I’m the first one to yell at someone like Kevin Hart for a shady joke, but I also appreciate many kinds of incorrect humor, if handled properly. Comedy, after all, should be provocative and sometimes even a little rough, and once in a while it goes to dark places in order to make a point. However, some jokes are just plain wrong and wouldn’t cut it today.
In the current landscape, it would be hard to pull off certain gags on TV and get away with them; the Twitter brigade would come after you with heavy artillery. What follows are 10 funny-at-the-time TV moments that most likely wouldn’t fly now—especially since we’re in the middle of a worldwide health crisis, not to mention a massive national uprising over systemic racism and police brutality. People are more sensitive and on-edge, understandably so.
I’m dredging these clips up because it’s important to remember the history and learn from it. If you find yourself laughing at any of these naughty memories, please slap yourself on the wrist before you consider continuing to cackle. Or maybe don’t laugh at all. And just be glad that we have Bianca del Rio and several other comics to show us how “bad taste” can still be good for us, if handled right.
Phil on The Golden Girls
A riotous look at mature women bantering and bonding, The Golden Girls (1985-’92) was generally sensitive in its handling of queer issues, though it wasn’t all that cross-dresser friendly. In fact, Phil Petrillo—the unseen son of Sophia (Estelle Getty) and brother of Dorothy (Bea Arthur)—was married to a woman (Brenda Vaccaro) and happened to have pretty much the same fashion sense that she did. Phil often slipped into female garb, which unfortunately became a running punchline on the show, as if his predilection was way too freaky for all these ladies (and the show’s writers) to handle. Getty supposedly didn’t like Sophia’s homophobic jokes at Phil’s funeral and had the lines cut, though in the same episode, Dorothy does get to say that Phil died trying on a dress, so he looked like he died in a Benny Hill sketch. (And let’s not even get into Benny Hill!) Anyway, the “slut shaming” of Blanche (Rue McClanahan) might also be a problem today, though she countered it with proud legs akimbo.
Julia Sweeney’s “It’s Pat!” Sketch on Saturday Night Live
Confession: I loved Julia Sweeney’s sketch, starting in 1990, where she played an androgynous person whom everyone Pat came in contact with desperately tried to guess the gender of. The laughs mounted as all the sly interrogations conducted by Pat’s coworkers only led to more confusion. If they asked whether Pat had a significant other, Pat would respond that a planned marriage to Chris fell through because Chris ran off with Terry. That answer was no help at all! The sketch was really a comment on other people’s curiosities and crassness, but today—with much more appreciation of transgender people—it would probably stay in the idea bin, especially since Pat comes off drooling and oblivious, if rather endearing.
I adored the acid-tongued comic, a gay icon who passed in 2014, but some of her wisecracks about celebrities’ looks would go over today like the Hindenburg. (Which was a terrible disaster, mind you, blah blah blah.) Even more than John Belushi on SNL, Joan loved harping on Elizabeth Taylor’s weight, regularly serving quips like “If Liz filmed Cleopatra today, they’d have to widen the Nile” and “When she pierces her ears, gravy comes out.” That’s body shaming! Liz was not amused—and today’s Twitterati would be so horrified that I’d have to giggle in private. (Runner-up: Andrew Dice Clay, whose transition from macho bully caricature to actor in Oscar-winning movies like Blue Jasmine and A Star Is Born has been wildly welcomed by the faint of heart.)
British wits Matt Lucas and David Walliams wrote a sketch show from 2003–2006, and it was so over-the-top wrong that a lot of it was dead right. But some of their sketches were…sketchy. Possibly the most popular sketch of all had Lucas as Bubbles DeVere, an extremely fat (via prosthetics) wannabe socialite whose husband has left her for the even larger Desiree (Walliams), the former Miss Uganda. The sexualizing of plus-sized women was cool—the husband is hot for both of them, the bigger the better—though their morbid obesity is also the butt, as it were, of many jokes. What’s more, Walliams was in blackface for the role, and that is never acceptable. In another sketch, Lucas played Ting Tong, a transgender mail-order bride who keeps misrepresenting herself in order to keep the gig. It’s sort of an Asian variation on Pat’s evasiveness (and yellowface to boot). Well, just as there was talk of Lucas and Walliams doing a new, different Little Britain came the news that the old Little Britain had been pulled from Netflix, BritBox, and the BBC’s iPlayer, primarily due to the use of blackface. In the process, they are weirdly also pulling the Little Britain sketches that are vehemently anti-racism and others which ridiculed body shaming.
Apu on The Simpsons
The animated series’ Indian-American convenience store manager has long been pegged as stereotypical, and Hank Azaria, who had voiced the character for 30 years, has backed out of doing it in a mutually agreed upon decision with the show. Azaria feels that if Apu has led to anyone getting teased or bullied, he’s not happy about that and he doesn’t want to continue stoking the flames. Presumably, the show will get an Indian actor to voice the role—or maybe they’ll just close the convenience store for good (though creator Matt Groening said he wants to keep the character going). In either case, I don’t think the Azaria situation will be repeated in the current climate. D’oh!
The classic comedy had PR diva Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and fashion mag editor Patsy (Joanna Lumley) falling down drunk and drugged while trying to recapture their youth, from 1992-’92, with specials and series following until 2012. But the 2016 movie version was greeted with a kind of collective “meh,” and I think it’s partly because it became hard for the divas to top their hangovers. We’ve seen it! We get it! They’re messes! With the realization that alcoholism is an illness and no laughing matter, the only truly shocking—and correct—way for them to return again would be to head to rehab and have it actually stick. And that would be about as funny as a funeral.
In this almost groundbreaking TV sitcom (1981-’83), Tony Randall played a closeted gay man, though he was so closeted that his sexuality was barely alluded to. It was all hint-hint, presented with a half-heartedness that would be totally inappropriate in today’s sexuality landscape. If this show were done now, the character would have to be flamingly out, and he would be played by Rupert Everett.
Runners-up: On The Dukes of Hazzard, a show about Southern “good old boys” (1979-’85), they had a Confederate flag on top of their Dodge Charger! Yikes! Also, The Honeymooners (1955-’56) tried to make the threat of spousal abuse seem cute (“One of these days, Alice, pow—to the moon!”); The Amos ‘n Andy Show (1951-’53) used Black actors—unlike the radio version—but it still indulged in gross racial stereotypes that drew ire even then; and Hogan’s Heroes (1965-’71) was set in a German POW camp in Nazi Germany and managed to add a laugh track to one of history’s worst horrors. Last and definitely least: John Ritter’s pseudo-gay character in Three’s Company. Gurl!
Dwayne Johnson’s “Lady Parts” Song
I know wrestling is all for show, and a lot of it is staged and scripted, but no one would welcome a return to Dwayne Johnson (then named the Rock) singing derisively about rival John Cena’s “lady parts,” to the tune of “Jailhouse Rock” (2011). Yes, Johnson did it with a smile, and sure, they’re supposed to be cutting each other down (and Cena ended up playing along), but it comes off very gender-unenlightened and leans on the old stereotype that if a man is a wuss, he’s really a woman. Grow some ovaries, guys.
Ms. Swan on MADtv
The top brass at MADtv—the popular sketch show that ran 1997-2009—insisted that the recurring character of Ms. Swan was based on Bjork. But the shifty, evasive, and sometimes dumb manicurist played by Alex Borstein read as Asian and was accused of being a yellowface character. With Borstein currently scoring on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it’s very doubtful that she’ll pick up her nail file any time soon.
Men on Film From In Living Color
On the hit, Keenen Ivory Wayans-created sketch show (1990-’94), David Alan Grier and Damon Wayans played effeminate gay film critics who wore cute gender bending outfits and gave reviews like “Two snaps up” or “Hated it!” It was funny, but while similar characters pop up on TV shows and on the red carpet today, back then, when there was little representation and this sketch was coming from non-queers, some people found it offensive—especially when an episode climaxed with one of the guys getting hit by a stage light. Eek! Hated it! But I did like the unapologetic portrayal of flamboyant queens of the type that the community sometimes acts embarrassed by. So let’s keep laughing—when it feels right.