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American Television, Situation Comedies  
 
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Even though the presence of gay and lesbian characters in dramatic television shows has fluctuated with each television season, American situation comedies (known more popularly as sitcoms) have consistently featured a wide array of queer characters in both "guest" appearances and as recurring ensemble members.

Indeed, comedy seems particularly suited for portrayals such as those seen in hit television series ranging from late-1970s soap opera spoof Soap to the mid-1990s lesbian phenomenon Ellen to the offbeat, "new nuclear" family dynamic of Modern Family. Gay men and lesbians have also been prominently featured (or their presence keenly felt) in series including the queerly inflected sitcom Frasier, the openly queer Will and Grace, and the sprightly musical Glee.

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Although historically television sitcoms have shared with their dramatic television counterparts "stock" stereotypical characterizations of queer characters--alternately as wispy and effeminate or gossipy and ruthlessly backstabbing men or flannel-shirt-wearing, humorless women--these representations are by no means uniform. These stereotyped roles have, in fact, undergone a positive shift concurrent with both a change in social attitudes and a rise in openly queer television comedy writers and sitcom stars.

Hiding in Plain Sight: The 1960s

Although most television sitcoms in the 1960s revolved around the well-established nuclear family motif, a discernible gay sensibility began making its presence known, however subtly, on the small screen. At a time when depictions of openly gay characters on television were unheard of, many identifiably queer characters nevertheless did appear in varying guises. These characters included oddball uncles, wicked mothers-in-law, or fey neighbors whose visits to the otherwise normative home usually caused no small amount of uproar. One show notable for its queerly inflected cast was the magically successful sitcom Bewitched, which debuted on ABC in 1964.

While the show itself was based on the antic interaction between Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery), a witch who doubled as a suburban Connecticut housewife, and her mortal husband Darrin Stephens (Dick York from 1964 to 1966 and Dick Sargent from 1966 to 1972), many of its recurring supporting characters had definite queer overtones.

Agnes Moorehead, widely rumored to be a lesbian, portrayed Samantha's worldly, witty, and bitchy mother Endora, while "confirmed bachelor" Paul Lynde played Samantha's affected, practical-joking Uncle Arthur. In 1994 the series' leads reunited when Elizabeth Montgomery stood beside the "second Darrin," Dick Sargent, as he announced that he was gay. That same year the pair also served as Grand Marshals for the Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade.

Another queer presence surfaced on television the year after the debut of Bewitched. In 1965 the variety program The Steve Lawrence Show featured, as part of its ensemble, the comic talents of Charles Nelson Reilly. Reilly's extensive career, which began in the early 1960s, featured Broadway appearances in such shows as Bye Bye Birdie (in which he was understudy to Paul Lynde) and a Tony Award-winning turn in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1961 as the nasty "corporate nephew" Bud Frump.

After similar award-winning success in the 1964 hit musical Hello, Dolly! Reilly nosed his way into television on Lawrence's short-lived show. He quickly followed his success by securing a part in the memorably offbeat 1969 children's show H. R. Pufnstuf and its spinoff, the 1971 series Lidsville, before becoming a celebrity panelist on the long-running game show, The Match Game, which first appeared in 1973. Much of The Match Game's popularity derived from Reilly's outrageously sissified persona and his snappy put-downs of the other panelists.

In many ways Paul Lynde's career trajectory and biting, sarcastic wit mirrored that of Reilly's. While he achieved recognition for his role on Bewitched, Lynde--like Reilly--garnered a fan following through his recurring appearances on a game show. From 1968 to 1979 and again from 1980 to 1981, Lynde occupied "center square" on the long-running TV celebrity quiz show Hollywood Squares, and his wisecracking, quick-witted answers to host Peter Marshall's questions became a trademark of the show.

The center square became notorious because, after Lynde's tenure, subsequent guests occupying the center square followed Lynde's example and tended to be extravagantly flamboyant, if not openly gay. Celebrities occupying the center square included Wayland Flowers and his drag queen-esque puppet Madame, and Charles Nelson Reilly made frequent guest appearances. When Squares was revived as The New Hollywood Squares from 1986 to 1989, comedian Jim Jay Bullock took the center square and acted as the show's "sub-host." The show returned again in 1998 under its original name, and this time openly gay Hollywood columnist Bruce Vilanch ruled the square, thus leading many critics to dub the spot "the gay square."

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