New book examines the TV sitcom’s role in queer liberation – from ‘Bewitched’ to ‘Modern Family’

“Hi Honey, I’m Homo!” shows how comedy has been used to bridge commonalities where audiences might see differences.

By Kristen CabreraJuly 13, 2023 3:44 pm, , ,

There is no doubt the lasting influence the American television sitcom had on generations. It was through antics and audience laugh tracks that iconic moments for the LGBTQIA+ community made their way to viewers nationwide.  

From a queer-coded allegory of a newly-married nose-wiggling witch, to straightforward conversations of acceptance and tolerance from four women in a Miami retirement community, the TV sitcom has touched on aspects of the queer community in the U.S. for decades – to both the ire and applause from gay audiences. 

In the new book “Hi Honey, I’m Homo! Sitcoms, Specials, and the Queering of American Culture,” author Matt Baume dives into key LGBTQ plus moments from sitcoms spanning over half a century. Baume spoke with Texas Standard on how “Bewitched” took on topics of prejudice and “Will & Grace” affected politics. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I think a lot of listeners may remember “Bewitched.” Connect the dots for us, if you will, to how that was, in a small way, a part of the queering of American culture, as you describe it.

Matt Baume: You know, a lot of people might not think of “Bewitched” as a particularly queer show because it’s about a heterosexual couple. But there’s a lot of subtext to the show that speaks to people of a lot of different minority groups.

The show is – you know, for people who might not be familiar – about a young woman who’s a witch. Secretly she marries a mortal. They decide that they want to try to blend in in the suburbs and to live what they call, “normal life.” And so a lot of the episodes are about their attempts to pass, essentially.

And an early episode that’s entitled “The Witches Are Out,” this is early in the first season, is all about the negative impact of stereotypes. There’s Halloween coming up. There’s an ad campaign that the husband is working on that features ugly witches. And the episode ends with a protest with the witches staging a protest in the dreams of a candy company executive who wants to use ugly witches in his ad campaign. And they’re protesting in a way that’s very similar to how LGBTQ people were protesting at exactly the same time.

And the star of the show, Elizabeth Montgomery, has said that their intention was to speak to people who felt like outsiders with the program.

Very interesting. Now, when you say “outsiders,” of course, that’s a much bigger Venn diagram circle than just the LGBTQ community. To what extent do you think these sitcoms were actually speaking directly to the LGBTQ community, especially going back to… “Bewitched” was what, in the 60s, I guess. Mid-60s?

Yeah, mid-60s into the 70s.

You know, and it varies because a show like “Bewitched,” the people who worked on the show said that they wanted to reach people who felt like outsiders because of race, religion, disability, all kinds of different factors. Elizabeth Montgomery was asked directly if they thought about the about queer viewers adopting the show as something that spoke to them. And she said, yes, that was something they were aware of and they were proud of it.

And then other shows could be a lot more direct. “Bewitched” very nearly overlapped with the show “All in the Family,” which is amazing to consider because they’re very, very different programs. You know, going into the 70s, you have shows that are a lot more direct, that are really confronting queer issues head on.

“All in the Family” had a drag performer as a character and had a gay teacher. It’s a show that’s not afraid to talk about homosexuality in a way that television had really forbidden for a lot of its early decades.

Of course, producer of that program, Norman Lear, was a noted progressive and was obviously trying to make a mark in terms of the messages that that program sent on many levels, really. But let’s fast forward to a show that came out, I guess, what this must have been in the late 70s, early 80s. How did the “Golden Girls,” a show about four retired women in Miami, capture the hearts of the LGBTQ+ folks?

Yeah, that one I think might have caught them a little by surprise.

So it’s the 1980s and there’s a new show on NBC, which is really a struggling network at that time, about these women of a certain age. What’s great about that show is it’s a program that spoke to a lot of different people in the audience. It’s something that kids could watch with parents. And it was just also extremely funny.

Of course, those actresses had worked on projects with queer subtext or just about queer people before. Bea Arthur was on “Maude,” which had episodes with queer characters. Rue McClanahan had played the mother of two different gay men in TV movies prior to that. Betty White has a lesbian daughter in real life, and Estelle Getty, of course, came from Broadway, where she was on “Torch Song Trilogy.” So they came to the show with a lot of LGBTQ credibility already.

And then the show itself, “The Golden Girls,” a show that seems from the outside like it might potentially be a very conservative show, a show about senior citizens. But it’s a show that, once again, not afraid to talk about queer stuff.

They’ve got a gay person living with them in the house. They’ve got a gay houseboy in the pilot. He doesn’t stick around. But later in the show’s run, they have a gay friend who comes to visit. They talk about HIV in a way that’s very open. Blanche has a gay brother who comes back in multiple episodes and has a partner he wants to marry.

It’s a show that was really unabashed about addressing the reality of gay people in the world. And it’s down to the strength of the writing and directing and especially – boy, oh, boy – those cast members. All of those actresses really dedicated themselves to helping queer people in their real lives through fundraisers and just through being great people.

You know, I think a lot of people, when you talk about the LGBTQ+ community and TV sitcoms, immediately a lot of folks think of “Will & Grace.” But it didn’t happen without a sort of backlash from some within the gay community who had questions and concerns about how these characters were portrayed. And that sort of raises a lot of complicated questions, it seems to me now.

I remember back when that was on the air and there was a lot of concern.

On one hand, hooray, we’ve got a show with gay main characters on it. On the other hand, I remember a lot of gay people were complaining, “Oh, this is only one very limited, narrow view of our lives.” They’re both pretty financially comfortable. They’re living in New York. It’s an urban life. This isn’t the reality for a lot of us.

And also, it seemed as though “Will & Grace” had one man who was relatively, relatively macho at one end of the scale and one man, one character who was relatively effete at the other end. And they’re like, “okay, these are the only two gays that we’re seeing.” So there was a concern about how limited that depiction is.

However, I can say honestly, I know an awful lot of gay people who are exactly like Will or exactly like Jack. So it could be a lot worse. The shows of decades past had stereotypes that just had no bearing on reality. So at least “Will & Grace” was getting to something true.

And as the show continued, it explored a lot more of the reality of what queer people’s lives could be and open the door for lots more shows that followed.

“Will & Grace” also had a significant historical impact that would come several years later when the vice president at the time, Joe Biden, made an appearance on “Meet the Press.” Could you say more about that moment?

Yeah, that really took a lot of people by shock.

So it’s the 2012 presidential election season. Joe Biden is on “Meet the Press.” Everybody is wondering if at some point Obama or the administration will come out in favor of marriage equality because no sitting president had at that point. And Joe is asked directly about it and he says – essentially, I’m paraphrasing – that he sees no reason why same sex couples shouldn’t have the same right to marry as straight couples.

And at the time that that aired, I personally was working at a LGBTQ nonprofit that was working on marriage equality. I can’t even describe the shock and astonishment that happened that day when that aired.

But one thing that’s really significant that Joe said is that he didn’t think anything had done more to move the needle of public opinion more than “Will & Grace.” That here’s a show that’s beaming images of happy, contented, stable, healthy, well-adjusted – most of the time – queer people into American homes and showing people that they’re just folks. They’re just regular, nice folks like you and me. And there’s nothing to be afraid of.

And yeah, he’s correct that, you know, research and studies haved backed that up afterwards – that television images like that, where you see somebody who may not be like you but has a few things in common, that can really push people’s opinion towards a better understanding of others.

Well, you know, in speaking of other shows that followed – “Modern Family,” right? You had the characters, Mitch and Cam, a gay couple raising a daughter. Very rare to see on TV in 2008, but ended up being a huge hit, winning a lot of awards. What was it about that show that seemed to capture the the attention of the audience and make it so meaningful for members of the LGBTQ+ community?

Well, I think, you know, the answer is actually right in the title “Modern Family.” It’s a show that reflected the reality of modern family’s lives.

I think something that’s really important there is that Cam and Mitch were, in addition to being very funny and very sweet and very nice, something that made them – you know, I would say palatable – to an audience that might not be ready to see queer characters on television is that the show “Modern Family” had lots of other families that might look familiar. So a lot of people could come to that show and be like, “Oh, they’re just like me.” And they might be talking about different groups of people, but they have a way in. And once they’re in, they could see other families that might not be exactly like theirs, but they can see that the aspects that are shared are.

One thing that I think is really great that “Modern Family” did is it showed the similarities and the empathy that you can have for people who might not seem like you, but you can understand the emotional struggle that they’re going through purely as a family. These are universal stories. They’re not strictly straight or queer stories.

Where do you see all this headed in the future of streaming? I mean, as you know, as the networks with their sitcoms and lineups of sitcoms, sort of disappear from the landscape. Where does this leave the conversation as it’s depicted on the small screen, do you think?

You know, that’s a great question. And it’s very hard to kind of gaze into the crystal ball right now because it’s particularly murky.

I would say it’s a great thing that we’ve got streaming that allows for so many shows and for so many different voices and for so many different perspectives. That’s wonderful.

On the other hand, we don’t really have that universal experience of everybody sitting down to watch “Seinfeld” or whatever it is and we’ve all had some common experience that we can talk about and share afterwards.

So I think we’re in kind of an alarming place where it’s hard to know if television is going to want to include queer people or try to stratify everything, you know, and say, “okay, well, these shows are for one audience. This shows for a different audience.” And because everything’s so Balkanized, you know, there’s not going to be cross-pollination of different types of people.

So, you know, I think the answer to what to do about that is, you know, to adopt the tactics that have worked in decades past. In writing this book, I learned a lot about how media activists were affected, particularly in the 1970s, and demanding better representation, demanding more queer characters, just seeing better stuff on TV.

And the way they did it, I hate to say it, was by being real annoying – by bothering television executives, the people, the gatekeepers who are inside the industry and telling them, “This isn’t good enough, we want better.”

And if we are not seeing what we want from television right now, we’ve got to be annoying. We’ve got to be loud, we’ve got to write letters, we got to picket, protest, whatever it takes and just let them know we want better.

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