My Gay Sitcom Life

The characters and television shows that shaped my teen years. By R. Eric Thomas

Illustration by Kale Halperin

My parents sent me a postcard with a single line in my mother’s impeccable penmanship; it read, “Spending your inheritance! XOXO, Cliff & Clair.” My parents are on vacation. Again. They vacation a lot these days‚ a new development, as we couldn’t afford vacations growing up.

Things sure do change.

Cliff and Clair, I should note, are not really my parents’ names – you might recognize them as the Huxtables from The Cosby Show. But that’s what my brothers and I started calling them after they became globe-trotting ballers, ordering both the surf and the turf. This is what happens when you no longer have to put three boys through private school. They sacrificed a lot to give us a Cosby life without Cosby funds. We were a black family with caviar taste and a Mrs. Paul’s budget, weirdos wherever we found ourselves.

For me, turning on the television set as a kid and finding a family like the Huxtables was a revelation. They laughed with each other. They danced. They loved. They were anomalies, though in my mind we were the Huxtables. And, I guess if I had to pick, I was Denise, the weirdest of the weirdos, ready for my own spinoff.

A burgeoning homosexual bon vivant, I knew I was even more different from my family than dear Denise, though I didn’t have a name for it. Like any young diva, I bullied my brother into participating in original musicals in our living room. You know, normal preteen behavior. Perhaps my greatest opus was the three-act epic, a kind of Muppet Babies meets Magnum, P.I. There was even a 10-minute tap dance break.

But then in 1994, My So-Called Life took over the airwaves for a brief, brilliant, maudlin moment, and my so-called life changed too. Angela Chase, the show’s lead (Claire Danes), had a flamboyant, opinionated, outish and proudish friend named Rickie (Wilson Cruz). And it was as if everyone around me had put on spectacles. Suddenly they saw me! Not so much for who I was, but for who I was becoming. It was an uncomfortable fit at first, but it was undeniable. Whatever Rickie was, I was it too. I was a purple turtleneck-wearing, Bette Midler-loving, sports-averse, grand jetting, melismatic, unicorn-riding ball of glitter. And this is putting it mildly.

TV, for better or worse, gave a name to the nameless. And looking back, even though there weren’t many Rickies in my own life growing up, I was still able to pinpoint fellow weirdos on TV to guide me along through the teen years: the Denise Huxtables, the Steve Urkels, the Jessie Spanos. And dear old Fozzie, who I’m still convinced was the gay Muppet. Think about it: He’s funny, he’s never romantically attached, and he wears a cravat. He was the Paul Lynde of The Muppet Show. Also, he’s a bear.

These days, as an out and proud gay man I look back at those televised “weirdos” and I’m reminded how some of my all-time favorite television shows guided me into my own sometimes uncomfortably fitting identity. And even now I am reminded that art can change, well, everything.

R. Eric Thomas is a performer, writer and storyteller based in Philadelphia.