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    Gay on the telly - 23-Nov-2008
    GAY TECHNO clubs packed with sweaty lads in leather. Lesbian couples armed with turkey basters. Let's just say that TV2's new late-night comedy series Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in all the World is not the kind of animated show that would have been on telly when I was a kid.

    Steve and Rick may look like cute little lumps of Lego but they have one hell of a complicated life. The couple live in a fabulously decorated home in the gay ghetto of West Luhunga Beach. Steve's best friend Chuck is HIV positive and, by his own admission, a "bitter old queen", with a 19-year-old toy boy partner called Evan. Rick's lesbian friend, Kirsten, has asked him to be the father of her child but Steve hates her butch girlfriend. Everyone snipes at each other relentlessly, no dodgy sexual pun goes unemployed, and gay culture is mercilessly lampooned at the same time it is cunningly celebrated.

    But something is wrong here. That title just doesn't ring true. Surely "the happiest gay couple in all the world" was really Batman and Robin, stars of camp 1960s' TV series, Batman. Think about it. Living together in affluent domestic bliss, handsome millionaire Bruce Wayne and his "ward" Dick Grayson would lounge around in immaculate silk dressing gowns in the drawing room of stately Wayne Manor, then change into cool rubber outfits in their secret "batcave" love dungeon and chase macho villains around, all the while finishing each other's sentences like an old married couple.

    Burt Ward, the actor who played Robin, almost admits it in his 1995 autobiography Boy Wonder My Life in Tights: "A mature man, unmarried and rarely seen in the company of women, takes a naive teenage boy under his wing. They share many secrets and spend long hours alone in remote areas... Holy homophobia!"

    Holy homophobia, indeed. With the impressively rude Rick and Steve animated series starting on Friday, it's worth recalling that the portrayal of gay characters on TV has been a real mixed bag.

    For many New Zealanders, the earliest sign of gay culture on the small screen was Mr Humphries (John Inman) in UK comedy Are You Being Served?, which ran here between 1972 and 1985. Rolling his eyes, mincing about, speaking almost entirely in tragically unfunny sexual innuendo, Humphries reflected a fairly contemptuous straight man's view of gay culture, as did other gay sketch comedy characters inflicted upon us in the same era by Dick Emery and Benny Hill.

    Between 1977 and 1981, Billy Crystal played the gay son, Jodie Dallas, on American comedy series, Soap, a groundbreaking role he recalls earning him derision from studio audiences at first but one that gently challenged homophobic attitudes and eventually won Crystal a huge fan base.

    UK soap EastEnders has featured a variety of gay and lesbian characters since the 1980s, many of them driving complex storylines around bisexuality, homophobia, the age of consent and HIV/Aids. EastEnders was also the first UK soap to screen a gay kiss, in 1987, which led some tabloids to dub the series "EastBenders" and some MPs to suggest it should be banned. From its inception in 1960, Coronation Street took more than 40 years to include a significant gay storyline, in this case, Todd Grimshaw kissing a startled Nick Platt in 2003. That same year, Todd's friend Sean "Mincemeat" Tully arrived, and has been the soap's sole (some would say token) ongoing gay character ever since.

    On our own homegrown soap, Shortland Street, the first fully fledged gay character arrived in 1993. Played by Karl Urban, ambo driver Jamie Forrest was so fiendishly attractive he caused Jonathan McKenna, the son of the clinic's CEO, to come out of the closet. Jono didn't tell his parents, who found out only after the couple were set upon by a gang of gay-bashers. Other gay male characters on Shortland Street included Moira's son Jordan, clinic pharmacist Ewan, and Dr Geoff Greenlaw, who somewhat implausibly embraced his inner gay man after shagging every woman he met, and then got it on with a bloke called Robbie.

    Lesbians, meanwhile, have been a dime a dozen on Shorters. In the late 1990s, Nurse Annie Flynn pashed Meredith Flemming, and Caroline Buxton called off her wedding at the last minute after falling in love with bridesmaid Laura Hall. In February 2006, Maia Jeffries and Jay Copeland tied the knot in the show's first civil union, and earlier this year there was a plotline involving a lesbian policewoman called Spike.

    American network TV's first lesbian wedding took place in 1996 on Friends, when Ross's ex-wife Carol married her partner Susan. The following year, comedian Ellen DeGeneres derailed her hugely successful 90s' sitcom, Ellen, by coming out to her therapist (played by Oprah Winfrey). Audiences and advertisers responded badly, and the series was canned the following year, although DeGeneres is now a successful talk show host. Ironically, a "lesbian kiss" between previously straight female characters is now the desperate plot device of choice whenever long-running shows suffer flagging ratings.

    The longest-running gay character on television is The Simpsons' Waylon Smithers. The toadying personal assistant to evil businessman Mr Burns, Smithers has been hopelessly devoted to his boss for 18 years. South Park, meanwhile, has married couple Big Gay Al and Mr Slave, and Mr Garrison, a gay man who eventually had a sex change operation so he could become a lesbian. Finding the experience too confusing, Mrs Garrison had another operation to become a man again soon after.

    In recent years, gay characters have been more prevalent on TV, though not necessarily more sympathetically portrayed. But surely the most complex and riveting gay characters to appear on New Zealand television were in that blackest of black comedies, Six Feet Under. The relationship between closeted, white, deeply religious mortician David Fisher (Michael CHall) and his moody black cop lover Keith Charles (Mathew St Patrick) was messy, tempestuous and utterly believable. David and Keith were so plausible, in fact, that some viewers found them far more challenging than more stereotypical gay characters.

    I once watched an episode of Six Feet Under alongside two men in their mid-50s who had never seen it before. At one point David and Keith suddenly pashed with palpable passion and urgency. The two men both sat bolt upright.

    "Jesus!" said one. "I didn't see that coming! That's disgusting! It must be so hard for those actors to do, you know, kissing another man on the mouth like that." The other man agreed. "Reckon," he said, looking profoundly shaken. Then a thought dawned on him. "Unless they really are gay. Because, you know, times have changed. They have gay actors too these days."

    * Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in all the World, TV2, Friday, 10pm.
    Ref: - Sunday Star Times

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