As 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.
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.
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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