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American Television, Situation Comedies  
 
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For better or worse, 1977 was a watershed year for queer or queer-appearing sitcom characters. Three's Company, a comedy series about a man who pretended to be gay so he could share an apartment with two women, premiered on ABC. Some of the show's humor stemmed from banter between Jack Tripper (John Ritter) and landlord Stanley Roper (Norman Fell) that relied on stereotypical gay attributes, including lascivious, leering stares, and epithets such as "Tinkerbell."

The underlying homophobia of Three's Company was only slightly counterbalanced by the rise of bisexual Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal) on another ABC show, the absurdist soap opera spoof Soap.

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Jodie began his run on Soap by dating professional football player Dennis Phillips (Bob Seagren) before discovering that Dennis was also dating women for image purposes. Distressed by this news, Jodie decided to have a sex change but was dissuaded from this decision by seductive nurse Nancy Darwin (Udana Power), who was the impetus of Jodie's first foray into heterosexuality.

Jodie's apparent switch from gay man to person to straight man elicited considerable controversy from queer television viewers, forcing the show's producers to respond that Jodie did not convert to heterosexuality but was, instead, merely going through a very tumultuous time.

Although Jodie did not follow through with his gender reassignment, during the same year the "Once a Friend" episode of the popular All in the Family spinoff The Jeffersons showed George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) reuniting with Eddie Stokes (Veronica Redd), an old Navy buddy who had become Edie, a female. While this episode contained a great deal of stereotyping, it was among the first sensitive portrayals of a transgendered person on network television.

Another sitcom that routinely offered queer portrayals that rose above stereotypes was ABC's wry police comedy Barney Miller, which ran from 1975 to 1982. The show involved the day-to-day interactions between the detectives of New York City's 12th Precinct. The precinct was based in Greenwich Village, and through this location passed an unending array of colorful characters, among them two gay men, Marty (Jack DeLeon) and Daryl Driscoll (Ray Stewart), who made semi-regular appearances on the show.

Barney Miller was also one of the first sitcoms to feature an on-screen coming out. The "Inquisition" episode (air date September 13, 1979) featured the 12th Precinct receiving an anonymous letter that threatened to expose the homosexuality of one of its officers. The letter attracts attention at Headquarters and the by-the-book Lieutenant Scanlon arrives at the 12th and begins a "witch hunt" in order to uncover the gay officer. In the midst of Scanlon's investigation, Officer Zitelli (Dino Natali) confides to Miller that he is gay, but Barney does not reveal this information to Scanlon. The show subsequently received critical praise for the respectful and discreet way in which Zitelli's declaration was handled.

As the 1970s drew to a close, broadly defined queer characters became more and more visible on the small screen. With this increased frequency came a discernible increase in audience acceptance. In fact, viewers began tuning in not merely to see gay stereotypes but to watch for the alternative forms of comedy that queer characters provided on various sitcoms. Indeed, armed with this sense of acceptance, many sitcom writers began fortifying queer roles by incorporating into these characters a marked awareness of current social issues. With the alarming rise of AIDS in the mid-1980s, this social awareness would become an integral part of many queer sitcom characters.

The Politics of Comedy: The 1980s

With the appearance of two transvestites on ABC's quirky 1980 sitcom Bosom Buddies, the 1980s began on an auspicious note. Bosom Buddies featured two friends, Kip (Tom Hanks) and Henry (Peter Scolari) who, after moving to New York, secured a great and cheap apartment that also happened to be in a hotel for women. In order to keep the apartment, Kip and Henry make a "slight adjustment": they dress in drag and take on female personas, Buffy and Hildegarde.

Although a few critics derided the show's flimsy premise, the chemistry, camaraderie, and comic timing shared between Hanks and Scolari surprised and delighted viewers, who gave the show high Nielsen [television viewership] ratings. After a few weeks, however, ABC inexplicably took the show off the air for a network hiatus and, when the show returned, the viewers did not. Bosom Buddies was renewed for a second season but, even in the face of over 35,000 letters of protest, ABC cancelled the show in 1982.

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