20 Moments That Changed LGBT Comedy

By Jami Smith

Originally published on Advocate.com April 07 2014 6:30 AM ET

We asked our readers, Twitter and Facebook followers, office mates, and anyone else with an opinion to name the most pivotal moments in LGBT comedy. For people who grew up in the decades before the new millennium when LGBT culture wasn't as visible, there are specific moments in popular culture that we all cherish because it made us feel hopeful that someday soon we would see our lives depicted onscreen. For me, that moment came in 1997 when Ellen DeGeneres accidentally came out to Laura Dern over the loudspeaker at an airport. I breathed a sigh of relief that I couldn't fully grasp at the time. (My second sigh of relief came when I watched Ellen have sex with Sharon Stone in If These Walls Could Talk 2, but that's for another list.) This list is a culmination of those moments in comedy where the LGBT audience finally felt in on the joke instead of the butt of one. 

Admittedly, we did omit most characters from this decade because there are now so many (and yet still not enough) LGBT characters celebrated in film and television that we didn't want to overshadow the moments that led us here. 

 

1. Ellen's Coming-Out Episode
This seems like a good place to start. On April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres's character finally faces her feelings for pal Susan (Laura Dern) after a heart-to-heart with none other than Oprah Winfrey, who plays her therapist. Look for DeGeneres's mother, who plays an aiport bystander as Ellen Morgan accidentally announces over a loudspeaker that she is gay.

 

2. The Golden Girls
There are actually two episodes of this series that put homosexuality front and center. In the 1988 episode, "Scared Straight," Blanche's brother Clayton comes to town for a visit. When Blanche tries to set him up on a date, he's so afraid to admit he's gay that he claims to have slept with Rose. Fast-forward to the 1991 episode called "Sister of the Bride" in which Clayton is now out and planning a commitment ceremony with his partner, Doug. This episode is the better of the two because Sophia Petrillo has to drop some knowledge on Blanche's bigotry.

Here's Sophia dropping truth bombs on Blanche:

 

3. Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares
Paul Lynde was a genius. The stereotype of the witty "shade-throwing" gay man is pretty common in pop culture now, but it originated with Paul Lynde. His snarky one-liners were perfectly showcased for 15 years from the highly coveted center square in the game show Hollywood Squares. Although Lynde wasn't lauded by the gay community at the time because he never officially came out of the closet, he was known to all as an "open secret" in Hollywood and would do little to veil his sexuality on the show. Some of his most famous one-liners are pretty overt. 

Question: "You're the world's most popular fruit. What are you?"

Lynde: "Humble."

Watch the video above for an awesome compilation of some of Lynde's famous one-liners.

 

4. The Ending of Some Like It Hot
The now famous "nobody's perfect" line from Some Like It Hot would probably ruffle some feathers in the LGBT community now, but in 1959 this was pretty awesome because it managed to convey a message of open-mindedness over sexuality in an otherwise conservative time period. Its groundbreaking stance shocked the less open-minded crowd of the late 1950s. According to one reviewer at the time, “Here is the prurience, the perversion, the sexual sickness that is obsessing the characters and plots of our films.” That quote alone should make you want to go back and watch this classic all over again.

 

5. All in the Family
In 1971, All in the Family was the first sitcom to feature an overtly gay character on television, which seems fitting because the show was known for its frank portrayals of racism, classicism, and other types of bigotry. The episode, titled "Judging Books by Covers," aired in the show's first season, which is also a testament to it's bravery. The dialogue is harsh. Archie Bunker drops all kinds of F bombs (fag, flower, fruit — he's really pretty creative) when referring to his son-in-law Michael's effeminate friend, Roger. But things get really interesting when Bunker finds out that his ex-football star pal Steve turns out to also be gay.

 

 

6. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
All in the Family gets credit for portraying the first openly gay character on television but The Mary Tyler Moore Show wins for being the first television show to actually using the term "gay" to refer to homosexuality (remember that Archie Bunker's character uses a whole lot of slang but never once an acceptable term). Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman are brilliant in the 1973 episode, "My Brother's Keeper." In the episode, Phyllis (Leachman) wants to set up her brother Ben with Mary and is disappointed when he instead starts spending his time with Rhoda (Harper). In this clip, Rhoda has to break the news to Phyllis that her brother is gay and that they are just besties. For fun, you can watch the entire episode on Hulu here.

 

7. Billy Crystal as Jodie on Soap
This nighttime parody of melodramatic daytime soap operas was riddled with controversy during its run on ABC from 1977 to 1981 due to religious and LGBT organizations alike. Religious groups condemned the show for being too salacious and sexual for families who enjoyed the more wholesome ABC programs like Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days. LGBT groups initially protested because Billy Crystal's gay character, Jodie, had a brief storyline in which he sought gender-reassigment surgery so that his feelings toward men would seem more "normal." The writers of the show eventually dropped the storyline after consulting with the Gay Media Task Force and began to portray Jodie as a man comfortable with his sexuality and in a committed relationship. Despite the show's obvious bumps in the road, it deserves a space on our list for being one of the first television shows to portray an openly gay main character. In the clip above, watch a hilarious scene where Jodie explains to the ditzy Jessica (Katherine Helmond) that gay people have been around since the beginning of time.

 

 

8. Rocky Horror Picture Show
It's impossible to talk about LGBT culture in the 1970s without mentioning this 1975 campy cult classic that still has audiences hurling toilet paper ("Great Scott!") and confetti at movie screens. Although the movie has a somewhat "rocky" reputation for its use of the T-word and depiction of a hyper sexed "transsexual Transylvanian," the musical was written by Richard O'Brien, who is trans.

 

9. Hairspray
Speaking of camp, it doesn't get much better than this 1988 gem with Rickie Lake, Debbie Harry, and John Waters' favorite vulgar muse, Divine. Sorry, Zac Efron and John Travolta. That remake was total crap.

 

10. Scott Thompson as Buddy Cole in Kids in the Hall
One of the most popular characters on the Canadian sketch show, Buddy Cole was known for his witty takedowns of fellow celebrities, especially the homophobic ones. In the '80s, his humor was an important counterpoint to homophobic rants made by popular stand-up comedians at the time like Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Murphy (half of Murphy's material in his famous stand up special, Delirious, is about his hatred of gay men).  “Andrew Dice Clay is not the new Lenny Bruce. I am. He and Eddie Murphy are just pissed off because they give off such a faggy vibe. And the saddest thing of all is that I’d still have sex with both of them. Oh sure, I’d feel guilty but you know what? All I think it would take is about twenty bucks.”

 

11. Bob Smith
Scott Thompson as Buddy Cole on Kids in the Hall wasn't the only counterpoint to the homophobic stand-up comedians who dominated popular culture in the late 1980s. Bob Smith, a comedian from Buffalo, New York, was the first openly gay male comedian to appear on The Tonight Show and have his own stand-up special on HBO. Countless young comedians climbing the stand-up comedy ranks today cite Smith as their top influence. Diagnosed with ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2007, Smith's health has deteriorated and he has had to hang up his microphone. Smith said in a 2011 interview, "According to my doctors I should be dead by now. So that’s good news. I’ve had to stop doing stand-up due to the deterioration of my voice, which was painful, because I still immodestly think I was one of the best gay male stand ups out there." No arguments here.

 

12. Nancy Comes Out on Roseanne
As a kid whose gay roots are firmly planted in the '90s, this was the first recollection I had of a gay person on television. Roseanne didn't just feature one gay character, but two. Both Nancy and Leon were seminal characters in my very southern, trailer park upbringing. Roseanne was my parents' favorite show because the characters were the closest representation of my family on television at the time. In my opinion, the characters of Leon and Nancy moved mountains in my household because it was the first time I remember discussing the concept of gayness with my parents. This clip will forever remain a favorite of mine as a result.

Bonus scene: The gang play an elaborate prank on Roseanne by convincing her that Jackie's husband, Fred, is secretly gay. 

 

 

13. The One With the Lesbian Wedding on Friends
A year before Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom, '90s kids remember when Ross Geller's wife, Carol, left him for a woman she met at the gym. Although the show's slant was focused mostly on Ross' feelings of rejection and inadequacy about being left for a lesbian, the writers did soften their relationship over time and began depicting Carol and Susan as series regulars. Although other sitcoms talked about commitment ceremonies, Friends was the first to actually depict one.

 

14. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
This low-budget film from Australia was initially rejected for financing by the Cannes Film Festival and later became a cult classic and a Broadway musical. It was also celebrated for its touching portrayal of a transgender woman, played beautifully by Terence Stamp.

 

15. To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar
"Lord grant me the serenity to accept that I'm just a boy in a dress and the courage to change with the fashions and the wisdom to know the difference." In 1995, Universal Pictures made a huge leap of faith by making a big budget movie that centered around LGBT characters. Representation in cinema up until this point was relegated to independent films (see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). With the casting of box office stars Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and relative newcomer, John Leguizamo, this movie ushered in a new wave of gay friendly movies in the 1990s.

 

16. The Birdcage

Following the success of To Wong Foo came my personal favorite gay movie of the 1990s (and maybe ever.) To Wong Foo may have been the first mainstream gay comedy but The Birdcage was the first box office smash. It raked in over $136 million in sales compared to $36 million for To Wong Foo. Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, and Hank Azaria are over the top campy and Gene Hackman brilliantly plays the straight man (literally and figuratively).

 

17. Will & Grace
Will & Grace, which ran for eight seasons on NBC, was the most popular television series featuring gay principal characters. It has also been heralded as responsible for opening the door to a long line of gay-themed television programs, such as Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. One of the best episodes of the series is "Homo For the Holidays" when Jack, the show's most flamboyant character, comes out to his mother at Thanksgiving dinner. The best line from the episode comes from Karen Walker. "When you're old and in diapers, a gay son will know how to keep you away from chiffon and back-lighting."

 

18. But I'm a Cheerleader
"A comedy of sexual disorientation." This little gem from 1999 digs its nails firmly into the notion that people can be taught to be straight. Natasha Lyonne is hilarious as the popular cheerleader who'd rather fantasize about the sexy cheer squad than her football star boyfriend. She is sent to a "sexual redirection" camp to learn how to rediscover her appropriate role from an ex-gay camp counselor, RuPaul. Spoiler alert: RuPaul is a terrible teacher on the subject.

 

19. Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother
Why would this show make the list when other LGBT characters on modern comedy shows are getting left out? Because this list is focused on pivotal moments in comedy for the LGBT community and an out gay actor playing a stereotypically straight male role in one of the most successful shows on television is pretty damn pivotal. There are countless instances of straight actors playing LGBT characters but Neil Patrick Harris's character, Barney, is the most successful example of an out gay man playing it straight. Even in these modern times, it's an anomaly.

 

20. Orange is the New Black
This modern show also makes the list for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, it is also still an anomaly for a transgender character in television (or film) to be portrayed by an actual trans actor. Orange is the New Black is pivotal because it accurately represents women of different ages, body types, gender identity, and ethnic backgrounds who don't play to easy stereotypes. It's a refreshing change of pace that hopefully signals where LGBT characters are headed in popular culture.

Contributor: 
Jami Smith