Entertainment » Culture

What’s In A Punchline -- Humor or Homophobia?

by Scott Stiffler
Monday Feb 9, 2009

How many fags does it take to screw in a light bulb? Why did the butch dyke cross the road? Did you hear the one about the tranny who walks into a bar with a parrot on her shoulder?

Are you wondering about the punchlines, or are you simply tittering at the set up to these jokes? If the former, you’re probably gay or gay-friendly. But if it’s the latter, then you might be, to paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, a homophobe.

When is a joke about LGBTs fair game, and when is it homophobic? Did you laugh at the South Park Metrosexual episode a few years back or find it offensive? When does the stereotype of gays as fashion-obsessed, bitchy confidantes (such as in the hit chick flick "He’s Just Not That Into You") cross the line? Or when, in the same film, Kevin Connolly as a straight real estate agents dresses in a tight pink t-shirt to woo gays -- are the filmmakers having fun with or exploiting a stereotype?

It’s called common sense, Mary!

We spoke with a couple fag comics, a legendary dyke stand-up, and an academic egghead to get the skinny on what’s in a word - and how far you have to cross the line in order for a joke to be considered homophobic instead of homofriendly.

Tone, Intent & Reception Theory

Just as everybody has a sense of humor, we all have an internal barometer that tells us when a joke is the stuff of pointed satire, witty observation, or just plain nasty. It’s called common sense, Mary!

But somewhere along the line, hypersensitivity got busy with minority rights and had a bastard child they named "Political Correctness."

Kate Clinton (www.kateclinton.com) has been telling jokes about LGBTs for decades, and says that the thought police need not be alerted every time we disagree on whether a comment is appropriate: "Calling something PC is like saying ’shut up.’ It stops conversation, and I really don’t like that."

The result? Not only have some people gotten "tighter and more sensitive about what they are willing to laugh at," comedians are "censoring themselves from different topics." That’s the conclusion of Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory (www.laughfactory.com), Masada says that fear of being labeled a racist or a homophobe happens when a comic is hyperconscious of the fact that "Fat people want to be called big people, midgets want to be called little people. It seems like every group is organized and, if you make fun of them, they come after you."??Where will that leave comedy, Masada wonders. "Who can we make fun of if we cannot?laugh at?ourselves"

Upper photo: Drew Barrymore surrounded by her gay colleagues in "He’s Just Not Into You."

Lower photo: LA-based comedian Jamie Masada.

The Reception Theory

We can, and should, make fun of anything - according to out gay comic Frank DeCaro (www.frankdecaro.com) - just as long as the humor comes from a place of wry wit and basic human decency.

DeCaro, who hosts a show on the OutQ satellite radio network from 11am -2pm weekdays (XM 98 and Sirius 109), says there’s a very simple way to discern when a joke is homophobic and when it’s just plain funny: "If a comedian is making fun of gay people and doing it in an intelligent way, then it’s not homophobic. When the jist of the joke is that being gay is gross, then I have a problem with it."

Laziness and lack of wit, says DeCaro, poses a far more insidious threat than simple homophobia: "’Two and a Half Men’ wouldn’t be any less funny or any less of a favorite of America if their jokes about gay people were smarter instead of about how the notion of homosexuality makes their characters feel uncomfortable." Outrageous humor, he asserts, will always be received well by an audience "if they know the intent is from a pure heart."

Little did he know it when he rattled off that pearl of wisdom, but DeCaro’s point is backed up by solid academic theory. William Leap, Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, American University in Washington, D.C., is the organizer of Lavender Languages and Linguistics - a conference where researchers and academics gather to talk about the work they’re doing with homophobia and language (www.american.edu/cas/anthro/lavenderlanguages).

As for evaluating whether the joke or comedian telling it is homophobic, Leap says "Usually, the decision about whether a joke is offensive or homophobic is based on criteria external to the joke. The evaluation has nothing to do with the joke itself ?and everything to do with the politics of the social moment."

That’s why we gay guys can use the term "fag" among friends. But if? a "raging heterosexual, is using the term in a similar conversation with straights, that could be a substantial faux pas. I would argue that reception is more important than presentation, because a comic can put their heart and soul into making the joke have a particular kind of intended meaning - but it falls flat because the audience doesn’t interpret it as they intended. That’s the basis of Reception Theory. You’ve got to ask: what does the audience indicate that they receive?"

Clinton references poet June Jordan when discerning whether who is on the winning or losing end of Reception Theory: "Jordan said whoever has the power gets to determine the point of view; so there’s power over people and power with those same people. When it’s power with, and we’re on the same level, then I find it to be appropriate humor."?

Photo: Kate Clinton and Frank DeCaro

Who’s Homophobic: Naming Names!

Stand-up comic H. Alan Scott (www.HAlanScott.com) works in both straight and gay clubs - and says that generally speaking, "It’s certainly more socially acceptable for a straight comic to call somebody a ’faggot’ rather than use the n-word.? Do you really?think Michael Richards would have come under such scrutiny if he had said ’faggot’ rather than the n-word?? But he should still be allowed to say that!" Masada, at whose club Richards uttered the "n-word" multiple times in response to a group of hecklers, believes "The stage is supposed to be a sanctuary for comedians to safely express themselves.? However, this is done under the conditions that you are going to be funny, not hurtful." What Richards did, says Masada, "clearly came from hatred. However, most comedians have the skills to make very funny jokes about highly sensitive and controversial topics."

But can a comic get away with material that critiques, criticizes and offends if he’s perceived to be on our side?

Yes, says Clinton - so long as the audience regards the performer as an ally. Referencing Jon Stewart, Clinton says "He clearly is gay positive and gay supportive, so it sort of entitles him to make jokes about gay people. I really feel like I cut him slack when he does things that I wince at because he’s established that we’re in this together."

Scott concurs, reasoning that "To me, Stewart is not offensive because his are educated jokes, and I know where they’re coming from." Scott references a recent Daily Show joke about how the stereotypically organized gays couldn’t get it together to defeat Proposition 8. Funny when told by Stewart, he says, "But if Dane Cook was doing the same material, I don’t know how I’d handle it."

If that sounds like hypocrisy, Leap suggests we call it by another name: "Inversion." Simply put, that’s when "You take a generally divisive term and make it a positive one." Just as the gays reclaimed "queer" from a term of hate to a statement of pride and power, Leap says that even straights can tell provocative gay jokes so long as they’re not perceived as "people of privilege" who are detached from the oppressed minority in question. Still, he notes "The social constraint on who has the free pass and what words can be inverted in this fashion is really complicated." Understatement, thy name is Leap!

Photo:H. Alan Scott and Richard Laermer

Good Natured or Mean-Spirited?

DeCaro simplifies the process of walking the fine line between clever and stupid by asking audiences to "look at the place where it’s coming from. One of the biggest laughs I ever got from Sara Silverman. It was one of her episodes where she said it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or bi; they’re both kind of gross." Potentially offensive, yes - but "you know she’s a big liberal."

DeCaro also praises insult comic Lisa Lampanelli, who gets a free pass by declaring "The reason she makes fun of Blacks and Hispanics and gay people is she loves them. If that’s the case, I’m all for it."

Richard Laermer, an openly gay writer and author of "2011: Trendspotting for the next Decade" (www.Laermer.com), bemoans the relentless cavalcade of crap visited upon us by cable and episodic crime dramas: "Comedy Central shows so many comics who, any time there is a lull, start talking in an effeminate voice. It’s a cheap thrill for the audience; a way to get them to laugh again." Similarly cheap techniques are regularly employed by "’Law & Order,’ ’Cold Case’ and ’Without a Trace.’ Every time they can’t think of a twist, they make the character gay. I’ve never seen CSI, but I’m sure they do it on that too. It’s so random, in the last two minutes. Oh, let’s make him gay,.

But Clinton says there are straights doing worthy material about gays, and rays of hope shining forth from the dark corners of stand-up clubs. She recalls seeing a young straight comedian doing his set in Boston several years ago: "He did the most hilarious gay humor, about being with a gay friend he loved, a pal. The whole bit was about trying to get the gay friend to say he thought this woman was beautiful." The punchline came when the gay friend broke down and admitted "Yes, she has beautiful stockings. It came from knowledge about gay people, and from a clearly good friendship. That kind of humor is so amazing, and can be so poignant."

Parting Shots

DeCaro brings the whole matter back into the realm of common sense noting "There’s a difference between wanting to tease the daylights out of someone and wishing them ill - and you can usually tell the difference." We’re wasting our time, he says, chasing after every shadow of an offense: "I don’t think whenever somebody says anything that makes fun of gay people, that there needs to be a press release from GLAAD condemning them. We have to be able to make fun of ourselves and roll with it a little bit." The only thing that shouldn’t be tolerated, he says, is "mean-spirited stupidity."?
Photo :Sara Silverman and Lisa Lampanelli

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.


  • suzanne searle, 2009-02-13 19:19:46

    so are you going to tell us the opening jokes or what? you’re such a tease!

  • Anonymous, 2009-02-14 13:28:33

    Scott Stiffler here, author of the article. To answer Suzanne’s comment, the punchlines are: Joke #1: None. Everybody knows fags do their best work in the dark. Joke #2: To get to the other side. Joke #3: So the tranny says to the bartender, this isn’t a parrot, it’s a chicken. And it’s not actually a chicken, it’s my sister. She just thinks she’s a chicken. The bartender askes the tranny why she doesn’t take her sister to see a psychologist, who could help convince the sister she’s not a chicken. The tranny says she can’t do that. The bartender asks why. The tranny says "Because I need the eggs!"

Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook