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A Fond Farewell to the Loveable Lech
This article was originally posted on my website on 3/5/23.
The 1970s ushered in an unsettling staple of workplace sitcoms that I like to call the “Loveable Lech.” You know the guy: He relentlessly harasses the women around him, constantly making passes and lewd comments, but everyone else acts like it’s cute and charming, and the canned laughter goes wild for his bawdy antics. Despite the fact that he deserves to be fired and sued for sexual harassment, the rest of the gang still love him, and his occasional uncharacteristically sensitive moments ostensibly make up for his usual pervyness.
It’s obvious why this character trope is problematic. He’s sexist and chauvinist, he objectifies women, and if he was a woman, the archaic stereotypical sitcom double standard would label him a “Slutty Spinster” (another trope I might blog about later). Yet for at least three decades, this character was accepted and even loved. It seems like a bizarre alternate universe, but in the world of American television, it was standard.
Despite some lingering misguided affection I may have for a few of these characters, I’m happy to see this disgusting trope buried in the sitcom graveyard. As a fond farewell, here are some examples of the Loveable Lech character from some of my favorite sitcoms, what I love and hate about each of them, and what made each of them stand out from the crowd of stereotypical pervs.
Dan Fielding — Night Court (John Larroquette)
Perhaps the epitome of the Loveable Lech is Dan Fielding, the assistant district attorney on Night Court. His sexual escapades and incessant flirting with just about every woman who walked into the courthouse were regular fodder for comedic gags. On top of being a shameless perv, Dan was nasty in many other ways. He was selfish and conceited, he constantly lied and cheated to get what he wanted, he would do anything and screw anyone over for money, and he was a proud Republican (redundant, I know). But Dan occasionally redeemed himself by helping his friends and forming genuine, loving relationships with women whom he actually respected.
I think what makes Dan really stand out among the Loveable Leches is how he was always learning important lessons. Night Court was a unique workplace sitcom in that it had real heart. It often explored important issues and taught life lessons, usually to Dan. He overcame prejudices like homophobia and transphobia and learned to respect his uncultured hayseed parents. His main purpose seemed to be to show the worst of humanity in contrast to Harry (Harry Anderson), the sensitive, kind, caring judge who respected and loved even those who were considered the dregs of society.
Another interesting thing about Dan is his transformation in the final seasons of the show. After Phil the wino dies and leaves Dan a fortune, Dan suddenly becomes a philanthropist and strives to do good and make up for his past mistakes. Truth be told, it makes his character kind of boring, but at least it semi-redeems him.
Herb Tarlek — WKRP in Cincinnati (Frank Bonner)
Out of all the Loveable Leches, Herb Tarlek, the inept salesman from WKRP in Cincinnati, is probably the most aggravating. But he’s also the most unique in that his leching is directed at only one woman. He takes every opportunity to hit on or try to take advantage of Jennifer (Loni Anderson), and everyone else at the station seems to just accept it, even Jennifer, which aggravates me to no end. Plus the fact that Herb is married with two children doesn’t seem to deter him at all. In fact, the only time Jennifer really seems to be uncomfortable with Herb’s leching is when his wife leaves him, as if his being temporarily unattached suddenly makes his pervyness unacceptable, whereas when he was in a committed marriage, it was somehow OK(??).
But what really aggravates me about Herb is that he’s so funny. Thanks to the subtle comedic genius of Frank Bonner, when he’s not harassing Jennifer, Herb can make me laugh so hard I have to reach for my inhaler. In the episode where the gang worked together to get back naked photos of Jennifer (taken by a sneaky pig of a photographer without her knowledge while she was changing), when they realized the photographer was gay and sent Herb to flirt with him, I just about pissed my pants laughing at Herb’s awkward reluctant attempts to woo him. It was probably one of the funniest sitcom moments of all time, and it was a redeeming moment for Herb, as he humiliated himself and did something that made him extremely uncomfortable just to help Jennifer. And the episode where Herb’s family appeared on a reality show might be the best episode of the whole show.
So I have a love-hate relationship with Herb. I hate his constant sexual harassment of Jennifer, but I can’t help loving Frank Bonner’s portrayal because he’s so damn funny. Ugh. I hate myself.
Stuart Bondeck — Spin City (Alan Ruck)
Most people remember Alan Ruck as Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but to me he’ll always be Stuart Bondek, the assistant deputy mayor on Spin City. His character is second only to Dan Fielding in his lecherousness. He not only hits on every woman in the office but every woman outside the office too. However, unlike Dan, Stuart’s rarely successful. He notes at one point that he hits on so many women because the law of averages dictates that eventually one will agree to go out with him, so he’s undeterred by constant rejection.
What’s interesting about Stuart is that his character actually faces some consequences for his leching. His ex-girlfriend, Deirdre (Beth Littleford), who also works at City Hall, charges him with sexual harassment. This of course leads to a supposedly funny montage of his co-workers testifying to the disgusting things he’s said and done to them. He almost gets fired, but Deirdre decides to drop the charges.
Deirdre herself makes Stuart a more interesting Loveable Lech. She’s just as disgusting and perverted as he is — maybe more — and gives him a taste of his own medicine. He constantly tries to break up with and get away from her, even to the point of getting a restraining order.
But the best thing about Stuart is his friendship with Carter (Michael Boatman), my favorite character on the show. Stuart and Carter are a classic odd couple. They start out hating each other because Stuart constantly insults Carter for being gay, but Carter can give as good as he gets, and eventually they become unlikely friends and even move in together. I love how Carter puts Stuart in his place, deflecting and shooting down his childish insults with clever jibes. One of my favorite Stuart-Carter exchanges is from an episode where everyone was called into the office on a weekend, and Carter showed up in sweats carrying a basketball…
STUART: You were playing basketball?
CARTER: No, I was bowling. I looked like an idiot.
STUART: What I meant was —
CARTER: What you meant was you’re surprised I play basketball because I’m a gay man. But you see, Stuart, I’m also a black man. So it’s really just a battle between your archaic stereotypes.
Carter gives Stuart’s character more dimension and more heart, elevating him above other loveable leches. Like Night Court, Spin City sometimes tackles real life issues, but in a more lighthearted, funny way. One such example is when Carter was jogging and got arrested due to racial profiling. He was incensed, saying, “It doesn’t matter if I wear an expensive suit. It doesn’t matter if I have a fancy degree, a great job. I swear when that cop looked at me, all he saw was black.” Stuart’s response started out touching and sensitive, but it took a paraprosdokian turn in true Stuart style: “That cop’s a fool. When I look at you, I see a friend, and I see a co-worker, but most importantly, I see a big fruit.”