, totally agree! and i love love love nibbler, but I have to stick with my favorite comedy ever and go with Barry Zuckerkorn (though your whole list is great). (might i suggest Carl Weathers as himself on arrested development too? and Steve Holt!) another one i thought of (and it was more than once, so it kinda counts) is what i think is the funniest television ever ever ever – David Duchovny on the Larry Sanders Show! fun fun blog idea!!

  49. In every single show mentioned only a few people really know what the meaning behind the delightful laughs and life long experiences one lives every day. Television, radio, even blogs but the best experiences I remember are the ones I had with friends and family. Letting go of the worries of life and just enjoy living… youth is something we all think we leave behind but looking back nomatter how old I’ve been or young I have never stoped growing. Live and learn, or become just another statistic in someone elses eyes.

  50. OK. I find myself thinking up new good recurring charcters–much like how I play Trivial Pursuit, answers come rather slowly. How about Bebe Grazer–the devilish agent on Frasier. Seh was always so wickedly opportunistic!

  51. One of my favorite recurring characters was Lt. Reginald Barclay (played by Dwight Schultz) on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The character has also appeared on Deep Space Nine and Voyager.

  52. I love Barclay as well, and it’s a close one, but if it’s Star Trek Next Generation, the ultimate recurring character for me has to be Q (Q and Barclay are my two favorite characters on that show!)

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  54. I got so frustrated about never seeing all of Mr. Wilson’s face, I remember trying to peek over the fence once. I was a little slow.
    Gunther was a little creepy, but I’m sure we can all relate.

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