Sep 22, 2012

Taxi and Tony Danza

Everything WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82) did wrong, Taxi (1978-83) did right.  It was a hip, urban workplace series, like WKRP, except that it followed the adventures of the employees at the Sunshine Cab Company in New York.

Alex (Judd Hirsch) was the only professional cabbie; the others were just driving a cab until their Big Dreams came true: Elaine (Marilu Henner), art; Tony (Tony Danza), boxing; and Bobby (Jeff Conaway), acting.  To round out the ensemble were smarmy Louie DePalma (Danny DeVito), the dispatcher, and innocent Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman), the mechanic.

What did they do right?

1. Beefcake.  A cab company doesn't lend itself to shirtless shots, but the producers always found some way to get Tony's clothes off  -- usually at the gym or a boxing match during his off hours.

During the early 1980s, his shirtless shots became a mainstay of the teen magazines.  He also appeared in the gay magazine In Touch, though the famous nude shot is probably a fake.

2. Bonding.  Tony and Bobby became so inseparable that even teenagers in the Midwest, barely aware that gay people existed, noticed their subtext.

3. Not much homophobia.

When Elaine is stiffed by a fare, she threatens to retaliate by accusing him of attempted rape, until he announces that he's the president of the Gay Alliance.

A 1980 episode called "Elaine's Strange Triangle" sounds like it will be homophobic, but when Elaine's boyfriend gets a crush on Tony, Tony handles the "problem" with tact, nonchalance, and an utter lack of homophobic panic.  Meanwhile, Alex goes to a gay bar, and ends up teaching all of the gay men how to dance.

4. A mostly gay-friendly cast.  In spite of his pro-gay character, and his gay tv son (Danny Pintauro from Who's the Boss), Tony Danza has become quite homophobic.  Jeff Conaway and Andy Kaufman died without revealing their attitudes toward gay people publicly. But today Judd Hirsch has made pro-gay statements, and both Marilu Henner and Danny DeVito are supporters of marriage equality.

Sep 21, 2012

Little Nemo in Slumberland

Winsor McKay's Little Nemo (1905-1914) comes from the era when comic strips were works of art, intricately detailed and gorgeously realized. It is about a boy who visits a dreamworld every night, only to be awakened at a climactic moment, usually when he was about to be eaten or destroyed.  In early strips, his goal was to reach Dreamland, where he would become the consort of the Princess.

But soon a boy named Flip came into the picture.  The exiled son of the Sun and nephew of the Dawn, he wore worn hobo costumes and green clown makeup, and chomped on a cigar to demonstrate that he was a Lord of Misrule.  He decided that he didn't want Nemo to reach the Princess, so at climactic moments he would shout "Wake up!" or display the words "Wake up!" on his hat, and Nemo's quest for heterosexual fulfillment would be foiled for another day.

Why was Flip so obsessed with ruining Nemo's quest for the Princess?  Because he had designs on Nemo himself!  He was a trickster, a "queer" character, disrupting the presumed naturalness of the heterosexual bond.

It seemed to work.  Within a few years, the Princess was forgotten, and Nemo and Flip were constant companions, exploring little-known corners of Slumberland, diving under the ocean, taking a dirigible to Mars.

Eventually Nemo picked up the Imp, an African stereotype (though he was actually from a cannibal tribe in Slumberland), who spoke only in gibberish, but proved a brave and loyal companion.  Naturally, Flip was jealous, and the two argued and fought constantly.

The queer subtext is obvious: two boys bonding, rescuing each other, forming an emotional attachment, jealously guarding against potential interlopers, with the original heterosexual goal of the journey long forgotten.

See also: Alphonse and Gaston

Sep 20, 2012

Jason James Richter

Several of the boys who starred in various Neverending Stories had brief but memorable teen idol careers. Born in 1980, Jason James Richter was already famous before playing Bastian in Neverending Story III (1994) for his role as Jesse, best friend of the killer whale in Free Willy (1993).

The Free Willy franchise lasted through two sequels (1995, 1997).  Meanwhile Jason was busy in a caper movie (Cops and Robbersons,1994), a sci-fi thriller (Laserhawk, 1997), and some tv, including the teen favorite Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

With all that acting exposure, you'd expect the teen magazines to be gushing in ecstasy and filling their pages with shirtless photos, but they virtually ignored Jason -- only a few shots, none shirtless. Maybe it was because he was a little. . .um. . .chunky, not thin and androgynous or a man-mountain in training.

But most gay boys couldn't care less about a few extra pounds.  He had a nice smile, and he had lots of roles that minimized girl-craziness to emphasize platonic friendships with giant aquatic mammals and elderly Native Americans.

Jason still acts on occasion, but recently he has been concentrating on his music.  He plays bass guitar for a band called Fermata.  He is no longer chunky, but he still has a nice smile.

Sep 19, 2012

Stephen Dunham

Stephen Dunham has died of a heart attack at age 48.  His obituaries all talk about his work in Dag, but I knew him from the 1999-2000 tv season, when a sitcom called Oh, Grow Up appeared just after The Drew Carey Show on Wednesday nights.

That season was full of Friends rip-offs, ensembles of young, attractive people who had lousy jobs but lived in fabulous apartments and were concerned primarily with hooking up.  But, except for Will and Grace, they were all aggressively heterosexual.

Not Oh, Grow Up.

Stephen Dunham played Hunter, the "Joey" character, a promiscuous hunk who discovered that he had a teenage daughter.

David Alan Basche played Norris, the wisecracking "Chandler" character.

John Ducey played Ford, the insecure "Ross" character, recently divorced.  And recently out (photo is from Squarehippies).

There was nothing on prime time like it; a gay character who wasn't a feminine stereotype, like Will Truman, and who lived with a pair of caring heterosexual male chums (unlike Will Truman, who hung out only with straight women).

It only lasted for 13 episodes, but those episodes resolved all of the plot arcs, so it had closure, like a miniseries.  It's not available on Hulu, and it hasn't been released on DVD.

I guess you had to be there.

Sep 18, 2012

Jack LaLanne

During the 1960s, gay boys who were too young to go to school, or home sick, could get their beefcake quotient at noon, when The Jack LaLanne Show was on.

Born in 1914, Jack LaLanne was one of the old school of bodybuilders, hanging out on Muscle Beach with greats like Joe Gold, John Grimek, and Charles Atlas before there was such a thing as Mr. America or the International Federation of Bodybuilders.  He opened his own "health spa" in 1936, and began airing The Jack LaLanne Show in 1951 (national syndication in 1959).

It was aimed at an audience of housewives, and quite sexist, with exercises designed to not only promote fitness, but to keep the ladies "beautiful for your husband."  LaLanne never seemed to notice the queerness of a man teaching you how to accentuate your bust, firm up your butt, and create "a figure that will make men sit up and take notice."

But lots of gay kids did, and even followed his tips to become not only healthy but beautiful.

LaLanne didn't make a lot of homophobic comments during the 1960s, but during the 1970s the homophobia came out.  In 1979, he announced that he intended to parade down Hollywood Boulevard with a 350-pound barbell on his shoulders to protest "the damn queers and homos and little boy prostitutes" who had "taken over."  He never actually followed up on his protest march.

In 1979, homophobic comments didn't cause a furor, so he continued broadcasting his show until 1985, when he retired to promote his fitness books, line of juice-makers, and hate his former fans.  He died in 2011.

Sep 17, 2012


In the U.S., movies and tv programs aimed at a juvenile audience are strictly censored.  Kids never hear or see anything that suggests the existence of boys who like boys or girls who like girls.  Period. Ever.  And if a writer, actor, or director manages to squeeze in a subtle hint, the howls of outrage begin.

Even if there are no hints.  In 2006, fans of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody discovered that actor Patrick Bristow, who played restaurant maitre d' Patrick, was gay in real life.  About 50% of the posts on the Suite Life fansite screamed that he should be immediately fired, lest the world come to an end.  The other 50% were more "tolerant," stating that it was ok to hire a gay actor as long as his character was absolutely, emphatically straight.  Not one post said it would be ok to have a gay character on the program.

American movies are censored even more.  I can only remember one juvenile movie -- and I've seen lotd -- with gay characters.  In Good Boy! (2003), alien explorers masquerade as dogs and take up residence with human families.  One of the "dogs" lives with a gay male couple, who appear briefly, twice.

And that's it.

So it came as a pleasant surprise when I saw Paranorman (2012), a stop-action animated film about a boy with paranormal powers who encounters a 300-year old witch's curse and zombie Puritans.  He gathers a ragtag band of allies -- his teenage sister (Courtney), his best friend (Neil), Neil's teenage brother (Mitch), and the school bully (Alvin).

Wait -- a teenage boy and a teenage girl?  We see where this is headed! The heterosexism of the American cinema demands that every movie end with a man and a woman in love.  And Courtney begins throwing herself at the studly Mitch the moment she meets him.

But something is different about Courtney's attentions -- they are portrayed as ludicrous, desperate, at her expense, while Mitch rather pointedly ignores them.

It is not unprecedented for teenage boys in kids' movies to be oblivious to girls' advances -- they usually are too dim-witted or naive to notice, and they come around at the denouement.  But Mitch does not.  At the conclusion, in a last-ditch effort, Courtney asks him to a movie.  He consents -- as long as his boyfriend can come -- since he's a fan of chick flicks, too.  Finally defeated, Courtney gives up.

Another joke at Courtney's expense, and it comes and goes so fast, with such utter nonchalance,  that some viewers could have missed it.  But there it was -- Mitch. Boyfriend.  30,000,000 kids just learned that same-sex romance exist.

There have been screams, but fewer, and less shrill, than one would expect.  Maybe the screamers are getting tired.

By the way, there's a gay subtext, too, as Neil aggressively courts Norman, and whispers to his brother "Don't spoil this for me!  I really like him!"

Can you have a gay subtext and a gay character in the same movie?

Paranorman is #6 on the list of 10 Gay Movies I Loved

Read an interview with writer/director Chris Butler in Instinct magazine.

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