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American Television, Situation Comedies  
 
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In 1997 Michael Boatman's portrayal of openly gay mayoral aide Carter Heywood won particular praise from GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, who recognized Boatman's conscious efforts at steering Carter's character away from one-dimensionality and stereotype. Boatman's achievement in 1997, however, was overshadowed by one of the single most defining moments in television history.

On April 30, 1997, millions of viewers tuned in to the ABC sitcom Ellen to witness the first "real-life," television coming out--that of comedian Ellen DeGeneres. In a star-studded "coming out" episode that combined elements of comedy and "reality TV," the eponymous Ellen acknowledged that she was a lesbian. Culminating months of media speculation sparked by DeGeneres's teasing on- and off-screen innuendoes about her sexuality, her coming-out was predictably greeted with a mixture of harsh criticism from conservative groups and warm praise from the gay and lesbian community.

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As Lynn Joyrich has noted, because of the self-conscious referentiality of the prolonged coming-out, queer-themed "inside" jokes were available to all viewers even before the character actually came out. However, after "The Episode" aired, Ellen's humor was seemingly replaced by an increasing amount of political commentary, leading many viewers to seek out other comedic venues.

In an interview with Mediaweek columnist Alan James Frutkin, television producer Jeffrey Richman stated that once Ellen embraced the subject of homosexuality, the show seemed to hammer home the issue constantly, and all the stories became about the character of Ellen Morgan and her evident, identifiable gayness. Thus, while Ellen's coming out was a milestone for queers on television, it simply did not make for good television comedy. Ellen's open expression of homosexuality, however, paved the way for NBC's Will and Grace.

Speaking to Advocate interviewer Lori Kaye, Friends co-creator David Crane noted that Ellen not only opened the closet door for Will and Grace but also helped identify the formula that fueled its success. Will and Grace's formula for success was to go slow and come out of the gate funny rather than emotional. By combining clever--if uneven--writing and a genuinely likeable cast, the formula worked.

Co-created and co-written by openly gay writer Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, Will and Grace debuted in 1998 and showcased the innocuously codependent relationship between gay lawyer Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and straight interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing).

Much of the show's real humor, however, came from its supporting cast: shallow, self-centered queen Jack McFarland (Sean P. Hayes) and ultra-bitch Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), whose biting banter often threatened to overshadow the show's main characters. Will and Grace also deployed many time-honored comedic methods such as slapstick and screwball comedy, leading gay author Andrew Holleran to complain that he thought the show was in danger of becoming a bad episode of I Love Lucy.

However uneven and silly the show sometimes got, it deserves credit for not shying away from topical issues. For example, in the episode "Girls, Interrupted" (air date May 2, 2000), Jack joins a gay-to-straight conversion group in order to meet the group leader, Bill (Neil Patrick Harris). After Bill gives Jack a sharply earnest speech chastising Jack's brazen attempts at seduction, he acquiesces to Jack's suggestion of a shower rendezvous, thus hilariously exposing the hypocrisy and absurdity of "conversion therapy."

The homophobic Christian organization "Focus on the Family" objected to this episode, stating that it made a mockery of the struggles of "ex-gay" men and women. Their protest gives credence to Andrew Holleran's declaration that Will and Grace is more than just a sitcom; it is our gay sitcom, fearless and tacky and lewd.

Laughing Gay-ly into the Twenty-first Century

The success of Will and Grace spawned three more queer sitcoms, though none captured the loyalty of glbtq viewers.

Fox's Normal, Ohio appeared in 2000 and starred John Goodman as William "Butch" Gamble. Goodman tossed aside the popular "body beautiful" gay television stereotype by appearing as a burly, beer-drinking, football-game-watching, almost stereotypically heterosexual man who just happened to be gay. Unfortunately, the show's writing depended too much on characters ridiculing Goodman's antics and dancing around complicated issues such as coming out and homophobia rather than confronting them directly. Normal, Ohio disappeared from television screens after its initial 13-episode run.

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