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The Office Premiere and the History of TV Men Mistaken for Gay

  • 9/18/09 at 4:04 PM
 The Office Premiere and the History of TV Men Mistaken for Gay

Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

"Let me give you a scenario: I'm at a beach cabana. Brad Pitt comes up and tries to kiss me ... "

The Office rocked my world last night with that premiere, as recapped by the marvelous Will Leitch. Even the tiny lines in the background were great, like that random cry of "don't vaccinate it!" during the whole Pam-is-pregnant celebration.

Like Will, I adored Andy's tailspin into gay panic. "I mean, for the record, I prefer women. But off the record, I'm kind of confused. I mean, the evidence is kind of stacked against me." It reminds me of the strange history of the mistaken-for-gay plot in TV sitcoms, forged by the late, great, bizarro Three's Company, which was premised on horny heterosexual Jack Tripper imitating a gay stereotype. This twisted scenario fascinated several gay male friends of mine when they were children: There was something so kinky and compelling about a straight man feigning effeminacy, especially in a TV environment devoid of any actual out gay characters at all.

Then came the plague of eighties very-special-episodes, in which a cameo gay character teaches the main characters that they are just like everyone else. The one I remember the most is the 1986 Golden Girls episode "Isn't It Romantic?" but the show actually had several, because Blanche's brother was gay.

The earliest example I can find of the mistaken-for-gay plotline showed up way back in 1978 on WKRP — Les actually became suicidal because of the accusation! In syndication, Herb's reassuring "Les, it's okay if you're a homo" was redubbed as "Les, it's okay if you're gay." Here's a nicely comprehensive list of examples, but I'm curious whether anyone can pinpoint the first moment someone was mistaken for gay on TV — was it Les or is there anything earlier?

(I've also gotta mention Tony Randall's brilliant portrayal of Felix Unger in The Odd Couple, although I don't think they were ever explicit about the issue. Here's an old column I wrote about Felix, which I worried killed Mr. Randall, since he died a week after it was published.)

Anyway, sometime in the mid-nineties, around the time Ellen came out, pretty much every sitcom, good and terrible, had a mistaken-for-gay element — always about a male character, always about the semiotics of "seeming gay." There was Seinfeld's "not that there's anything wrong with that!" There was Chandler and Joey's relationship on Friends. And there was Frasier, which had such a complicated, in-on-it weave of jokes about gayness, written by gay writers and starring gay actors, that it was as close to a gay sitcom as a show about three straight men can be.

Frasier was my favorite of this crop, but in general, current sitcoms are wayyyy more sophisticated and playful about the subject, both on The Office and on 30 Rock, with its hilarious running jokes and flashbacks about Liz Lemon ("Oh my, what an adorable little lesbian!," someone says, seeing Liz in her stroller). There's freedom to make deeper, funnier, weirder jokes when the plot doesn't have to be purely educational, or, alternately, based on how awkward it is to be hit on by a gay man if you're straight straight straight.

I was hoping to link to that Les Nessman clip — if anyone can find it, pass it to me at surf@nymag.com! But just for fun, here's the second episode of Three's Company. Skip to 5:50 for Jack getting macho with Mr. Roper, the landlord.

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