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WYPR Arts

'Tickled Pink': Gay-Friendly TV Through the Years

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Gay people on TV, once a shock, are now more like stock. Tonight, the cable channel TV Land revisits the earlier days of gays in popular culture just emerging. There's a documentary called "Tickled Pink." Here's DAY TO DAY TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

News flash: Gay people did exist before "Will & Grace." Of course, you may not have known that given how rarely they were depicted on TV before the 1990s when the likes of Ellen and "Queer As Folk" came along. But as the documentary "Tickled Pink" shows, that never stopped gay viewers from discovering the truly homo-sensational, which means certain shows and characters they could call their own. The fact that these shows rarely addressed homosexuality directly was immaterial.

"Tickled Pink" calls on a variety of actors, writers, comics and producers--some gay, some not--to salute those they deem homo-sensational on the small screen. The first to earn the honor were actresses from the 1970s, who may not have been gay but broke away from the happy homemaker mold that defined too many adult female roles in the medium's early years. "Mary Tyler Moore" fit the bill; so did "Maude," another 1970s sitcom starring Bea Arthur as the outspoken title character. She earned her stripes with the gay community by addressing the topic head on.

(Soundbite of "Maude")

Mr. CONRAD BAIN: (As Arthur) Do you approve of homosexuals?

Ms. BEATRICE ARTHUR: (As Maude) Arthur, it doesn't matter whether I approve or I disapprove. They are human beings. They exist. It's like asking me if I approve of dwarfs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAIN: (As Maude) Oh, that's different. There's no such thing as gay dwarfs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: Come on, Arthur. You've read "Snow White."

(Soundbite of laughter)

WALLENSTEIN: Arthur was part of another cast deemed homo-sensational, the 1980s sitcom "The Golden Girls." I know, a quartet of single senior citizens wouldn't seem the stuff of gay dreams, but their same-sex camaraderie and defiance of stereotypes were highly homo-sensational, setting a template for other shows that drew raves in the gay community, like "Designing Women" and "Sex and the City." Of course, homo-sensational shows weren't always about empowerment. Crime-fighting duos like Batman and Robin were just plain titillating in their tight-fighting costumes.

Even more unlikely as gay icons were the protagonists of supernatural shows like "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie." They seem like silly fluff, right? But they also offered a powerful allegory for the gay experience. These characters possessed a magical gift they had to hide away from the real world, just as many gay people kept their true selves in the closet. Even Jeannie herself, Barbara Eden, noticed the parallel.

Ms. BARBARA EDEN (Actress): Why are gay people particularly drawn to "I Dream of Jeannie"? That's interesting. I think perhaps because she was different. She had different gifts, but she wasn't ashamed of them.

WALLENSTEIN: "Tickled Pink" does for television what the award-winning 1995 documentary "The Celluloid Closet" did for movies, illuminating a little-known cultural history. So exhaustive in its own analysis, it left my own mind reeling in search of gay subtext in old TV shows. Take "The Flintstones," for instance. Remember how that theme song ended? (Singing) We'll have a gay old time.

(Soundbite of "The Flintstones" theme song)

Mr. ALAN REED: (As Fred Flintstone) Yabba-dabba-doo!

CHADWICK: The documentary "Tickled Pink" airs tonight on the cable channel TV Land. Andrew Wallenstein writes about television for DAY TO DAY and the Hollywood Reporter.

(Soundbite of "The Flintstones" theme song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...they're a page right out of history. Let's ride with the family down the street...

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.