They were the silliest, trashiest, most absurd TV shows, but young Sam Pancake couldn’t get enough — and they’re the shows that made him the actor you’ve seen playing The Gay Guy in countless movies and shows, from Arrested Development to Legally Blonde 2, not to mention Where the Bears Are, Last Will and Testicle, and the fantastic film You’re Killing Me.
You’ve also seen him on Friends, on Wings, on King of Queens and The West Wing. He played “Lisping Office Homo” in a short called Color Me Gay, and he was a lackey demon on Charmed. So how did a kid growing up in a small town in Virginia muster the nerve to be so delightedly homosexual in front of millions of people?
It all started with Witchiepoo and Mama Cass on H.R. Pufnstuf. Specifically, it was Mama Cass singing a song about how she loved to be different.
“I remember relating to that,” Sam said on a recent episode of The Sewers of Paris, a podcast about how entertainment has affected the lives of gay men. Growing up, Sam lived on a farm that only got one channel, and so he grew up on shows like The Brady Bunch, Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days, The Love Boat, and Charlie’s Angels. (Mary Tyler Moore, sadly, did not cross his radar.)
His media diet was darkened by the news of the time he was growing up in: Reports of the Vietnam war, assassinations, and the presidency of Richard Nixon. No wonder he sought escape.
His passion for that campy sitcoms came with him when he moved to LA to be an actor in the late 80s, and it was re-awakened after a few years when he discovered something incredible: a live campy version of The Brady Bunch, performed by some of the people who would go on to make the 90s reboot movie.
It was organized by Faith and Jill Soloway (now known for their Amazon series Transparent). Another show that the women organized: The Miss Vagina Pageant with a cast that included Kate Flannery from The Office and concluded by showing the audience enormous photos of the cast’s vaginas.
That was followed by Not Without My Nipples, a spoof of TV movies starring comedians Jane Lynch, Janeane Garofalo, and Molly Shannon, and many more.
Sam knew he’d found his people — their passion for looking, acting, and being silly perfectly matched his own. He jumped into the scene and staged a live version of the campy movie Foxes, and with that he’d found the creative tone that would come to define his sensibility.
“I would do TV and movies and commercials,” he said, but the sketch comedy shows were “my real life fun and frustration.”
So next time you see a flouncy gay man on a sitcom, there’s a good chance it might be Sam. And there’s a good chance that the money he made from his on-screen appearance wound up paying for his truly transgressive live theater.