Jack Tripper: Was He Good for the Gays?

threescompanyAs the legend goes, aspiring chef Jack Tripper awoke one morning passed out in the bathtub of Janet and Chrissy’s apartment after crashing the sendoff party for their third roommate, Eleanor, who was leaving to have her baby.

Turns out Jack needed a place to stay, and Janet and Chrissy would like nothing more than a new roommate who could cook. But there’s just one problem. Even though this is Santa Monica beach in the swinging ’70s, Janet and Chrissy have a landlord who’s set in his ways, and doesn’t look kindly on this new-fangled kind of cohabitation. Enter Mister Roper. In Roper’s mind, without the sanctity of marriage, men should live with men and women with women, unless….

 

Roper is old school about unmarried men and women cohabiting in the same apartment, and he certainly approves of gay jokes, but apparently he doesn’t have a problem with renting an apartment to a gay man provided said tenant is living with straight women. Maybe anti-discrimination laws played a part, I cannot say.

Either way, the rest is history, and the question before us now is: Was Jack Tripper good for the gays?

 

I think so.

 

Sure, you could argue that Jack Tripper was a stereotype from an era when an over the top swish routine got guaranteed laughs, but John Ritter’s Jack Tripper was an ultimately sympathetic character, a gentle, relatable guy always in a bind.

Jack Tripper was ahead of his time in more ways than one. He was TV’s most famous culinary student in an era when Julia Child defined the TV chef persona. A full generation before Anthony Bourdain made restaurant cooking a cool and youthful endeavor, there was Jack Tripper showing us how it was done.

As a hip, swinging straight guy under 30, Tripper was the winner of the 60s Cultural Revolution. Though not gay himself, Jack’s predicament on Three’s Company had the effect of aligning his winning hand with closeted gay men. They both had to live a secret life through no fault of their own. This common predicament placed both parties on the same side against the Man, the Landlord, Roper.

Roper v. Tripper

Roper v. Tripper

Don’t kid yourself. Though “Three’s Company” was billed as just a sitcom, every episode was a battle of wills between Tripper and Roper. It was Bugs Bunny vs. Elmer Fudd mano a mano in the trenches of generational warfare. By the end of the 70s, gay rights was the last active battle front in the Nixonian conflict of fathers vs. sons, an ideological Cold War that could have only one winner.

I’d like to think that when the show’s creators first pitched “Three’s Company” to Network TV, Network TV said yes, but on one condition: Bring us the man who played the heavy in “The Graduate,” the Berkeley landlord who gave Dustin Hoffman a mistrustful once-over and warned that he brooked no harbor for “outside agitators.” Bring us that man to be Jack Tripper’s adversary, and you shall have your show.That landlord of course was Norman Fell.

"You're not one of those outside agitators, are you?"

“You’re not one of those outside agitators, are you?”

Stanley Roper was the last of the Archie Bunker TV reactionaries. But he was no Archie Bunker. Oh, no. He was a caricature of Archie Bunker, an impotent old man fooled by everyone carrying on behind his back while he clung to the illusion that he was running a tight ship.

As for gay roles on TV, there was Billy Crystal’s Jodie on “Soap” in the late 70s, and that was it besides John Ritter’s closeted straight man role on “Three’s Company.” Other than Roseanne Barr’s moment of bicuriosity, I can’t think of any gay characters until “Will and Grace” aired in the late 1990s. I must be forgetting someone, because that seems like an awfully long dry spell for network TV (Indeed, I did forget Officer Zitelli, who came out over the last two seasons of Barney Miller in the early 80s).

The dry spell seems to drive home a larger truth of our era–namely, that while just about every other previously marginalized group had broken into the mainstream well before the end of the millennium, gays had not, not even on TV, not until Ellen DeGeneres came out in the late 90s.

Apres Ellen, the deluge. All at once the barriers come down. First comes TV, then comes marriage. It reminds me of the suddenness of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. For our entire lives we lived with the Cold War understanding that this would be the situation forever, that any progress would be incremental at best and likely to be accompanied by significant bloodshed. Instead, it fell all at once and was accompanied by an all night party.

The 1970s were the decade of change, when the hard and unglamorous work of implementing the ideals pushed through in the 1960s took place. As usual, television led the way. TV was the parallel universe where our idealized selves were projected back at us for our own edification.

During that decade, we were introduced to black lead characters, Latino lead characters, outspoken feminist lead characters, career women, divorcees, elderly private detectives, handicapped detectives, obese detectives, and so on.  The 70s offered us a post-discrimination America, a nation that had gone from a rules-based society to a rights-based society. What we saw on TV is what we got in real life: minority rights, rights for the disabled and for senior citizens, women’s lib. These were all an indisputable part of the social fabric by the time Gerald Ford tripped down the stairs of Air Force One. And yet, other than the Billy Crystal character on Soap (a show which was always too dark and seditious for mainstream America) and Officer Zitelli on Barney Miller, there were no gay characters on TV and no gay acceptance on the horizon.

It would be another three decades before the full benefits of the social contract were extended to that last disenfranchised group, same sex couples, clearing the way for the true entry of gay Americans into the mainstream.

By the 90s it started happening on TV: Roseanne’s kiss, Pedro on The Real World, Ellen, Will & Grace. But today, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling, let us remember television’s first attempt to make gay okay way back in 1977. John Ritter has been dead for ten years now (a fact that in itself is shocking). But in some small way, what we are seeing now all started with him and his sympathetic portrayal of Jack Tripper.

Of course, Jack Tripper was pointedly not gay, that was the premise of the show. But Jack was comfortable pretending to be gay, and even when he was being his hetero, skirt-chasing self, he had a sensitive, caring demeanor: He cooked, he spoke in a high-register, he had a baby face, and he seemed very comfortable being one of the girls with Chrissy and Janet. Jack Tripper was TV’s first metrosexual.

Jack was a closeted straight man, and he was the much beloved star of one of TV’s top-rated shows for many seasons. He was TV royalty, and for those of us old enough to remember the show and young enough to have been shaped by it, Jack Tripper made gay okay.

They say that acceptance of gay equality is sharply delineated along age lines. Statistically speaking, the younger you are, the more accepting you are. I’ll bet that for a lot of Boomers and Gen-Xers, the weekly allotment of Tripper vs. Roper laid more of the groundwork for that acceptance than they are aware of.

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6 comments for “Jack Tripper: Was He Good for the Gays?

  1. July 9, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    This gave me a lot to think about it. First, know that I am extremely conservative now, in reaction to the liberal world that I grew up in. I did watch this show every week when I was a child, and of course I thought Jack was cool. As the cook, as the “closeted straight man” (which reminded me of Buffy and Hildegarde stifling their masculinity in “Bosom Buddies”), and of course, he was sympathetic and cute in a pretty way, not in a butch Selleck way. My best friends in college were gay men, so I trumpeted their rights at the time. We cried when Pedro died; we wanted to later sue “Will & Grace” for writing our life stories. But then it just got over the top. Madonna “dating” Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne’s mother coming out (which seemed ridiculous), etc. You say Jack might have acted the “swish impersonation,” but the very thing that got so tired to me was how all the gay men I knew fell directly into that stereotype, with “two snaps up” and the bitchy tone and dialect. I got sick of how they were never themselves, but always this same guy. Now I hate it when I see it on every other “Househunters” episode has two nelly, brightly colored Bermuda-shortwearing, tanktopped prissy things. I get it, I get it! You guys have lots of disposable income and know how to decorate your new million dollar house. Super! And last night on the new Bear Grylls show, you don’t need gaydar to know the two ripped tan guys in tight boxer briefs are the gay ones. How refreshing it would be to have that part of your identity just be PART, not everything. You don’t have to subscribe to that, you don’t have to REEK of it. Women, too. Ellen came out and damn, there went the hair, and then shaved some more, and the Converse and the vests and the trousers. I love Ellen; she is kind and good, but is she really being Ellen or is she looking like every other lesbian I see on the street? And yes, I do remember watching Jodie on “Soap.” That was a neat show.

    • admin
      July 11, 2013 at 9:13 pm

      Kerbey, you were in college when Real World SF was on? You may be an old soul (or choose a more acceptable term) but you’re not very old at all.

      As a self-absorbed straight guy who went to one of the most homogenous universities in the nation during the interregnum between Jack Tripper and Pedro on the Real World, I was fairly oblivious to everything. Even now I’m blessed with a remarkable ability to tune out real people in order to maintain the inner sanctum provided by classic TV reruns. That’s what got me where I am today.

      One thing I liked about Will & Grace was that they allowed Jack to be shallow and vain, rather than stoic and righteous. As for the HGTV shows, I suppose one of the rewards of societal acceptance is that you get to be as shallow and transparent as everyone else on reality TV. BTW, I had to give up the HGTV cable channel a couple of months ago, but before I did, my favorite program was Love It Or List It, featuring remarkable Canadian facsimiles of Christiane Amanpour and Fredo from the Godfather movies. For whatever reason, I liked them a lot. It seems like Canadians are the world leaders in this genre of cable programming.

  2. July 11, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    Yes, I was in college then. And thank you for saying I’m young bc I mostly feel 103. I covet your ability to tune out real people. We watch Love It Or List It a lot, but they only just started showing the Canadian version (Love it or list it, too). So we see David and Hillary go at it, and Hillary always says in her Brit accent, “I guess I’ve got my work cut out for me.” Why on earth would you want to get rid of HGTV? Ugly things are being made pretty, you get to judge floorplans and ocean views, etc. Plus you are missing that blonde Canadian dude who always wears the wifebeater and overalls and says “aboot” instead of “about” and “hoce” instead of “house.” Are you fasting from the pleasure of media?? And btw, if you were self-absorbed and straight, did a braless, ditsy, laughsnorting Crissy do it for you? Did Janet? Janet was like the Kate Jackson of Charlie’s Angels; too serious, I would think. I would rather be longlegged Terry.

  3. admin
    July 14, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    I always liked Terry the best. She seemed the most “earthy”. But I have to say, Suzanne Somers did a good job portraying Crissy, the dumb, oh so desirable blonde. Janet…was Janet. Never liked that Jennilee Harrison, too fake and lip glossy.
    I almost got rid of cable altogether. My bill was getting insane, and when I looked into it, I was not happy with Comcast’s business practices, their itemized bills are big on colorful letterhead but vague on details. They act like a state monopoly even in an era when virtually all their content is available freely or cheaply online. But, I do need the internet, so they made me an offer I can’t refuse.

  4. C.
    July 17, 2016 at 3:00 am

    Meshach Taylor- Designing Women

  5. Marko Antonio Mollika
    October 30, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    The TV show “Three’s Company” from the 1970’s, in retrospect, was nothing short of sickening ! Grossly homophobic, ignorant and quite vicious ! It premiered in 1977, the same year Anita Bryant crusaded her “Save Our Children” campaign in Florida to get gay men suspected of being teachers fired because they were out to “recruit” the children…and turn them all gay ! I mean, really now ? Of course, we must look at the times to see how they got away with such intolerant and outright venom-filled hate towards gays back then.That was a totally different world….Jack (John Ritter), had to say he was gay in order for the old and repulsive landlord to allow a man to take an apartment with two young ladies. In the 1970’s, it was still very taboo for men and women to live together and not be married. They called him every name in the book; a sissy, a fairy, half a man, etc. He was vilified and victimized openly and proudly….and homosexuals had no rights or power in those days to confront and stop the bigotry and propagation of false stereotypes and age-old myths. Of course, this was seen as “hilarious” and represented the status-quo of the day. Furthermore, he was supposed to really be straight, because nobody was “out” back then and being viewed as homosexual was worse than actually being a criminal, drug addict, murderer or rapist ! I for one, find the dialog of the show extremely disturbing and anybody that does not see this is either a religious nut or conservative and anti-gay dreg in today’s world. One positive thing is that viewing this and then seeing the attitudes today, shows we have come a really long way in nearly 40 years of treating gays fairly as human beings, consenting adults and those all around us that no longer have to hide, live in fear and remain invisible !

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