Homophobia in popular culture began to fade in the '70s, and for the most part was dead and gone by the '90s. With music, it began with disco and was stomped to death by riot grrrl. In film it was exposed with Boys in the Band, and deemed passé with My Own Private Idaho. Art and fashion have been gay since Michelangelo's hyper-homo "David," and even sports have begun to come out of the closet in recent years.
But for whatever reason, large swaths of standup comedy remain as vigorously anti-gay as a Michelle Bachman speech at Liberty University. The most recent evidence of this was the 26 "you're gay!" jabs directed at James Franco during his Comedy Central Roast last week. This was excessive even for the characteristic locker-room, juvenile behavior of most roasts, and even though there's been a strong progressive streak in standup since the "smart comedy" revival of the '90s, the medium remains a haven for bro-down butt-smackers who still think the greatest insult a man can receive is the accusation of being light in the loafers.
Typically, I agree with the Morgan Freeman tweet in hating " the word homophobia. It's not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole." The issue of sexual regression is much too complex to merely designate as a fear. But in this one instance, the phrase actually reaches its zenith.
Despite being around 95 percent heterosexual, my high school years were chockful of abuse for being gay. Hardly a day went by that I wasn't railroaded in the hallways, shoved into a recycling bin or (paradoxically) de-pants in front of my peers while someone derisively shouted, "Fuck you, fag!" This became such a frequent occurrence that I often considered finding a boy to hook up with if only so I could justify the abuse.
But I wasn't gay, and I think most of these assholes knew it. They only used the accusation because it was, in their minds, the most potent insult you could hurl at someone.There's a lot of history and psychology behind this that I won't get into here, but suffice it to say that there are certain emotionally insecure males who would rather be thought of as a rapist than someone who takes a stiffy up their tush.
And emotional insecurity is what standup comedy is all about. Every other interview I do with a comedian at some point drifts toward insecurity and being overly sensitive. "That's why we're fucking comedians," said Marc Maron, the comedic prince of self-loathing, in a recent interview I did with him. "Being a comedian is a way to preemptively control that sensitivity; it's a way to frame things so they don't hurt you. Sensitivity is important if you're going to be a good comic."
Obviously this doesn't always lead to being homophobic. At least half the working comics today are self-aware enough to know how antiquated a "hey cocksucker!" joke is going to come off -- but not enough to extinguish this thriving wave of anti-gay ammunition bouncing around comedy clubs throughout the country. A common response to this kind of grievance is "stop being so politically correct. They're just jokes -- get over it." And though on the surface it might contradict my original argument, I agree with this response. What has kept this type of humor alive is the fact that so many people do find it offensive.
After Franco's roast, the Internet was aflutter with commentary about how the gay jokes of the night went "too far." This is the central aim of any roast, and with same-sex marriage being the civil rights issue of our time, twisting America's wigs on this subject is the easiest way to get some notoriety for your set.
This tactic worked brilliantly for Sam Kinison, Andrew "Dice" Clay and Eddie Murphy in the '80s, and has kept Victoria Jackson and Tracey Morgan in the news in recent years. And people like Margaret Cho, David Cross and Ron White have garnered heroic championing for taking a stance against it. But without the outrage against homophobic jokes, all that would be left is a bunch of frightened little boys deflecting their emasculation onto others.
"Many young people today aren't bigots, because they don't see the humor" in gay jokes," said homo-humorist icon Bruce Villanch in an interview I did with him last spring. "So it's slowly dying away. Now that an NBA player has come out, it's more difficult to make those kinds of jokes. There will always be jokes about 'types,' jokes about ethnicities, women, men -- you can't bleach the humor out of everything in the world, and someone will always be offended by something. But one of the things that is going away is the time-honored joke about being mistaken for being gay. Because what does it matter now?"
While I think this is half-true, the fact that so many of these jokes are still thriving on TV and in comedy clubs speaks to the fact that comedy is at least ten or twenty years behind other entertainment mediums. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been such a big deal when Todd Glass came out of the closet last year, and most "clean comics" wouldn't be banned from speaking about gays in any kind of positive, or even neutral, context. (While you can easily operate as a clean comic while gay-bashing, as is the case with hacky ventriloquist Jeff Dunham.)
Villanch may be right that young people today don't find the humor in homophobic jokes, but they find plenty of outrage in them. And this is really the central problem. If we could all stop turning to stone every time we confront the Medusa of politically backward comedy, it would most likely fade into the rear-view mirror of standup history. James Franco actually found a progressive lining to the amorous audit his comedy peers gave him last week, so why don't the rest of us just let these little boys have their neurotic tantrum and not give them the attention they so desperately crave?
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.