When Christopher Guest approached Jane Lynch about taking on the role of a lesbian dog trainer in his 2000 improvised film Best in Show, the actress said she didn’t think twice about what it would mean to play a gay character on screen. For that, she says she had Ellen DeGeneres to thank.
“I never even thought of that,” Lynch, who had been obsessed with the filmmaker’s previous movie Waiting for Guffman, tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “I never even thought about it at the time.”
For as big a break as Best in Show was for the then 40-year-old actress, she had no idea how far the role of Christy Cummings would take her career.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, this is a Christopher Guest movie, people are going to know who I am after this!’” she says. “‘And I’m playing a gay person, will they think I’m a gay person?’ That didn’t even cross my mind. So I’m glad for that.”
By that point, it had been just three years since DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time magazine next to the words, “Yep, I’m gay” and uttered the same declaration in character on her sitcom. As the comedian spoke about at length in her Netflix stand-up special, coming out completely derailed her career.
“For five minutes, it was really celebrated and then everyone changed their minds,” DeGeneres says on stage, joking darkly that “side effects” of being publicly gay at that time “may include loss of family, loss of friends and unemployment.” When she started pitching her daytime talk show, she was told that “no one’s going to watch a lesbian during the day.”
“Well, they weren’t watching me at night,” DeGeneres replies. “What time of day is good for a lesbian?”
Watching all of this unfold as an actor just trying to get work in Hollywood, Lynch was undaunted. It helped that DeGeneres proved the haters wrong and went on to be one of the most successful media figures of all time.
“It made my being a gay person in Hollywood a no-brainer, not a problem at all,” Lynch says, looking back. “Because she basically took one for the team, if you will.”
If someone had asked DeGeneres when she was a little girl, “Do you want to be a gay icon who blazes a trail for everybody else?” Lynch doubts she would have said yes. “But she did it. She stood there and took it and did it and was honest.”
“She’s right up there with Oprah and I think that’s a great thing,” Lynch, who is currently hosting the popular game show Hollywood Game Night on NBC, adds. “So I’m indebted to her for that, because I didn’t have to do any of that. I just got to be an actor playing a role, which I’m really grateful for.”
Before DeGeneres came out, Lynch worried about what being gay would mean for her dream of becoming an actor. She recalls being around 25 years old and “laying in bed at night thinking, What’ll I do if they find out? I haven’t even told my parents yet! Will I be able to do what I want to do?”
She found solace in the group of comedians with whom she performed sketch comedy night after night at Second City in Chicago. “It didn’t matter that I was gay and anybody else was straight, it just didn’t matter,” she says. “It hasn’t mattered my whole life. That’s why it breaks my heart that, especially for kids out there, it matters. And they are keeping a secret deep within themselves that they’re afraid will be exposed.”
Unlike DeGeneres, Lynch never felt the need to make any big pronouncements on magazine covers or TV interviews.
“I didn’t really have a ‘coming out,’” she says. “I just showed up and didn’t say I wasn’t.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Former Daily Show correspondent and host of ABC’s Holey Moley, Rob Riggle.