Over 20 years ago, Ellen Degeneres, both as herself and as the fictional character she portrayed, came out as gay on her sitcom. She was one of the first to do so and it was a watershed moment for LGBTQ+ representation. In the years since, queer characters and actors have made monumental strides on TV. How much you want to ascribe credit to Ellen herself or Ellen the series is up to you, but if you want to see just how much has changed, you need only to look at a show like One Day at a Time, which returns to TV screens (now at Pop TV) this week.
Direct comparisons between Elena’s coming out on One Day at a Time and Ellen’s own coming out in the infamous “The Puppy Episode” seem almost obvious. Not only do both Ellen and Elena go through many of the same paces, but also both series depict the anxieties surrounding the coming out process, including the struggle of some family and friends to fully accept this new normal. The journey of these two characters is the same–but the humor is far from it.
Often what makes a joke work is the fact that it breaks the tension of a moment. Comedy makes us uncomfortable or anxious and then provides catharsis through humor. For both Ellen and One Day at a Time, the characters and the audience are anxious about the queerness of Ellen and Elena, but each series approaches that queerness and the humor surrounding it from wildly different perspectives. In both “The Puppy Episode” and the following episode, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” Ellen’s sexuality itself is the source of the tension and the subject of the comedy. On One Day at a Time, that tension and humor are instead directed, not at queerness or queer people, but at the absurdity of homophobia.
Ellen and queer-focused jokes
Let’s briefly break down a few of these jokes, shall we? Take, for example, the way Ellen frames its titular character’s coming out to her parents. In “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” Ellen decides to reveal her sexuality to her parents at dinner. The majority of the tension and the humor leading up to her coming out is positioned around her own anxiety over telling her parents the truth and her seeming inability to get the message across. Once she rips off the bandaid, that tension and humor shifts to her parents and their difficulty in accepting it. In both cases, what’s funny, ultimately, is that Ellen is gay. Either she’s gay and the humor is that we know it and Ellen can’t seem to get her parents to understand, or she’s gay and her parents can’t wrap their brains around it. The latter example is perhaps more obvious, as her parents humorously attempt to dismiss their waiter so he doesn’t hear what’s going on only to crack jokes like telling their daughter she “wasn’t gay yesterday” or that she’s just “too choosy” when it comes to men.
The thing is, Ellen’s jokes are funny. They’re set up well and delivered excellently and the anxiety of the scene is palpable and relatable. But it was also 1997, and queerness, though not alien to LGBTQ+ viewers and allies, was still incredibly underrepresented, misunderstood, and for a lot of people struggling with their own sexuality, a truth that would likely cause more problems than it solved. In structuring its jokes toward queerness, Ellen asked the audience, very politely, to tolerate it’s main character and star.
One Day at a Time and homophobia-focused jokes
For comparison, take a similar journey from One Day at a Time, in which Elena comes out to her mother, Penelope. Instead of centering the story around Elena’s struggle to share this news with her family, One Day at a Time instead centers Penelope, and her struggle to accept her daughter’s big news. In flipping the script, One Day at a Time manages to ensure that Elena is never the butt of the joke. Rather it is the idea that Penelope could be, even a little bit, homophobic that is considered hilarious and ridiculous.
That’s not to say that humor about queer stereotypes doesn’t exist in the show. Elena jokes about being butch when she gets a job as a handyman in their building and Lydia jokes about knowing another girl is gay because she only wears chapstick. In “Pride and Prejudice,” when Penelope asks her friend Ramona how she will know when a girl Elena brings home is a girlfriend rather than a friend, Ramona says, “Are you asking how to spot a lesbian? Do some of us have short hair? Yes. Do we generally prefer gender neutral clothing? Sure. Does a perfect day involve going to candle-making class in our Subaru with a roof rack full of antiques? That’s just solid American fun.”
In One Day at a Time, jokes about queerness and queer stereotypes are only ever told by queer people or proven allies because it’s only funny if we’re in on the joke.
Those jokes, though, serve not to poke fun at gay people, but to highlight the inherent absurdity of Penelope’s concern. In One Day at a Time, jokes about queerness and queer stereotypes are only ever told by queer people or proven allies because it’s only funny if we’re in on the joke. Where Ellen asked for acceptance, One Day at a Time demands it.
One Day at a Time also takes things several steps further than Ellen was ever able. Due to the simple fact that the series centers itself around a Cuban-American family, Elena represents more than just a queer character. She is, instead, representative of a multitude of intersections of identity: queer, Latinx, working class, feminist, woman. In creating a character who encapsulates so many things, Elena and One Day at a Time give a voice to viewers who might otherwise never have seen themselves represented, and recognizes that the experiences of one person are not the experiences of all.
In the season following Elena’s coming out, the series decided to also tackle the subject of gender identity as lightly and humorously as it had previously tackled sexual identity. Part way into Season 2, One Day at a Time decided it was time for Elena to start dating and introduced Syd, a nonbinary character who had a big dorky crush on her. In the two years since their introduction, One Day at a Time has been careful to both reaffirm Syd’s gender identity — at one point devoting a string of puns to Elena’s desire to refer to Syd as something other than her girlfriend, since Syd is not a girl — while managing to make it only a portion of their character development. In fact, the majority of Syd identity and the jokes surrounding them actually have to do with the fact that they are a socially awkward nerd who lacks much of the self-consciousness that defines Elena’s slightly more reserved character. Syd’s identity also manages to complicate Elena’s, allowing a lesbian identifying character to both accept the spectrum of gender and date outside the binary usually assigned to gay and straight.
Where Ellen asked for acceptance, One Day at a Time demands it.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation on screen, especially if we’re talking about queer identities outside of our set binaries. I think we all know that, and it’s part of the reason we continue to discuss the good and the bad of queer rep in TV and film. But as we settle in for another season of One Day at a Time, it’s nice to look back at where much of that representation started to see just how far we’ve come.