What’s up with Jimmy Kimmel and gay people?
On one hand, the host of the late-night ABC talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live has treated his many
gay guests with respect. And since 2002, he has been dating comedian Sarah
Silverman, known for her strongly pro-gay views (even telling the Advocate that she doesn’t want to get
married until gay people can).
But on the other hand, Kimmel, who declined to be
interviewed for this article, has frequently found himself accused of saying or
doing gay-offensive things, or at the very least being insensitive toward gays
and gay issues.
In February 2007, when Rebecca Romijn was on the show to
discuss Alexis, her transgendered Ugly
Betty character, Kimmel delivered a series of jaw-droppingly offensive
jokes about how a male-to-female transgendered person could never look as
feminine or as attractive as Romijn. When reading from a personalized romance
novel that Romijn gave to then-fiancé Jerry O’Connell, Kimmel ad-libbed, “and
then [Jerry] finds out you have a penis and hits you with an ax.” (The show’s
“producers” later issued a letter of apology, but it was not specifically
signed by Kimmel.)
Some of the time, Kimmel’s gay jokes and comments are merely
insensitive. “Yeesh, indeed,” Kimmel said in one comedy monologue, referring to
the idea of soldiers having sex with each other.
And when Kimmel interviewed American Idol sensation Sanjaya Malakar in 2007,
he seemed weirdly obsessed with the sexuality of the soft-spoken Malakar,
asking him repeatedly why he had had to announce to the world that he isn’t gay
(something Malakar denied doing). Apart from the frat-boy incredulity — after
all, how could someone act like Malakar and not
be gay? — there’s the question of simple decency: Malakar was seventeen years old at the time.
Meanwhile, his interview with “ex-gay” therapist Richard
Cohen was surprisingly non-confrontational.
Kimmel did note that Cohen was “controversial,” but didn’t contradict his many
falsehoods or point out that Cohen is unlicensed and has been permanently
expelled from the American Counseling Association. Many wondered why he gave
the widely ridiculed “therapist” a forum on his show at all.
Most of the time, however, Kimmel’s gay bits are simply just
tired. After girlfriend Sarah Silverman introduced her video, “I’m F***ing Matt
Damon” on his show, a rebuttal
seemed inevitable, and Kimmel’s “I’m F***ing Ben Affleck” video initially
seemed an inspired response.
But while Silverman’s original video more or less played it
straight — taking very seriously the idea that she was having sex with Matt Damon — Kimmel’s rebuttal never took the
idea of sex with Ben Affleck seriously at all. Instead, it was a series of
jokes about toe-painting and prison rape.
“You couldn’t really do it half-speed,” Affleck told Entertainment Weekly. “You had to be
painting toes and blow-drying hair. At one point we were going to take a bath
together, but the bubbles couldn’t get high enough, so that ended up getting
scrapped. The little outfits, the short shorts, the hands in the pockets — it
wouldn’t have been funny if you didn’t really commit to it.”
In other words, Affleck is saying, the idea of the two of
them having sex is the joke, or at
least a big part of it. But why is that any more of a joke than Silverman
having sex with the already-married Damon?
The video isn’t offensive exactly, and it’s not homophobic,
at least not to anyone with a sense of humor. But it’s decidedly old school.
After all, how many gay men actually paint their toes or wear short-shorts?
Once again, it’s a frat-boy take on gay humor, much the way Jimmy Kimmel Live dealt with the news
that their network, ABC, had been named the most “gay-friendly” network by the
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (or GLAAD): first, there’s the obligatory
Ryan Seacrest joke, then a series of obvious visuals gags about men dancing and
Traditionally, this has been par for the course in American
comedy. If a joke involves gay content, it’s either an insult putting someone
down, usually for being non-traditionally masculine in some way, or it’s a
punch line involving show tunes or some other obvious gay stereotype.
“Hacky is a term professional comedians use
with disdain, meaning jokes or a manner that has no originality or wit,” out
comedian Bob Smith wrote in a recent article for AfterElton.com. “One of the most hacky bits about gay people
on a recent television program was Jimmy Kimmel’s correspondent Pablo Suzuki’s
live report from Los Angeles’
gay pride parade. In it, Pablo interviewed the freakiest gay people he could
find, two of them having — get this — foreign accents, a sure-fire laugh for hack
comedians for the past hundred years.”
Compare Kimmel’s style of humor with almost any comedy bit
by his girlfriend Sarah Silverman. “Everybody blames the Jews for killing
Christ,” Silverman says. “And then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans.
I’m one of the few people that believe it was the blacks.”
Like Stephen Colbert, Silverman acts out a comic persona,
that of a clueless bigot. Her humor can seem offensive, but only if you ignore
the subversive element. The true object of a Sarah Silverman joke isn’t the
minority person, but the bigot who holds prejudicial views. The resulting joke
isn’t just funnier; it seems fresher, far more contemporary.
Meanwhile, it’s crystal clear what Silverman really thinks,
where her true sensibilities lie. With Kimmel, it’s not so easy to tell. The incident
with Romijn seemed to reveal some serious discomfort with transgender issues
It’s true that Kimmel gave a very friendly interview with
out N’Sync star Lance Bass when he was on tour with his coming out memoir.
Kimmel even went so far as to hold up a mock issue of People Magazine with him on the cover, which read, “I’m gay too!”
But then he told Bass, “I like you better now that you’re
gay.” Does Kimmel really not know that gay people are “gay” even before they
come out? More likely, this was just meaningless banter, but it wasn’t for
nothing that Maxim voted Kimmel #2 on
their list of the “Dudeliest Dudes” of 2007.
Kimmel got his start in the world of radio, not generally
known for its tolerance or pro-gay views.
Later, he moved onto Comedy Central‘s The Man Show, where he was one of the original co-hosts. Known for
its sexist humor (some of which was probably ironic), it regularly produced groan-worthy gay jokes like,
“I’d rather be a gerbil on Fire Island during
the Vaseline Day Parade than see that movie.”
In this typical Man Show sketch, Kimmel wonders if his son might be gay:
Not exactly gay-friendly, is it?
Occasionally Kimmel’s show does take a more gay-inclusive
approach to comedy. A hilarious “public service announcement” with George Takei made homophobes the butt of the
joke for a change (but still relied on gay lechery for laughs).
Still, Kimmel is often behind the curve, at least when it
comes to gay humor. It’s
simply no longer acceptable that a major talk show host gets laughs from tired
gay gags. Jay Leno, not exactly known for being cutting edge, has toned down
the gay stereotypes after being famously derided in a 2006 open letter
from Avenue Q playwright Jeff Whitty.
“When you think of gay people, it’s funny,” Whitty wrote.
“They wear leather. They like Judy Garland. They like disco music…You think
gay people are great material…I think of a silent holocaust that is perpetuated
by people like you, who seek to minimize us and make fun of us…I caught your
show when you had a tired mockery of Brokeback
Mountain, involving something about a horse done up in what you consider a
‘gay’ way. Man, that’s dated.”
When it comes to gay jokes, the rest of the comedy world has
changed or is changing. Will Kimmel?