On my first day at Yale, freshman year, I was wandering around campus with my roommate aka my new BFF aka my only F. There was an uncomfortable silence. Suddenly, from the dark recesses of my unconscious, out burst: do do do do do do do do do do do, nanananana na na na, nanananana na na na.
“Is that the ‘Doug’ theme song?” asked my roommate/best friend.
“Yeah, I think so,” I replied.
We bonded. We bonded because ’90s Nickelodeon unites our generation. We stayed up for Nick at Nite. We bought Gak and found it a year later as a shriveled rock-hard nugget. Doug Funnie, pining over Patty Mayonnaise in his daily journal, is the original emo kid. “Clarissa Explains it All” was the first show to identify a preteen audience. That first preteen audience was us.
Rocko warned America’s children about the pitfalls of modern life. The existential wallaby spent his days in O-Town, selling “Really Really Big Man” comic books to the employees of Conglom-O. Pete and Pete lived in Wellsville, a warped suburbia, down the street from Iggy Pop. Ren and Stimpy parodied the animated animal genre with unprecedented cartoon violence. There was blood. There was sex. Usually not together. Some of these shows were banned in later broadcasts.
Nineties Nickelodeon captured the nonsensical universe of the pre-adolescent. It gave Roald Dahl’s twisted whimsy a modern update. It turned the mundane into the mythic. It made the growing pains of the American child dark, funny and hip.
Breastfed on absurdity and cynicism, our generation now enjoys similarly spirited comedies. “Scrubs,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Family Guy,” “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “The Office,” all in the model of “Seinfeld,” follow the ordinary and anxious lives of slightly obnoxious people. The ordinary and anxious lives of people like us.
These characters are our heroes. These are our everymen. These are our stereotypes, living and dying. Just a decade ago, prime time was largely split between white sitcoms, like “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” and black series like “The Cosby Show,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Kenan & Kel,” “Sister Sister” and “Moesha.” Now JD, Carla and Turk are best buds.
“Will and Grace,” the first network show with a gay lead, helped to normalize homosexuality. But Will’s friend Jack was an effeminate, theatrical and libidinous comic sidekick. Gay writer John Lyttle believes that future generations will look back on shows like “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” as we do “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He said, “It’s like gay men are only acceptable if they play the court jester.”
Ellen DeGeneres broke ground in 1997 when she (and her poorly disguised television alias) came out on “Ellen,” but the show was canceled soon after. America was apparently less comfortable with the idea of an openly gay woman than the gay man/hetero gal duo that “Will and Grace” cemented as a cultural staple.
Most sitcom queers since have been, at worst, oversexed cartoons and, at best, characters whose defining characteristic is their queerness. Network executives are understandably resistant to prime-time homosexuals; they may alienate their predominately heterosexual, and often sheltered, audiences.
But the rise of cable and Internet competitors has produced more targeted marketing. One of the most sought-after niche markets is the socially liberal, urban-minded professional, or the “slumpy.” Slumpies are more sensitive to the political and cultural shifts in the gay community. They laughed at the queer allusions in “Frasier,” and they sympathized with Smithers’ closeted love for Montgomery Burns.
Homosexuals, like many minorities, are acknowledged as consumers before they are recognized as citizens. With progress premised on profit, and profit on progress, these media texts narrativize our social acceptance of homosexuality. Two network sitcoms last year featured central gay characters: “The Office,” with Oscar, and the now-cancelled “The War at Home,” with Kenny.
Cable fared better; Calvin, one of the main characters on “Greek,” is one of the few gay African-Americans on television. Justin Suarez, the showtune-loving teen on “Ugly Betty,” provides an unprecedented prime-time example of a possibly gay or questioning youth.
“Saturday Night Live” is guilty of many cheap gay gags and has never had a recurring openly gay character. But last year one SNL sketch included a gay couple whose sexuality wasn’t any part of the joke.
There are now 16 LGBT regular characters on network television out of 616 total, a number that’s increasing ever year. This trend, however, disguises the near-extinction of the broadcast lesbian. There are no regulars and four recurring lesbian characters on network television. Three of them are cartoons. One of them is Marge’s sister Patty on “The Simpsons.” Dr. Eric Hahn was a regular on “Grey’s Anatomy” for two weeks at the end of last year. Then she was fired. Once “The L Word” finishes its final season, lesbians will have almost entirely disappeared from cable TV too.
Television, especially comedy, does not just passively reflect, but can produce a cultural moment. Sitcoms can bring three-dimensional gay characters into Americans’ living rooms and make us love them because we laugh at them, not at limp wrists or butch, disgruntled spinsterhood, but at the absurdities, anxieties and humiliations that we relate to as fellow human beings.
Perhaps our children will grow up watching TV shows with LGBTQ characters, beyond the latent homoeroticism of Bert and Ernie. Maybe “The Adventures of Pete and Pete,” if an equivalent show is made 20 years from now, could be about two young teen lovers.
Of course, they wouldn’t also be brothers. That’s incest. Even ’90s Nickelodeon wasn’t that subversive.
Claire Gordon is a junior in Saybrook College.