Gay jokes are still so common in American movie comedies that most of them barely register. That’s why, whenever anyone points out how common they are and says, "Hey, maybe this is contributing to a culture of prejudice," there tends to be a immediate and furious counter-response of: “Political correctness!” “It’s just a joke!” “I don’t see what the big deal is!”
People don’t see what the big deal is, because they’re not seeing the big picture, which is that this isn’t about any one joke. It’s about the fact that these jokes are so common – in a way that jokes about other minorities such as African Americans or Jewish people or Asians or women or the disabled, simply no longer are.
And yet no longer making jokes about "stingy Jews" (except ironically) or casually using the n-word as an insult didn’t stop comedians from telling jokes, did it? You might even argue that getting beyond lazy stereotypes and these cheap, easy punch-lines actually made comedy better.
Maybe the debate over gay jokes isn’t a question of censorship. Maybe it’s simply a question of, well, enlightenment.
The recent brouhaha over a gay joke in the upcoming Ron Howard-directed, Vince Vaughn-starring movie The Dilemma is interesting because it’s the first time the argument against the never-ending stream of gay jokes has ever received much mainstream traction.
On the other hand, what exactly is an "offensive gay joke" anyway? No one is saying all gay jokes are offensive – just jokes that are mean-spirited or cheap or lazy. But what does that mean exactly? Humor is notoriously subjective. Who’s to say exactly which gay movie jokes are funny or subversive, designed to make an ironic point, and which are lazy and offensive, designed to pander to the audience’s existing homophobia?
Okay, okay, so maybe these are just our opinions.
But before we move on to saying exactly which gay movie jokes we find offensive (and a few we don’t!), can I just say? I think it’s time to retire the catch-all rebuttal that, “We’re not making fun of gay people – we’re making fun of homophobia and the ignorant types who would make jokes like this!”
In the current comedy world where the idiot-slacker-loser is often now a lovable point-of-view character, that defense is ringing increasingly hollow.
And while we’re at it, let’s also retire the defense that even "offensive" gay jokes are okay, because certain humorists offend "everyone" – "nothing" is off-limits. That’s never really true, is it?
When was the last time you saw a humorous riff on how annoying it is when straight men freak out about menstruation? Or how stupid it is when a straight guy thinks all gay guys want to hit on him? The fact is, the vast majority of American comedy is still written by straight men for other straight men to perform – and they naturally joke about the things and issues that resonate with them (like how incredibly horrible it is to have someone think you might be gay).
Are GLBT folks overly-sensitive? Trust me, if 50% of all movie comedies included cheap shots directed at straight men, they would understandably start to get frustrated and annoyed too, especially if there were almost no actual straight characters in most of these movies.
But enough of an introduction. Let’s look at some examples of nasty gay humor, shall we?
Night Shift (1982)
Sometimes judging whether or not a gay joke is “offensive” depends, in part, on
who’s telling the joke. Are they someone who is personally
supportive of GLBT rights and do they have a track record of other
GLBT-supportive films? If so, it’s easier to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Which brings us back to Ron Howard. Is the debate over The Dilemma influenced
by the fact that Howard doesn’t seem to have done any
significant gay characters in his long, distinguished career? And that one of his first movies, Night Shift
starring Henry Winkler, contains a classic example of 1980s gay movie humor?
In the film, Winkler’s character ends up in prison and mutters to himself, "At this moment, I have sunk as low as I can go." Then he notices an effeminate inmate in the cell who’s cut out a page of hearts, and Winkler looks up to heaven, saying, "I was wrong!"
What’s interesting is that that scene in Night Shift, a weird blend of gay stereotypes and prison rape paranoia, is exactly what most GLBT people are like … in the minds of most 1980s screenwriters.
Next Page! What’s Neil Patrick Harris doing in a homophobic movie like that?! Plus, a controversial choice!
When Harold and Kumar end up in prison, it’s not hard to guess that some sort of gag about prison rape — AE’s favorite kind of humor
— is certain to follow. Sure enough, the Al Qaeda terrorists in the
cell next door gleefully inform the innocent duo that they are going to
have to eat Big Al’s c**ckmeat sandwich. Because of all the things done
to terrorists in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib — waterboarding,
electrocution, starvation, beatings, death — performing oral sex on another man is by far the worst.
And, naturally, when the two Al Qaeda prisoners are forced to perform oral sex on another guard, they actually go at it with a lot of
gusto while Harold and Kumar look on in disgusted horror. Since they’re
the straight heroes, of course, the plot springs them free before they
actually have to do the deed.
What follows are more uses of the word fag, queer, and other assorted
homophobic comments than you’ll see in a (non-movie) lifetime, and when a gay couple shares a kiss toward the end of the film, it seems designed to provoke "disgust" on the part of the audience.
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: what was Neil Patrick Harris (and John Cho and Kal Penn) doing in a movie like this? It’s one thing to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but that’s just not possible here.
With all those oiled male hunks in loincloths, the movie 300 was homoerotic. Get it? Get it?
Yeah, that’s a pretty thin reed to hang an entire movie on, but try telling that to the 2008 spoof Meet the Spartans. Still, there’s a good way to go about making this joke, and then there’s the lazy, obvious way that Meet the Spartans
went about it, which took basically two approaches: (1) a stream of gay
stereotypes mined for cheap laughs (limp-wristed men, warriors in
loincloths skipping and singing "I Will Survive"), and (2) gay male
sexuality presented in such a way to gross-out the teenage audience
(Leonidas greets the Persian Emissary
with an open-mouthed kiss, a guy’s crotch almost touches another guy’s
We can say one thing in Meet the Spartans’ defense: apparently it
got our culture over its case of the collective giggles to the point
where everyone, gay and straight alike, can now enjoy fantastic, and
openly homoerotic, shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
The Forty Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Now wait just a minute! Before you tar-and-feather me, I grant that the famous "You know how I know you’re gay?" riff in The Forty Year-Old Virgin
is an example of a gay joke that didn’t seem particularly homophobic at
the time, mostly because it was part of the first wave of Judd Apatow seemingly ad-libbed "slacker-loser-comedy," which felt really fresh and different.
But watch that scene again. It hasn’t aged well at all. First, it’s turns out
to be just a long list of tired gay stereotypes. But second, just how
every comedy writer in Hollywood is now ripping off Judd Apatow’s overall
style of humor, they’re now also all ripping off this specific scene.
Think about it: this clearly inspired the controversial scene in The Dilemma.
Hey, this scene might even have been the thing that reignited the whole
"That’s gay!" trend among high schoolers, which had seemed like it was
on the verge of dying out at one point in the early 00s – and it definitely fueled the whole stupid "’Gay’ doesn’t mean ’gay’ – it means ’bad!’" meme.
Derivative writers crudely ripping off Judd Apatow aren’t his fault, of course – and it’s definitely a stretch to call this movie "homophobic." But it is enough to make me wish he’d never done this scene.
Next Page! The Wayans brothers, duh!
Let’s be very, very, very generous and say that the Wayans Brothers (director Keenen and producers Marlon and Shawn) are occasionally funny. Far more consistent, however, is their clear discomfort with gay men, who have been objects of ridicule from the days of In Living Color, to White Chicks, to their latest movie, Dance Flick.
In their horror movie spoof Scary Movie, it’s a reoccurring joke that everyone thinks Ray is gay. And why wouldn’t they? He tries to dress "gay," he’s constantly slapping naked straight men (and sticking his finger up their asses), and he’s briefly impaled by a male member at a bathroom gloryhole. Oh, but he’s not really gay! the movie tries to say in the end.
Like most of the Wayans’ movies, none of this makes any sense, but the homophobia is loud and clear.
If we went into detail about all the cheap gay jokes and lazy, stereotypical gay characters in the movie comedies of the 1980s, we’d be here all day (Once Bitten, Teen Wolf, Tough Guys, Spies Like Us, Police Academy, and Partners, all come quickly to mind).
But one movie in particular, Revenge of the Nerds, is worth mentioning because it includes Lamar Latrall, the "gay" nerd who is a stereotype in every possible way. But it’s not the stereotypes per se that make him offensive – hey, some GLBT people are stereotypical, and that’s okay.
It’s the fact that the character is never anything more than a collection of stereotypes, and those stereotypes are constantly played as the punchline to the joke: the way he laughs, the way he dresses, the way he throws (the techie nerd designs a javelin to go along with Lamar’s "limp-wristed throwing style," which enables him to win the event).
If Vince Vaughn and Ron Howard are ever curious why some of us GLBT people are pretty angry about the way we’re portrayed in movies, they might want to check this movie out.
In the midst of a bitter divorce, a wife tries to humiliate her husband by bringing an enormous birthday cake to his office and
presenting it to him and all of his coworkers: it doesn’t contain a female stripper, but
a flamboyantly gay black man dressed in a miniskirt and neon-colored wig
who pops out of the cake in a spray of glitter and dancing suggestively. Meanwhile, "It’s Raining Men" plays in the background while the wife screams homophobic remarks at the man.
Yup, that’s pretty much the most humiliating thing you can do to a guy, isn’t it?
With scenes like this in his movies, you might argue that director Tyler Perry has a problem with gay people: in fact, we have argued that.
And just as we asked what was Neil Patrick Harris doing in a movie like Guantanamo Bay, we have to ask: what was a terrific gay ally like Janet Jackson doing in a movie like this?
Next page! The news isn’t all bad!
GAY MOVIES WITH GAY JOKES THAT AREN’T HOMOPHOBIC
But enough of the bad news! What about a few movies that tell gay-themed jokes that aren’t offensive?
How does a movie do a scene about one guy shaving another guy’s balls
(in order to make himself look more sophisticated for a big date)
without resorting to "gay panic" humor? By having the joke be about the
discomfort of the guy in question, and the complete ridiculousness of
the situation (with huge clumps of hair falling down), and not about how
the two are horrified at the idea of one man being naked in front of another.
In fact, the shave-ee even asks at one point, "How is this not gay?"
the fact that you’re letting a straight married man shave your
testicles makes you one of the most macho men alive," the shaver responds.
There’s some logic to that," the first guy admits, an attitude which is
typical in this movie where being gay is treated over and over again
not something to freak out over, but merely just one more possible way
to be. Welcome to the 21st century.
Remember what I said about actors or directors sometimes being given the
benefit of the doubt because of past statements or works?
took Adam Sandler to task for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,
mostly because it was a "gay" story told from the point-of-view of two
straight men (and because, well, it wasn’t very funny). But for me,
Sandler had built up a lot of goodwill as a result of pro-gay moments in
movies like Big Daddy — moments that, in retrospect, were at least a decade ahead of their time.
It’s not a ha-ha joke exactly, but at one point, his two
seemingly-straight male lawyers surprise the audience with a passionate
kiss. When one characters says, "I gotta admit, I’m still a little
weirded out when they kiss." To which Sandler’s character casually
responds, "Why? They’re gay. That’s what gay guys do."
In one fell swoop, gay people are demystified and romanticized – but not overly-sexualized.
What’s even more incredible about this moment in this movie is the fact that, unlike the latest arthouse film by Ang Lee, this movie was made for the audience that most needed to see it: teenage boys.
First, let’s get one thing very, very clear: this is a bad movie. I am most definitely not recommending it!
On the other hand, it’s one of the first gay teen sex comedies ever (apart from the indie Another Gay Movie movies) to include a leading gay character.
The gimmick of the movie is that, now that he’s graduating high school, the main character tells his class during his valedictorian speech all the things he’s been thinking, but has never had the nerve to say (like the fact that he loves beautiful Beth Cooper). But the thing he tells his best friend is that he knows he’s gay, and it’s all cool, he should just come out already.
The friend protests that he’s not gay, and whether or not that’s true becomes a running gag all through the movie. Some of the jokes aren’t particularly funny, and the would-be gay guy ends up having sex with two women at once, but the movie is never mean, and it’s always very, very clear that the friend’s sexuality is a complete non-issue to his friend – he just wants him to be happy.
In other words, never once does the would-be gay friend have to endure a five-minute jokey riff about how he exhibits all the gay stereotypes like he might if he were in, oh, say, The Forty Year-Old Virgin.
EXTRA CREDIT: Andy Samberg in I Love You, Man (despite the fact that he only dates "straight" men!).