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When comedy came out of the closet: comedian Bruce Vilanch on the rise of queer representation in TV

Bruce Vilanch
Photo: Shutterstock

“I’m not a historian. I write what I observe,” out comedy legend Bruce Vilanch tells LGBTQ Nation.

Maybe it’s an effort at humility, or avoiding a distraction from his brand because he thinks historians aren’t particularly funny.

But the great ones, from Herodotus on down, share a deep interest in the customs and people they observe, and that describes Vilanch to a T-dance on a Sunday afternoon at The Abbey in West Hollywood. He’s a watcher.

That includes television, where – besides appearances on the big screen, Broadway and in bathhouses (where he reported for the Chicago Tribune in 1975) – Vilanch has made his biggest impression. He’s earned Emmys for Oscar telecasts, starred as a Hollywood Square, and written for some of the most iconic variety shows in the business, from Donny and Marie to The Star Wars Holiday Special.

He’s also worked or rubbed shoulders with practically everyone in the business (and beyond), from Bette Midler to Diana Ross to Cher to Elton John to presidents and princesses. And he’s helped raise millions for AIDS and other LGBTQ charities.

Vilanch’s time in television coincided with a sea-change in LGBTQ representation on the small screen, and he spoke with LGBTQ Nation about all that he observed.

His t-shirt that afternoon read, “See You at My Intervention,” and the conversation began with a plug for his new musical, Here You Come Again, featuring the songs of Dolly Parton, and hints of a new book in the works.

***

LGBTQ Nation: What’s the book about?

Bruce Vilanch: About 4000 pages.

LGBTQ Nation: You just wrapped the premiere engagement of Here You Come Again in Wilmington. How was the show received?

BV: It’s a big hit! Audiences actually like it. What is wrong with them?

LGBTQ Nation: That song was huge when I was growing up.

BV: It sounds like the title of a porno movie, but we went with it anyway. We thought there’s enough recognition.

LGBTQ Nation: Has Dolly seen it yet?

BV: We downloaded it every night for her. She’s liked what she’s seen. She won’t see it live until Nashville, which will be in May in Patrick Cassidy’s theater. So then she’ll show up, I think, with her tits and all those things she puts in the window.

First on our list of subjects was Batman – William Dozier and Lorenzo Semple Jr’s candy-colored TV version of the comic book classic that aired on ABC from 1966-1968.

Homoeroticism pervades the story, featuring a swarthy, mysterious leading character and his handsome “ward” Robin. But the producers brought camp to the concoction, featuring an all-star line-up of outrageous villains and incredulous storylines.

Cesar Romero as the Joker
Cesar Romero as the Joker in Batman Screenshot

LGBTQ Nation: When did you first see Batman?

BV: When I was in college. We would gather around to watch. We were stoned. And it was like, well, it was low-camp. It was intentionally bad, and ridiculous and over the top. And for me, and for like the gay guys who I knew, it was about looking at Tallulah Bankhead and Eartha Kitt, Julie Newmar, and Ethel Merman as Lola Lasagna.

LGBTQ Nation: What was the gay quotient?

BV: The gay quotient, that was pretty gay. All that stuff was perfectly gay, but gay like Butch Romero? I don’t know if we knew about him at that point. Well, my age group had known about him, people who’d been in Hollywood for years, of course, knew about him.

Cesar “Butch” Romero, a bona fide Hollywood leading man, played the first on-screen version of Gotham City’s malevolent Joker.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s Romero’s backstory?

BV: Cesar Romero. He was a beard. He was everybody’s escort. He was a big queen, and it was well-known and he was a confidante for many women who needed to have a movie star take them places. You know, who wouldn’t try anything with them. And I think a lot of guys, I think that they respected his secret, because everybody has secrets of one sort or another. And so much was back then. Secrets were traded, secrets were currency.

LGBTQ Nation: Another Batman villain was Liberace, who played identical twin brothers, one evil, one a famous concert pianist. The character wasn’t gay, but Liberace clearly was.

BV: Liberace was Liberace no matter what he did. You know, of course, he was like beyond gay. Because one of the things about gayness, with Liberace, there was no sexual component in the gayness. He was a great, huge flamboyant stage character. A lot of these guys who were gay and fey and had these huge flamboyant stage personas that they were selling, it was divorced from sexuality. It was about performance art. And it didn’t occur to me Liberace had a huge dick and I would one day want to sleep with him. But that’s another story.

In 1968, NBC brought Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to television. Producer George Schlatter’s irreverent take on the counterculture featured an ensemble cast including breakouts Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, and one token, though unacknowledged, gay cast member.

LGBTQ Nation: Let’s talk about Alan Sues on Laugh-In. Among his recurring characters were Uncle Al the Kiddies’ Pal, a perpetually hungover children’s show host; Big Al, an effeminate sportscaster obsessed with ringing a bell; and a manic drag version of cast member Jo Anne Worley.

BV: Well, that was pretty gay. He was in that group of eccentric comedians like Rip Taylor, and Paul Lynde, and Billy De Wolfe and Edward Everett Horton and Richard Simmons, who were all gay in life but had big personalities that the audience would kind of nod at, because maybe they had an uncle who was like that. Or maybe they had a pastor who was like that. Those who got it, got it. And those who didn’t just thought they were funny characters.

Alan Sues in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Alan Sues in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In Screenshot

LGBTQ Nation: You mentioned Paul Lynde, who played Uncle Arthur on Bewitched at the same time Alan Sues was on Laugh-In. They weren’t out, but they were both a visible gay presence. Is that fair to say?

BV: Yeah, I mean, in the sense that anybody was before Stonewall. Stonewall is a handy demarcation, but it didn’t change things overnight. But in the 70s, things began to get loose, in that people began to identify themselves as gay and not just as eccentric or flamboyant. And the last gasp of all of that was all those guys I’ve mentioned. Fabulous characters, but their sexuality never came into it.

After Stonewall and through the 1970’s, television comedy’s closet door creaked open. In 1971, Nielson’s Number 1 rated show, All in the Family, featured a gay storyline. In 1972, short-lived sitcom The Corner Bar was home to TV’s first recurring gay character. And in 1976, cult favorite Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman featured not a dissembling pair of brothers sharing the house next door, but longtime companions Ed and Howard.

BV: We were shooting Donnie and Marie in the same building. I must have seen them at the taco truck.

LGBTQ Nation: Another gay baby step in the 70’s was Three’s Company with John Ritter, who you worked with.

BV: Yes. Well, that was John pretending to be gay so he could live with two girls. It’s kind of like a variation on Some Like It Hot, but it wasn’t as severe. He didn’t actually have to dress up. I wrote something on Love Boat where he did have to dress up as a woman to pursue his runaway bride.

On Three’s Company, he occasionally had to put on kind of f**gy mannerisms to convince Mr. Roper that it was kind of real. I was never offended by that because it was a plot device. But back then, we had not gotten rid of some of our own self-loathing. Or I had, I think, I had self-loathing. I just thought that stuff was funny, the idea of a straight guy having to pretend to be a fairy. I mean, I thought John was funny. But I’m sure at the same time there was a segment of the audience that was on Roper’s side.

Joyce DeWitt and John Ritter in Three's Company
Joyce DeWitt and John Ritter in Three’s Company Screenshot

Later that same year, in the fall of 1977, ABC premiered Soap, from Golden Girls producer Susan Harris, and the world was introduced to Billy Crystal as Jodie, the first gay ensemble character in American TV history.

LGBTQ Nation: Let’s talk about Soap.

BV: It’s historical now. It’s the first out gay character on television. But the thing about Soap was, it was a parody of soap operas. So everything was larger than life. So he was gay, but because he was gay, he had to transition into a woman. It was all this stuff that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in the real world.

I don’t know that Susan Harris was looking to score historical points with it, although I’m sure, somewhere in the back of her mind she thought, well, ‘This will be something they’ll talk about.’

But when Billy was playing it, it represented, at the time, a real career risk for him because it would type him as the gay guy for people who didn’t really know him. He was looking for a big acting career in movies and all that, so it was a brave move for him to play, because nobody had done it before. If it was a plan to get the public to go with the idea that somebody was gay, it was a genius plan. Because it worked.

LGBTQ representation in TV comedy foundered in the 1980’s, while AIDS devastated the gay community and Nancy Reagan stalked the sitcom stages with her “Just Say No” campaign. By the end of the decade, though, two unlikely sources ushered in a mini Golden Age of gays on the airwaves: the new FOX TV network, and Canada, home to sketch comedy show Kids in the Hall.l

LGBTQ Nation: Were you a fan of Scott Thompson’s Buddy Cole on Kids in the Hall?

BV: Very extreme character. I mean, he did the most extreme stuff, you know, Queen Elizabeth farting for three minutes. And the half-man, half-chicken, some of my favorite things from that show.

And Buddy Cole, it’s a fabulous comment on all lounge singers and a certain kind of older queen who’s seen it all. He’s probably not as sophisticated as he’s putting on that he is, but that’s his character. And it’s kind of like Auntie Mame on Ativan. A slower version of Auntie Mame.

On FOX, Rupert Murdoch put two gay executives, Jamie Kellner and Garth Ancier, in charge of the upstart network, programming The Tracey Ullman Show with Francesca’s two gay dads; The Simpsons featuring iconic cameos from Harvey Fierstein and John Waters; and almost all-Black sketch show, In Living Color, with Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier as two Men on Film.

LGBTQ Nation: They played Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather.

BV: It was hysterical. For the first time, it was two Black queens carrying on, which I thought was kind of bold. Black guys have a much harder time of it because the Black community is so built around church. That permeates everything. When AIDS hit, it was so hard to raise money in that community, because they viewed it as the work of the devil. And the big leaders all came from the Church, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, back in the day.

So these two guys, they saw the world through the movies. And it was their reaction to this world that often didn’t include them. But they certainly were caricatures. I mean, we were laughing at ourselves, we were laughing at a stereotype, which we all know to be accurate. And didn’t see anything wrong with that. Now of course, it’s a whole other world, where you’re not allowed to find any of that stuff amusing, or you’ll be canceled at sunrise.

LGBTQ Nation: In 1997, three years into her sitcom Ellen, and after much speculation, Ellen DeGeneres came out simultaneously as the first gay lead of a show in the history of television, and as gay herself.

BV: You can never take it away from her. No matter what is said about her later, she was politically very, very important. But when Ellen came out, the show changed direction. Because the show was about a girl looking for a partner. And when she revealed herself to be gay, suddenly she was looking for a woman. And while they overlooked the fact that she was out, they didn’t want to follow her romantic exploits with women.

And that was what killed the show, and she predicted that, but they brought her back for a lot of money, and then wound up ditching her six months later.

LGBTQ Nation: The same year Ellen got dumped, NBC premiered Will & Grace.

BV: She paved the way for Will & Grace, and it became a genuine, genuine hit. With that show, people began, I think, to look at the whole gay thing differently, because we made fun of ourselves.

And at the same time, we were in the culture. We moved into the mainstream. We were not depicted as criminals, or people who were going to commit suicide, or any of the things that had been just objects of fun.

They were real people, and they had real relationships. And had big guest stars! So there’s more room for people who are just generally crazy and their gayness is part of that. They don’t exist because they’re gay, but because the character is gay.

LGBTQ Nation: Will & Grace has been off the air since 2010, and there hasn’t been a gay TV comedy blockbuster since. Do you think gay comedy has gotten less funny now because of gay mainstreaming?

BV: I don’t think it’s less funny, I think it’s just different. But the last few years, it’s upended everything. Comedy is a landmine. And I think the jury is still out. You discover what you can get away with by not getting away with it. By somebody saying, ‘That’s not, you can’t do that!’ I mean, the world is full of scolds, and it’s all become high school and everybody’s taking you to Student Council. So I think we’re in a transitional period. The next generation will probably speak louder, younger people who are a whole lot less flustered than we are. But then along comes George Floyd and #metoo, and suddenly, they’re all flustered on totally different issues.

The cast of Will & Grace Shutterstock

LGBTQ Nation: Do you need a victim to make something funny? Does somebody have to be the object of comedy?

BV: That’s comedy generally, obviously. There’s nothing funnier than watching pomposity be deflated. And there has to be somebody pompous. It’s the old banana peel thing. You know, you get a snooty high society lady on Park Avenue slipping on a banana peel, it’s hilarious. Because she’s undone. And so that’s ancient. That goes back to the Greeks.

It’s hard to remove that from the culture because it’s a human thing. So it’s a tough one to answer. Because it’s one of the pillars of comedy and obviously there has to be a funny way of looking at things that other people don’t have. That’s comedy.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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