“It Takes all Kinds to Make a World”: Humor and Queer Representation on American Sitcoms, 1969–79

Monday, January 5, 2015: 11:40 AM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
Sascha Elise Cohen, Brandeis University
“I wish I could read more of it in academia.” – Judith Halberstam, on humor

Historians have recently began to “take humor seriously” as a topic of scholarly inquiry that can offer insight into cultural struggles. Projects by Joseph Boskin, Stephen Kercher, and Peter M. Robinson have examined American humor as a predictor of social conflict yet to be expressed via other channels, and a means of shaping political discourse. However, the study of humor has not yet been fully incorporated into histories of gender and sexuality, indicating a striking gap in an otherwise rich body of scholarship. My paper looks at humorous depictions of LGBT individuals on American television in the 1970s. I examine the ways that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans* characters were portrayed in popular sitcoms like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, Barney Miller, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son, during the decade between the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS crisis. Significantly, in addition to using historical methods, queer theory, and critical/film studies for this project, I employ an understanding of comedic tropes and devices, in order to move beyond a simple analysis of representation. This allows for a more complicated picture of how the LGBT community appeared in the media during a key moment in queer history. It reveals, for instance, that heterosexual characters actually served as the targets of jokes (either for their bigotry or stubborn do-gooder liberalism), while gay characters functioned as the voice(s) of reason, troubling the assumption that the early treatment of homosexuality on television was largely negative and stigmatizing.

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