Guest Blogger

Laughing with us, or at us?

Filed By Guest Blogger | December 13, 2008 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: gay humor, gay stereotypes, Revenge of the Nerds, The New Gay

Editor's note: Michael Eichler lives in Washington DC and works in urban planning. When he's not designing new bus rapid transit lines, he enjoys nearly-vegan cooking, cycling, making music, his rockin' boyfriend, and contemplating deep questions about the queer experience at The New Gay.

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A recent Monday Upper on The New Gay was one of a small series of things that got me thinking about the way gays are used to comedic effect in movies and TV programs. It's no secret that writers of comedy films use gay and trans characters to get laughs out of us. All of us. I still laugh when the flamboyant fraternity brother wins the javelin throw in part due to his limp-wristed throwing style. I still laugh when a husky voice actress gets outed as trans on live daytime television. I have been laughing for 20+ years now at the zany, fey air traffic controller who is handed a weather report print-out and is asked "What can you make out of this?" only to reply, "This? I can make a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl!"

But is okay for me to laugh at these things? Are the writers of these comedies and their knee-slapping, guffawing straight audiences laughing with us, or at us? Am I feeding into the omni-present homophobia that comes with using gay characters to get laughs out of audiences because I feel that these scenes are often very, very funny?

One analytical approach would be to imagine whether these characterizations would be considered funny or offensive if a different minority group was used. The movie Hollywood Shuffle comes to mind. In this brilliant 1987 movie, Robert Townsend plays an actor who is sick of playing stereotypically Black roles. Yet throughout the film, they cut away to imagined movie clips and quasi-dream sequences where these stereotypes are exploited to the ultimate degrees in really funny ways. (Where's my activator? My activator?!?) Of course, the point of this movie was to expose these stereotypes and the roles that Black actors often find available to them. Perhaps this isn't the best example, but if humorous portrayals of these stereotypes were no-nos to the Black community, the film would have gotten "the finger" instead of accolades.

Perhaps the issue lies in the nature of humor itself. There are many different things that trigger a humorous reaction. Anyone who's watched a children's cartoon knows that violence often gets chuckles. (Think Tom and Jerry, or their parody Itchy and Scratchy for that matter.) I find that a sudden realization of a double-meaning often gets a good laugh. ("That's what she said!") So, what is funny about these gay caricatures? It could be that watching behavior that falls outside of the social norm is what triggers the humor response. That could be the case for some of the examples cited above ("And Leon is getting larger!"), but perhaps it's something else. Something darker.

Think for a second about what's so funny about watching Lamar Latrell, the Black gay fraternity brother from Revenge of the Nerds, toss the specially designed javelin using his "limp-writsted throwing style." (See the video above.) When I hit the slo-mo button on my emotional response, the first thing that comes to me is embarrassment for poor Lamar. He's making a huge fool of himself, prancing down the field in knee-high socks and carrying this big, silver, wobbly phallus. Upon realizing that he's won the event, he rushes back to his brothers at the sidelines, arms held wide open and flung back, with his chest forward and head held high. Again, I'm embarrassed for him. I can't help but think, "He's such a FAG!" It hurts me to be so judgmental of him. I want to be there on the sidelines and hug him, too, to make up for the fact that I'm such an asshole. And just when the empathy gets to be too much, I laugh out loud, boisterously. It all happens in the blink of an eye, but that's the emotional reaction.

I'm then reminded of a small section of one of my favorite books, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. At one point, the main character states that he's figured out why humans laugh: we laugh because it hurts too much. Perhaps, on some level, pain and empathy is at the root of most (all?) laughter.

I have to include here that Revenge of the Nerds paints Lamar in the most endearing light. He is later featured as the lead singer of their Kraftwerk-inspired musical competition performance, rapping with an airy, fragile voice and air-walking in a Thriller jacket. (See below.) They win this competition, too, and yet again Lamar is the star as well as the source of a lot of emotional discomfort on my part.

So, at the end of this brief analysis, I still don't know. Is it wrong to find humor in the portrayal of gay stereotypes? Even if the gay character is the one that saves the day?

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These stereotypes bother me also. I saw a documentary on homosexuality in the early pre-censorship days. When my mother was writing for tv and movies she helped to create a gay male character for a show called Love Sydney which was kind of cool because he wasn't a freak (this is a woman who has to bi children one male and one female).
Another area that bothers me is that bi people are usually stereotyped in programs as the bad guy who can never be trusted or as on-their-way-to-gay.
When I do my stand up act I like to take on some of the bi-phobic crap out there. And when I'm performing musically it gets tackled there also.
One thing that I learned from my mother is that we can use comedy to educate just as well as we can use it to hurt. When the subject of my bisexuality comes up in a comedy routine people can find humor in what I'm saying it may be the first time that some people have ever experienced a positive emotion linked to that subject and this breeds a little familiarity and comfort because it puts a face on it and it is a face that tries to connect at a human level.
The difference is that I'm not getting them to laugh at bisexuality in a cruel way but to laugh at the common human experience as it is inflicted on a bisexual. And some of my most difficult audiences are gay which is really unfortunate.

One essential difference between these gay characters and the trans ones is the trans ones are usually villains of some sort and thus "punished" by being outed in the most degrading possible fashion... unless it's drama and then we are normally viciously murdered for a "pathos" moment. Sometimes both as in several NCIS episodes that further added references for multiple more episodes with "Tony, what about when you tongued that shemale?" variety.

Excuse me for seeing a difference there. A big f'ing one.

Oh, I don't know about that Cathryn. One of my long standing complaints was that gays were always the villain for the longest time too. The gay guy was the old pervert who lived down the street and would steal your children, or your man, or your marriage. That's been a common theme documented in many books and academic papers.

Not that trans folk don't suffer from the same thing - just that we've both gone through it.

Great guest post, Michael. Thanks for joining us for the day.


Interesting you like Stranger in a Strange Land, as it's also homophobic. Can't recall the names (the main character was Michael?), but at one point, the young woman who's introducing him to earth culture worries he'll try homosexual sex, & hopes he will recognize the innate wrongness of it.

It is a good book, & I understand you can appreciate it, despite Heinlein being a misogynistic, homophobic asshole.

I don't think anyone can deny the success of Will & Grace made talking about LGBT more comfortable for people; it was also good for showing the characters just as flawed & quirky as anyone else.

I'll admit I have a hard time watching the Nerds movie too, since I'm both gay AND a nerd.


Hmmm. My real-life last name is Polish, and I grew up with Polish jokes from my father, not to mention Italian jokes from my mother. I know someone is going to pop up and say "those aren't oppressed minorities," but they were once. Even now, you don't have to go too far to hear a joke about the Illinois Governor's Serbian last name.

I think it's o.k. to -have- a stereotypical caricature or character, as long as it's not the -only- representation there is. After all, most cliches grow out of commonplace perceptions that are -so- commonplace that everyone knows them and takes them for granted. We can use them, and sometimes turn them around for educational or comedic purposes. Personally, I like to laugh at myself, and I'd rather laugh at myself and have the world laugh with me. And yes, I like to laugh at you all, too.

It reminds me of the Harvey Fierstein schtick:
Q: "Did you hear the one about the Polish Lesbian?"

But it is, Blanche, but it is.

I think there's a distinction to be made between using stereotypes for humour and using stereotypes IN humour. Just presenting a stereotype per se to be laughed as is a very simplistic (and very american) approach to humour and often just as tiresome as it is offensive. I'm Swedish, which is hardly an oppressed minority, but I still roll my eyes when every single Swedish person in a Hollywood production is blonde, named "Inga" and has large breasts.

The other method is playing with stereotypes, knowing they're stereotypes and treating them in an interesting way as stereotypes. At the simplest level this can be merely having characters act against stereotype and do unexpected things, but there are other ways to do it too. In Airplane!, which is the other film your referenced above, the "gay" character of Johnnie is both a running gag and an absurdist element, rabidly and unrelentingly cheerful and funny in the mock-serious drama taking place. He's also definitely laughed with, constantly providing sharp scene punchlines. (If there are any problematic stereotypes in the movie it's the "jive-talkers", who are indeed only presented as talking funny per se. There's no subversion of the stereotype at all.)