Comedy Can Sugarcoat Difficult Issues

Article excerpt

In the 1972 TV movie, That Certain Summer, a son discovered his

divorced father was living with another man. The lead character

told the youth: "A lot of people think it [homosexuality] is

wrong. They say it's a sickness . . . If I had a choice, it's

not something I'd pick for myself."

That bit of dialogue came at the insistence of ABC censors,

according to the authors of Watching America: What Television

Tells Us About Our Lives. In the same era, episodes of the

medical drama Marcus Welby had storylines in which gay men were

portrayed as psychologically deviant. In one, a high school

teacher molested a 14-year-old boy.

TV's treatment of homosexuality moved from negative portrayals

to more sympathetic ones in the mid-1970s. But the next

evolution took two decades, culminating in Wednesday's edition

of Ellen (9 p.m. ABC), in which former bookstore owner Ellen

Morgan comes to the conclusion she's a lesbian.

The Puppy Episode, which carries a TV-14 parental guideline, is

the first time a lead character on network TV has made the

declaration, "I'm gay." And the fact that Ellen DeGeneres plays

the only gay primary character of a TV sitcom is considered

ground breaking.

"It will also be the most realistic," said Alan Klein,

spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

"The fact that Ellen DeGeneres has come out of the closet will

help guarantee this character will not be overblown. It will

reflect accurately, we hope, the lives of lesbian and gay

Americans."

The changes in the 1970s were attributed to lobbying by gays,

according to Watching America. "By 1976, gays had made a

transition from invisibility to saturation as popular sitcoms

like Alice and Barney Miller introduced recurring homosexual

characters," said authors S. Robert Lichter, Linda S. Lichter

and Stanley Rothman, who studied prime time series since the

1950s.

But when groups like the Gay Media Task Force began to push to

eliminate negative stereotypes, TV portrayals often became of

misunderstood, harassed individuals. During a 1978 episode of

Family, for example, a high school teacher's career was

threatened by homophobes.

Even though portrayals have changed, no prime-time series has a

homosexual character as its lead. There are 28 characters on TV

that could be classified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and

transgender, according to a tally by the Gay and Lesbian

Alliance Against Defamation, which bills itself as the nation's

lesbian and gay news bureau and watchdog organization.

The current crop is comprised of characters who are secondary

in importance or incidental. In shows such as Mad About You and

Nash Bridges, the gay characters are relatives of the A-list

crowd. On The Larry Sanders Show and The Simpsons, they're

executive assistants at the office.

Ellen's Ellen Morgan is not the first gay sitcom lead, however.

In 1981, the premiere of NBC's Love, Sidney made indirect

reference to the sexual orientation of middle-aged commercial

artist Sidney Shorr (played by Tony Randall). In the story, his

years of solitude suddenly ended with the arrival of young

actress Lauri Morgan (played by Swoozie Kurtz) and her daughter.

But protests and threats of boycotts by the Coalition for

Better Television caused NBC to change the show. Sidney and

Lauri lived like brother and sister, and no mention was made

again of his homosexuality.

Prime time has depicted many two-dimensional gay characters

who've been ashamed of who they are, questioned their

orientation or were flamboyant stereotypes, Klein said. …