Can Gay Jokes Be Funny (Anymore)?

In the current anti-gay bullying climate, is it ever OK to make gay jokes? Tricia Romano talks to Margaret Cho and “It Gets Better” originator Dan Savage to try to figure it out.

10.23.10 6:40 PM ET

America is having a gay moment.

From, "It Gets Better," Dan Savage's video campaign directed at gay teens in the wake of Tyler Clementi's suicide, to the ‘round-the-clock news about a California federal judge's decision to halt the enforcement of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military, to Justin Bieber's alleged gay taunting when playing laser tag, America is in the midst of a gay awakening of sorts.

(And that's gay, as in homosexual. Not gay, as in lame. Or gay, as in dorky.)

The flurry of gay-related news has extended to a trailer for a movie that's apparently bad enough that it's being released in the middle of January, when no one cares. The Dilemma, the Ron Howard flick starring everyone's favorite puffy-faced sex symbol Vince Vaughn, has spawned a debate about the word “gay,” and its usage in a joke.

The joke itself, since eliminated from the trailer, is pretty hapless: “Electric cars are gay. I mean not 'homosexual' gay, but 'my parents are chaperoning the dance' gay,” says Vaughn’s character. But spurred by Anderson Cooper’s appearance on Ellen a few weeks ago in which the news anchor criticized the joke, there has been a furious debate that still thrives—Sir Elton John weighed in this week to Us Weekly, siding with Cooper.

At the same time that Americans were asked to don purple to show solidarity with gay causes, and when President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have released their own version of “It Gets Better” videos, the use of the word “gay” in a joke is getting even further scrutiny. It’s a good sign that Americans have moved beyond the simplistic fascination with sexuality. Is so-and-so coming out? has turned into, who cares? Instead, we’re having a more nuanced debate about language and its intent and power.

The question remains: When the public is talking about kids killing themselves because of their homosexuality, is it OK to make a gay joke? Was it ever OK to say, "that's so gay"?

It turns out that the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network was ahead of the curve when it released its ad campaign Think Before You Speak, in 2008, which featured a clip starring out-gay comic Wanda Sykes chiding a group of teenagers for using the term, “That’s so gay.”

The campaign received some notice; but in the wake of gay teen suicide awareness, the issue has touched an even more sensitive nerve.

Savage, the originator of “It Gets Better,” and the sex columnist behind Savage Love (a column that was originally called “Hey, Faggot!”) thinks that the joke is permissible, to a point.

As he says, "I think people should be able to take a joke, including gay people. It's just that right now everyone is so raw. If this movie was released six months previously, or six months from now, I don't think anyone would have noticed.”

Savage debated the dilemma. “I'm not the PC police. I've reached the point where I'm like, ‘All right, there's the gay panic humor in all these movies.’”

But Savage says that maybe the joke is just getting old, anyway.

“There's gotta be something else that straight guys are anxious about besides somebody thinking they are gay,” he says. “The kind of casual homophobic humor that sloshes around, that passes for straight gay bonding humor, maybe it's played out?"

Comic Margaret Cho agrees. "It's a laziness of comics.” The gay joke, she says, “is an easy route for a lot of straight comics to take. They are not as willing to work at it."

Cho is not afraid to skirt around gay issues in her comedy. The bisexual performer boldly makes fun of the gay fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld for using a handheld fan indoors. “Karl Lagerfeld is such a faggot!” she laughs in the routine as she takes on the designer’s persona. “Yes, of course I am a faggot, darling. I am a flaming faggot darling! I am fanning the flames of my faggotry!” In her punchline, the self-described fag hag explains that she loves the word “faggot,” “Because it describes my kind of guy."

Like the use of the N-word, the minority group in question gets a pass when it comes to making fun of itself. But as Cho explains, to not mention her Asian-American heritage or talk about her queerness in her comedy would be a glaring omission. “It would be weird for me not to talk about who I am. To me, yeah, I have permission to talk about that because that's my life, because if I didn't talk about it, it would be really strange. My comedy is about my own experiences, it's very much all about Asian stuff, all about gay stuff, and these are things that I experience and these are thing that I live. I always felt like it's good to talk about that.”

Indeed, much of the debate about gay jokes is starting to zero in on whether or not who is telling the joke makes any difference. In the case of Vince Vaughn, the actor’s persona as something of a “reformed bully”—as Savage calls him—works against him.

“Vaughn reads as a privileged straight bully guy all growed up,” says Savage.

It’s one of the reasons why Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen can get away with the nearly three-minute-long scene in the 40 Year Old Virgin centered on the joke, “You know how I know you’re gay?” (Answers: “You like Coldplay.” “You like Asia.” “Because you macrame’d yourself a pair of jean shorts.” “I saw you make a spinach dip in a loaf of sourdough bread once.”)

Unlike Vaughn, the actors in the Judd Apatow movie “are not terribly masculine,” says Savage. “Steve Carell is not an alpha male. And Vince Vaughn is an alpha male. And plays that. It's gay bashy when it comes out of the mouth of Vince Vaughn.”

It could also be why people weren’t particularly impressed when Vaughn himself issued a statement defending his right to make a joke, and not quite apologizing. “Let me add my voice of support to the people outraged by the bullying and persecution of people for their differences, whatever those differences may be. Comedy and joking about our differences breaks tension and brings us together. Drawing dividing lines over what we can and cannot joke about does exactly that; it divides us. Most importantly, where does it stop?”

Savage—who says that he and his friends joke around and call each other “faggot” and “breeder”—thinks maybe the line has been drawn after the gay suicides: “That sort of rough-and-tumble sexual humor has its place, but maybe now we're waking up to the fact that it's having unintended consequences out there. There are vulnerable 14-year-olds.”

For Cho, calling something “gay” as a joke or a stand-in for a joke is inexcusable, especially since she works in the often sexist and racist world of comedy, where to be gay and Asian is to be a super minority. “The comedy clubs is generally where I see the most homophobia and the most racism in entertainment,” she says.

When people use “gay” in a derogatory way, says Cho, sometimes, people “are not even conscious that they are being derogatory.”

“It's never acceptable for me,” says Cho. “The use of it as an adjective—to use it as a description of something is not valid to me as comedy.”

In the end, even Carell’s 40 Year Old Virgin character had enough. “You guys!” he yelled with frustration. “Cool it with the gay!”

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Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry, " The Sober Bunch."