Pictured above: Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage (1996).
I’ve always been a fan of black humor. Monty Python. Lenny Bruce. League of Gentlemen. The more fucked up, quite honestly, the better. After all, the world is a pretty awful place, especially if you’ve lived in it with your eyes open.
So it helps to have a sense of humor about the things in life that are truly terrible. Laughing in the wake of tragedy has always been a big part of how I, as a Jew, deal with the chaos of life. It’s baked in, you might say.
There’s something else, however, about my relationship to humor. It’s extremely… how do I say this? Gay. It’s not just about the things I like (though let’s be honest, I’m just about always ready for a re-watch of Serial Mom). It’s more about the notes certain things strike for me. Call it camp, call it the humor of the absurd. One thing is clear: When the world is falling apart, I turn to camp classics to feel better. Because sometimes it’s not even about distracting yourself from the mess around you. Sometimes it’s about reacting to the worst thing that could possibly happen with the greatest weapon against despair there is: queer laughter.
Corny, I know. But think about it: What feels better at the end of a long day of quarantine, full of its news of bad government, preventable deaths, and Corona-related horror stories? A glass of wine and a weep, or watching Divine get sexually humiliated by Tab Hunter in the Smell-O-Vision classic Polyester?
It’s anybody’s guess, really.
Smell-O-Vision or not, queer culture is about resilience. It’s about laughing all the way to the guillotine. It’s about cracking wise while you’re being crucified. If we didn’t have queer pain, we wouldn’t know who we are. At least, for people who grew up in a certain time and place. Maybe younger queers don’t need as much of that these days. I came of age in the in-between era: post-AIDS, pre-internet. By the time I started understanding my queerness, AIDS had left its mark on the culture, but Broadway didn’t totally belong to Cats and Andrew Lloyd Webber yet. But gayness, for the most part, didn’t belong to tragedy for me. I associated it with brightness and light.
As a 7-year-old on a visit to Seattle, I ran away from my parents and straight into a gay adult entertainment store, transfixed by the promise of rainbow-colored lollipops, dildos, and cock rings. I saw Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Birdcage, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a teen, and drew inspiration from their bleak but still hopeful worldview. When things go wrong, you can count on queer movies. You can also count on queer people.
Something I think about a lot is Fran Lebowitz’s 1987 New York Times essay, “The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community.” Lebowitz was clearly given this prompt by an editor and proceeded to take it to its most coldly logical conclusion:
The impact of AIDS on the artistic community is that on New Year’s Eve Day a 36-year-old writer takes a 31-year-old photographer to get a chest X-ray and listens to him say with what can only be described as a certain guarded hope, “Maybe I just have lung cancer.”
Later on, Lebowitz talks about a 41-year-old editor who is HIV positive. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but I just hate old people. I look at them and think, why don’t YOU die?”
In short: The impact of AIDS on the artistic community is that it dies, slowly, by degrees, laughing at the spectacle of its own death. It’s not great, but comedy is what we have to fight the harshness of our reality. Sometimes, being queer means dealing with unspeakable tragedy. We’ve done this before, so many times.
I showed my partner The Birdcage for the first time a week ago. It felt good to impart laughter like knowledge to someone who genuinely had no context for the film. And it felt good to watch something that’s so hilarious, so gay, and such a perfect marriage of dark and light. When you’re both laughing at Nathan Lane’s flustered chagrin at having a muscle queen pop bubble gum in his face when he’s trying to rehearse as the great Starina.
There’s a lot of “we’re all in this together” talk, which can be alienating when you start to consider just how not “all in this together” we truly are. As a country and as a community, we’re being hit by this pandemic in violently different ways. One person’s setback is another person’s displacement is another person’s death. There’s a lot to feel about it and a lot of ways to self-alienate. That’s why it helps to remember how queer folks got through tough shit before—with a lot of grit and black humor.
Failing that, remember how hilarious genitalia are and have yourself a good cry-laugh.