Sitcoms have been classic American TV fare since the 1940s, but it’s arguable that they didn’t really hit their stride until the ’80s and ’90s when previously held records for viewership shattered and reached the hundreds of millions. That’s also the period of time that the LGBTQ community started to become regular plot points among casts, and, occasionally, make appearances as regular characters on these mainstream shows. In fact, in most shows from this era, there’s almost always at least one “gay” episode.
That trend was not lost on journalist Drew Mackie and screenwriter Glen Lakin. The two friends and longtime TV fans got together and created “Gayest Episode Ever,” a podcast that takes a deeper look at what LGBTQ representation each of these shows provided and how well writers of the time took on their “gay” episodes. Both Mackie and Lakin filled Between The Lines in on the tired tropes, unexpectedly nuanced portrayals (looking at you, “Dinosaurs”), and what screenwriters today should focus on in their own LGBTQ character writing.
Where did the concept for this show come from?
Glen Lakin: Drew and I live together and talk about TV all the time, so I think it was just the thought that our conversations could be put to good use and we wouldn’t be wasting our time with our personal debates. And also I kind of assumed that someone would have already started a podcast that was about the gayest episodes of classic sitcoms, but, as it turns out, no. So we decided that maybe we will do this, and now we are!
So often when watching TV I’ll catch a rerun of the “gay episode” of an old sitcom and I think to myself, “This is a terrible representation of the LGBTQ community.” What was the first bad representation that you stumbled upon?
Drew Mackie: (Laughs) That’s a tough one!
Lakin: For me, it wasn’t actually the bad representation that inspired me wanting to talk about these episodes. It was the good ones. I had assumed that older episodes of TV would just uniformly be bad. I was rewatching the first season of “Cheers” where they had a very gay episode where the patrons think that Cheers is becoming a gay bar. I thought it would be in bad taste, but it actually played out a lot better than I would have thought for 1982 or ’83. [We asked the questions] was it just the times, or were they trying to represent these issues with a little bit more respect than we would give them credit for?
Mackie: I don’t know if “Blossom” was a show that you were watching back in the ’90s, but it was for me and it was a show that had a lot of very special episodes. They tackled a lot of important topics that would come up in the life of a teenage girl and maybe last year we did a “Blossom” episode, and I was very surprised at how clumsily it was handled for a show that had a reputation for taking issues seriously. And the takeaway from it was that I don’t think they talked to a gay person for input on this script at all. They probably should have, and if they did, they probably should have talked to another gay person. It just wasn’t handled as well as it should have been.
Glen, you’re a screenwriter yourself. What’s a trope that you see all the time that really bugs you as far as representation when you’re watching these older episodes?
Lakin: I think Drew would agree with me, but it was the angel gay. There’s so many times in the ’80s and ’90s where any time you watch a show with a gay character they had to be perfect, they had to be handsome and charming, and without fault. Because [show creators] didn’t want to be seen as discriminating against the gay community and it’s just sort of annoying that gay people weren’t allowed to be people and have flaws that were separate from their sexuality. It’s something that we, luckily, mostly grew out of, although in modern times it’s sort of the angel trans character is sort of the trope that we’re falling into now. So I think, generally, you want people who actually have their own agenda: characters who are actually characters and not just this cookie-cutter representation where the only thing bad about them is the fact that they’re gay.
Mackie: Also I would add to that those angel gay characters from the ’80s and ’90s are almost always white and they’re always men. We haven’t come across a female equivalent of — there’s not an angel lesbian character who is perfect and flawless to win over the straight audience’s sympathy.
Do you ever review episodes where LGBTQ themes are not overt but they’re hinted at? At least for me, that was a popular feeling I had while watching TV where it was assumed a couple had a relationship or perhaps other fans held that speculation.
Lakin: Do you remember that show “Dinosaurs” that was on TGIF back in the ’90s? It was people in giant dinosaur suits and puppets and it was on Friday nights on ABC with all the family programming. And they actually do a gay episode where it’s all about the son experimenting with being a vegetarian. And he goes to a vegetarian bar and it is surprisingly obvious in retrospect that, oh, they’re talking about gay stuff; he’s talking about homosexuality but using vegetarianism as a metaphor. And it’s nuts.
Did that end up being good representation?
Mackie: I mean, they got it on TGIF in I think it was an 8:30 timeslot, so they tricked a bunch of conservative families into thinking it was safe family entertainment to watch a coded gay metaphor. I think that’s great representation.
(Laughs) Fair enough!
Lakin: And they did cover the fact that this isn’t a choice and that this is something that’s part of you and that you shouldn’t be ashamed for wanting to experiment and try a lifestyle that fits you better; just because it’s not what your father wants for you, it could still be right for you.
So what advice do you both give modern-day screenwriters to stop audiences from saying, “Of course, it’s another angel gay,” or similar well-worn tropes?
Lakin: I’m actually hopeful now that TV shows can have more than one gay character so that it’s not just one character that has to carry the weight of representing gay people means. And I have friends who work on TV shows now who back in the day would have only been allowed one gay character and now producers are actually encouraging them to do so. Even in animated TV, there’s more freedom to have a more diverse cast. You might have an angel gay, you might have a perfect gay character, but there could be a counterweight of a gay who is just a disaster. So, I like that gay characters are not just being added to a cast as a token. And especially shows that are covering cities that have friend groups that, realistically, would have a gay friend, a trans friend, a lesbian friend, because that’s what those friend groups look like.
Mackie: And also, the more LGBT characters you have on a show, the greater the likelihood that you’re going to see a diversity of representation. Unfortunately, the default is still often that the characters are white, but you’ll have a richer representation of characters. And that’s really important, because people of color and little kids who are not white need to see a representation of themselves as out-and-about gay people on TV.
What are some shows that you feel are really doing a great job of that now?
Lakin: We just finished watching the new edition of “Saved by the Bell” that’s on the Peacock streaming app. Although there’s not actually a queer character on that show, none of the characters identified as queer on the first seasons, they have a trans character who is played by Josie Totah. She’s amazing. She’s very funny and she’s a high-strung mean girl, popular girl type, which is an important trans character for people to see on screen. And her transness is addressed and it’s not the biggest part of her character and she has a character arc that is separate from her trans identity and I thought that was very interesting. And I’ve been thinking of “The Good Wife,” because I’ve been impressed with the bisexual representation that Kalinda brings to the show. The sitcoms that we’ve gone through and something that’s been pointed out to us by our audience is that there’s not a lot of bisexual representation in these old shows because that wasn’t the buzzword of the subject matter of the ’80s and ’90s.
Mackie: It’s not a sitcom but I’m a giant nerd and I still watch a lot of cartoons and Disney rebooted “DuckTales” and I remembered watching “DuckTales” and it was a safe, beloved thing. In the new version, there’s more than one female character that’s part of the kids and on the original one there was just one named Webby. And one of the new characters has dads. Her parents are a male same-sex couple, and it is still so trippy to watch a Disney cartoon and say, “That is a gay couple!” They’re ducks, two male ducks in love, but I just never thought I would have seen that. And that’s so commonplace in cartoons right now. It blows my mind every time I see it.
Lakin: In the new “She-Ra,” pretty much 80 to 90 percent of the characters were gay on that show.
Now having watched so many shows for review, what’s a bit of advice you’d give to first-time listeners or people looking to revisit some of their favorites?
Lakin: I would encourage people to watch episodes of shows they didn’t necessarily watch. It’s great to revisit your favorites, but I know that recording the show, getting to watch shows like “All in the Family” and seeing how progressive those actually were sort of blew me away in a good way.
Mackie: I think another one that I would recommend even if people didn’t watch the show is “King of the Hill.” That is a show about a conservative family in Texas and they did one of the most nuanced, kindest, most well-thought-out gay episodes I’ve ever seen on a sitcom and that was surprising. Oh, and then for this year’s anniversary, Glen wrote a fake “Golden Girls” script involving murder and we had some of our actor friends come in and do a table read of the script. So if you want to hear four LA actors acting the parts of the “Golden Girls,” it was one of my favorite things to be a part of even though Glen wrote the script.