Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
I don’t like Jerry but I do like Tom
And what they did to Tom was wrong
I don’t like the police but I do like Kong
What they did to Kong was wrong
It was wrong
What they did to Kong… was wrong
It was a big wrong, a big W!
—Screaming Blue Messiahs, “I Can Speak American”
Go ahead, scoff all you want at other cultures for their punishing game shows, their vicious tabloids, their vulgar commercials, their weird foods. We have plenty to be ashamed of right here in the USA. We gave the world Jersey Shore. We’ve found ways to construct 80 percent of our meals out of corn syrup. And we produced a sitcom in which a clearly gay actor played a dimwitted straight guy who gets raped by two fat women. Y’know, for laughs.
How did it come to this? And on Too Close For Comfort, no less?
Conceived as a vehicle for Mary Tyler Moore show co-star Ted Knight, Too Close For Comfort was based on Keep It In The Family, a British sitcom created by Brian Cooke, whose Man About The House had previously been adapted for American television as Three’s Company. Too Close For Comfort debuted on ABC in 1980 as a timeslot companion to Three’s Company, and starred Knight as an uptight San Francisco cartoonist living with his wife Muriel (Nancy Dussault) and grown daughters Jackie (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) and Sara (Lydia Cornell) in a two-family house. It was a fairly innocuous show: mostly just 22 minutes a week of Knight micromanaging his kids’ lives and generally being a blowhard (while wearing a different college sweatshirt each episode). Like Three’s Company, Too Close For Comfort was silly enough to be almost family-friendly, even though a lot of its humor was based on grown-ups cocking an eyebrow at each other’s sex lives.
Early in Too Close For Comfort’s first season, comedian Jim J. Bullock did a guest shot as Monroe Ficus, a man-child who followed his college classmate Sara around like a yapping puppy. Bullock’s ebullience and haplessness played well against Knight’s bluster, so Monroe became a frequent visitor to the Rush house that season, then an in-the-opening-credits regular about a quarter of the way through season two. Eventually, at the start of season four, Monroe moved in with the Rushes. But the character remained a neutered boob throughout the series’ six-season run. In one of Monroe’s first appearances, he hired a sex surrogate to take his virginity, but got his wires crossed and ended up putting the moves on an elderly woman played by Selma Diamond. In the third-season episode “Monroe’s Secret Love’s Secret,” he developed a crush on a cross-dresser, not realizing the woman he loved was actually a man. In the fifth season, Monroe gave romance another try, with yet another woman more than twice his age.
In Mark Rappaport’s 1992 documentary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Rappaport assembled clips from the closeted gay actor’s Hollywood films to show how writers and directors subtly alluded to—and sometimes baldly spoofed—Hudson’s homosexuality. Rappaport could’ve had a field day with what Too Close For Comfort’s producers did with Bullock. Aware that their breakout star was too queer a duck to be a Jack Tripper (let alone a Larry Dallas), they placed him in situations that emphasized his unmanliness without calling a spade a spade. They wanted Bullock to be funny, but not to be “funny.”
In an interview with GuySpy, Bullock explains that he was embarrassed by his gayness back in the early ’80s, but couldn’t help becoming more flamboyant as he grew into the role of Monroe.
They [the producers] got fan mail and said they didn’t want the character to be gay. I didn’t want him to be gay! I was a Christian. I said ‘Give me a girlfriend.’ They gave me two love interests: an 80-year-old woman and a transsexual.
Intentionally or not, Bullock was filling the specific showbiz niche previously occupied by the likes of Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly: the gay actor who plays vaguely effeminate sitcom buffoons, while hinting only coyly about his private life on game shows and talk shows. But the shtick came off a little sadder in the ’80s, with the specter of AIDS and “silence=death” haunting the gay community. (Bullock has been living with HIV since he was diagnosed in 1985, during Too Close For Comfort’s last season; his longtime partner died from AIDS-related complications in 1986.) Sure, this wasn’t the kind of show that was daring enough to make the character openly gay. But did they have to ridicule the character’s “wimpiness” so mercilessly? Did they have rape the schmuck?
“For Every Man, There’s Two Women” was shot as part of Too Close For Comfort’s fourth season, in 1984, though it didn’t air until July 20, 1985. The episode gets right down to business. Henry, Muriel, Jackie, and Sara worry when they get a call from Monroe’s boss, saying that he didn’t show up for his shift as a security guard at the mall. Just then Monroe stumbles through the front door, disheveled, and tells Henry that he’d been kidnapped. Henry assumes Monroe was snatched by a gang of brawny men, but Monroe abashedly says that he was nabbed by two women. [Laughs.] “The little one” drove the van while “the big one” sat on him. [Laughs.] They demanded he cooperate, and Monroe “cooperated all night.” [Laughs.] Jackie and Sara are confused by what this could mean, but Henry explains that these women desired Monroe and… “helped themselves.” [Laughs.]
While Monroe goes upstairs to clean up and change into his high-waisted, neatly pressed blue jeans, Henry argues with his wife and daughters, who don’t think a man can be raped, per se, given the physiological response required for a man to have sex. (Apparently these women are unaware of any kind of intercourse in which an erection isn’t involved.) As for Monroe, he’d rather forget the whole thing. He doesn’t want to call the cops. He’s “intimidated by justice” because of what happens to rape victims on TV movies. Henry says he shouldn’t watch those kinds of movies, but Monroe says, “That’s the only kind they make!” [Laughs.]
Henry insists on calling the police, and when the detective arrives, Monroe complains that the women “broke his beeper” [Laughs.] and that while his assailants did remove his blindfold, once he got a look at them he asked for the blindfold back. [Laughs.] He also says that the women threw him into a bathtub full of Jell-O, which the detective says isn’t that uncommon. (“Some of the real sickos go for shredded wheat.”) Ultimately, the detective recommends that Monroe forget about pressing charges, since there’s no way a court of law would believe that he wasn’t a willing participant.
Later that night, Monroe interrupts Henry while Mr. Rush is in the middle of having sex with Mrs. Rush, and he tells Henry that he’s decided to track down and confront his assailants. The next day he closes his eyes and lays down flat on the Rush’s kitchen table…
… tapping into his memory of where the women took him. Henry consults a map of San Francisco while Monroe remembers every stop and turn. Did the van go left on Broderick or Crawford? [Laughs.] Did they go over the two big hills at Parton and Parton Place? [Laughs.] Finally, Henry and Monroe narrow the location down to the Tenderloin district, which is “full of fleabag hotels, run-down apartments, sleazy dives, and the opera house.” [Laughs.] Then Monroe remembers that “the little one” complained about having to drive, while “the big one” yelled at her to shut up and head to The Dixie Arms. So Henry tells Muriel that they’re off to The Dixie Arms to shame these women, while Monroe brings along a spoon, in case they need to eat their way out of the Jell-O.
When they arrive, the episode gets its one actual laugh-out-loud moment, as a large, round lady in a muumuu opens the door to her apartment and Monroe shrieks, “That’s her! The little one!” While Monroe flees, Henry gets cornered first by “the little one” and then “the big one” (who appears to be a towering transvestite), and hops into their Murphy Bed, which folds into the wall with Henry still inside.
Luckily for Henry, Muriel called the police as soon as he and Monroe left, and so Henry is saved, and Monroe finally agrees to press charges—although since he ruined his shoes while running away, he asks the detective if they can stop at the mall first, where they’re having a shoe sale. (Oh, Monroe.)
Too Close For Comfort ran for three seasons on ABC, then was cancelled in 1983, only to be revived a year later in first-run syndication. In the days before Fox, and before cable channels went hard into original programming, local UHF channels filled their day with second-run sitcoms, old movies, and cheap syndicated packages—mainly consisting of cartoons, talk shows, game shows, and sports. Too Close For Comfort was part of an experiment in adding sitcoms and action-adventure series to the mix, often by extending the runs of known properties that had failed on the big three. (The most successful example of this was Baywatch, which was dropped by NBC in 1990 and then re-launched in syndication in 1991, where it ran for 10 more years.)
The idea here wasn’t to give viewers something unexpected and new; it was to give them more of what they were already used to. A lot of people who watched Too Close For Comfort in syndication in the mid-’80s had no idea they were watching new episodes. To the common channel-surfer, they would’ve looked like just another batch of repeats. And once Too Close For Comfort wrapped for good (after a one-season reboot as The Ted Knight Show, followed shortly by Knight’s death from cancer), all of its episodes ran as one series, such that few would remember that fully half the show’s run occurred after ABC’s cancellation.
That may explain the enduring fascination people have with “For Every Man, There’s Two Women.” In its first run, the episode was burned off over the summer, along with two other fourth-season episodes that had been held over for season five. Then—according to legend anyway—the episode was dropped from the Too Close For Comfort syndication rotation once the show ceased production. Not until it aired on one of those new-styled “retro” format channels last year—followed by a quick posting on YouTube—did a large number of people finally have access to an episode that had previously survived only in hazy memories and Internet rumors.
Filmmakers Ethan Duff and Fred Berman covered this phenomenon of the half-remembered broadcast in their short film “A Very Special Episode,” which can be found on the Dufftown Media website on a page that asks “Was Monroe Raped?” It’s an amusing short, which doesn’t really riff on Too Close For Comfort so much as talk about the way that these shockingly terrible pieces of our pop history get lodged into our brains and drive us slightly batty, especially once the culture moves on and we can’t find anyone else who shares our past. The closest “A Very Special Episode” comes to confronting the specific horror that is “For Every Man, There’s Two Women” is when the short’s protagonist tries to watch the episode at the Museum Of Television & Radio, and gets pulled aside by an employee who warns him of the danger of engaging with television that “attempts to have a conscience” and that “mixes solemnity with a laugh track.”
It’s hard to know what to be most appalled by in “For Every Man, There’s Two Women.” The winking debasement of a closeted actor? Or the dismissive attitude toward sexual assault? The latter is something that television has long had trouble handling with any real sensitivity. In the history of the medium—in America at least—rape has most often been used as a shocking plot device, an “issue” to debate, or something to titter about. Maybe that’s because we value power so much that we’re made too uncomfortable when power is being wielded by creeps. A plucky underdog is one thing; but someone who’s had his or her dignity stolen in such a base way is harder to handle. Hence the giggly take of Too Close For Comfort, which seems to imply that the problem isn’t that Monroe was forced at gunpoint to compromise himself, but that the people holding the gun were ugly and weird.
As for homosexuality, there’s still room for improvement, but only the most pessimistic would argue that nothing’s changed since 1985. Today, if two dudes are kissing on TV and a viewer takes offense, we tend to assume that there’s something wrong with the viewer, not the dudes. Just this past month, the Archie comics line married off its recently introduced gay character, Kevin Keller, and though a parents’ group protested, the issue still sold out, and the protest was mostly ignored (or mocked). It’s worth pausing every now and then to appreciate how radically the culture has been transformed
Do those positive changes make up for “For Every Man, There’s Two Women,” or for how shabbily Too Close For Comfort treated Jim J. Bullock? To some extent, maybe. But the episode’s not easier to laugh at—or laugh off. What they did to Monroe was wrong. A big wrong. A big W.
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Better Off Ted, “Racial Sensitivity”