By Gabriel Gonzalez
NBC’s revival of Will & Grace brought back our favorite scene-stealing, sauce-guzzling sidekick, “Karen Walker,” portrayed by Megan Mullally. In the spirit(s) of sitcom sisterhood, Flagrant takes a look at the other ever-inebriated, always outrageous supporting divas of the 1990’s sitcom universe.
In 1995, The Washington Post published an interview with Christine Baranski, hot off her Emmy win for playing “Maryann Thorpe” on CBS’ Cybill. The series, an otherwise uninspired show starring the cute, yet wooden Cybill Shepherd, was all about Baranski. WaPo beamed “Maryann Thorpe” was, “saucy, a snappy dresser, sharp-tongued and a big drinker. And she’s the best friend Cybill could have.” This character description also perfectly describes the now iconic break-out roles played by some of the great ladies of ‘90s sitcoms; Baranski (Cybill), Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me!), Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) and Mullally (Will & Grace).
While Baranski’s “Maryann Thorpe” seemed to have launched the prototype for this beloved boozehound in America, it was a British actress who really went there first. Joanna Lumley, who had appeared in 1969 as a Bond girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, brought her bombshell skills to the small screen in 1992. Lumley landed the role of “Patsy ‘Pats’ Stone,” the outrageous sidekick to the equally outrageous “Edina Monsoon,” played by comedy genius Jennifer Saunders on BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous. The series originally ran from 1992-1996. Fans were delighted when special episodes appeared over the years, leading up to a feature film in 2016. “Pats” was a former fashion model, alleged magazine editor, and ex-porn actress with impeccable fashion sense, an infallible blonde beehive and an unquenchable thirst for a “Stoli-Bolli” (a cocktail of vodka-spiked champagne). Lumley even confirmed to V Magazine in 2016 the long speculated gender-reassignment of “Pats” saying, “It’s completely normal that Patsy is transgender.” The transgender rumor sprang from an episode alluding to “Patsy’s” sex change as a man in the 1970’s, “until it fell off.” In an interview with The Guardian, who gushed that Lumley “plays the ageless, deathless, creaseless but never drugless, fagless or boozeless Patsy Stone,” Lumley spoke about her Ab Fab character as, “a strong woman. She has to be strong to survive. She hasn’t eaten since 1973, she lives on God knows what and she’ll still be ready to party even when she’s in incontinence pants.”
Across the pond, as Ab Fab was winning over a hardcore American cult following in its third year on BBC, CBS aired Cybill, giving primetime television it’s first recurring, hilariously hammered heroine. Baranski played “Maryann Thorpe” from 1995 to 1998, with a cutting, low-key bitchiness and a highly liquored bravado, winning her an Emmy for the series’ first year. Playing opposite Cybill Shepherd’s one-note acting style, Baranski, impressively portrayed the former nurse, newly divorce-rich and divorce- bitter “Thorpe” with a surprising amount of depth and alcohol-tolerance. Baranski was at first uncertain about the daring role, ultimately expressing with relief, “But to my delight, Maryann is turning out be a three-octave role. She doesn’t just swallow her martinis.” In 1995, The New York Times likened the role to the wisecracking dames of vintage Hollywood screwball comedies. Indeed, the role had vestiges of Rosalind Russell, which Baranski says, “spawned a lot of sisters,” including Just Shoot Me! (Wendie Malick) and Will & Grace (Megan Mullally).
NBC was also determined to bring back happy hour with its own versions of the pill-popping, trash-talking, liquored-up ladies of a certain age. In 1997, Wendie Malick was cast opposite David Spade in Just Shoot Me! As “Nina Van Horn,” Malick made the fashion editor, ex-cover girl, binge-drinker, and reluctant grandmother, the highlight of the otherwise stilted Spade-centered sitcom. Malick was nominated twice for her portrayal as “Van Horn,” giving the show its most memorable moments, including her fabulous Imaginary friend “Binny” who never appears. The show was a hit, running seven years until its last call in 2003, thanks in great part to Malick’s brilliant dry delivery as an aging woman, with an encyclopedic ability to know the chemical makeup of any drug by taste, all the while, coming to work hung-over, every day! Malick even showcased her pickled chops opposite another great sloshed TV siren, Amy Sedaris on an episode of the series. Sedaris, not to be outdone or outdrunk, would go on to star as the drug-addled, deluded, middle-aged high school dropout “Jerri Blank” in Strangers With Candy (1999) and then as “Mimi Kanasis,” the wine loving, wing woman to Jane Krakowski’s “Jacqueline” on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
In 1998, NBC poured into American households, the most famous and award-winning of the steel-tongued, cocktail sipping, devilishly (un)-supporting, droll comedians of the 1990’s; Megan Mullally as “Karen Walker” on Will & Grace. As in AB Fab, Mullally was paired with a top-shelf co-star (Sean Hayes as “Jack McFarland”) and two mildly pleasant leads (Eric McCormack as “Will” and Debra Messing as “Grace”). The show was a huge hit with heteros and homos alike. The comedic chemistry between Hayes and Mullally was immediately palpable and the show creators quickly built the sidekick roles into bigger parts of the show. The move paid off, winning the show numerous Emmy’s, including two for Mullally. As “Karen Walker,” Mullally gave the millionaire, maid-abusing socialite with a distinct nasal voice, perhaps the greatest level of physical humor and punch-line zingers of any of our loaded ladies. As “Grace” put it, “Karen Walker” was “a spoiled, shrill, gold-digging socialite who would sooner chew off her own foot than do an honest day’s work.” Mullally made the most of her time with guest stars too, outing Leslie Jordan’s Republican counterpart (Beverley Leslie), surviving her con-artist mother (Suzanne Pleshette) and “Gin,” her mean sister (Bernadette Peters) and most notably, “Karen” regularly went head-to-cabeza with her grumpy maid “Rosario” (Shelley Morrison).
These wise-cracking, wine-swilling sitcom sisters of the ‘90s have inspired a new generation of female characters such as “Linda Belcher” in Bob’s Burgers (voiced by John Roberts). Roberts, a proudly out young actor, was offered the role after his YouTube performances as his own mother went viral. Roberts was nominated for an Emmy in 2015 for “Linda Belcher,” the wine-guzzling, dinner-theater loving wife and mom who likes to break out into song. “Linda” explains to her children that, “Mommy doesn’t get drunk; she just has fun.”
What are your fave Pats, Maryann, Nina and Karen scenes?