Laura San Giacomo and Sandra Bernhard talk playing a lesbian couple on “Hot in Cleveland”

Hot in Cleveland debuted in 2010 as the highest-rated series TVLand has ever aired. The sitcom, starring Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli, Wendy Malick and Jane Leeves, follows four single women described as “past-their-prime” as they attempt to find themselves (and find husbands) in Cleveland, Ohio. At the end of Season 2, the Emmy-award winning show has delved into lesbianish territory, with Wendy’s character, Victoria, marrying Jane’s Joy in Canada. Of course, they aren’t lovers — it was “accidental” and alcohol-induced.

Last week, Hot in Cleveland returned for a third season, and Joy and Victoria are still married, begrudgingly. But when Victoria is invited to discuss her past soap career on talk show The Chatter, she decides to use her marriage as a career-reviver after host Christal (played by Kathy Lee Gifford) says they are looking for a fourth co-host but she has to be a lesbian (“to compete with the Rosies and the Ellens”). She announces that she’s now married to a woman — and has Joy stand up in the audience. The Chatter hosts want to know how “two lipsticks” work; the Elisabeth Hasselbeck type says “You two make a lovely abomination.” It’s a little eye-roll worthy.

Later, Elka’s husband asks “how many lesbians it takes to make [him] a sandwich” and criticizes Joy for what she gives him, saying “No wonder you can’t get a man.”

The comedy comes from Joy and Victoria, who fight like they are married and refer to being hitched constantly. It’s only a negative thing because they are not in love; not because they aren’t really gay.

On the next episode (which airs tonight), Victoria is invited to come on a lesbian cruise. She bribes Joy to come along by promising her a designer purse, and Elka (White) and Melanie (Bertinelli) decide to join them.

Once aboard the ship, Melanie happens upon her sister, played by Laura San Giacomo and her girlfriend, Nan (Sandra Bernhard). Neither sister can believe the other is gay — of course, Melanie actually isn’t. They’re estranged, but their sudden common thread brings them together.

San Giacomo said the part of Melanie’s lesbian sister was written specially for her. The actress had co-starred with Wendy Malick on Just Shoot Me in the 1990s.

“I was at an event at [Wendy's] house and Jane was there and Valerie was there and we were standing around talking and they were very sweet of course and said ‘You should come and play on our show.’ I said ‘I would love to. I want to do something that’s not — I see you guys are all into the primping and the fussing and the being obsessed with men and I want to do something totally different, where you have to either really — where I’m just very different from you guys.’ And that ended up being the comedy. So this idea came up … for a lesbian sister.”

San Giacomo said she asked her on-screen girlfriend Bernhard for advice on her character, but realized there wasn’t much she could give her. “I said to her, ‘Please tell me if you see something that’s like really stereotypical or really bad.’ And she said ‘Oh, please — there is no stereotype anymore and there’s no thing. You just are a lesbian or you’re straight, but you’re just a person.’” she said. “I was trying to think about that in my mind: We are all just people and our sexual orientation is one thing but I can’t go to a stereotype because that’s old news. That’s 20, 30 years ago. So I was really happy that she said ‘There’s nothing. There’s just people.’ I was like “Great! That’s what it should be.” Certainly there are extremes within any type of person, whether it be the macho Italian guy or the punky lesbian or a showgirl bimbo — there are extremes but there are also the opposite. There’s a range within every type.”

Bernhard told me that stereotypes are just moot at this point. “People are people. I travel around the midwest all the time and I see these women who I swear are hardcore lesbians and they’re running around with husbands and children,” she said. “Some people look like lesbians, some people don’t look like lesbians and they are. You can’t really go too cliche, I don’t think.”

As a couple on the show, the women are neither butch nor femme, rather dressed in cruise-appropriate wear (San Giacomo in a peasant top and jeans, Bernhard in a long dress) and affectionate with one another in a sweet way. San Giacomo is so likable, you wonder why she and Valerie’s character were unable to get along. But when she finds out Melanie has been lying about being gay the whole time, they have a long-needed heart-to-heart and Caroline tells her sister why she couldn’t confide in her growing up.

“I felt a great responsibility,” San Giacomo said. “Certainly I’m going to be speaking for a lot of kids who grew up and knew they were gay and were really afraid to talk about it to anyone. And so we really played around with that scene. It was really kind of too funny and too big and too broad and then it was really too serious and the director of course was really wonderful and said, ‘You’re however old you are — you’re over it. You have a great life. You’re fine, you’re functioning, you’re fabulous! You’ve gone through it just like anyone’s gone through any hardships of being a teenager so just tell her your story.’ So I think, again, it plays into a stereotype of getting a little too heavy. Not bad in the process to explore that, to give it the proper weight that it should and the proper responsibility, because if one teenage boy or girl sees that and it can help them no matter what they feel like how they are different from other people: ‘I felt different, I felt really alone, I wish I could have told you.’”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Caroline tells her sister. “When you’re a kid and you realize you’re gay, you automatically have a secret and that makes you feel different from everyone else. And it’s even harder when your sister is little miss angel. It would have been really nice to talk to you about it. Maybe I was scared … scared you’d think I was weird, scared you’d tell mom and dad, so I just put up this wall and I got used to living behind the wall.”

But the mood is lightened when Caroline adds that she didn’t say anything because then she wouldn’t have been able to have sleepovers with her girlfriends anymore. Also, she “scored a cheerleader.” Melanie is nothing but tickled about it.

San Giacomo said she the joke on set was not to make it too “very special lesbian episode of Hot in Cleveland.”

“Even though, certainly, it’s a comedy and there’s a lot of fun and crazy stuff, there’s a maturity, I think, in that writing,” she said.

And that comes across in the episode, as all of the women are happy to pretend to be gay. A decade ago, the idea of being thought of gay on a sitcom would be seen as a negative thing. Now, it’s the best thing that could happen to Victoria.

“That’s what Wendy’s character needs to do to jumpstart her career, to make her more interesting,” San Giacomo said. “I think that must be — certainly you’ve tracked this closer than I have, but in the last 10 years but that’s really blown wide open. It’s kind of fantastic.”

Bernhard is no stranger to that. As one of television’s first regular queer characters on Roseanne, she said she is so happy to have been a part of the pivotal show.

“I was thrilled to be on one of the best shows that was ever on television,” Bernhard said. “It was a groundbreaking character, not just because she was bisexual but because it was so well-written and funny and Roseanne did everything that just broke the mold. The whole cast was amazing, everybody was fun to work with. The reason it still plays 10 times a day is because it still resonates. It’s a great show.”

By the end of the episode, viewers find that the jokes are never at our expense. Instead of the lesbian being at the butt of the joke, Caroline is the most authentic character on the show. And she’s forgiving of her sister, who lies to her, and her gaggle of friends who have lied to everyone.

As of now, San Giacomo said she hasn’t been asked back to the show, but would be willing to come back for future episodes. She describes the set as “fantastic, lovely and wonderful.”

“Everyone’s really sweet and having a lot of fun and grateful. And positive. And very effective and efficient but everybody is working very hard,” she said. “But it’s a very nice atmosphere. Very warm. That’s what women do really well!”

Besides the stint on Hot in Cleveland, San Giacomo is a full-time mom, taking some time off from Hollywood. Bernhard is gearing up for her annual holiday show at Joe’s Pub, which she describes as an intimate party with things she’s written, fun songs and a live band with fans who live in New York or happens to be there. She’s also going to be touring the states with her new show I Love Being Me, Don’t You? and will appear on an episode of Good Christian Belles next spring.

“I play some crazy — I kidnap the girls down in Mexico because they’re trying to sell a condominium project,” she said. “It’s really funny.”

And Bernhard does funny well, which is why no one will be mad when her role on Hot in Cleveland takes a turn for the terrible by the end. (I won’t spoil it for you, but if you watch it, you’ll see what I mean.)

 

Although the jig is up for Victoria and Joy, they are technically still married, so who knows how long the lesbian jokes will last on this season. But for the most part, it’s been a fun ride that an older demographic watches every week. There’s nothing but good that can come out of that.

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