(Warning: This blog post includes a frank discussion of sex and homosexuality, including a couple of euphemisms for gay sex.)
This weekend, as the rest of the country chewed over a pair of landmark Supreme Court decisions establishing broader legal and civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans, I was watching old stand-up comedy specials on Netflix and humor bits on Youtube.
I know, I know. Pretty highbrow stuff.
The reason I went back to the gag reel was that I had this sort of queasy after-image in my mind of a hell of a lot of stupid anti-gay humor flowing from comedians who are supposed to be liberal, enlightened, aware.
Guys calling each other faggot. Guys making “ick” jokes about anal sex. Guys slobbering over the idea of women having sex with each other.
And sadly I found my memory pretty much confirmed.
While five gray-haired Supreme Court justices — and most of the American public — have moved past the idea that gay people are, you know, kind of gross-funny, “faggot” schticks are still a staple for humorists who want us to think of them as cutting edge.
There aren’t the fringe guys. I’m talking the A-list of American comedy here. Louis CK, Zach Galifianakis, Daniel Tosh, Seth Rogen, and on and on. Need a cheap laugh? Default to the queer jokes.
This clip, illustrating my point, is NSFW in a big way. If you’re offended by sexual references and profanity, please don’t play it.
The premise of these jokes — the underlying tension that supposedly makes them “funny” — is the same premise that drives the homophobia and intolerance that have shaped our public debate over the last decade or so.
Gayness is gross. The word “faggot” is transgressive and thrilling, because being a faggot is transgressive and scary.
The dodge — the reason these guys think it’s okay — is that they fly under a flag of cool irony. Everybody knows they’re not really homophobic, right?
They’re just pretending to be a couple of dudes tossing around incredibly stupid gay cliches. And they’re so self-aware, so politically correct that their political incorrectness gets a pass.
Louis CK in particular has tried to sort of own this material. “I would never call a gay guy a faggot, unless he was being a faggot,” he says.
The suggestion is that it’s fine for him to draw some funky deep-cool comedian’s line between acceptable gayness and Minstrel-show faggotness. Sorry, bro. That stuff won’t age well.
I went back and watched Dean Martin roasting Sammy Davis Jr., joking that as a baby the black comedian slept in a hollowed out watermelon and joshing him about being on the Ku Klux Klan’s hit list.
I watched the forced smiles on the faces of the other black comedians in the room. Yuk-yuk.
I suspect that a lot of this residual gay-is-funny stuff is a bit of a hangover. Not so long ago, being gay was kind of weird and different and exotic to most Americans — and that’s a great formula for jokes.
We’ve always made people who are different from us out to be laughable. I grew up in the 1960s hearing “Polack” and “n-word” and “wop” jokes. Now it’s like “Why exactly would that crap be funny?”
I’m guessing this will turn pretty quickly. A comedian will be on stage making his usual “pop-nob-in-fanny” queer jokes and the mood in the room will turn. People won’t laugh, they’ll cringe.
The laugh-line will give way to silence. And good comedians will get busy flushing out their material, moving on to stuff that’s actually, you know, funny.
The sad irony is that it looks like these cool, hep, liberal cutting-edge guys will be the last ones to truly touch down in the new America.
Social conservatives and Baptist preachers and people in Oklahoma are learning new and better ways to talk about their gay neighbors — by which I mean they’ve mostly stopped caring much one way or another about two gay people shopping in Wal-Mart, or getting married, or having a kid.
Meanwhile, these sad, middle-aged white dude comedians will still be snickering and whoofing and nervously questioning each other’s claim to straightness.
How profoundly unfunny is that?