Jun 22, 2013

Regular Show: It's Anything But Heterosexist

Another Cartoon Network show that gets it right, Regular Show (2010-) is about two young adult slackers,  a blue jay named Mordecai (voiced by J.G. Quintel) and a raccoon named Rigby (William Salyers), who work as groundskeepers at a large city park, and share a room in the park office.  The rest of the cast:
Benson, the short-fused park manager, a living gumball machine
Pops, an elderly man-child shaped like a giant lolipop.
Skips, an immortal Yeti.
Muscleman, an obese, green-skinned monster-person.
High-Five Ghost, a ghost with a hand protruding from his head.

Here are the voice artists at Comic Con.

Most episodes begin with some mundane chore or activity:
Benson assigns Mordecai and Rigby to get a scary movie for the park's movie night
Mordecai and Rigby accidentally burn the hot dogs for the park barbecue
Pop wants to become "one of the guys" by drinking a gallon of milk

But then spin out of control, into parallel worlds, into the past and the future, into the realm of Death or the Guardians of Eternal Youth.

What it gets right:

1. Mordecai has a crush on the coffee shop waitress Margaret, but Rigby is definitively, vocally not interested in girls.  "Why do we have to hang out with girls?  Why can't it be just guys?"

2. Rigby not only lacks heterosexual interests, he obviously likes guys.  When he wishes that he could be with nothing but guys, a gang of motorcycle-riding unicorns show up.  At first he enjoys their company, but they become rowdy, then destructive; finally, they sexually assault Benson (see, the slot where candy comes out...). So the unicorns have to go.

3. Mordecai is not immune to same-sex desire.  When he loses a bet and is forced to dye his hair blond, he attracts a group of blond, beautiful people -- all male -- who encourage him to leave Rigby.  Apocalyptic terror follows.

4. Pops displays no heterosexual interest, either, and has many feminine-coded gay-vague traits.

5. Muscleman has a girlfriend, but also a bromance with High-Five Ghost.  When he is fired, High-Five Ghost quits with him.

6. No heterosexist "Every man's fantasy" rhetoric.  "Guys' night" involves playing cards, watching movies, and eating pizza, not ogling babes.

Only one or two missteps:
1. When Mordecai accidentally sees Pops naked, he's severely traumatized.  But maybe because Pops is elderly, so by definition "gross" to most 23-year olds, gay or not.
2. Muscleman's gyrating pecs attracts every women at a skating ring and infuriates all of the men.

The Puppy Episode: Ellen Comes Out

As you get older, childhood memories remain crisp and clear, but recent memories sort of fade away.  I remember every detail of the 1970s, but the 1990s are hazy.  Who would have believed that, just 15 years ago, a gay character on tv would be such a big deal?

During the mid-1990s, just before or after The Drew Carey Show, you could watch Ellen (1994-98), a sort of kinder, gentler Seinfeld with bookstore owner Ellen Morgan (Ellen Degeneres) as the center of a group of quirky friends (Joely Fisher, Holly Fulger, Arye Gross, Joel Anthony Higgins, later Jeremy Piven, below).  

I actually never watched, but according to the episode guide, they had Seinfeld-esque problems, often involving heterosexual romance:

The guy Ellen is dating is a bad kisser.
Ellen tries to act cool to impress her younger boyfriend.
Ellen falls for a guy who delivers pizzas for a living.

In the third and fourth seasons, the focus moved away from Ellen's boyfriends; she rarely if ever dated or mentioned guys.  Then Ellen Degeneres got an idea: why not make Ellen gay, and come out herself in the process?

It was a bold move -- there were no gay characters in starring roles at the time, and gay actors were invariably advised that to come out was career suicide.  Producers said "Couldn't Ellen just get a puppy?"

During the 1996-97 season, in an atmosphere of intense media scrutiny and breathless anticipation -- "Will she or won't she?" -- Ellen's coming out came at glacial speed. Hint after hint -- Ellen walks out of a literal closet.  At a rock and roll fantasy camp, she pretends to be the lesbian singer k.d. laing.  Her friends try to trick her into admitting it.  The actress came out herself on the Oprah Winfrey Show in February, and made the cover of Time magazine with the caption "Yep, I'm gay." 

Finally, at the very end of the season, on April 30th, 1997, came "The Puppy Episode."  Ellen the tv character Said The Word -- at an airport, over a loudspeaker.  

And the media went wild.

I watched some of the fifth season (1997-98).  Apparently thinking that her show wouldn't last long with a gay titular character, Ellen spent the season trying to educate the audience on gay issues. She encounters nonstop homophobia.  She preaches on myths about lesbians.  She becomes dour, humorless, morose, constantly depressed.  Wow, who knew that being gay was so awful?

When the show was cancelled, anti-gay pundits rejoiced, saying "See! Good Americans won't tolerate a pervert on tv!"  Actually, good Americans won't tolerate a bitterly unfunny, preachy sitcom.

Not to worry, though: Ellen Degeneres bounced back as a renowned talk show host, thus proving that Middle America is fully capable of watching tv programs with gay actors -- and gay characters.  

Tim Tyler's Luck: Gay Boy and Pirate in the Jungle

The results of the poll are in, and there were lots of votes for 1940s and before, but not many for the 1990s and 2000s.  That doesn't really match my blog traffick:

Mae West, gay icon of the 1930s -- 33 hits
Zoey 101, Disney channel teencom of the 1990s --  330 hits

But ok, we can start with Tim Tyler's Luck.

It began in 1928 as a humorous comic strip about a young teenager living in an orphanage, where he was burdened by bad luck.  The gag-a-day humor ended when he met an older boy, Spud, and they decided to set out on the road together.  Eventually they grew into young adults and settled in Africa, where they spent many decades hunting down poachers, finding lost civilizations, being captured by cannibals, and squashing tribal rebellions, all the while ignoring the occasional savage princess or girl reporter.  They endured through 1996, the last of the old-style teenage homoromances hidden away in the comics sections of a dwindling number of small-town newspapers.    

In the movie serial version of Tim Tyler’s Luck (1937), Frankie Thomas plays Tim Tyler, but his partner Spud (Billy Benedict), is virtually absent, appearing only in the first chapter.  Instead, Tim travels through Darkest Africa alone.  He is heavily feminized by the camera, jaunting through the bush with a sweater tied around his neck as if he just stepped off a tennis court.  He is rescued more often than rescuing, participating in the vague euphemisms for sexual assault usually reserved for damsels in distress: he is carried off, kicking and screaming, twice.

When he strips down to his underwear to swim in a lagoon, a movie convention usually intended to divest young ladies of their clothes, a crocodile attacks, but lest the homoerotic implication become too obvious, a friendly panther, not Tarzan, rushes to the rescue.

There's a girl, but no hetero-romance.  Instead, the gay subtext comes when a bearded French-accented pirate, Lazarre (Earle Douglas) carries Tim off into the bush, screaming and arms-flailing like the young ladies who are always being abducted out of their bedchambers in these serials.  Tim talks Lazarre out of his dastardly plans and rehabilitates him into an ally.  For the rest of the serial, Lazarre provides comic relief with pretensions of cowardice while risking his life to save Tim over and over (the boy needs a lot of saving).

One wonders why director Ford Beebe didn’t let Spud tag along on the adventure and take charge of the comic relief instead of Lazarre.  Allowing  Tim to meet and rehabilitate the pirate certainly adds to the dramatic potential of the series; however, it also inadvertently reflects the sudden intensity of love at first sight.

The bond between the brash, working-class pirate and the fey sophisticate tennis player replicates the tough-sissy gender polarization of Freddie Bartholomew and Jimmy Lydon in Tom Brown's School Days,  but with a more overt erotic subtext.  Tim and Lazarre’s scenes are peppered with full-body hugs and sly innuendos: “We can’t leave until daybreak.  You will stay here with me tonight.”   And they do not participate in the heteronormative conclusion: evidently they plan to stay together forever.

Jun 21, 2013

How to Eat Fried Worms: They Tease You Because They Like You

When I was bullied as a kid, my parents said "They tease you because they like you."  I was quite aware of the difference between good-natured teasing and savage taunts, but still, it is sometimes useful to try to understand the motives of the bully.  Sometimes it's pure evil, an attempt to destroy someone who he deems inadequately human.  But sometimes there is pain behind the hate, a sense of personal inadequacy.

How to Eat Fried Worms (2006), based on the novel by Thomas Rockwell, puts 11-year old Billy (Luke Benward, left, later photo) in a new school, where he becomes the target of bully Joe Guire (Adam Hicks) and his cronies.  Eventually Billy agrees to a contest: he must eat ten worms in one day without throwing up.  The "loser" has to come to school with the remaining worms in his pants.

Billy succeeds in eating most of the worms, causing Joe's cronies to defect to his side, leaving Joe humiliated and alone.  Then we discover that Joe himself is a victim, savagely bullied by his older brother Nigel.  Billy and his new gang defend Joe from Nigel, and they all become friends.

One of the worms didn't get eaten -- it was accidentally put into an omelet that another character ate.  So they both technically lost the contest.  The last scene shows Billy and Joe both entering the school with worms in their pants, their arms around each other, now friends.

It's a slight movie, mostly devoted to the various gross ways that worms can be prepared -- covered with liver juice or hot sauce, squished and spread on a sandwich.  But three things create a memorable gay subtext:

1. Adam Hicks (left, later photo)  plays Joe as a wounded, almost a tragic figure, who is attracted to Billy but doesn't know how to go about expressing his interest.  "They tease you because they like you."
2. Neither display any heterosexual interests.  Billy makes friends with a girl.
3. Joe and Billy smile at each other, one of those smiles that stays with you forever, like Sean and Rich (Kurt Russell, Patrick Dawson) in The Secret of Boyne Castle.  

Adam went on to the equally memorable gay-subtext series Zeke and Luther (2009-2012) and Pair of Kings (2012-2013) on the Disney Channel.

Luke Benward, not so much: his characters win The Girl of Their Dreams in Mostly Ghostly (2008) and Girl vs. Monster (2012).

See also: Alexander Gould of Weeds.

Jun 20, 2013

Beverly Hills 90210

Soap operas are traditionally about beautiful people having heart-wrenching problems in affluent surroundings.  Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000) became a huge success by moving the formula to high school (then college, then young adulthood). It had never been done on American tv before, and certainly not with such gossip-page delight, on and off screen.

The premise: Minnesota teens Brandon and Brenda Walsh (Jason Priestly, Shannon Doherty) are transplanted to uber-ritzy Beverly Hills, California, where they become involved with a group of friends and lovers at West Beverly High.  The cast members, and their problems:

1. Brandon (Jason Priestley, top left).  Alcoholism, gambling.
2. Steve (Ian Ziering).  Generally ok.
3. Brenda (Shannon Doherty).  All-around evil.
4. Kelly (Jenny Garth). Drugs, rape, amnesia, another rape, stalked, becomes a murderer.
5. Dylan (Luke Perry, left).  Alcoholism, drugs, Dad in prison, wife murdered.

6. Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris). Generally ok.
7. David (Brian Austin Green, left). Alcoholism, depression.
8. Scott (Douglas Emerson). Abuse, suicide.
9. Donna (Tori Spelling). Drugs, abuse, stalked, attempted rape.

10. Noah (Vincent Young). DUI, girlfriend killed, kidnapped, nearly killed.

Makes Degrassi Junior High look tame.

In addition to the nonstop beefcake, Beverly Hills 90210 offered two same-sex bonds with enough intimacy and emotional intensity to provide gay subtexts:  Brandon and Steve, and David and Scott (left).  David's depression, in fact, was caused by the loss of his friend Scott to suicide.

And there were also a few gay-themed episodes of the "helpful heterosexual" variety: noble heterosexual swoops into help tragic gay victim of homophobia. David Lascher played a gay teen.

Several of the stars have gone on to gay-positive work, notably Jason Priestly and Ian Ziering (who stripped with the Chippendales in the spring of 2013). Most of them have come out in favor of gay marriage.

Jun 19, 2013

Rockford Files: Buddy of the Week

When I went to graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana in 1982, everyone kept assuming I was from Rockford, Illinois, and therefore a big fan of The Rockford Files (1974-80).  It was useless to point out that 1) I was from Rock Island, not Rockford; and 2) The show wasn't set in Rockford; that was his name.

I rarely watched -- it aired on Friday nights, when I was usually out or busy with friends -- but those few episodes I saw had some gay-subtext promise.

Jim Rockford (James Garner) was an antiheroic detective, who never used a gun and hurt his hand during fistfights.   He lived in a ramshackle trailer, where he frequently sought the advice of his comic-relief father (Noah Beery Jr., a Tarzan clone in the 1935 Call of the Savage).

There were no girl-of-the-week exploits, as on Magnum PI and other 1980s detective dramas; the episodes I remember had no hetero-romance at all, but had Jim Rockford helping out the male buddy-of-the-week.

Gay-vague street-smart informer Angel (Stuart Margolin) hopes to profit from an illegal garbage collection business.

The son of an old friend, a fraternity pledge (Bill Thornbury), goes missing.

Longsuffering police contact Davis Becker (Joe Santos) is framed for murder

I missed the two gay themed episodes:
1. "Requiem for a Funny Box": A washed-up comedian is murdered, and one of the suspects is the gay guy he's been blackmailing.
2. "The Empty Frame": A gay couple hire Rockford to retrieve some stolen paintings.

James Garner previously starred in the Western Maverick (1957-62), as an antiheroic gambler, paired up with various brothers and cousins played by Jack Kelly, Roger Moore, and Robert Colbert.

Over five decades he appeared in many other productions of gay interest, such as Move Over Darling (1963) with Chuck Connors and Doris Day; Victor/Victoria (1982), with Julie Andrews as a fake drag queen; The Glitter Dome (1984), with a lesbian villain; and 8 Simple Rules (2003-2005), with Martin Spanjers.

Jun 17, 2013

Kenan and Kel: Nickelodeon Gay Teen Duo

I'm not sure why African-Americans are excused from having to demonstrate that they're heterosexual every five minutes, but the Nickelodeon teencom duo Kenan and Kel (1996-2000) were excused.

They were a comedy team, like a teenage Abbott and Costello or Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.  Kenan, the hefty "straight man," occasionally liked girls -- far less often than the tongue-lolling girl-watchers of other teencoms -- but Kel, the dimwitted "stooge" (left), never.  His physical attraction to Kenan was rather obvious, like Jerry Lewis's to Dean Martin forty years before, with frequent hugs, soulful gazes, complements, and innuendos.

In the beginning, Kenan kept pushing Kel away, trying to draw a boundary between friends and romantic partners, but still, he panicked whenever their bond was threatened.

In the two-part "Bye, Bye, Kenan" (1997-8), Kenan's Dad gets a job as a forest ranger in Montana, forcing the two to split up.  They try to sabotage the job to stay together.

In later episodes, they behaved more overtly like romantic partners.

In "The Honeymoon's Over" (1999), they appear on a game show as a newlywed couple, with Kel in drag.

In their movie, Two Heads are Better Than None (2000), a mad scientist traps them in a spooky old mansion along with several heterosexual couples, and everyone treats them as just another couple.

The duo had rather a nasty breakup; in 2012, Kel told TMZ that "Kenan doesn't want to be seen with me in any form of media, or even have my name mentioned around him."

Maybe it has to do with the direction the actors' careers were taking?

Kenan Thompson has been a regular on Saturday Night Live since 2003, but he also used his girth to comedic advantage in Fat Albert, Snakes on a Plane, and Wieners.  No gay content.

Kel Mitchell, meanwhile, starred in the gay-themed Peoria Babylon (1997) and had an ongoing role as a feminine fashion design student named Freddie Fabulous on The Parkers (2003).  He also played a gay-coded beautician on First Family (2012).

In the episode I saw of the Nickelodeon animated series Wild Grinders (2012-13), about preteen skate boarders, his character, J.J., was shown briefly holding hands with the Goth boy Emo Cries.

Currently Kel is starring in the CW digital series Stupid Hype, as the flamboyant rival to break dancer turned rapper Hype (Wilson Bethel).

Jun 16, 2013

Hey, Dad: Australia's Growing Pains

The U.S. was not alone in its 1980s obsession with TGIF sitcoms, the warm, fuzzy, "families stick together" reaction to the acerbic workplace comedies of the 1970s.  Hey, Dad...! (1987-94) was the the most popular example in Australia.

It was a sort of an English version of Papa Soltero, starring Sydney architect Martin Kelly (Robert Hughes. right), a single dad with three rowdy kids: teen operator Simon (Paul Smith, top photo), fashion-obsessed Debbie (Simone Buchanan), and preteen Jennifer (Sarah Monahan).

After 39 episodes, Paul Smith left the series abruptly, under mysterious circumstances that are still causing fan speculation, and Christopher Mayer took over as Simon.

Rounding out the cast were Martin's secretary Betty; Simon's buddy, the  dimwitted, gay-vague Nudge (Christopher Truswell, left); and later, his friendly enemy Ben  (Ben Oxenbould, below). Plus any number of famous Australian actors in guest roles.

Simon was not as girl-crazy as the teenage boys on American TGIF sitcoms like Growing Pains, Family Ties, and Step by Step.  He liked girls on occasion, and even got engaged in a 1988 episode, but he was more interested in cars, surfing, football, and his gay-vague buddy Nudge. The two were inseparable for 14 years.  Eventually they got jobs together and moved into an apartment together.

And apparently the male cast members consented to a substantial number of shirtless, underwear, and swimsuit shots.

In a bizarre black-humor twist, the series ended with everyone getting blown up by a bomb stashed in their television set.

It aired in 20 countries.  There were tie-in novels, parodies, references, fan clubs. "Betty" even wrote a tongue-in-cheek secretarial guide. Nudge appeared as "himself" in the 2003 comedy Ned.

It's out on DVD in Germany, and there are episodes on youtube.

13 Nickelodeon Teen Hunks of the 1990s

Teencoms come and go quickly, and the hunks that inspired romantic fantasies in millions of gay boys and straight girls move on to other projects.  Or other careers.  Here are the beefcake, bonding, and gay resumes of the teen hunks who you watched on Nickelodeon during the 1990s.

Not including stars of programs I've already posted on: The Adventures of Peter and Peter, Hey Dude, and Kenan and Kel.

1. Jason Zimbler, nerdy kid brother on Clarissa Explains It All (1991-94).   He's now a software designer.

2.-4  On. Salute Your Shorts (1991-92), the  inmates at the boys camp included Blake Soper and Danny Cooksey (both now gay-positive musicians), and Erik MacArthur  (right), who starred in the homophobic comedy Bottoms Up (2006)

5. Darris Love, next door neighbor privy to the teen superhero's secret on The Secret World of Alex Mack (1994-98). He later starred on MTV's beefcake-heavy Undressed, and played on ER, CSI, and Without a Trace.

6. Josh Server and gay-positive Nick Cannon, one of the spotlights of the comedy-variety show All That (1994-2005).

7. Adam Busch, best friend/co-conspirator of the first female Asian in a titular role on U.S. television, on. The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo (1996-98).  He played Warren on the gay-positive Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

8. On The Journey of Allen Strange (1997-2000), Allen (Arjay Smith) was a gay-vague alien stranded on Earth, living with a human family. Today Arjay Smith's career has brought him to The Day After Tomorrow, 24, and CSI: Miami.

9-10. The Animorphs (1998-2000), teenage shape-shifters, included Boris Cabrera (left), now working as a fitness trainer, and Shawn Ashmore (top photo), who starred Any Mother's Son (1997), about a gay soldier who is murdered, and in the X-Men movies as the gay-vague Iceman.

11. Cousin Skeeter (1998-2001).  Cousin Skeeter was a puppet, but the star was Robert Ri'chard, still a busy actor.

12. 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd (1998-2002).  Eddie was a bully transformed into a dog as punishment, with former victim Brandon Gilberstadt around to assist his redemption.  Brandon is now an associate producer for MTV and the gay-themed Logo network.

13. The Brothers Garcia (2000-2004).  The standout star of the three brothers was the soft, pretty Boomerrey Licon, whom everyone thought was gay. He played in the gay-themed Mysterious Skin (2004) and Joan of Arcadia.

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