In an otherwise bleak season for sitcoms, ABC's Ugly Betty has been one of the few scripted network-TV hits in the past few years. A campy, over-the-top comedy that revolves around life at a glossy fashion magazine, the show has won a loyal fan base — in part due to its matter-of-fact portrayal of gay characters.
One of those characters is Marc St. James, the outrageously sycophantic personal assistant to fashionista Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams). He's become a regular foil for America Ferrera's title character, a scheming nemesis in the grand soap-opera style. But he wasn't always meant to be such a big part of the show.
No Longer Just A Cameo
Marc, played by actor Michael Urie, was supposed to have a short shelf life: Writers expected him to be just one in a revolving slate of assistants to Wilhelmina, who's been known to fire employees for having a bad hair day.
But Williams took a liking to Urie, including him in bits and giving him lines, helping him secure his spot on the show.
"She said, 'Stand closer to me,' Urie tells NPR's Michele Norris. "Which, in TV, is everything. Because if you're closer to the star, then you might be in the shot."
As Marc became a regular on the show, Urie got the chance to help shape the character. Most of his auditions, he explains, had involved reading for parts for which writers had provided clear guidance.
"I would go out for parts where the description for the character would be half a page. It would be: 'He's a tough-as-nails cop with a heart of gold, and whenever he gets two drinks in him, blah blah blah.' Now, the odds of me, Michael Urie, fitting what they've already come up with, it's not too high.
"And so whenever a role comes along where it says, 'Marc, Wilhelmina's bitchy gay assistant' — and that's it? — it gives someone like me a chance. Because they don't know what the hell they want. ... So that's the stuff I look for, the stuff they haven't really thought out yet — because if they've thought about it, it's probably not going to be me."
Marc's Soft Spot
As evil an over-the-top schemer as Marc can be, he does have one soft spot. He's played a mentoring role, especially in the current season, to the title character's teenage nephew. Justin, played by actor Mark Indelicato, seems to be gay, though that hasn't been made completely clear. (The Suarez clan, though they're supportive, has gone only so far as to call him "mighty festive.")
Marc offers Justin advice and stands up for him — even, in one episode, confronting his own mother (Patti LuPone) when she calls Justin "swishy."
In this week's show, he's called on to serve almost as a surrogate big brother when Justin, unhappily enrolled in public school after being rejected from performing arts school, finds himself in trouble with some bullies.
"Marc's advice is to befriend the cheerleaders, because the cheerleaders are the mean girls, and the mean girls lead to popularity," Urie explains. "And if he's with them, he won't get messed with. And so that's what he does."
Urie points out that while there have been plenty of funny gay guys on TV shows before — "I'm nothing new," he cracks — he says that the mentoring dynamic between the two characters is something new. As is Justin himself.
"To watch what's happening with Justin's character and how supportive his mother and grandfather and aunt are with him, it's a really beautiful example of how people across this country could deal with a situation that's maybe outside their comfort zone," Urie says.
Ugly Betty's writers have made Justin a precociously smart character, Urie notes. Same for his family: "They handle things correctly, they talk about problems, they treat people right." No surprise, Urie says, that Justin ultimately handles that bullying situation well.
Delivering Punch Lines, But Not Serving As One
Ugly Betty is among a newer breed of sitcoms and TV dramas in which gay characters are natural parts of a tapestry of storylines, rather than standing out as if shows are seeking a gold star for diversity.
"And they're not just a joke anymore," says Urie. "They deliver the punch lines, but they are not the punch lines."
Marc St. James, of course, often is the punch line, Urie acknowledges — "but not for being gay, for being silly. We don't make gay jokes on the show. ... They're smarter than that. And we're not catering to an audience who thinks jokes like that are funny."