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Where are the funny girls?

This season a growing number of sitcoms celebrated gay male wit--but TV lesbians were confined to the tears and trials of drama

In the course of snatching up a basket of Emmy awards this past year, NBC's runaway hit Will & Grace has proved that American television viewers love the sharp, flamboyant wit of the gay male. But as Will settles in for the long ratings haul, gay female comedy fans are feeling sidelined.

Granted, we've all heard the old lesbian joke: How many lesbians does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Huffy lesbian answer: That's not funny!

Can the popular perception be true? Do gay women just lack a sense of humor?

It's not as if there are no lesbian images on television. This year Willow got a girlfriend on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and we learned The Truth About Jane. An insurance ad caused a fuss during the Olympics by showing a lesbian couple adopting an Asian baby. And Vanessa Redgrave won a much-deserved Emmy for her touching portrayal of a gay woman in If These Walls Could Talk 2.

Meanwhile, comedies stuck to titillating lesbian near misses: Calista Flockhart kissed Lucy Liu on Ally McBeal while Sex and the City's Sarah Jessica Parker kissed Alanis Morissette. (Even if they were for the male viewers, lesbians liked them too.) But genuine, nonexperimenting, sympathetic gay female characters? This past year took us practically all the way back to lesbian invisibility.

Or worse. In October the previously lesbian-free Will & Grace introduced us to a female couple--a dour pair who felt the sharp prick of Jack's stinger as he verbally danced on their heads while ostensibly rehearsing a gay-awareness skit for the police department.

The less-than-sensitive episode got Hollywood tongues wagging. "I have tons of lesbian friends," says actor Henriette Mantel, who played one of the fashion-challenged lesbians. "I don't know any of them who would wear a big flannel shirt like that."

How did such a hip show hit such a wrong note? "I fucked up," admits cocreator Max Mutchnick. "In cutting this show--and I regret this cut--we took out the explanation of why Jack doesn't like these two women. On [the original] film, Jack says, `They don't like me,' and Will says, `That's because you were caught stealing twine from their kite shop.' I'm recutting the show for syndication, and I'm including that back story because I want it to be very clear that this was Jack's issue with these two women. It had nothing to do with their being gay."

Mutchnick stresses that he's not bowing to political correctness. "I do have a responsibility as a gay writer not to work against the cause," he observes. "But I also have responsibility as a creative writer to write what I think is the truth, the kind of internal prejudices and oppressions that go back and forth between gay men and gay women."

And at least Mutchnick has shown us something. On Friends the lesbians seem to have disappeared. Asked about Ross's ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) and her lover, Susan (Jessica Hecht), Friends cocreator David Crane explains their absence from a programming point of view: "What happened is from a dramatic standpoint. It's not because of any ill will or political judgment. At the end of the [first] season the baby was born, and Ross and Susan had a big scene where a lot of the conflict between them was resolved. So the women's dramatic function on the show diminished. Our primary responsibility is coming up with stories for our six principals."

Asking why there are no lesbian principal characters--on Friends or anywhere else--brings up a sensitive question. Are producers shying away from funny gay girls because of the drubbing Ellen DeGeneres took? With between 36 million and 42 million viewers estimated to have tuned in, Ellen's coming-out was a milestone in gay television history. But the show soon capsized amid critics' complaints that Ellen Morgan was just "taking herself too seriously."

"It was too much too soon for a lot of people to take," observes out lesbian comedy maven Maxine Lapiduss, who was a consulting producer on Ellen. Crane agrees: "I think what scared everyone about Ellen had less to do with the fact that it was a gay woman and more to do with the fact that they addressed her emotional life so frankly."

The ironic result: Ellen not only opened the closet door for Will & Grace but also helped identify the formula that has fueled its success. "It may have taught them the lesson of `go slow, come out of the gate funny more than emotional,' perhaps," says Crane.

Of course, when a comedy is about gay men, the funny-comes-first approach rings true--perhaps because the humor we associate with gay males fits perfectly with the sitcom recipe. That, in turn, reminds us that some of TV's most influential comedies are written by gay men. "There are more gay men working behind the scenes in entertainment," says MTV president of programming Brian Graden, who is gay. "Therefore they're telling their stories, reflecting what they know."

And what gay writers write, gay executives know how to sell. "There's more gay men than there are gay women in power," says openly gay Talk Soup executive producer Angela Gordon. "There probably are more gay men than women out there generally, and if that's the case, there are going to be more gay male executives than women." A salient fact: Looking toward next season, with barely a lesbian in sight, the networks are shooting or prepping at least three new gay male--themed sitcoms.

Crane, however, pooh-poohs the notion of an all-gay-male sitcom sensibility. "Certainly I have run into more gay men comedy writers than gay female comedy writers," he says. "But that also says you only write what you know, which I think pigeonholes us all in a way which is unfair. I would never want anyone to believe, `Oh, I'm a guy, so I don't write women,' or `I'm a gay man, so I don't write straight men.'"

Which brings us back to the "funny" theory. Is it possible that there are more gay male writers in comedy than lesbians simply because lesbians really aren't funny? "I know some very funny women, some of whom are straight, oddly enough," says Lapiduss. "But I don't think it has to do with your sexuality. I think it has to do with your perspective."

Apparently, in TV land, being lesbian is serious business: While television may have taken a step back in terms of lesbians in comedy, it's breaking new ground when it comes to dyke drama.

For lesbians all over the country, NBC reinforces the meaning of "Must See TV" when Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) experiences her own share of trauma in coming out on ER this season. "She's going to have her trials and tribulations with it," says supervising producer Dee Johnson. "It's not like we want to do the show because it's a big issue. We just thought that it made sense for the character. Our hope is, this is just ordinary life."

If lesbians characters don't immediately jibe with sitcoms, one of daytime TV's most influential creators is realizing that her medium is great for tracking lesbian ups and downs. "We'd be dead within half a year if we didn't explore the character," says All My Children's Agnes Nixon, "because we deal with the minutiae of everyday life and try to make them dramatic."

Already this season we know Bianca, daughter of Erica Kane, is a lesbian. (But don't tell Erica just yet.) To Nixon--who says she got the idea from reading Chastity Bono's Family Outing--this storyline is more than just a reach for ratings. "We're talking about people who are like our family," Nixon gushes. "We're looking at it as Erica's daughter."

While network dramas have begun to destigmatize gay relationships, cable is going one step further by depicting realistic physicality. Says Neff Meron, an executive producer of the upcoming Lifetime movie What Makes a Family: "We've told the actors, Brooke Shields and Cherry Jones, to have freedom like any two other people in love on-screen."

Writer-director-producer Lee Rose did the same with A Girl Thing, her upcoming miniseries for Showtime, which couples Kate Capshaw with supermodel Elle Macpherson. "It's a real romance between two adults, and we don't hold back from anything," says Rose. "There's love scenes. There's kissing. There's a real relationship between two adults."

Unfortunately, the lesbian characters on Showtime's Queer as Folk haven't yet gotten the same attention. The series does a great job with gay male sexuality, but as of episode 6 the lesbian plotline (two mommies, one baby, and a lot of angst over the daddy) is no richer than that of the original British series.

Still, television as a whole has come a long way from its early stock characters, with their nonthreatening asexuality. "At some point in our history we thought it was OK to stand up and be the court jester a la Paul Lynde," says Graden. "Yet we didn't think it was OK to just say, `This is who we are, deal with it.' I don't ever want gays or lesbians on television to be the anonymous, neutered court jesters."

And with the promise of somewhat greater visibility, next season does offer glimmers of hope. First and foremost, CBS president Leslie Moonves announced in November that the network will develop a new pilot with Ellen DeGeneres for the 2001-2002 season. The pilot will feature DeGeneres as a big-city dweller (yep, she's lesbian) who moves back to her hometown--maybe just a few miles down the road from John Goodman's Normal, Ohio.

And Crane assures the return of the lesbians on Friends. "We adore the characters and the actresses who play them," he says. "In fact, we have some ideas this season. We were just talking last week about when are they available again."

Mutchnick promises new and improved lesbian characters. "I'm 98% sure you're never going to see a dyke in a flannel shirt on Will & Grace again," he says. "I will continue to write lesbian characters. I'm going to do it again, and I'm going to do it better." Already, he's had tennis great Martina Navratilova play herself on the show, and the anything-but-stereotypical Sandra Bernhard will do likewise on an upcoming episode.

Despite network standards, narrow-minded advertisers, and ratings-driven programming, the lesbian presence in sitcoms will emerge. Sitcom writer Paige Bernhardt sums it up: "When you present something as touchy--well, not touchy--as lesbian relationships in a comedic form, it can make people uncomfortable. But, hell, we managed to make the Korean War funny. It's just a matter of time."

For more information on the programs featured in this article, visit www.advooate.com

Kaye is a writer-producer for E! Entertainment Television and the Style Network.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Kaye, Lori
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 16, 2001
Words:1808
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