Oh Henry, Henry, Henry. How could you leave us?
At least you and Amy are together again.
(The brash, adorable, gorgeous and slightly overweight Amy, whom you always loved, but which you were embarrassed to admit, because, you know, she was so slightly overweight. You know you always loved her, Henry.)
Peter Scolari, who played Henry Desmond in Bosom Buddies, ABC’s 1980 sitcom, has died, unbelievably, this morning, from cancer. Just as Wendy Jo Sperber, who co-starred as Amy on the show, died 15 years ago, from cancer.
A Fondly Remembered Show
Everyone my age watched Bosom Buddies from 1980 to 1982. The lowest-rated cancelled shows from the 1970s and early 1980s — Kolchak: The Night Stalker, When Things Were Rotten, Police Squad!, Quark and Bosom Buddies — all had huge viewership among everyone I knew then, and everyone I know now.
Bosom Buddies was nominally about two admen who don dresses in order to stay in a hotel for women, where the rents are low.
“We weren’t there to pitch that,” one of the producers later recalled. Trying to sell a buddy comedy, a male version of Laverne and Shirley, he had mentioned, in passing, Billy Wilder’s sophisticated style of humor, and the network suits liked the idea of a sitcom version of Wilder’s drag comedy, Some Like It Hot. ” ‘Oh my God, what are we gonna do?’ ” the producers asked themselves, after a pitch meeting that was both successful and off-the-rails. “ ‘We have to do something in drag.’ ”
Oddly, horribly, I finally ordered the entire series of Bosom Buddies on DVD in September and have been watching it with the family in recent weeks, and enjoying it all over again, so this death comes as an immediate kind of shock for me.
An Enlightened Sensibility
Buddies holds up quite well against other sitcoms of the era. Upon release of the DVD in 2007, the New York Times wrote that, compared its contemporaries on TV, like Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels, the “more literate” Buddies was “practically the Algonquin Round Table.”
Part of the reason that the show looks good today is a strikingly enlightened sensibility. As DVD Talk noted, “Not once in 37 episodes of the show was homosexuality used as a punchline, nor were transgender identities … [T]he concept of men in dresses … is used as a way for the guys to learn more about how women are treated first-hand.”
Many of the Season 1 episodes involve the boys learning what it’s like to live life as a woman — which Tootsie tackled in a remarkably similar fashion just months after Buddies was cancelled, to considerably more acclaim.
In one episode, Kip and Henry cast a young actress in an ad based solely on her beauty, but when they return home, as women, they find themselves equally and as-cruelly scrutinized, an incident that sends Henry briefly into Amy’s arms. In another episode, Henry is horrified when his female alter ego acquires an undeserved “reputation.”
Really, a lot like Tootsie.
“We really took a beating in the press,” Scolari noted. “But when Dustin Hoffman comes out with Tootsie, everyone goes, ‘Ooooh, masterpiece.’ ”
What are they Hiding?
Kip and Henry both enthusiastically throw themselves into “being” women. They are slightly embarrassed for a moment or too, but pretty quickly they learn to love their new look and their new female identities.
What’s going on?
In discussing the show in the LGBTQ Encyclopedia, Nathan G. Tipton noted “the appearance of two transvestites on ABC’s quirky 1980 sitcom Bosom Buddies.”
On its face, this seems to be an overreach.
But consider the episode “Sonny Boy,” from Season 1, which originally aired in February 1981.
In “Sonny Boy,” when Henry’s mother learns of her son’s cross-dressing new life, she flies from Ohio to New York, where she hires a psychiatrist to cure him of his deviancy.
Interestingly, the conflict isn’t solved with an explanation that Henry and Kip are not trans, that it’s all been a hilarious misunderstanding.
Instead, Henry’s mother comes to accept her son’s new life, because, as Henry tells her, “I’m happy.”
What, exactly, is making Henry “happy”? Saving a few dollars on the rent? Or something else?
Watching 1970s /early-80s TV is a lot like looking for hidden messages in Soviet novels.
As the Times noted, “part of the pleasure in watching these vintage episodes is to wonder about subtext…. Are these buddies hiding something from themselves as well as their neighbors? There are plenty of clues.”
“Sonny Boy” was superficially an episode about a mother agreeing that if her son wants to flout the rules to live in a hotel for women, then there is nothing she can do about it, and I guess the writers always had plausible deniability if the censors might object (“It’s all perfect normal!” the fellows exclaimed each week in the opening credits), but the episode was really “about” something else.
Did the boys really feel like women on the inside? Who knows?
But remarkably, at no time in this episode did Henry or his mother find it necessary to deny something that no one should ever have to deny.
It was an episode about acceptance. And it was funny!
The subtext is thought-provoking when seen from a distance; it was a little unnerving when seen up close, in 1980. Some of us had to consciously shrug it off, back then.
But just as Gulliver’s Travels can be enjoyed as just a funny adventure story, Buddies can be enjoyed without the subtext, as just a funny buddy comedy.
And Scolari was a funny man.
Scolari’s Later Career
He had a long, durable career, which included a long-running and popular stint on Newhart.
Today’s audiences know him from his brilliant turn as Tad Horvath, the father of Lena Dunham’s character in Girls.
In discussing her show’s Season 2, Dunham noted, in 2012, “If we have done nothing else for you, you cannot say that we didn’t show you Peter Scolari’s penis.”
Ugh. Show a little respect.
As the Google search screen shot above demonstrates, everyone knows Tom Hanks, who (by the way) also starred on the show. But I also remember “the other guy.”
Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.