One thing about being a Gen X kid is when you look back at the entertainment you enjoyed in your youth you can’t help but realize that an awful lot of it could never have been created today. This sitcom is one such example.
Bosom Buddies aired on ABC for two seasons, from 1980 to 1982. And then it seemed to be on syndication for years after that. The series starred Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari as Kip and Henry, two best friends and roommates who worked together at an Advertising Agency (in the second season they would form their own agency together). In the opening episode their apartment building is demolished and they quickly need to find a new place to stay. Their friend and coworker Amy (Wendy Jo Sperber) recommends an open apartment in the building she lives in, but the problem is that the apartment is for women only, but since the rent is “dirt cheap” the men decide to take it, which means they have to dress up like women in order to be able to move in.
And that it, that’s the “hook” of the show. Look! Two men have to dress up and pretend to be women! Ha! Ha!
And it’s especially funny because they look so obviously non-feminine!
In their female identities, Henry becomes Hildegard and Kip becomes Buffy (names they tagged each other with, in order to be funny). In the first season much of the comedy comes from the efforts the two men make to maintain their duel identities. Donna Dixon and Telma Hopkins played Sonny and Isabelle, two women who also live in the apartment building (in the second season Isabelle becomes the hotel manager), and Holland Taylor played their boss Ruth (in the second season she becomes an investor and partner in their new agency) and initially they are unaware of the deception and believe Henry to be Hildegard’s brother and Kip to be Buffy’s brother, with only Amy knowing the truth. Subplots included Kip’s romantic pursuing of Sonny and Amy’s unrequited crush on Henry. Both men were said to have creative dreams, with Kip wanting to be a painter and Henry an author, in fact Henry was planning to write a book about his and Kip’s experiences living as women.
Despite that latter fact, the men’s experiences as women were rarely emphasized as anything other than for comedic purposes. There was one episode were, after being taken out by the other ladies to a singles bar and not getting hit on, Henry realizes how shallow he’s been as a man when it comes to judging women’s looks, and he strives to change his ways, but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Most of the episodes were just classic workplace/friends sitcom fare, with stories involving the men trying to land some major client at their firm while Ruth took credit for their ideas, or other wacky plots such as an episode where all the ladies get together to help Amy get revenge on a guy who dumped her. Overall, the cross-dressing hook was rather pointless to the show, and added nothing but cheap laughs based on the visual gag.
In the second season the men reveal the truth about their identities to the other women, this was Kip’s idea as he and Sonny had began to date and he couldn’t get serious with her while concealing this truth. This just served to make the cross-dressing even more pointless, yet it still continued. One episode in the second season had Henry sign up for a video dating service, and that’s notable because one of the women he’s set up with (and subsequently rejects because she turns out to be a Satanist) was played by actress Rita Wilson, who met Tom Hanks for the first time on this set, and then a few years later, after he divorced his first wife, the two of them got married, and remain so to this day.
Other notable guest-stars included Penny Marshall, playing herself in an episode where the men inadvertently kidnap her to get her to star in a variety show that they’re producing, Bog Sagat played a standup comedian in an episode where the group encourages Isabelle to pursue her dream of being a singer, and Adrian Zmed played a successful rockstar who was a childhood friend of Kip’s, which makes Henry jealous.
But, what can I say? Despite the flimsy premise, I loved this show! I was a kid, I didn’t know any better, but I watched it all the time, including the reruns in syndication after it was canceled after it’s second season. The chemistry between the two leads, as well as the women in the supporting cast, really made it work, but it was clear that Tom Hanks was the breakout star as his comedic timing was impeccable. The opening credits were played to the tune of Billy Joel’s hit “My Life” and I always think of the show when I hear that song now.
As I said, this show would never fly today. The Drag community, not to mention the Trans community, would rightly be up in arms. In fact, in 2012 ABC launched another sitcom called WORK IT, about two men who pretend to be women to get jobs, and that was criticized, and then canceled after just two episodes. But, for better or worse, the 1980’s were a different time. And for that time, Bosom Buddies worked.