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What’s So Funny?

I meant to apologize to my readers about the recent gap in posts: I’ve been traveling again, and interviewing men in many disparate parts of the country. The process continues to be a pleasure, the stories are rich, and I am so proud to be part of a remarkable generation of gay men.

The break has also given me an opportunity to step back, and consider what I’ve been posting here. Seems to me I’ve created two major categories: Pensive and Pissed-Off. Am I picking this up from my continuing conversations? Or is it just me?

The Pensive is likely my own fault: after all, I’m asking men to look back—to  think about how we took the promise of “liberation,” and turned our lives into laboratories for change.

The Pissed-Off? Well, that may be the perpetual mark of my generation. We may have achieved a remarkable cultural revolution, but the work is still not finished. We’re still working our way through stupid laws, religious harassment and politicians who would capitalize on bigotry for their own gain. We have our battle scars from fighting discrimination, from burying our beloveds in the AIDS holocaust, from struggles with addiction and mental health issues, and now we face the challenge of aging in a community—and a society as a whole—that doesn’t value age.

But don’t get me wrong: the large majority of men I talk with describe themselves as “happy.” And the interviews have been filled with much more laughter than sadness.

Which brings me to my real point (get on with it, honey!): Whatever happened to funny?

Or maybe I mean whatever happened to our funny?

Gay men have probably always been funny—I don’t have to go back to Oscar Wilde for this—particularly with audiences that value irony and wit. Outsider status sharpens the viewpoint (it can also aid survival).

But one of the most-cited aspects of the cultural shift has been the proliferation of comic gay characters in the popular media, particularly television. Not as objects of derision, but as sympathetic subjects. Granted, on shows from “Will and Grace” to “Modern Family,” the comedy could be pretty broad and the playing on stereotype could get uncomfortably close to minstrel show. At least the characters aren’t demented, pathetic or dangerous, and I can be content with that.

But whatever happened to “gay humor?”

No one is sure how or when the term “gay” originated; Linda Hirshman, in her recent book “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution,” observes: “Unlike ‘queer’ … ‘gay’ had a happy sound. By the fifties, ‘homosexuals’ had made an important move to call themselves something positive.” Yet, it seems to me, the term leaves us always on the defensive about truth in advertising.

The closeted generations that preceded mine did pass on a couple of traditions. One was “camp,” another was “drag.” For an intelligent discussion of camp, see Susan Sontag’s famed 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp.” But camp was funny, even beyond the in-group. It requires a certain degree of cultural literacy and irony—two things woefully short in current society–but sometimes just plain silliness, too.  I can still get by with a “Sing out, Louise!” when I can’t hear someone, or maybe the warning “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”—but the young folks seem puzzled.

It still makes me smile to remember the tale of a fastidious, older colleague—closeted but confident of his success—who, at the end of a meeting with a stodgy Wall Street client, slapped his hand on the table to release a dozen cheap, gaudy bangles from under his French cuff.

Drag was another, more blatant comic device: for a man to dress as a woman was funny, but thick with subversive, political overtones. The roots of liberation are often traced to Jose Sarria singing his drag “Carmen” in San Francisco, as well as the drag queens resisting arrest at Stonewall—defending themselves with spike heels.

Drag took on a different meaning with my generation—with our unprecedented urge to be public, we too-often obsessed (like Will Truman in “Will and Grace”) on finding the right balance between being acceptably butch and culturally “gay” (read: campy, swish, even feminine).

So we perfected what we called “genderf*ck.” That is, blending traditional aspects of masculine and feminine into a single image—from the burly, bearded guy in a satin evening gown, to the basic tee-shirt-and-jeans with a choker of pop-beads. It was meant to be public and shocking. It said, “I’m not your traditional man, nor am I a woman; I’m something completely different. Get used to it.” And it was funny, at least to us. And how many proper matrons did you horrify today?

We prided ourselves on being outlaws—which in many cases was technically true. These were days when gay men would mark maps to show where they had broken the sodomy laws. I think I counted ten states—a good showing but hardly outrageous. Remember, the term “outrageous” was to the 1970s what “awesome” is today.

It was Harvey Milk at the White House, shaking hands with the President’s evangelist sister.  “I’m surprised you shook my hand,” says Harvey. “Why?” asked a surprised Ruth Carter Stapleton. “Because,” explains the San Francisco Supervisor, “you never know where this hand has been.”

A great part of our humor involved that greatest outrage: sex, especially sex between men.

I was reminded of this in a recent interview with a man who started talking about his job, 40 years earlier, as desk clerk in a prominent Chicago hotel—and the sexual antics that led to a lucrative side-occupation as call-boy. He laughed, and so did I Those days, with the right audience, you could easily translate the bizarre scene on the Hudson piers into classic farce.

Then, suddenly, sex wasn’t funny any more. Humor survived in gallows form, as in the quip about how the stigma attached to AIDS “gives new meaning to the term ‘to die from embarrassment.’”  Humor didn’t die off entirely—we still laughed at memorial services—but it did seem to take a back seat to Pissed-Off.

And we got sitcoms. We even got “Glee.”

Yet: no sex, please. Has the pendulum swung so far, that we’ve entered a new Victorian age? Or is it just that outlaw status is such old news it’s boring?

Are gay men still funny?

It’s fun to see sly new variations on drag (or is it genderf*ck?) tried out by a new generation. I’m proud to see the funny (even campy) photos and stories of actor George Takei’s Facebook page, circulated by a vast number of “friends” and fans (of course, the output is assembled by staff—do I assume they’re young?). And I even got a giggle out of the recent Vanity Fair “Do these kids make me look straight?”

What’s gay and funny these days? Tell me stories. Clearly, I need to lighten up.


4 thoughts on “What’s So Funny?

  1. Very interesting and thoughtful piece. Your point about Oscar Wilde is well-taken — how much of his sly wit depended on the subtle differences between the insiders and the outsiders, the upper-class and the wannabees. Perhaps losing outsider status — particularly for young gay men — is part of what you’re talking about. The quite wonderful piece in The New York Times by Robert Leleux about going to see “Over the Rainbow” with a much younger gay man is right on point; “Judyism” which was so much a part of Leleux’s experience as a gay man meant absolutely nothing to the younger man. Think, too, of the very different senses of humor in the French movie version of “La Cage Aux Folles” and the American “The Birdcage.” The latter depended, in part, on the audience’s knowing that Robin Williams is, in fact, straight and Nathan Lane is not, and it’s Williams who is given the broadest slapstick latitude as a result in mocking American ideas of “masculinity.” ( Just think of his “walk like a man” John Wayne riff.) The French version — with a different cultural point of view about all types of sexuality — is much more subtle.

    Posted by Peg | July 27, 2012, 11:43 am
    • Thanks, Peg. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m looking at the loss of outsider status, or the creation of new ones–like aging, which becomes more universal. Great point about the American/French versions of “Cage aux Folles,” but something I’ve always loved is in the French sequel (which I doubt Americans could ever attempt): the same actor (the great Ugo Tognazzi) who gave the “walk like a man” lesson in the first film gets to do a mirror-image “walk like a woman” lesson in the second film, to help a rough-tough squad of cops. I think that raised the camp quotient by at least two exponential powers.

      Posted by Ed Mickens | July 28, 2012, 5:35 pm
  2. OK…I guess WordPress didn’t save my comment, so I will try again!
    I see once again a mirror to society at large here. I myself have been wondering where the hell my sense of humor has gone the last few years. When did I let the group think of society make me feel so plain vanilla, unhappy, and unable to relax? When did I stop laughing as much? Was it when I realized I couldn’t recall what my dreams where to even follow them? I think what you are hitting on here is again, not just the roles changing for gay men but society at large. I am large on personal responsibility. Yet somehow I feel as my scope of self has gone a bit out the window. While I know that there is still a lot of unacceptance of these groups happening, it certainly not as unacceptable as some of the times you talk about. Maybe the ability to laugh at something new and unsure – to the larger group think of society – is a way to work into it? Thus it becomes less funny as time marches on? I think there’s more to it than that. I think here’s another undercurrent here. I see you tap into one idea, like a specific groups roles and transformation…yet I know there are many layers to it. There’s a mirror effect here. Thanks for shining the mirror back out at all of us!

    Posted by scoobychick | July 27, 2012, 7:34 pm

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