a history of the gay joke
By ZACHARY ZAHOS
Who are we laughing at? The best jokes target our weaknesses or the folly of life itself; the punch line kills because it so goddamn true. The funniest people tend to be neurotic creatures because they are so aware of the truth of things, and how the unexamined life is not worth living, and yet how the examined life precludes much living at all, and so on.
More often, however, comedy aims lower. Instead of looking within, the comedian looks out and finds other people funny just … cuz. Just cuz they are different. Humans are ridiculous beings who deserve to be laughed at, incessantly perhaps, but it’s no good when comedy begets, and perpetuates, an arena of us versus them, where the “them” is a demographic of the population already at a disadvantage. Laughing at women, blacks or LGBT people (anyone who is not the most square combination of white, straight and male) without letting the other side have their say and be defined by something besides their Other-ness, breeds intolerance, and that is the last thing we need these days.
American comedy films have long depended on the “gay joke” as a kind of cheap currency. Since most of these movies feature a predominantly male cast, and since they involve men doing dumb and occasionally revealing things, the gay joke slips in as a kind of nervous tic, a preemptive “no homo.” The gay joke serves to diffuse any awkward tension, yet that tension is often exacerbated by said joke and thus messily smothered over with even more gay jokes.
There are a million examples to choose from, but how about a sampler from the average Cornell student’s teenage years: Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen’s famous “You know how I know you’re gay?” bit from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which is answered by, among other lines, “Because you like Coldplay”; all the yelling and gross-out faces as Rob Corddry bends to give Craig Robinson a blowjob because the former lost a bet in Hot Tub Time Machine; Vince Vaughn’s infamous “Electric cars are gay” pitch from The Dilemma, which director Ron Howard and the studio executives behind the film were surprised to hear was in poor taste.
Some of these gags may very well be funny — your mileage may vary, as they say. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being offensive, since comedy is all about pushing buttons through shock and discomfort. But the aforementioned jokes strike me as too easy: same ol’ gay panic peddled by the same ol’ straight dudes who couldn’t think of a better joke. It’s like they assume no gay guys are watching their stuff — I mean, if the material is this weak and if you take Paul Rudd out of the picture, why would we?
Yet there are two funny, weird, super popular films this year that have set a new course for gay jokes in American comedies, and they are Neighbors and 22 Jump Street. Each stars two similarly mismatched leading men: Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in Neighbors, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 22 Jump Street. Jonah’s early-decade slim down aside, the dynamic remains uncool paired with cool and schlub rivaling hunk. More so than mainstream comedies before them, these films not only entertain but also play with the hardly latent homoerotic tension between their two leads and other male characters.
Neighbors passes a lot of time in a fraternity house, where Zac Efron and Dave Franco’s bros reign, and just about every second of that time contains some sort of gay innuendo. Michael Scott’s “bros before hoes” mantra unites these guys through all sorts of phallic antics: flaunting their erections, “crossing swords,” fondling baseball bats, casting their penises into dildos (to raise money!), literally fisting each other during a hazing ritual. When Efron and Franco come to blows after the latter screws the former’s girlfriend, they both grab each other by the balls until Franco spaces out and deploys what he calls his “blessing and a curse”: arousing himself fully and spontaneously. Cue the “Eww gross!” from Efron, who lets go and flips out, being too insecure to let such a marked sexual act from another man stand, even if he promotes and practices such acts in front of his brothers at all other times.
This all comes at the notable expense of substantial love interests for the sexy young guys, who both fight over the same girl but don’t seem to care about her in any of the other scenes. Call that a symptom of hook-up culture, which the movie also satirizes, like when the girl tells of how she and Efron met, “I saw him. He saw me,” and after a beat, Rose Byrne’s character responds, “How romantic.” But with shirtless Efron leered at from so many different angles, and with so many possibly gay characters (from “Assjuice,” the pledge who swears he was awake when a brother stuck his comically large dick in his mouth, to Hannibal Buress’ oddly flirtatious policeman) in play, Neighbors courts queer readings and not only acknowledges but actively caters to its gay audience members.
22 Jump Street, on the other hand, sits its two male leads down for a couple’s therapy session, which derails only when the two undercover cops reach an epiphany regarding their case that the therapist mistakes (or does he … ?) for rekindled intimacy. The film toys with gender and sexuality norms far more cleverly and confidently than your average bro comedy. Even heterosexual relationships, often coded as normal, get flipped on their head, like when Hill’s character blinks and pouts on a morning “walk of shame” from his girlfriend’s place back to his dorm.
Meanwhile, the film parades around Channing Tatum in a football uniform and then in a sleeveless shirt, which I know makes a lot of women and men quite happy. When Hill and Tatum get spotted while eavesdropping on drug traffickers, neither hesitates to make it look like Tatum was just giving Hill a blowjob in the middle of the library stacks. When one of the drug goons calmly reports that it’s “just a couple of faggots,” Tatum lets loose: “Did you just call us faggots? It’s 2014, asshole, you can’t fucking use ‘faggot.’ ‘Gay’ is okay, ‘homosexual’ maybe, and if you know the person, you might be able to call them ‘queer,’ if they have a great sense of humor. But I don’t.” He speaks for all the allies out there who are overwhelmed by the ever-changing LGBT vocabulary at their disposal and want to do their best to respect it, to precious, know-it-all ends.
22 Jump Street loses some points for its caricature of trans people, in the form of Rob Riggle’s incarcerated criminal who, after getting his penis shot off in the first film, has been surgically bestowed a vagina and forces Dave Franco’s character (there he is again), also in prison, to have sex with him. It feels, well, cheap, unlike the rest of the movie, which goes for broke with the self-referencing irony and genre satire. It may be too eye-rollingly clever, and Neighbors, perhaps, could have inserted an open, operating gay relationship into its frat house, but both films throw a whole lot of gay into their ironic situations and leave the true nature of things (who is straight in this?) up for grabs. We aren’t there just yet, but it’s a good place to be where two of the biggest movies of the year insist on the notion that we all are, at least, a little gay, and isn’t that a funny, freeing thing?