This week! A look at how gay Frasier was and how brilliant Modern Family is, a chat with United States of Tara’s gay couple Michael Hitchcock and Sammy Sheik, and an exploration of bad performances in hit movies. Plus, truly unlikely gays!
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Q: When it comes to positive portrayals of gay characters on TV, I’ve seen coming out stories, displays of affection, and lots of sweaty workout scenes, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the love and loyalty that is portrayed between Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family. Do you agree that the "gas station scene" – where Cam, as Fizbo the Clown, mightily defends Mitchell against a jerk – qualifies as one of the most natural, and therefore important, portrayals of gay (or straight) love we’ve seen on TV? – Art, Clovis, CA
A: Like you, the Flying Monkey is totally, completely in the tank for Cam and Mitchell, and for this entire show, which I find to be the freshest, funniest thing I’ve seen in ages.
One of the things I like best is its take on gay stereotypes, which is by turns affectionate, teasing, and subversive. Cam is, well, Cam. But who’s the “strong” one in this scene? It’s not Mitchell, and it’s not the bully. Clown suit or not, it’s Cam – even as he immediately reverts to ridiculous form by pulling a giant clown clock out of his pocket and saying, "We should hurry, we’re going to be late."
This is simply brilliant writing – and for the record, it strikes me very much like life.
That said, I’m starting to agree with those who say that Cam and Mitchell aren’t showing as much physical affection as the other couples on the show. I don’t know if it’s skittishness on the part of the producers or
network (who might not want to push too hard on a break-out show), the fact
that the actors themselves are uncomfortable, or just a complete coincidence. I’d dismissed this at first – for me, the show has built up a lot of goodwill – but it’s starting to be noticeable.
On a completely separate Modern Family topic, when did Jesse Tyler Ferguson get to be so hot? I remember him as the fussy, pasty one in The Class, and the caustic, bitter one in Do Not Disturb, but I don’t remember either of those characters being anything approaching “hot.”
It really speaks to the power of good casting (and good lighting!), doesn’t it?
Q: I was just catching an old episode of Frasier and was struck by the vast number of gay men (though perhaps not out at the time of original airing) in the cast. Other than soap operas, are there any other TV series with as high a proportion of gay cast? – Bryon, St. Pete, FL
A: Speaking of good casting…
Out participants on Frasier included David Hyde Pierce (Niles), Dan Butler (Bulldog), Edward Hibbert (Gil Chesterton), Patrick Kerr (Noel), writer (and later, showrunner) Joe Keennan, co-creator David Lee, as well as many, many guest gay characters and actors (plus, gay icons like Patti LuPone, Bebe Neuwirth, Jean Smart, etc.).
Other cast members are reportedly gay, but not out.
Much has been made of how much Frasier was like a theatrical play: each episode had a traditional three-act “arc” with lots of clever word-play, some sophisticated comedy alongside classic slamming-doors farce-type jokes, and lots of terrific acting and impeccable timing. The characters and subject matter, meanwhile, were cultured, sophisticated types – the kind you usually find on stage, not on television (except as extreme stereotypes).
Because of all this, the producers wisely chose their cast and creators from people who had theatrical experience – and there’s truth to the stereotype that we gay and bisexual men are overrepresented in that world. Because there were gay people in positions of power on Frasier, I’m also sure that gay storylines and sensibilities were openly supported and encouraged.
But was Fraser really any “gayer” than any other in TV show Hollywood? There may well have been more out gay participants on Frasier than on, say, 24. But I did an article on Saturday Night Live last year – a show that’s definitely not known for its clever word-play, sophisticated comedy, or gay sensibility – and I was surprised to learn that four of its staff of fifteen writers (and, reportedly, some of the cast) were gay, including the head writer.
Yes, I think part of Frasier’s gay sensibility was because there were gay people in positions of power. But I think another big part of it is that the subject matter of Frasier very much meets our stereotypes of what “gay” is.
Next Page! The gay May/December romance on United States of Tara!
Q: What can you tell me about the guys who play the older gay couple on United States of Tara? – Mimi, Rochester, NY
A: Ted and Hany, Tara’s new gay neighbors on United States of Tara, are played by longtime actor Michael Hitchcock and relative newcomer Sammy Sheik.
You might recognize Michael from his recent turn as the leader of the deaf choral group on Glee or as Dave on Ray Romano’s TNT show Men of a Certain Age. But he’s also often worked in the movies of Christopher Guest (and was notably in love with Corky in Waiting for Guffman). He also played one-half of a gay couple in Happy, Texas.
“I think Ted and I have a lot in common,” 51-year-old Michael tells me of his Tara character. “He’s a glass-half-full guy, I am too. I like that he accepts who he is, I like that he has a dignity about him. A lot of times I play idiots who don’t know they’re idiots, and I don’t think he is that. I think he’s in on the joke.”
Like Ted, Michael is also openly gay.
Egyptian-American Hany, meanwhile, is played by 28-year-old Sammy Sheik, known for his role as Masheer Abu Marzuq on 24 and Kamal on Lost.
“He’s very grateful to be in the U.S. because of all the things he can do here but he couldn’t do back home,” Sheik says of his character. “He can be in a relationship which is something he couldn’t do back home.”
Did he have to research the character?
“I’ve played a lot of terrorists,” Sammy says, “and I kinda didn’t have to research those very much. You kind of know where they’re coming from. [Same with Hany.] I just played him as a regular fun guy. He loves his neighbors, he loves his boyfriend. These people had done their research months before the character was written, and I respected that.”
In fact, Sammy had been aware of the role long before he got the call from his agent.
“I have a friend in Egypt who does production here, and they called him and they wanted to develop the character, and they had questions about gay life in Egypt, what kind of problems they have,” Sammy says. “And I think they used a lot of that to develop the character. Why are these guys even together? Why is Hany with a guy who’s so much older? But they kind of explain it at the season goes on.”
Both Michael and Sammy say they became fast-friends on the set.
“We met beforehand so we could get to know each other,” Michael says. “When you’re thrown instantly into a relationship, you want a little something to build on. Sammy is very funny, and I remember asking him, ‘What do you think Hany sees in Ted?’ And he just says, ‘Ted has a job.’ He was totally joking, and we got along great.”
“Michael Hitchcock was kind of like my mentor on the set,” Sammy says. “Before even the table-read, I’d ask him how to read something, and he’d tell me how to do it. He’s a comedic genius. He’s been doing this for so long. Even before meeting him, I was a huge fan. So anything I had a problem with, I’d go to Michael. If you’re laughing at anything I’m saying, it’s Michael Hitchcock.”
Both Michael and Sammy also give full props to the rest of Tara’s creative team, including the actors, creator Diablo Cody, and this season’s episode directors, including Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader), Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), and Penny Marshall.
“And Zosia Mamet, who is David Mamet’s daughter,” Hitchcock says, “I love her character too, Courtney, kind of bullying Marshall into a relationship. I find that happens a lot in life when you’re gay and in high school. I just find that truthful. And Marshall and Lionel’s love-hate relationship, which I find fascinating.”
What’s in store for the rest of the season? For starters, Marshall runs into a Ted in an … unusual (and embarrassing) spot, but it ends up with Marshall getting some interesting advice from Ted.
“It’s a little bit of a generational thing,” Michael says. “I like that Keir [Gilchrist, who plays Marshall] has someone to turn to that isn’t just his family.”
Things aren’t quite so positive for Hany. “Me and Lionel are a really bad influence on Marshall,” Sammy admits.
Next Page! Bad performances in successful movies!
Q: I know there are a lot of bad movie performances – many singled out by the Razzie Awards. But the Razzies usually only single out bad performances in movies that flop, which strikes me as kicking someone what they’re down. What about all the truly terrible performances in movies that turn out to be hits anyway? Your choices? – MAGPIE, Toronto, Canada
A: I tend to agree with you about the Razzies. I mean, how daring is it to point out how bad Land of the Lost or All About Steve was? Critics and audiences had long since agreed.
As for terrible film performances, this conversation should, of course, be prefaced by some mention of Madonna, Kevin Costner, Jim Carrey in anything "funny" or animated, and the entire cast of the Star Wars movie prequels (except maybe Ewan McGregor; his "Alec Guiness" rocks).
John Travolta was a major misfire in Hairspray. I was shocked by how bad Sam Worthington was in Clash of the Titans, and surprised that more people haven’t called out Christian Bale for his hammy acting in Terminator: Salvation (among other movies!). And, of course, Halle Berry is so phenomenally wooden in The X-Men they should take her Oscar back.
Francis Ford Coppola may be a great director, but he has a way of allowing off-the-chart-bad performances into his movies, specifically Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married, and (of course, infamously) Sofia Coppola in The Godfather, Part III. (Some people say Marlon Brando is off-the-charts bad in Apocalypse Now, but for some reason, his scenery-chewing works for me.)
Incidentally, I’ve always found Nicolas Cage to be awful in almost everything – but for some reason, they just randomly decided to give him an Oscar for one of his movies.
I thought Mark Wahlberg was brilliant in Boogie Nights, playing a clueless idiot overwhelmed by the events around him. But since he’s played that exact same guy in every movie he’s ever been in, whether it’s right for the character or not, I now realize it wasn’t a performance.
Really, really bad acting: Cage in Peggy Sue, Berry in X-Men, Langenkamp in Elm Street
But the worst performance in a hit movie? The honor should probably go to Heather Langenkamp in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. But the “credit” must really go to director Wes Craven, because the talented Johnny Depp, in his film debut, is just about as bad.
Q: Looking back, I wasn’t shocked by Ricky Martin or Rosie or Ellen and there’s quite a few people who predict the “outee” on the upcoming People magazine will also be no surprise. In the history of gay pop culture, has there been anyone who came out and you were generally shocked by? That made you go, "Damn, girl"? – Topher, Toronto, Ontario
A: First things first. Last week’s big “outee,” the one you mention in your question, turned out to be … country singer Chely Wright.
A mere three weeks ago I wrote that “in practical terms, I don’t think coming out as a gay … is ever perceived by celebrities or their handlers as a ’good’ career move.”
With Wright’s coming out, I now completely take that back. While Wright had some minor mainstream success back in the late 1990s and early 00s, she hasn’t been a major music presence in almost a decade. This is clearly an attempt to rejuvenate a stalled career.
And what do you know? It worked – she got headlines. I guess this is a milestone of sorts: we know now that being out is at least perceived as being better than being washed-up.
Has anyone’s coming out surprised me? I’ve written before that I was surprised by Raymond Burr, Frasier’s Dan Butler, Weeds’ Guillermo Díaz, and Obi-Wan Kenobi Alec Guinness (although Burr and Guinness only "came out" posthumously).
"Unlikely" gays? Burr, Diaz, and Guiness
But the gay folks who really surprise me are those political operatives who are or were actively and willfully working to undermine GLBT interests: people such as Roy Cohn; the openly gay senior staff members of anti-gay politicians such as Rick Santorum, Mel Martinez, and former-"maverick" and Sarah Palin champion John McCain; and George Rekers, the co-founder of the Family Research Council who was found last week to have taken a ten-day vacation with a callboy from Rentboy.com.
I get it: these people are gay and political conservatives. And I understand the desire to try to wrench the Republican Party from the nut-bags and whack-jobs who currently control it.
But aligning with far-right anti-gay extremists? What kind of person does this? What kind of person grows up knowing the pain and isolation of anti-gay hate and bigotry … then turns around and takes it out on other gay people?
I just can’t wrap my mind around this. Some people call these people "self-hating gays," but I think a better term might be "selfish a**holes."
I’ve long heard it said, “Human beings can rationalize anything.” But it’s really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY true, isn’t it?
Next Page! Are there stereotypes for "queer peers" too?
Q: So I was surprised to learn there was a Gay/Straight Alliance at my school. Turns out the founder of the group is actually straight! Our lovely guardian angel said she’s always connected with LGBT people even though she never had a gay friend per se. She knows everything and has even taught my friend and me few things – and my friend is gayer than Jack McFarland. But she feels she can’t identify with other characters/celebrities that are straight but support gay rights. – TasteTheRainbow, Canada
A: What’s the single most frustrating thing about being gay? The whole closet thing.
It’s not just because it sucks to be in the closet; it’s also because it makes it so hard to get any genuine sense of what it means to be gay, especially when you’re young, before you meet other openly gay people.
As a result of the closet, our impressions of each other are informed almost completely by the media – mostly characters in movies and on TV shows. And where do those impressions come from? From the minds of writers, actors, and producers … who also got their impressions of gay people from the media.
See what a vicious cycle it is?
When I was a teenager, I didn’t relate to the media image of gay people at all: they all seemed to be obsessed with fashion, shopping, being catty, and having anonymous sex with lots of different people – none of which did anything for me. Even when there was a gay guy on TV or in the movies who wasn’t like that, he was usually portrayed as “the exception to the rule” – someone who really was different from the rest of the GLBT community, just reinforcing my belief that I would never fit in.
Now that I’m older, I know that I was far from alone – that my experience was, in fact, more “typical” than the typical gay guy than at least you used to see on TV. I also now know that the guys who did relate to these stereotypes were messed up by them too, just in different ways.
But it’s not just gay people who suffer from media stereotypes. Women who relate to us do too. The stock female “queer peer” character is no more “real” than the stock gay character. Even when they’re based on some truth, stereotypes are not the complete picture.
Famous queer-peers, Liza, Liz Taylor, Grace Adler, and Karen Walker
The good news is that I suspect that as your friend grows up, she’ll quickly realize that media stereotypes are just that. It’s a very complicated set of media stereotypes we gay folks are expected to navigate, but there’s nothing like real-world experience to help us sort through the clutter.
Q: I am currently an Early Childhood Educator student and am studying “chosen family configuration,” which includes same-sex parents. Do you happen to know of any books that portrays this in a positive way? Also, if I could get any suggestions from you or your readers of ways to incorporate the idea of same-sex parenting into everyday teaching so that it’s appropriate for 3-5-year-olds. – Trish, Ontario, Canada
A: There are a number of picture books that portray GLBT families, but the only ones I can whole-heartedly endorse are King & King and the sequel King & King & Family. (Don’t hate me, but I think And Tango Makes Three is over-rated).
Regarding your curriculum, I think the key is inclusiveness. It’s not a question of setting aside an hour each semester to talk about “different family types.” Instead, you should simply try to naturally include non-traditional families in any lesson plan where it’s appropriate.
How? Refer to all couples in an inclusive way, not as “husbands and wives,” but as “partners” or “spouses.” Don’t automatically presume that a woman has a husband and a family has a mother – and don’t allow your students to do the same. Explain to children that most men love women, but sometimes a man loves a man and a woman loves a woman, and use language that communicates this.
Trust me: this is far more powerful, and makes much more of an impact, than setting aside one night every class to talk about GLBT families.
But be forewarned: you’ll upset some folks with this approach. I’ve heard from several therapists that the mere act of referring to a husband and a wife as “partners” annoys many traditional-minded heterosexuals. And why wouldn’t it? You’re literally taking away the privileged status society has granted them and equating their relationship with that of a "lesser" gay or unmarried couple.
Obviously, if you push people too hard, you’ll end up with no students at all, and no minds will be changed. So I understand that we all have to pick our battles, and the some sensitivity is required.
But inclusiveness should be the goal you’re working toward.
As you suggest, hopefully my readers will have other suggestions!
Have a question about gay male entertainment? Contact me here (and be
sure and include your city and state and/or country!)