WERRRK staff writer, Topher Cusumano, waxes poetic about his favorite sitcom guncle.
My boyhood summers in the ’90s weren’t spent outdoors connecting with nature. I never went to sleepaway camp or played pee-wee football. The closest I ever got to a childhood character-building experience was reading Lord of the Flies. It’s not that I had an aversion to wholesome rights of passage. It’s just that it always felt like they had an aversion to me.
I’m not looking for sympathy. I managed to fill the time. My favorite hobby as a kid was staging musicals in the center of my parent’s living room. Naturally, I played all the roles. Not to brag, but my performance of Pippin in ’98 was lauded by one critic as, “Too loud! Jesus Christ, go to bed! These kids are on my last nerve today.”
But the real highlight of my childhood summers was staying up late to watch classic sitcoms. It’s not an exaggeration to say that networks like Nick @ Nite and TVLand changed my life. The Addams Family and The Munsters taught me to be a proud weirdo. My early career ambitions were inspired by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Also, to this day, my therapist questions why I talk so much about the Happy Days episode where Fonzie jet skis over a shark. Most importantly, though, classic TV is where I first met one of the most influential gay men in my life, Uncle Arthur from Bewitched.
The popular 1960s sitcom followed the misadventures of Samatha Stevens, a witch who rebels against her family to marry a mortal. The series is punctuated with appearances by Samatha’s zany magical family. There’s Aunt Clara, a befuddled old witch who collects doorknobs and forgets spells. Or Dr. Bombay, a pompous witch doctor specializing in the treatment of magical ailments. Of course, I can’t forget Samatha’s mother, Endora, played by the iconic Agnes Moorehead. In almost every episode, Endora popped up to torment Samatha’s mortal husband, Darrin. Usually by mispronouncing his name or threatening to turn him into some kind of barnyard animal. Even as a young child, I couldn’t help but side with Endora. Darrin was fucking awful.
But despite the ensemble cast of veteran performers, no one made an impression like Uncle Arthur. Played by gay character actor Paul Lynde, Uncle Arthur prances between the line that separates hero and antagonist. He’s a trickster in the vein of mythic gods like Loki and Anansi. He’s indulgent, campy, and assured. He was, and I cannot stress this enough, so. incredibly. gay.
Uncle Arthur gave me my first vocabulary to relate to the world as a fat, femme, strange little boy long before positive queer media representation. He taught me I wasn’t just gay. I was the best type of gay: I WAS A SHOWMAN.
I only have three uncles in real life. One of them isn’t even a blood relative. He’s actually my father’s best friend from childhood. I call him uncle because I was raised to respect my elders, plus I always figured it’d be one less name to remember. Regardless, none of the men in my life were as fabulous as Uncle Arthur.
The character first appears in a season two episode of Bewitched called The Joker is a Card. It opens with Endora and Darrin calling a rare truce during a formal dinner. Samatha, always forced to play the emotional mediator for her family, is delighted by the newfound peace. But it doesn’t last long. The affected civility is interrupted by a barrage of practical jokes courtesy of Uncle Arthur, including a cake that hilariously transforms into a giant frog. Darrin expresses his usual disdain for magic, demanding that Samatha do something to control her family. But he’s not alone. Even Endora treats Arthur with the same level of contempt as she does mortals – which is saying something because, as previously stated, Darrin is the fucking awful.
The only character with sympathy for Arthur is Samantha, who describes him as her favorite uncle even though he’s known as the family’s black sheep (i.e., queer as a three dollar bill). Samatha’s love for her uncle points to her own outsider status as a witch who chooses to live as a mortal housewife. Like so many queer elders, Arthur offers Samatha a roadmap for radical self-expression in a world where exposing her identity is dangerous. He represents the promise of joy outside of restrictive familial conventions. For Samatha and the audience, Uncle Arthur answers the question: What happens if, instead of coming out of the closet, I burn it down with an exploding whoopie cushion? The answer is: It’s a hoot!
Uncle Arthur convinces Darrin that he can teach him magic as a defense against Endora’s constant nagging. It’s easy to assume the writers wanted the audience to read this plot as villainous. After all, he’s inciting chaos for his own amusement. But for me, the real take away was how important it is to fully commit to a bit.
Darrin ultimately agrees to stage a coup against his mother in law. This, of course, ends with him humiliating himself with a cowbell and a chant of gibberish. In true sitcom fashion, the family decides to team up against Uncle Arthur to “teach him a lesson about practical jokes.” But what I’ve always loved most about this episode is that the moral doesn’t stick. Instead of “learning his lesson” by integrating into familial norms, Uncle Arthur gets in one last zinger. During a tearful apology, he hands out gifts to the family. The punchline comes when Endora tries the beautiful opera glasses he gave her, only to find out they’re enchanted to smear black eye makeup on her face.
Throughout the episode, Uncle Arthur exposes that Darrin and Endora are two sides of the same coin. Both represent a governing force in Samatha’s life, and Uncle Arthur is a literal black eye on their faux morality. He agitates the status-quo that Samatha is continuously forced to negotiate.
I think a lot about Uncle Arthur now that I’m a grown-up queer with two nieces and a nephew of my own. He taught me that you can disrupt the system with a laugh. The knowledge that you can pass unspoken secrets along to a younger generation with just a sly wink. He gave me the pride of knowing that sometimes, black sheep are better off without their herd.
That’s what makes him so magical. That’s why he’s my favorite uncle.