A funny thing happened on Monday night. Although Bruce Jenner had just come out as a transgender woman in a groundbreaking interview with Diane Sawyer, almost every late-night comedian who joked about the story did so respectfully and creatively.
Which is harder: Winning an Olympic decathlon or singlehandedly changing the tone of jokes about transgender people? They’re different challenges, each daunting in their own right, but Bruce Jenner has made both of them look easy.
The late-night comedy crowd has long subjected Jenner and other transgender people to cheap jokes, some of which were re-aired in the middle of the Sawyer interview.
A recent Conan O’Brien zinger about Jenner being assigned a Dancing With the Stars partner as soon as he “assigns himself a gender” felt particularly crass coming straight off of Jenner’s admission that he has struggled with gender dysphoria for decades.
Even as the interview aired, Bill Maher was filming a crude wisecrack comparing Jenner to his TiVo because both of them “cut things off.” Funny, TiVo is also a joke that belongs in 2005.
But almost as soon as Diane Sawyer signed off on Friday night, something palpable shifted in the television comedy world.
Chalk it up to Jenner’s honesty, his vulnerability, or his fame but he may have made cheap jokes about trans people seem mean to a mainstream audience on an unprecedented scale.
Almost 17 million people tuned in to watch the interview and judging from his post-11:30pm treatment, Jenner may have charmed nearly all of them.
When the late-night hosts first broached the subject of Jenner’s transition on Monday night, their audiences didn’t laugh, they cheered as if Jenner had just crossed another finish line—and he has.
Instead of turning Jenner’s gender identity itself into a punchline, Fallon, Kimmel, and crew used his transition as topical fuel for jokes with other targets: 2016 candidates, the Kardashians, and themselves.
On Jenner’s proclaimed allegiance to the Republican party at a time when he requires medical care for his transition, Conan O’Brien joked, “Bruce said he looks forward to bashing Obamacare as soon as he finishes using it.”
Jimmy Fallon, who tweeted his support for Jenner over the weekend, kept The Tonight Show classy with punchlines that landed on politicians instead of on Jenner.
Now that Jenner is an out female Republican, he joked, “the GOP finally found someone that might be able to beat Hillary.” He followed it up by invoking the image of Joe Biden rushing to rub Jenner’s shoulders as soon as he heard the big news—uncomfortable, sure, but still fair game.
Jimmy Kimmel told seven or so jokes about the Sawyer interview—he apparently doesn’t subscribe to Johnny Carson’s rule of threes for monologue humor—but he kept them all sharp without ever twisting the knife.
Kimmel introduced the topic by saying that Jenner “went from being kind of a boring man” to becoming “a charming woman.”
That’s definitely not an ideal, GLAAD-approved way of framing a gender transition, but it’s hard to fault Kimmel for that when he seemed to be speaking from the heart: He genuinely likes the new Jenner and it showed.
Last year, Kimmel mocked Jenner’s surgeries, but he seems to have changed his tune after seeing the interview.
Instead of pillorying Jenner’s gender, Kimmel pointed out the implausibility of there being “only one full-length mirror in the Kardashian house” and joked that Jenner could finally get his possessions monogrammed if his initials are no longer “B.J.” once he changes his name and pronouns.
Across the board, late-night comedy writers found inventive ways to joke about the subject without continuing to ridicule an already-beleaguered transgender woman.
Their extra work paid off: The topic didn’t have to be put off-limits, the humor stayed on point, and Jenner was able to collect some well-deserved rounds of applause in the process. In situations like these, it’s so rare for everybody to win but that’s exactly what seems to be happening.
Jenner came out as transgender to overwhelming public support and comedians got to tell jokes about it without sparking yet another tired debate about political correctness and comedy. Imagine that.
At the start of the interview, Jenner even explicitly invited humor about his story—presumably as long as it remains good-natured.
When he first sat down with Sawyer, he cautioned her, “One thing that’s so important in this whole process is we have to keep our sense of humor about this. It’s really pretty funny to me, of all people.”
What Jenner understands, however implicitly, is that comedy is one of our most accurate barometers of cultural change.
The surest sign that a marginalized group is on the path to social acceptance isn’t when comedians stop telling jokes about them, it’s when comedians finally cross the critical threshold from mockery to creativity in their joke-telling.
A punchline about Jenner undergoing sex reassignment surgery is just plain bad comedy, mostly because it’s easy. But jokes about legal name change, monograms, and Obamacare’s inclusion of transgender healthcare require actual legwork.
The fact that comedians are finally making that effort is a subtle but powerful indication that public opinion on transgender people is finally beginning to turn.
Late-night monologues might be minor victories compared to the legal battles facing the trans community but, as it so happens, they’re excellent predictors of success in that realm as well.
This same pattern has borne out before in the late-night comedy world’s treatment of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Jay Leno, never one for innovation during his Tonight Show tenure, kept the bad gay jokes coming well into the 2000s. As recently as 2008, he asked Ryan Phillippe to give the camera his “gayest look.”
These kinds of comments were once commonplace on television—especially on late-night shows—but they have since been replaced by more sharp-witted humor about lesbian, gay, and bisexual identity, which has evolved temporally alongside the string of legal and judicial victories for the LGB portion of the LGBT community.
But the off-color trans jokes never stopped coming. In 2010, after Obama appointed an openly transgender woman to a position in his administration, David Letterman and his announcer Alan Kalter acted out a skit in which the latter feigned disgust at having slept with her before running off the set.
On Monday night, however, Letterman stayed quiet about the Sawyer interview. He could have made jokes about it, but after taking his comedic cues from The Crying Game for that 2010 skit, maybe it’s best that he didn’t.
We live in a post-Jenner interview world and gags like that one just won’t fly anymore. Indeed Nightly Show anchor Larry Wilmore and Late Late Show newcomer James Corden proved to be Jenner’s most markedly vocal allies.
Wilmore devoted his entire Monday episode to a playful discussion of the interview with a panel of transgender commentators. And in his Monday night monologue, Corden called the interview “genuinely one of the most incredible pieces of television that I’ve seen in years.”
That led him into an impassioned, seemingly unscripted declaration of sympathy for those who have felt Jenner’s pain firsthand.
“I truly hope that after this weekend’s interview, that this world that we live in is a better, more understanding, more educated place for [them] to live in,” he said, to loud applause, before personally thanking Jenner.
Of all the media reactions to Jenner’s story, a comedian making that announcement in the hetero male territory of after-midnight TV may be one of the most promising signs of progress yet.
Corden followed up his earnest message by joking that the interview has given his wife hope that “one day I might fully transition into becoming a man.” It was a perfect, lighthearted coda for a heavy topic and a reminder that laughter does not have to be antithetical to social change.
Bruce Jenner may have taken the fun out of making fun of transgender people, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh alongside him and, soon, her.