Move over, Will & Grace. Queer as Folk be damned. Bury Six Feet Under and tell no more Tales of the City. The most influential television show in terms of gay rights was Three’s Company.
In case you don’t recall, the original premise of the show was that the only way for Jack to share the apartment with Chrissy and Janet was for him to pose as gay, and thus was someone who would not be a “risk” to the pair of single women. (As I recall, it was upstairs neighbor Larry who came up with the idea.) Jack thus had to play gay — which means John Ritter had to play straight playing gay, an echo of Victor, Victoria — while around Mr. Roper, the landlord, while also pursuing the life of a swinging single guy in the 1970s.
Today, of course, we tend to dismiss the show as perpetuating ugly stereotypes, but for the time, this was pretty groundbreaking. The plotline wasn’t used every episode, and my memory says it was pretty much forgotten after the first season, resurrected for a bit when Don Knotts came on as the fey new landlord. But just the fact that “gay” was used with any regularity at the time is impressive. And although played for laughs, “gay” Jack was still accepted and treated as a whole person by his friends and neighbors.
In other words, Jack Tripper was one of the formative influences in my gay identity. I wish it hadn’t taken John Ritter’s death to make me realize it, though. I’ve gained a whole new level of respect for the man in the past few days, thanks to this realization.
I’m also struck by the idea that Three’s Company is ripe for being remade into a new sitcom today. (Three’s Company II, bouncing off the line from the old theme song? [Track 36 on this album]) There are a number of twists which could be done, most obviously being to make Jack be gay playing straight (rather than the original reverse). Or maybe Janet and Chrissy are a lesbian couple and Jack’s a straight boy. Or move a single straight girl in with a gay male couple: Jackie, Jon, and Chris?
[Weblog title reference: The Regal Beagle was the local bar in Three’s Company.]
Updated on October 21, 2003
Updated on September 10, 2010
Victor, Victoria is from after Three’s Company, so it wouldn't have been an influence on the show, but it is a remake of a German film from the 1930s. The American musical version of La Cages aux Folles also post-dates the TV show, although the play and film it was based on are from the 1970s.