by CHARLIE PURCELL
Sitcoms are supposed to make you laugh. They offer twenty-some minutes of familiar characters, quick banter, and wacky situations. At their best, these shows are commercial-filled vacations from life’s troubles.
Unfortunately, some sitcoms feel the urge to bust out an extra special episode. You know, an episode that tries to lecture us about acceptance and tolerance. They place their characters in some sort of “teachable moment” and then pat themselves on their backs for being progressive and insightful. Sometimes it works. Most of the time… not so much. This trend was particularly insidious in the 1990s, especially the episodes that trotted out some random gay character that we’ve never heard of before and will never hear of again. These shows almost always fell into the same five story traps. Let’s see if you can recognize any of them:
1. The Gay Punch Line
In these episodes, the main character spends most of the episode freaking out because a brand new character did something to threaten him. Then, in the very last scene, the new character says he’s gay, so he’s completely harmless and the main character was worried about nothing.
It happened to Al from Married… with Children when he found out his wife was dancing with another man. It happened to Debi Mazar in her short-lived sitcom Temporarily Yours, when she worries that her new boss is sexually harassing her. It even happened to Max Headroom (Matt Frewer) in his sitcom Doctor, Doctor, when an entire hospital of people are afraid of a new killer who might be a village-burning Green Beret, but is actually a back-up dancer for the Village People who wore a green beret. While the last example is the craziest, all three stories revealed that the big, scary guest star wasn’t bad, he was just gay.
2. The Accidental Couple
Now, I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in real life, but I highly doubt that this happens as often as it does on sitcoms. In this trope, the main characters are mistaken for a gay couple and–surprise, surprise–continue the charade because being a gay couple has unexpected benefits. They usually, but not always, get caught in the last scene.
On Golden Girls, Dorothy and Blanche pretend to be a couple so they could be on TV. On The Drew Carey Show, Drew and his best friend Oswald do it for insurance purposes. Even Seinfeld‘s Jerry and George pretended to be a couple. Unlike some of the other tropes on this list, this particular storyline has continued well into the current decade. (Even a show like Modern Family, which has an actual gay lead couple, has trotted out this old story.) Most recently, Grandfathered utilized this trope when father and son pretended to be a gay couple to get little Edie into a top notch pre-school.
3. That Guy Could Never Be Gay… Uh, Never Mind
In these episodes, an old friend or family member comes for a visit, reveals he’s gay, and some (or all) of the other characters freak out about it. In the end, everyone learns a valuable lesson, and the gay character is never seen or heard of again.
A typical example is from Suddenly Susan, one of the many “Must See TV” shows that people watched only because it was on after Friends. One of the main characters (Nestor Carbonell) gets a visit from his gay younger brother. He has a hard time with it, but they end up bonding at the end. The exact same thing happened in every 90s sitcom from HBO’s Dream On to the pop culture footnote The Fanelli Boys (a sitcom starring Joe Pantoliano). It even happened on 90s-staple Wings, but that show gave its character TWO episodes to accept his gay son before the writers completely forgot that this character existed. While the story might seem very old-fashioned, modern sitcoms still follow the same trope, even if they are more likely to bring that character back for repeat appearances. (Hello again, Modern Family.)
4. That Guy Is So Gay… Uh, Never Mind
This type of storyline is a mirror image of number three. The main characters automatically assume that some guest star is gay, only to find out that he’s not (thank god!) and life goes back to normal. It happened to Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women, for example, after she goes out on a date with a well-dressed man who knew a little too much about fashion and old Hollywood. It even happened with David Spade’s character on Just Shoot Me.
A slightly more offensive version of this storyline involves the main characters worrying that their pre-adolescent son might turn out gay because he’s suddenly interested in something girly. Ross worried about his son playing with a Barbie on Friends. The characters on Coach went through the exact same thing. The characters on The Mommies kept the storyline, but swapped a Barbie for the flute. No straight kid would ever play the flute! Then, within thirty minutes, everything goes back to normal and no one has to worry about gay offspring ever again.
5. I Think I Might Be Gay… Uh, Never Mind
Perhaps the most weirdly specific sub-category on our list, these episodes have a main character go through a gay existential crisis. Something happens (usually a dream) to make them doubt their sexuality. Gay panic ensues. And right before the credits roll, the main character realizes–thank god!–that he’s straight after all.
Again, I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen in real life, but I highly doubt that it happens as frequently as it does on TV (or that such a crisis would completely resolve itself within a half-hour). Still, this basic story was a major trope of 90s sitcoms.
It happened to Frasier after he had some surprising dreams about his new coworker. Was he gay? Nope. It happened to multiple Emmy winner John Larroquette on his self-titled sitcom. Was he gay? Nope. It happened to the uptight Miles on Murphy Brown. Was he gay? Nope. Pre-Ellen sitcoms didn’t have the nerve to make any of their main characters gay, but they sure wanted to wring some laughs out of the possibility that they might be.
Nineties television was a major transition period for gay visibility. While dramas of the time were slowly shaking off the predatory, dead, or contagious gay storylines of the more conservative eighties, comedy shows were struggling to find ways to incorporate gay stories in inoffensive (but not too groundbreaking) ways. This meant they only had a small pool of story possibilities to choose from. Two decades later, things have changed, and sitcoms have finally allowed gay characters to have actual storylines. If you miss the old days, however, just check out one of the new batch of sitcoms when it finally decides to do an episode where two of their main characters pretend to be a gay couple so they could move into a new apartment. That particular story is coming to your screens in the next couple weeks. I guarantee it.
Charlie Purcell is an American living and working on beautiful Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania. He’s a teacher by day and a writer by night. His latest novel, a road trip romance called Rev Your Engines, will be available on Amazon next month. For updates on his novels and short stories, visit ThisIsCharliePurcell.blogspot.com.