It was just an ordinary night in America, with two men taking a chance at love.
It was our very first sitcom taping so my husband and I had no idea what to expect. I was surprised that so much of the action actually took place, not on the set, but in the audience, highlighted by a charmingly unexpected feat of matchmaking involving two bachelor members of the U.S. Air Force.
It was the regular Tuesday evening taping of Dr. Ken, the new hit ABC show starring Ken Jeong. Prior to taping and between takes, LA comedian Gary Cannon did a brilliant job of whipping the audience of 200 or so into a happy frenzy. Jeong and co-star Tisha Campbell-Martin belted out an amusing parody of Atlantic Starr’s hit “Always,” declaring their love for Sony and ABC.
A DJ spun upbeat tunes that ranged from Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” (we all sang) to DJ Casper’s “Cha Cha Slide,” while a chorus line of about a dozen young women from the audience spontaneously danced.
Cannon singled out folks in the audience for various shticks and awarded prizes—mostly gift cards and a coffee mug from the Dr. Ken set—to the good sports who included a young woman named Reneé, who could shake her booty like one of JLo’s backup dancers, and an 80-year-old grandma named Yvonne. When handing Granny the prop coffee mug, Cannon teased, “Here, put your vodka in this every morning.”
The most desirable audience participation prize at stake was an official Dr. Ken lab coat, worn by Jeong during the show. As the cameras and jokes continued to roll, we wondered who’d be deemed worthy. Whose enthusiasm and willingness to put themselves out there would merit the coveted doctor garb?
The bits and the perks were all part of an effort to keep us pumped up, engaged and primed to laugh once the cameras were rolling. The show is funny, with strong writing and talented actors who have great comedic timing. But it was a long evening—nearly four hours. So the very personable Cannon’s energy, quick wit and willingness to push the envelope kept things exciting.
Cannon recognized various groups attending the taping together, among them a dozen or so members of the Air Force who were all in civvies and appeared to be in their twenties.
“You’re single?” he asked one of the young men in the group. “Come on up here!”
So up went Phil, an attractive, youthful guy who was fit and strong like a high school wrestler. He had short, cropped blond hair and an easy smile. Cannon kidded him about the vanity of removing his glasses before asking if there was perhaps a young lady in the group he was interested in.
“You can tell me. I won’t tell anyone,” Cannon joked.
And then Phil turned the audience on its ear. He identified a male Air Force colleague in a red sweatshirt.
“Oh, so you’re gay?” Cannon asked. He was friendly and matter of fact, no judgment or prurience, which seemed to be the disposition of the audience, as well.
Phil shrugged and said he liked both men and women. It was no big deal.
Turns out the red-sweatshirted object of his affection felt the same way because he happily agreed to a dinner date with Phil and expressed a preference for LA’s legendary In-N-Out Burger.
I was loving this.
A little more than four years after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” finally went away in 2011, I was witnessing firsthand a serviceman publicly declare his attraction for another guy with no fear of recrimination and no gasps of shock from the audience—a sea change from the era of The Pink Marine; Greg Cope White’s new memoir of being closeted at boot camp.
I’m not in the military, but I’m a mother of a daughter who happens to be attracted to women. She was raised in Kansas, where Fred Phelps and his hateful band of bigots regularly wreak havoc, picketing with their vile rhetoric, ugly signage and dark hearts. In her young adult life, she has witnessed history as many barriers to her equality have been, and continue to be, broken down.
Naturally, I’m thrilled with the expansion of LGBTQ rights in our country, but that wasn’t remotely on my mind when my husband and I first sat down in that Sony Pictures studio to watch a Dr. Ken taping on Tuesday night. It was just a regular weekday evening in an American city where, to paraphrase that Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant scene from Notting Hill, there was “just a boy, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love him…”
It was the best of all worlds. We went for the comedy, got the bonus of a little romance, and beheld the tangible example of a young airman exercising rights that were hard-fought and long overdue. I doubt Phil expected that when he sat down in the studio either, and I don’t know if it was any big deal to him at all. Maybe it was a bigger deal to him that he took home the Dr. Ken lab coat. But it felt significant to me because, not that long ago, it simply wouldn’t have happened. And maybe, just maybe, there were people in the audience whose eyes and hearts were opened by something so sweet and honest and real.
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Photo: Getty Images