Let’s say that sitcoms, as goofy and artificial as they can be, nonetheless can work as snapshots of the culture that makes them. What’s taboo one year might be no big deal a few years later, because TV has changed but also the culture that produced the show has changed as well.
In 1983, the sitcom Cheers was in its first season. It aired an episode titled “The Boys in the Bar” that’s probably one of the most important episodes of American TV to address LGBT issues. In it, the characters are horrified at the thought of homosexuals congregating at the bar. Only Shelley Long’s Diane serves as the voice of reason, pointing out everyone’s homophobia but also informing them there have been gay guys sitting at the bar for while. It’s just that they’re ordinary people and no one else has noticed that they’re gay.
Nine broadcast seasons later, Cheers was a very different show. It had lost Diane but gained Frasier, Lilith, Woody and Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe. It had also become not only one of the most popular sitcoms of its day but also one of the most beloved sitcoms ever. A considerably larger number of people were watching the April 23, 1992, episode “Rebecca’s Lover… Not,” which was the show’s second majorly LGBT-themed episode, and those viewers saw a very different depiction of straight characters’ attitudes toward queer people.
That first gay episode of Cheers was substantial enough that it was featured in the season finale of my podcast, Gayest Episode Ever. When we were picking episodes for our second season, my co-host and I thought it would be interesting to see how Cheers — and the country that was watching it — had grown in the interim. Now Gayest Episode Ever is back for its second season, and we’re kicking it off by talking about Cheers once again.
“Rebecca’s Lover…. Not” features Harvey Fierstein in a one-off guest appearance as Mark, Rebecca’s high school sweetheart who has since come out. No one at the bar seems to care that Mark is gay, save for Rebecca, who doesn’t seem to realize she’s barking up the wrong tree in trying to rekindle their romance.
It’s a decent episode of TV — written, by the way, by Tracy Newman and Jonathan Stark, who also wrote Ellen’s big coming-out episode, and the latter of whom played the vampire’s live-in handyman “roommate” in Fright Night. But what’s especially remarkable in comparing the 1983 and 1992 Cheers episodes is how in the latter, the presence of queer characters among the bar’s hetero regulars is no cause for alarm. Not only do Cliff and Norm decline to put up a fuss, but the show presumes the audience watching at home won’t either.
That change happened in part thanks to hard work by LGBT activists, but also thanks to increasing representation of LGBT characters on America’s favorite sitcoms. This year, Gayest Episode Ever will be looking at how this was done by Maude, Sanford and Son, King of the Hill, Friends, Taxi, Living Single and Will & Grace, among others.
We hope you’ll follow along this tour through queer TV history. And if you happen to have a favorite LGBT-themed episode of a classic show, hit us up on Twitter or on Facebook to tell us what we should be watching.