In Brief

The Simpsons' Smithers comes out as gay after 27 years

Animated sitcom handles sexuality of long-running character with 'surprising subtlety', say critics

After 27 years in the closet, The Simpsons' Waylon Smithers Jr has been given a coming-out episode, inspired by the sexuality of the son of one of the show's writers.

Smithers's unrequited passion for his evil geriatric employer, Mr Burns, has long been a source of humour on The Simpsons. But while the character's homosexuality may be an open secret, he has never acknowledged it.

But in an episode screened in the US on Sunday, Smithers finally admitted his orientation publicly. However, there was no big reveal: instead, the show simply insisted that its characters already knew Smithers was gay - and that he himself did.

It was all "surprisingly subtle", considering his "gayness has sometimes been drawn broadly in the past", says The AV Club, citing a "smutty joke about him having something jammed up his butt" in an earlier episode as an example of less-sensitive treatment.

In the episode, Homer Simpson decides to find Smithers a boyfriend after overhearing him bemoaning the fact that Mr Burns will never reciprocate his love. Characteristically, he acts for selfish reasons - he hopes Smithers will be a more relaxed boss when no longer single.

The subtlety is thanks to episode writer, Rob LaZebnik, who told the New York Post: "We didn't really want to have that big moment of 'I'm out,' you know? Instead, just have it be a big embrace - like everyone knows it."

LaZebnik, who has worked on the show for years as a producer and writer, has a 21-year-old son, Johnny, who is gay, says the Post. "I am a Midwestern guy, so I don't tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve, but I thought, 'What better way to tell my son I love him than to write a cartoon about it?'," he said.

His psychology student son, who planned to throw a party with his friends to watch "his" episode, added: "The revelation that my father loves me is not much of a revelation, thankfully. 

"He's unbelievably accepting. We're as close as a straight dad and a gay son could be."

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