Thursday, 23 July 2009

280: Anthony Blunt 2

in “Private Eye” 24 June 1977

At one point the “The Times” thought it had a scoop. There was a rumour that the “Fourth Man” was an academic, whose last name was five letters beginning with “B”. They managed to get it completely wrong, though, and ran with a front page story accusing one Donald Beves, a man who had died in 1961. Which was lucky, as it turned out, because you can’t libel the dead.

It was big story, as you might imagine. And lots of Establishment figures wrote to “The Times”, rightly defending their maligned colleague. It was a campaign led by George “Dadie” Rylands (hence the letter), fellow of Kings College (easily turned in “Queens” for comic effect). Rylands’s homosexuality wasn’t exactly a closed secret anyway, which I think is obvious in the letter. E.M. Forster is a perfectly suitable comic replacement as another dead, gay Cambridge academic. Onan is a pun on Lord Annan, an academic of the time. And of course, Beves becomes Poovis. So the piece plays about with assumptions of a certain type of bachelor, whose inclinations could as easily take him to homosexuality or spying as makes no difference. But really it’s about giving a damn good kicking to the editor of the Times, William Rees-Mogg.

in “Private Eye”, 8 July 1977

And of course, Rees-Mogg had to back down and apologise. So here the “Private Eye” writers are mocking him for apologising for his mistake. Great when you can have it both ways.
“The Rt. Rev” is because Mogg had a tendency to adopt a certain church-going sanctity to himself in his claims of editorial propriety and vision for the newspaper. As usual, these sort of pieces are all about blurring and confusing of facts. “Lord Bradwell” (Tom Driberg) was indeed a roaring old poof, and had been outed by the Times as such in their obituary of him. Gradually it rattles through a whole series of associations, until it reaches its conclusion which is a complete unapology, and another reference to EM Forster’s homosexuality again, confirming yet again the Time’s inability to gets it stories straight.

279: Anthony Blunt 1

One of the great journalistic hunts of the 1960s and 70s was to find the legendary “Fourth man”. The spies Burgess and Maclean had defected to Russia in the 1950s, then Kim Philby followed them in 1963. Everyone suspected there was a “fourth man” who had been assisting them in passing information and providing other support. This spy ring was confirmed by intelligence from Russian spies. But who was the “fourth man”? As it turned out, his identity had been known by a select Establishment few by the early 1950s, but it had been covered up. There were assorted eruptions of interest over the years. But almost all of them were tinged by the suspicion that homosexuality would be one of the clues. As it turned out, this wasn’t an erroneous assumption. Following the Vassall affair, there was now a strong connection in the public imagination between treacherous spies and homosexuality. It’s all the same kind of duplicitous behaviour by chaps trying to pass as something they’re not, donchaknow.

in “Private Eye”
29 May 1964
A nicely thought out play on bugging and buggery playing on ambivalence and Establishment stupidity. I suspect that Peter Cook may have some input in a few of the jokes. Don’t forget to read the titles of the books in Willie Rushton’s illustration.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Fifty Years of Comedy Queers: The 1990s to Yesterday

Part 1: 1960s
Part 2: 1970s
Part 3: 1980s

By the start of the 1990s a few sitcoms started to include regular gay characters. The perfectly pleasant and safe BBC radio sitcom, “After Henry”” had transferred to television in 1988 and had brought along the supporting character, the perfectly nice gay friend, Russell Bryant. In America “Doctor Doctor” (1989) had a perfectly nice and respectable gay brother who got into a few verbal jousts with his father, but nothing that would upset anyone. The Channel 4 television news-based sitcom “Drop the Dead Donkey” had a lesbian raising a family as one of the leads, but it was an indication of how modern it all was and she was no stereotype. The same applied with with the occasional appearances of the lead character’s gay father in HBO sitcom, “Dream On” (1990 – 1996). Much more confrontational was the sitcom “Roseanne”(1988 – 1997), introducing Sandra Bernhardt in 1990, and then Martin Mull and Fred Willard as a gay couple in 1991 who marry in one episode. “Terry and Julian” (1992) starring Julian Clary, was intended as a deconstruction of middle-class sitcom clichés and was forum for Clary to continue as he was. “Absolutely Fabulous” was about the outrageous grotesques of the media world, and its gays were of a piece (so winning it a devoted gay audience, as Buddy Cole had his devotees in America).

The 1990s repeated the situation of 1970s, where American portrayals were worthily positive while the English preferred screeching, if now ironicised, caricatures. British commentator would look on somewhat enviously as American sitcoms seemed brimful of gay supporting characters and episodes with such gay premises as being mistaken for gay, coping with the recipient of a gay man’s affections, or pretending to be gay for whatever reasons. Most of the characters were as bland and innocuous as the rest of the cast, though if the production team felt daring, they might be a bit more sceney or acerbic, fitting nicely with the “zinger” style of American humour. How memorable or good a character they actually were is another matter. Indeed, that they’re not special could be counted as a victory by certain arguments. The most popular sitcom of the 1990s, “Friends” was able to incorporate homosexuality and gay jokes as part of the natural order, as too did “Frasier”. In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out in real life at the same that her sitcom character also came out. The sitcom had already been running for several seasons, and had several regular gay characters, Peter and Barrett. The novelty of having an established lead character come out made international news. Worries whether this was network suicide proved unfounded as the sitcom lasted several more series and the character gradually found her lesbian way. The 1998 season saw “Will and Grace”, a primetime sitcom about the exploits of a gay man and his female best friend, mirroring several mainstream romantic comedies whose gimmick was the relationship between a gay man and his female best friend. Will was a comfortable, straight-seeming leading man, and it was his friend Jack who was the more flamboyant, gay character. Gay in-jokes were crafted for acceptability to a mainstream audience, and the show would eventually provide boyfriends for both gay characters, with assorted on-screen kisses (The comic build-up and horror of a man-on-man kiss between the UK comedians Smith and Jones in a sketch of the early 1990s was a rare outing). Other networks tried to cash in with gay themed sitcoms to little success. By the mid-1990s there are so many comedic films featuring gays of assorted stripes, that one can pick from the mainstream, the independent and deliberately gay markets for both subtle and positive or crass caricatures.

Sitcoms were in decline in general in the UK throughout the 1990s and so there is less opportunity to match the American profusion. “The Vicar of Dibley”, from the writer of “Black Adder” and “Four Weddings and A Funeral” would have an episode in which a longstanding character came out to little response. Ben Elton’s “The Thin Blue Line” had a policeman whose utter clichéd gay sissiness belied the fact he was straight and in love with a female officer. That same actor played an equally outrageous gay character in the sitcom, "Gimme Gimme Gimme". The character was over-the-top, lustful and screamingly obvious. However, he was part of the trend in humour from the late 1990s onward by gay comics, comedians and writers to exhume the gay stereotypes with added knowing venom. They knew that though they were stereotypes, often such seeming bitchy, flaming caricatures could be found in real life. If such clichés were to be made fun of, then gay people were the ones to do it. New comedy groups with gay writers and performers like “The League of Gentlemen” and “Little Britain” discovered new ways of subverting and inhabiting the old clichés. The most famous example is Daffyyd, The Only Gay in the Village, in “Little Britain”. A joke on the way some gays use their homosexuality as a way of defining their special difference from everyone else, the character’s extravagant costumes and broad performances were also a return to the style of Dick Emery. The character was played as a cartoon, so rather flattening much of the irony, since he could be seen just as a silly, flamboyant poof. An earlier sketch by the “Little Britain” team parodying gay stereotypes and American sitcoms, “My Gay Dads” was excoriated by the TV reviewer of “Gay Times”.

Matt Lucas as "Daffyd. The Only Gay in the Village"

For the last decade or so, given the profusion of homosexual characters and gags in films, sitcoms and sketches, the distinction can at least be made between good and bad jokes about gay men. It can be assumed that every writer knows better, knows when a stereotype is used intelligently and when it is dragged out for a cheap laugh. Sketch shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV” have gays as a large part of almost every episode nowadays. They can make fun of homophobia and mainstream homoeroticism, and subvert masculine ideas about sport, cowboys and the military, but they’re also prepared to get easy laughs with swishy queens, ill-thought-out gay parodies and the shock value of men kissing one another. The lesson of “The Simpson” has been learnt, and cartoon series like “Futurama”, “King of the Hill”, “Family Guy”, and “South Park” make gay jokes of various nuances. In the case of “South Park” (whose Big Gay Al may be tribute to Alan Sues as Big Gay Al on “Laugh-In”), some of the crudest gags and stereotypes are in aid of making greater satirical points, even though there is the suspicion that no bad gay gag beneath Adam Sandler would be beneath them. Victor Lewis-Smith’s Gay Daleks, screaming “Ex-Sperm-inate” is intended as the height of bad taste. French and Saunders, two women, can drag up to play camp make-up artists, which is a lot of effort to claim the privilege of any male comedian. The long-running barely suppressed love affair between Ted and Ralph, the lord of the manor and his groundskeeper in “The Fast Show” was a subtle, slow-burning gag.

"Big Gay Al"

That straight comedians should know better is a double-edge razor. The anxiety a character like Alan Partridge or Harry Enfield’s Modern Dad feels around homosexuals, and the worn-out homophobic gags they inadvertently make to diffuse their discomfort are in fact gags at their expense. America’s “Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” give enough indications as to their satirical intent even when they employ stereotypical references. Comedy of post-Political Correctness irony and embarrassment gives comedians like Jimmy Carr, Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen the latitude to also explore the uncomfortable nuances of the homophobic gags of previous generations. When Jimmy Carr says "I was asked to judge Mr Gay UK. I said he's against nature, he's against God and he's going to hell," it's an extreme and unexpected parodic aping of homophobia. Gervais’s persona can make his jokes about gay men seem little more than expressions of horror at being around queers. Sacha Baron Cohen plays his character Bruno as the ur-type of the vapid fashionisto in extravagant and revealing costumes living in his own gay-obsessed world. Coming on to everyone in camp tones, Bruno highlights homophobia by confronting bigots with their own nightmarish idea of what a homosexual should be. Since at least half of jokes are based on sexual innuendoes and ludicrous mannerisms, they can be taken at face value, inviting the audience to laugh at the stupid, sex-obsessed homosexual.

Just to look idly about at supposedly funny gay portrayals from the last month or so is to wonder, in a post-modern, post-value society, is everything is up for grabs? Al Murray can prance about as a crass, lascivious gay Nazi in pink uniforms who speaks only in forced lewd innuendoes, a screeching exaggerated concoction of Julian Clary, Daffyd and Lieutenant Gruber. Matthew Horne plays a TV reporter as some shallow, camp scene queen, and though all critics are unimpressed, Paul O’Grady approvingly acknowledges he knows people just like that. “Krod Mandoon” has a camp, finger-snapping Latino named Bruce, in revealing costume who is inappropriately free with his hands. The latest issue of “Private Eye” can have a cartoon about Twitter featuring Stephen Fry drawn with the same fluttery eyes, rouged cheeks, and slightly prominent, pursed lips to be found in gay caricatures from thirty-five years ago. In England, the TV and radio presenter Jonathan Ross jokes "If your son asks for a Hannah Montana MP3 player, you might want to already think about putting him down for adoption before he brings his, erm, partner home." and after complaints, it is passed as being typical of his “irreverent humour”. And then there’s the thundering juggernaut of the “Bruno” film, whose only novelty is that this cliché is paraded in real life to befuddle real people.

Matthew Horne as "Tim Goodall"

Al Murray as "Herr Schwull"

To complicate matters, gay cliches are not employed by mainstream comedians, but also by homosexuals among themselves. As has been demonstrated, many of the writers and performers in this history are gay. When even the ideas of equality and coexistence with straight society are still up for debate among homosexuals, what ideal of the perfect gay representation can usefully be asserted. If clichés continue to be used it is because, even as they evolve and are refined, some truth can be found in them. They are clichés that have stuck for a reason. Every year the same debates crop up in the gay media at “Gay Pride” time because of embarrassment over the “bad homosexuals” who some will always perceive as letting the side down.(In fact, here's the co-creator of "will and Grace" pointing the finger. Makes you proud.) There is a declension of gay identity: I am perfectly straight-acting; you are a bit of a fairy; he is a screaming faggot. And this sissyphobia will always be the case. Gay writers are just as prepared to deliberately and crassly employ the same stereotypes in cartoons intended for the gay audience like “Queer Duck” (by one of the writers of “The Simpsons” and “Steve and Ed, The Happiest Gay Couple in the World”. More intelligently and historically refined treatments can be found in a Doonesbury-style strip like Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes To Watch Out For” or Maurice Vellekoop’s occasional cartoon anatomies. The combination of performance art and coloratura savagings of the commercial gay scene by Justin Bond and David Hoyle far exceed the bile of most homophobic caricatures.

"Queer Duck"

Have I got a conclusion. Not really. Not least because I don’t think any of this will ever end. Gay men want to be taken seriously, but comedy is rarely fair. A laugh depends either upon a moment of recognition or anaesthesia of the heart. To demand that homosexuals be recognised as loveable and be respected is largely outside the domain of comedy. Of course, as soon as you phrase the argument in terms of dignity, it becomes more obvious how unreconcilable that is with comedy. Comedy and comic characters may be loveable, but that’s a rare trick and can’t be imposed by fiat. All you can hope is that writers realise a gay hairdresser can be shrill and still have the full range of human emotions and responses. Prime time comedies like “Ugly Betty” and “Beautiful People” can successfully express the recognisable teenage crises in comically camp dramatics, while remaining true to integrity of the characters. The convoluted camouflages of the varied closet cases in “The Book Group”, “The Smoking Room” and “Gavin and Stacey” run the gamut without mockery. Yet even this may be to expect a lot. Not on the behalf of homosexuals, but for any character in a comedy. The intention of these creators is to be paid. At best, the creators pay lip service to the social standards of their time for the laughs that they raise there and then without sense of responsibility to future generations. Current laughs to current tastes and current knowledge are all that matter. That’s why comedy is so powerfully representative of the attitudes of a given time. Pretending that a sitcom or film should be an in-depth fly-on-the-wall documentary depicting shining paragons of every social subset will never produce anything worthwhile. The problem is when we have to live with the aftermath. The heydays of poofs in the UK was approximately 1972-1976, but ubiquitous repeats meant those comic images continued to exert an undue influence for at least the next twenty years.

And that’s all part of our big stinking gay legacy. Can’t get rid of it. Even if you tried. We can just look at the facts really hard. And there’s nothing more likely to kill a joke stone dead than to coldly dissect it.

Fifty Years of Comedy Queers: The 1980s

Part 1: 1960s
Part 2: 1970s
Part 4: 1990s and 2000s

At the end of the 1970s there were now several means in which a gay joke could be offered and received. The 1960s and 1970s had mostly struggled with the practicalities of representation. But on the cusp of the new decade there was diversity in attitudes toward homosexuality, and the related jokes and styles available to comics. They could attempt to reflect the new masculinised gay culture of moustaches, tight jeans, and leather accoutrements. They could rely on old jokes about lisping, swishiness, and coded puns. Their jokes could be offered as satire on current cultural mores, or as a denigration of gay culture. Unlike Lenny Bruce, when Eddie Murphy used the word “faggots” in his stand-up in the early 1980s, he wanted to be as offensive as possible, because still few people actually really knew homosexuals. They knew them from funny, unsexual characters in films or TV comedies, or when prompted to consider gay sex lives, anxiety and disgust were discharged in jokes. The extent of the public’s lack of references for actual gay men is reflected in the very small roster of names alluded to by comic writers. Oscar Wilde is allusion number one, then assorted denizens of the Bloomsbury literary movement of the early twentieth century, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote and Christopher Isherwood are all that remains available, aside from the few contemporary figures caught up in scandals. Expression of gay sexuality still had furtive, shameful connotations, since it was usually only ever referred to the in the context of some national scandal, or else in the perverse and shocking exhibitions of S&M tastes.

Meanwhile mainstream sitcoms and films continued to struggle with how to include homosexuals. In the 1981 movie-pilot “Love, Sydney”, Tony Randall played a gay man, but transferral to sitcom with the promise that Randall would play TV’s first gay sitcom lead was undone by public pressure and the character was neutered. A TV write-up of the 1980 BBC sitcom “Time of My Life” describing a “trendily gay son” as one of the problems its middle-life crisis stricken lead had to cope with, may seem crass, but it reflects the notion that homosexuality was no longer a terrible problem but a fashionable issue instead. Kenny Everett’s hypermanic sketch series featured many queer-tinged performances, and Everett could proclaim a knowing “Welcome to all friends of Dorothy”. Similarly, many audiences have warm recollections of the blithely inconsequential Stephen Stucker in the two “Airplane” films (1980 and 1982). Audiences would come to expect some sort of sissy character in Mel Brooks’s repertoire of bad taste, while Neil Simon has always seemed lost at sea with homosexuals, as demonstrated by “The Goodbye Girl (1977) and “California Suite” (1978). The sexy comedies of Blake Edwards mirror Woody Allen’s development. “The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) had an outrageous scene set in a drag bar. “10” (1979) had given Dudley Moore a thoughtful gay song writing partner, Hugh. “S.O.B.” (1981) had included a gay secretary as one of many Hollywood characters, while “Victor/Victoria” (1982) was intentionally a weird blend of all sexual tastes and gender-bending. The satire of California manners “Serial” (1980) would give the world the spectacle of Christopher Lee as a member of a gay motorcycle gang. There were several Hollywood attempts to cash in on the outright gay success of “La Cage”. “Zorro – The Gay Blade” (1981) had George Hamilton (following on his Dracula in “Love at First Bite”) playing Zorro and his sissy, foppish twin brother, Bunny Wigglesworth, who cavorts in flamboyant costumes. “Partners” (1982) even had the same scriptwriters as “La Cage”. It was a buddy comedy pairing two mismatched police officers, the macho Ryan O’Neal, and the unassuming gay John Hurt (who doesn’t discredit himself, but it’s no advance on the “The Naked Civil Servant”). To solve a murder, the odd couple have to pose as a couple in a condo that captures all the worst stereotypes of West Hollywood gay life, swish mu-mu-wearing queens and hairy clones.

Stephen Stucker

"Zorro - The Gay Blade"


In England, the start of the 1980s saw the rise of Alternative Comedy, based on an idea of humour which didn’t rely on sexist or racist stereotypes. Its most productive writers were Ben Elton and Peter Richardson, with performers like Alexei Sayle, French and Saunders, Rick Mayall and Richard Edmondson. As the new trend, over the next five years or so it produced “The Comic Strip”, “The Young Ones”, “Black Adder”, “Filthy, Rich and Cat Flap”. Gay jokes were largely off the menu. If homosexuality was introduced it was to satirise old cliches. A languidly gay uncle was a villain reminiscent of the late 1960s thrillers in the “Five Go Mad….” parodies of Enid Blyton’s children’s story. Though “The Comic Strip” episodes by Keith Allen did enjoy their mincing poofs. Elton’s “Black Adder II” had dockside sodomy and the lead character falling in love in a women dressed as a man. Elton set the standard of mocking crap comics who got jokes by “imitating poofs” and saying “I’m feeling a little queer”. But if progressive left-wing comedians said they were on the side of homosexual equality, then the right wing was as ready to use homosexuality to tarnish their opponents. It was as much an age gap, since the Alternative Comedians were in their twenties, while the rightwing humorists were usually at least twenty years older. Ring wing newspapers, comedians and cartoonists didn’t smear their left wing opponents with accusations of homosexuality. Rather they used the Left’s gestures at homosexual equality to make the Left and its politics seem ridiculous. Sneering gags about Lesbian creches and Gay Centres are part of a larger political argument. But it is a return to the idea that homosexual demands for equality are innately laughable. Editorial cartoonists produce copious sheets of flouncy moustachioed transvestites and wiggling effeminate poofs in response to news stories, implying that any attention or money is wasted on these freaks.

As humorists were aware there was range of realistic gay behaviours to draw on, so there was the developing tactic of employing camp stereotypes to attack bigotry. In a 1981 episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati” two characters had camped it up to perturb and break a contract with a conservative housing organisation. “Cheers” in 1983 had gone further than most in showing the comic consequences of group outrage at public homosexuality and let its characters express all the confused clichés about gays. “In Sickness and Health” was a continuation of “Till Death Us Do Part”’s loveable bigot Alf Garnett. The 1986 and 1987 series featured the black, gay home help, Winston, performed by Eamonn Walker, and nicknamed “Marigold” by Alf. The performance, played up certain stereotypical black and gay behaviours, piercing nelliness, limp wrists and extravagant camp flirtatiousness, which though put on to provoke the prejudiced Alf, came close to bigoted caricature in themselves. The great problem was, and has continued to be, how much irony audiences can swallow. Are they laughing at the satirising of outdated clichés about homosexuals, or at they simply laughing wholeheartedly at the funny homos.

"Marigold" in "In Sickness and in Health"

In line with current trends in cinema, the 1980s saw the new genre of the teenage sex comedy. Summer after summer in the mid-80s’ was witness to innumerable sequels to “Revenge of the Nerds”, “Police Academy”, and copies of carbon copies of “Porky’s”. Aimed at adolescent boys, they traded in pratfalls, ogling at ladies, and reflected the attitudes of the high school. “Fag”, “homo” and “queer” were common insults thrown about by protagonists, though rarely against anyone who was identifiably gay, which was the point of the insult, after all. When repeated on TV, it was always hit-or-miss whether TV censors would cut the epithets or not. The black comedy “Heathers” (1989) would cleverly satirise high school homophobia, with a murder passed off as a gay suicide and the victim’s father bellowing at the funeral, “I love my dead gay son!” The “Revenge of the Nerds” films had its swish Lamar Latrell, who in one setpiece was incapable of running without a correspondingly limp javelin. Every instalment of “Police Academy” would adjourn to the “Blue Oyster Bar” for a little comedic gay panic by the main characters, for though it was frequented by threatening-seeming gay leathermen, they only ever wanted to waltz and tango with the police interlopers.

"Revenge of the Nerds"

"Police Academy"

By the mid-1980s even the most clueless of cartoonists and comedians had realised that most homosexuals were not quite the effeminate lipstick-wearing, flouncy sissies they had imagined. Gay cartoonists in gay magazines like “Christopher Street” and “Gay News” had been making jokes before 1980, but those were jokes for the gay audience familiar with the scene. Michael Heath’s “The Gays” strip (1981-186) in “Private Eye” had noticed fairly early on that there was a distinct new gay identity. The prevalence and flagrancy of the clone, given a few additional touches by way of the leather cop from “The Village People”, would become an easy stereotype for cartoonists for almost the next two decades. Soon it was easy for even the laziest of humorists to suggest a homosexual through some combination of: a moustache, an earring, maybe a shaved head or a leather cap, a revealing shirt or string vest, and a bomber jacket. It allows the cartoonist to note that homosexuality is actually about sexuality, but the various elements can be configured to make it all seem a rather silly display (whether you feel that it’s a bit silly already is a whole other matter). Also, as the AIDs crises enveloped the later ‘80s and early 90s, the ubiquity of the Clone/Village People stereotype as a way of getting an easy laugh shows ups up public anxiety about gay sexuality. Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985) attempts to reconcile all the different varieties of homosexuals to be found in late night Manhattan, with fondling clones, queeny artists, and even a vanilla bi-curious encounter.

The comedy which best attempted to depict some of the complexity of contemporary gay life was tucked away on the US subscription cable channel ShowTime, and later broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. The sitcom “Brothers” (1984-1989) focussed on the consequences of Cliff coming out to his other two brothers, Joe and Lou. ABC and NBC rejected the opportunity to broadcast the first gay-themed sitcom series before it found a home on cable. The series follows Joe as he finds his feet as a gay a man, and the gradual acceptance of their brother’s lifestyle by the hot-headed Lou and the more sensible Joe. In a foreshadowing of “Will and Grace”, Cliff was straight-acting, but his closest friend, Donald Maltby, was flamboyant, camp, flirty, and sharp-tongued – a well rounded recognisable real-life queen, if you prefer. As importantly, he was supportive of Cliff and proud of his homosexuality, though gay groups were upset that such a role was portrayed by a straight actor. Numerous gay issues were covered, and Cliff would eventually find a boyfriend. The best that the UK could offer at this time was Lieutenant Gruber in the farcical “’Allo ‘Allo” (1982-1992) by the writers of “are You Being Served”. Unlike Mr Humphries his homosexuality was more explicit since he had a crush on the lead male character, besides making effete references to his “little tank” and assorted sissy innuendoes. In its early years, Channel 4 in the UK had a remit to make minority oriented programming, and so wholly unremembered sitcoms like "It Takes a Worried Man" (1981-1983) and "Dream Stuffing" (1984) had their regular gay cast members, but ultimately contribute nothing to the dialogue.

Cliff and Donald in "Brothers"

Lieutenant Gruber in "'Allo 'Allo"

A new development in the 1980s was the arrival of gay comedians intent on a mainstream audience. Their humour drew upon their experiences as homosexuals, without trading on weak camp stereotypes. In England, the stand-up comedian, Simon Fanshawe, discussed his homosexuality like any other topic, and would go on to a checkered media career suffering homophobic criticisms. Stephen Fry employed ferocious verbal dexterity in Establishment tones to indulge a taste for filth and the witty annihilation of gay clichés against the growing homophobia prompted by AIDS and Section 28. Julian Clary took the poof clichés of extravagant costumes and double-entendres and made it as confrontational as possible, a barrage of snide insults and blistering sexual gags, returning camp to its origins as a form of attack not inadequacy. Gay American comedians seem thin on the ground at this time, but the brash Sandra Bernhard was making a name for herself. At the end of the 1980s, the Canadian sketch troupe “The Kids in the Hall” (1988-1995) was broadcast in the dead of night in both the UK and US. They employed many gags attacking homophobia and gay stereotypes. Scott Thompson, the gay member of the group, had his own recurring character, the flamboyant, scandalous socialite Buddy Cole, whose sketches ramped up gay cliché, revelling in their outrageous corruption.

Stephen Fry

Julian Clary

"Buddy Cole"

Yet all of the above is barely a drop in the ocean when you consider the absence of any gay appearances in all the family sitcoms of the 80s, which seemed to be the dominant format of the time. All those teens and their friends yet no one ever comes out. All those special life lessons to be learnt, and other than the occasional paedophilia storyline, nary a homosexual. If AIDS gets a mention in a “Very Special Episode”, it’s almost always as a result of an unfortunate blood transfusion. A 1987 episode of “Designing Women” stands out for its fury about the impact of AIDS on the gay community and the lack of concern by many. In 1990, Gary Trudeau would revisit his character Andy Lippincott as an AIDs victim and track his eventual death. And still the occasional sitcom like “Golden Girls” or “Dear John” in the late 1980s would have a gay brother or relative come out, so the audience would be reminded that it was OK. “Birds of a Feather” has a 1990 episode which goes so far as the leads wondering what they will do if their son comes out as gay, and then when they finally realise that would be fine, it all turns out to be a misunderstanding and the series returns to default. And yes, there was a “Very Special Episode” of “Blossom” where a friend who was never in any previous episode comes out and is never seen again in any subsequent episode.

Andy Lippincott in the AIDS quilt

As it turned out, the most exciting gay comedic action on mainstream American TV in the late 1980s was happening on the new channel Fox. Fox aimed to attract its audiences with more daring and blatant content, or crass bad taste as the case may be. “The Tracy Ullman Show” (1987-1990) was aimed at a more sophisticated audience, and had a recurring character, the teenage girl, Francesca, who lived with her father (Dan Castellaneta) and his boyfriend, William (Sam McMurray). The gay parents were played as slightly effeminate and over-emotional, but not unrealistically. The crux of the sketches was the love that all three had for each other, pointing out the ridiculousness of the objections of others to this modern household. Later sketch shows by Tracy Ullman would regularly feature many gay characters. Fox also took a chance with “In Living Color” (1990 – 1994), an all black sketch show, with the exception of Jim Carrey. The show had two recurring gay characters in its “Men On Film” sketches. They featured the effeminate Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather played by Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier . Every sketch the pair would appear in some new outrageous but revealing costume, finger-snapping and indulge in mysogyny and lascivious double-entendres at the expense of whatever the ostensible subject happened to be. A filthier Julian and Sandy if you liked, only almost twenty-five years later. How different they were from Buddy Cole or Julian Clary remains a matter of intent, and requires the taking into consideration privileges when one is gay or straight playing gay. The treatment of the few gay black comic characters to date is a sensitive one. The few who appear in episodes of the 1970s “Sanford and Son” are much broader than to be found on other sitcoms, the hysterical inter-racial antique-dealing queens in “Blackula” (1972) are intended as comic relief, Antonio Fargas plays a few sharp queens in films of the mid -70s, most notably in “Car Wash” (1976), and Meshach Taylor regularly played a high-fashion queen. Wayans had been fired from “Saturday Night Live” in 1986 for playing a stereotypically homosexual cop on a sketch that didn’t call for one.

Francesca's parents

"Men on Film"

Fox also took a gamble on a cartoon spin-off from “The Tracy Ullman Show” when it commissioned “The Simpsons”. The Simpsons had a gay character from the first series in Mr Waylon Smithers (named for Wayland Flowers). Rather than have him as an out character, they employed the tactic of having him closeted in plain sight, relying on the audience’s familiarity with gay signifiers to pick up that Smither’s sycophancy has turned into a crush on his boss. (Having a gay character in plain sight unrecognised by others flatters the sophistication of audiences, and dates back to the 1969 sketch “Funny he never married”, was used with the gay couples of Ed and Howard in “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and Tim and Gavin in “The Brittas Empire”, and was an ironic joke at the expense of the clueless and monstrous mothers of Dame Edna Everage and “Keeping Up Appearances”.) Intelligent gay characters, jokes and episodes would regularly appear in “The Simpsons” with cameos from the likes of John Waters and Harvey Fierstein. The Waters episode gave rise to the evergreen admission by Homer, “I like my beer cold, my TV loud and my homosexuals flaming”. Fierstein would have a sideline in flamboyant gay, an out modern gay updating of Paul Lynde. The success of the “The Simpsons” was the strongest proof that American audiences could accept rich, intelligent humour, and set the standard for much of the 1990s.

Mr Smithers

Part 4: 1990s and 2000s

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Fifty Years of Comedy Queers: The 1970s

Part 1: 1960s
Part 3: 1980s
Part 4: 1990s and 2000s

The next generation of comedy writers reflected a growing familiarity with fag jokes of all kinds. These were university humorists who studied the trends in humour like they had studied for their courses, and were now intent on breaking through in several senses. They prided themselves that the humour they offered was of a sterner and more controversial nature than much of what had gone before. Also that they were alert to, and even through their humour participating in, the changes that were shaking society. In England, the writers and performers of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” had performed in university revues which had led to professional careers of at least the last five years, if more. In America, “National Lampoon” magazine was a spin-off from successful publishing experiments in collegiate humour. “National Lampoon” could afford to be as offensive and intellectual as it liked, free of almost all possibility of formal censorship. The appearance of “Monty Python” and “National Lampoon” coincides with a growing visibility for homosexuality and demands for homosexual rights. Homosexual acts between adults had been decriminalised in England in 1967. 1969 witnessed the Stonewall Riots in New York City which brought the forthright demand for an end to homosexual oppression, and the corresponding development of the Gay Lib movement over the next couple of years. Both “Monty Python” and “National Lampoon” aimed at a younger, hipper audience, and each had gay writers. As they pushed the line regarding casual female nudity, similarly there is a greater emphasis on gay sexuality in their humour. In “Python”, male couples share beds, policemen are chatted up, while camp stereotypes are turned on their heads, and when gay clichés are invoked they are overblown as screaming caricatures parodying stale assumptions and lame jokes. “National Lampoon” sometimes less thoughtfully pounds away at the sissy, bitchy, misogynist stereotypes. However it also attacks simplistic homophobia, examines gay lifestyles, and treats gay sex with a daring tastelessness. “Python”’s and “Lampoon”’s cinematic contemporary, Woody Allen, showed a steeper learning curve. From “Bananas”’s prurient speculation about the possibility of a gay juror (1971), to the explicit homoeroticism of macho gym-set advertising in “Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex” (1972) , then the effeminate queens and their equally sissy robot of “Sleeper” (1973), Allen finally manages some genial contemplations about the personal lives of the Greek philosophers in “Love and Death” (1975).

Fleeting sketches, parodies, songs, comics, and cartoons are all very well, but are only a momentary splash on the attention. From the beginning of the 1970s, gays start to appear in the mainstream of comfy prime-time viewing, fit for the sitcom audiences of tens of millions. Sitcoms are a barometer of public acceptance. For even the most daring programme, let alone the most traditional, will only lead as far as the audience is prepared to follow. When a potentially conflagrationary topic like homosexuality or homosexual characters appear in a sitcom, then you know that (1) homosexuality can no longer be ignored, and (2) the production team has probably been giving it a bloody hard think. As dramas explored gritty social issues, so sitcoms follow the same formulas. The constant treadmill of production means a hunger for new materials and topics to animate each subsequent episode. New social trends are therefore good for new comedic material. As in most cases in this history, the British were first (a little national pride there). “Steptoe and Son” featured a quasi-aristocratic antique dealer with romantic designs on Harold, in 1970. This is probably the first sitcom episode to feature a gay character, and, luckily, it’s an intelligent script and believable performance. The first sitcom to feature a recurring gay character was also British. Mr Winters was a camp boutique owner in the first 1971 series of “The Fenn Street Gang”, a spin-off from the popular “Please Sir”. But more often than not British sitcoms of the 1970s preferred their homosexuals to be both camp and also deniable, since British sitcoms were more concerned with getting laughs than being socially sensitive.

"Steptoe and Son"

The appearance of homosexual characters in American sitcoms of the 1970s follows a definite pattern. This is because many of them feature in “Very Special Episodes” of the socially conscious sitcoms on CBS from arch-liberal propagandist and TV producer Norman Lear. The emphasis is on the incursion of homosexuals as a problem to be solved in a positive manner. The template is some friend of the sitcom family arrives, reveals their homosexuality, and once the characters overcome their prejudices, disappears never to be seen again. The first ever American episode about homosexuality was in the first 1971 series of “All in the Family”. Archie ridicules his daughter’s friend for seeming gay, but really it is Archie’s ex-football player friend at the local bar who is the homosexual. Neither friend ever appears again. “Maude”, “Carter Country”, “The Bob Crane Show” all have their gay friends who vanish once lessons have been learnt. American sitcoms soon slightly refined this template, so that a pleasant male would make his entrance, one of the female leads would fall in love with him, he would announce he’s gay, and everyone would realise that was OK, then he would never be seen again. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was the first one to pull this off as the capper to an episode in 1973, but “Alice”, “Phyllis”, “Taxi” and others would follow the same format, with gay characters who would never be seen again. Because us homos are just so damn loveable, donchaknow, but we just don’t stay around. When in 1976 Gary Trudeau boldly introduced the gay lawyer Andy Lippincott into his daily newspaper cartoon strip “Doonesbury”, it was with this same romantic decoy plot. Then having made Trudeau’s point, Andy vanished for the better part of thirteen years. Every one of these one-off gay characters was as straight-acting and normal as one could wish, since it disarmed prejudice and made the plots function. It was the bigots and confused who would make jokes about flamers and camp behaviour, because, as the producers wanted us to realise, they were just so unenlightened.

Andy Lippincott in "Doonesbury"

British audiences were much happier with comedy “poofs”. “Poofs” bring to the screen, in more extravagant form, the familiar characteristics of Julian and Sandy. Poofs mince about, they dress flamboyantly, they have limp wrists and camp mannerisms. They may cast a look at an attractive, butch man, and indulge in occasional double-entendres, but fundamentally, they are asexual and unmanly. Indeed, the second instance of gay characters in a British sitcom were a couple of fey, handbag carrying Britons in the historical sitcom “Up Pompeii” (1970) from the scriptwriter of the “Carry On” films. The most famous poof is John Inman’s performance as “Mr Humphries” in “Are You Being Served” (1972 - 1985), with audiences of up to 22 million. In 1976 Inman was voted funniest man on television by “TV Times” readers and also BBC TV's Personality of the Year. Mr Humphries was the gay stereotype of the men’s shop assistant in excelsis: a jaunty manner, a high voice, a staccato sashaying mining walk, hands either on hips or pressed to his cheek, often dressed in silly costumes, and a piercing catchphrase of “I’m free!”. Mr Humphries was played camp, but the writers and Inman always denied that he was gay, just a “mother’s boy”. This tacit disavowal allowed Mr Humphries to remain in a childish world of dressing up and strange acquaintances, while only ever eliciting a raised eyebrow from other characters. On prime time TV here was a broad comic confirmation of all the stereotypes.

John Inman as "Mr Humphries"

Other British sitcoms and comedies followed suit. “Poofs” require broad performances, with gags in the vein of cheeky, lewd postcard humour. The “Carry On” films may have been the commercial highpoint of this style, but despite having regular gay cast members like Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey and the occasional cameo from Michael Ward, explicitly homosexual gags and gay characters are thin on the ground. “Carry On” was much more comfortable with jokes and farce about heterosexuality, although “Carry On Abroad” (1972) and “Carry On Girls” (1973) give the audience some gay characters. The prison-based sitcom “Porridge” (1974 – 1977) had Christopher Biggins as the recurring character Lukewarm, a tidy mummy’s boy, who liked to knit, and whose visit from his quiet gentleman friend was a comic variant on all the other prison wives. “Not on Your Nellie” (1974-1995) had its pair, Gilbert and George who ran a boutique together. Every episode the silent Gilbert would appear in some flamboyant outfit, give a twirl to the show’s star Hilda Baker, who would reply, “And what are we supposed to be today? Oh, you’re one of THOSE, are you?” The popular sketch performer Dick Emery also got in on the act. Clarence was one of his repertoire of characters. He would flounce on in some new garish costume with matching ghastly cap, utter a blithe cry of his catchphrase “Hello, Honky Tonks!” for a couple of minutes’ slightly laboured camp insinuations, before mincing off again. “The Goodies” (1970-1980), by the writers of “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again”, also liked its mincing, extravagantly dressed camp stereotypes. The camp, effete, mimsy stage comedian Larry Grayson, with his catchphrase of “What a gay day!”, became a hugely popular TV presenter, and his first series in 1972 was promoted, “Shut that door and make yourself at home for a gay evening with Larry Grayson”

Gilbert and George in "Not On You Nellie"

Dick Emery as Clarence

Larry Grayson

The history of coded gay performers (read “screamers” and “mumsy” types) is long and deserves its own essay. Aside from the cinema actors mentioned earlier, and Inman, Grayson, Williams and Biggins, television gave a home to Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, Rip Taylor, Frank Williams, Jim J. Bullock, Victor Spinetti and many others, although each had their contorted moments to avoid explicit statements about their sexuality. The 1970s had seen several acts move from the gay clubs to mass success. In America, there was the ventriloquist Wayland Flowers and his bitchy puppet Madame. “Hinge and Brackett” had been favourites of the gay circuit in England, but since they were a traditional drag act, they were not controversial to a public that had similarly accepted Danny La Rue decades earlier. The gay community’s response to the sudden popularity of Quentin Crisp with a mass straight audience in the late 1970s was ambivalent. For all that he was a survivor to be honoured, the attitudes he expressed were at odds with the new strident sense of gay pride. The 1970s Gay Lib movement had seen gay performers attempt to make comedy out of their experiences, with “Gay Liberation Follies” (1973-1974) whose cast included Lily Tomlin, and the album “Out of the Closet” (1977).

Waylon Flowers

"Hinge and Brackett"

Several American sitcoms attempted to feature regular gay characters, but it is notable that most of the early attempts are mere footnotes in history, and that in every case they were camper than the respectable offerings of the “Very Special Episodes”. Vincent Schiavelli in “The Corner Bar” (1972) was the first main gay character in an American sitcom, but he drew flack from gay groups since he seemed often to be the butt of effeminate gibes from the other characters. The first gay couple in an American sitcom was the prissy, older George and Gordon in “Hot L Baltimore” (1975), but many network affiliates refused to broadcast this sitcom. But as both these sitcoms were summer fillers these sitcoms have no real significance. “Snips” a 1976 sitcom was never even broadcast, but its cast insist this was because network managers were uncomfortable with its character of a gay hairdresser.

"Hot L Baltimore"

But if network officials were uncomfortable with featuring gay characters in sitcoms at all, gay men were now equally concerned by the manner of their depiction. In 1973 the Gay Activists Alliance with the National Gay Task Force issued a set of guidelines to promote positive portrayals of homosexuality, having occcupied ABC’s offices after an offensive episode of “Marcus Welby, M.D. "Homosexuality isn't funny. Sometimes anything can be a source of humor, but the lives of twenty million Americans are not a joke." Eventually, Newton Dieter at the National Gay Task Force would exercise major influence, receiving automatic submission of pre-production scripts on gay themes. This is why limp wrists are few and far between on the American screen. The long-running and successful police station-set sitcom “Barney Miller” (1975 - 1982) did manage a recurring gay character in the extravagantly styled and queeny burglar, Marty from its first season onwards. But after complaints from the National Gay Task Force, the characterisation was toned down, and Marty was given a lover, Darryl. “Saturday Night Live” in its first 1975 season featured a sketch about effeminate gay men overly attached to their mothers, which would be excised from later repeats because of objections. The greatest lobbying success was the character of Jodie Dallas played by Billy Crystal in “Soap” (1977 – 1981). Jodie is the character people usually recall when they try to think of the first openly gay main character in an American sitcom. It is evident that the writers never knew what to do with him or his homosexuality though. At first he was going to undergo a sex change for his closeted boyfriend, but this outraged gay groups. From then on he was as much bisexual as anything, fathered a daughter, had no other male relationships, and by the show’s conclusion he thought he was an elderly Jewish man. Tellingly, at one point, the character’s brother, capable only of speaking through his ventriloquist’s dummy, remarked, “Did you ever notice that homosexuals have no sense of humour?”

"Barney Miller"

Jodie Dallas in "Soap"

In Britain, the mid-70s saw similar, if less influential attempts to exercise some say about the gay men who appeared on screen. The word “poof” was casually thrown around on TV as an insult to anyone’s masculinity. The ITV sitcom “Man About the House” (1973-1976) was based on the premise that a young man could only live with two lithesome young women if they told the landlords that he was a “poof”, resulting in hilarious misunderstandings (this was transferred to America in the late ‘70s as the even smarmier “Three’s Company”). Gay protests in the UK (circa 1975-1977) achieved very little change but they did at least make homosexuals heard by the media. Stage shows featuring Dick Emery, John Inman and Larry Grayson found themselves facing protests from the Campaign for Homosexual Equality with slogans like “Give Us Gay Liberation - Not Gay Titillation”. Gay Lib and its struggle for positive images of gay men meant that reissues of old Julian and Sandy sketches on LPs received hostile reviews in “Gay News”. The Round the Horne Society was refused affiliation with the C.H.E because its celebration of comic poofs was embarrassing to the cause. Emery, Grayson, Inman and Kenneth Williams would make arguments of differing conviction that their portrayals were not malicious and their playing camp was a way of making the public feel comfortable about homosexuals. Following objections, the BBC would remove the line “Take him away - he is just a German poof” from a 1976 Dick Emery repeat. The BBC however was not such a friend of homosexuals in the 1970s, incapable of representing the developments in gay lifestyles. That positive role fell to LWT, the London-based ITV franchise. Its first significant offering was “Rock Follies”, the second series in 1977 offered a perfectly normal gay-couple as main characters, Harry and Ken, who also introduced contemporary gay issues. The sitcom “Agony” (1979 – 1981) also offered a couple, Rob and Michael, neighbours to the leading character. Their occasional quarrels were to show how they like any normal couple, not the bitchy queens of earlier clichés, but gay viewers were disturbed by the eventual suicide of one of the partners. It is important that both “Rock Follies” and “Agony” were written by Americans with higher expectations of gay portrayals on TV. Horrified by this horrific succession of trivial poofs, when given the creative freedom British Tv is more likely to afford, they were able to accomplish something more substantial than American sitcoms or drama had to date.

The visibility of homosexual culture and attitudes to scandals involving homosexuals are best reflected in the works of topical comedians and satirists. The very idea of Gay Liberation was an amusing one to the writers of “Mad” and “Private Eye”. Swishy fairies demanding their right to be camp sissies was the earliest comic interpretation. Jokes about how angry or miserable “gay” men now seemed were not uncommon either. Gradually comedians like The Credibility Gap (the early work of the members of Spinal Tap) in “Where’s Johnny” and National Lampoon’s Radio Hour “West Hollywood Gay Association” alternate between flirtatious caricatures and straight misunderstanding. Popular music’s flirtation with bisexuality on both sides of the Atlantic around 1974-1974, gave rise to assorted jokes about fag rock and mincing rockers with a taste for sodomy. The major problem for humorists was how to reconcile all their old comic stereotypes about swishing sissies with the new gay lifestyle, with its new emphasis on expressions of gay sexuality in clubs and bath houses. To look at an instalment of a comic like “Little Annie Fanny” by Harvey Kurtzman, or films like “Saturday Night at the Baths” (1975)or “The Ritz” (1976), is to realise that even when humorists think they’re depicting the new gay social scene, they don’t really understand it or know how to make it cohere comedically.

The hipness of the comedian is a definite indication of the likely quality. Individual gay characters were no longer just cameo grotesques, and there are a small scattering of gay men in supportive roles as friends in films. A piece like Fran Lebowitz’s “The Primary Cause of Heterosexuality Among Males in Urban Areas” successfully inverts the new gay clichés. The ephemeral “artistic” types of the early 1960s, who’d grown into the “Bitchy fags” of the later 1960s, had evolved into the incontrovertible arty, faggy, kinky dictators of the modern metropolis. As comedy writers and performers grew more comfortable with the topic, instead of having one gay character to play off, sketches begin to appear dealing with gay couples and their insulated gay urban lives. “National Lampoon” will give us two muppet-like characters living together on “Christopher Street” (preempting “Avenue Q” by twenty-five years) and Cheech and Chong give us a space-age couple preparing for a night out in “Queer Wars” (and there were numerous jokes about “fag robots” at the time because of Anthony Daniels). Those two instances update fashion-consciousness and whiny mannerisms with a decoration of S&M, but Robin Williams in SCTV’s “The Bowery Boys in the Band” is an energetic, if swishy, good time boy. However, when it came to comedy revealing some degree public acceptance of gay lifestyles and couples, it was neither America or Britain which came up with the goods. “La Cage aux Folles”, the 1978 film adaptation of a 1973 French stage farce was the surprise smash hit of 1978-1979. The plot device of swishy men trying to butch up takes us all the way back to “Beyond the Fringe”, and it shows that as with Mr Humphries, audiences were most comfortable with fey types. If nothing else, it did finally show a gay couple who were genuinely in love, comfortable around each other, and the audiences were led to find them genuinely sympathetic in comparison to the bigots of the piece.

"La Cage Aux Folles"

Satire was the beneficiary of many fabulous gay scandals in the later half of the 1970s. Gay scandals had moved on, and it was no longer enough that someone just be outed. It was better if they were a prominent person, preferably of national significance, and a healthy dose of actual sex was even better. Comedians, satirists, cartoonists, columnists, and programmes like “Weekending” and ”Not the Nine O’Clock News” were granted liberty to discuss sexual matters which only a few years earlier would have been taboo. The death and subsequent memoirs of the politician Tom Driberg put cottaging (sexual solicitation in toilets) forever in the public domain. The long-running scandal surrounding the Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe placed gay innuendoes and pillow-biting in the newspapers for years. “Gay News” became national news, when a poem sexualising Christ on the cross was successfully tried for blasphemy. The old cliché about the civil service and the spy service being rampant with a coterie of homosexuals was vigorously proven when Anthony Blunt was revealed to be the “Fourth Man” of the 1950s Burgess and Maclean spy scandal. If nothing else, these scandals complemented Gay Libbers’ assertions that homosexuals were in all walks of life and that they weren’t just sexless poofs. Britain is a small country, with national media where satirists and cartoonists vie to produce the best gags. America was far too large, and a residual prudishness meant that if there were any comparable scandals they didn’t get national media coverage, nor were deemed fit for humour. But the rise of the Moral Majority and Anita Bryant’s crusade to stem the tide of homosexuality gave a new edge to discussion about the place of homosexuals in society.

Even as the gay movement seemed to be achieving mass visibility, a massing conservative backlash was mirrored in most of the leading humorous magazines. If any of them attempted any justification, it was that all groups received an equal bashing in their pages, left wing, right wing, gays, straights, etc. “Mad” magazine became more intent on reinforcing the old clichés about swishy gays and effeminate perverts. On several occasions “Mad” seemed to wholeheartedly approve of Anita Bryant’s arguments, and “Mad” won an award of dishonour from the National Gay Task Force for 1978. Since homosexuals were now a prominent group, “Private Eye” believed they had consequently earned the right to be strenuously ridiculed as they were “more able to take care of themselves”. Many gay men felt that the magazine became unbalanced in its homophobia. Quite a few of the “Eye”’s writers were surprisingly religious, and its column on church affairs regularly mocked the homophile or homosexual attitudes of specific clergy. Auberon Waugh indulged in baroque flights of reactionary rhetoric. The editor, Richard Ingrams, made it clear when he wrote for “The Spectator”: “A few years ago homosexuals were rightly regarded as subjects for humour or else sympathy. Now we are expected to treat them as a quasi-political movement with 'rights'". Ingrams laid the blame for gay rights with the feminist movement which encouraged lesbians to operate as the extreme wing. His is a conservative argument which can only see gay politics as the ultimate non-procreative, dead-end of left-wing politics. By the late 1970s, “National Lampoon” had fallen under the editorship of P.J. O’Rourke, with substantial contributions from future film writer and director, John Hughes. Their period of creativity has been summed up in the phrase “Screw you humour”. The words “fag” and “homo” are far from infrequent in pieces by either writer. How much they meant to offend is debatable, but the idea of contravening liberal shibboleths was certainly something O’Rourke found funny (his tendency to compare black people to apes would eventually earn him serious trouble), and also presaged the 1980s appeals to unreconstructed frat-boy humour. As demonstrated by Frank Zappa in songs like “Bobby Brown” and “He’s So Gay”, cataloguing the more extreme homosexual fetishes, no matter how sexually scurrilous you were, so long as it was only intended as parody, that made whatever was said alright.

Fifty Years of Comedy Queers: The 1960s

Part 2: 1970s
Part 3: 1980s
Part 4: 1990s and 2000s

The Motion Picture Association of America was finally prompted to change its policy following the release of two serious films about the life of Oscar Wilde in 1960, and films like “A Taste of Honey” (1961) and the blackmail drama “Victim” (1961). On October 3, 1961, the MPAA announced, “In keeping with the culture, the mores and the values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and restraint”. This didn’t mean homosexuality was acceptable or tolerable, but it did mean that films could now include it in attempts at more mature material. If the public didn’t want to see serious films about homosexual anguish, then characters who were identifiably gay flitted about the light sophisticated comedies of the early 1960s. Film comedies until then had deftly employed actors like Clifton Webb and Edward Everett Horton as coded gay players (and England had its counterparts in Michael Ward and, I think only occasionally, Reginald Beckwith)

Clifton Webb

Edward Everett Horton

Michael Ward

Reginald Beckwith

But now there was a flowering of supercilious gallery owners and interior decorators, fussy bachelors and prissy artistic types. These incidental characters spiced up the urbane milieu of these new comedies. The homosexual hints these minor characters provided were in counterpoint to the livelier and sexier romantic intrigues these films offered over their bland and innocent 1950s predecessors. The highpoint of this genre is probably the convoluted pretences and peekaboo sexual disavowals of the romantic leads played by Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “A Very Special Favor” (1965). When Britain began swinging, films began to feature gay cameos as representative of the many bohemian types one would expect to populate the trendiest of metropolises. Gay habitués of this stylish world appear explicitly in the case of “Darling” (1965) and in a rather more insinuating fashion in “Smashing Time” (1967).

"Pillow Time"

"A Very Special Favor"

Murray Melvin in "A Smashing Time"

Meanwhile, from 1961-1963, comedy homosexuals began appearing via a new avenue of entertainment. The loosening of social and artistic constriction in popular entertainment was most rapidly realised in the Satire Boom of the early ‘60s. In America, where standards of propriety were more enduring, satire had to be sought out in the big cities in nightclubs, cabaret, and in-group magazines like “The Realist” and “Monocle”. In the UK, satire became common coin, colonising the theatre, achieving groundbreaking popularity on TV, and responsible for the lasting success of “Private Eye” magazine. Satire flattered its audience by suggesting they were intelligent, worldly and adult enough to appreciate its subversive laughter. Satire was the magic word granting respectability upon topics otherwise taboo to popular serious entertainment. It was a new thrill to hear comedians discuss race, religion, and politics, but satire also meant jokes about sexual relations could be employed without being merely “blue”. As the comedian Frankie Howerd noted at the time, “That’s not filth, that’s satire”. Gay allusions crop up unexpectedly, and it is easy to forget that the novel “Catch 22” (1961) eventually pulls the rug out from underneath its queerly suggestive opening lines: “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” At this point, it’s worth pointing out, whatever the modern audience of today might think of the clichés and crashing stereotypes to be found in the comedy of the 1960s, these were jokes cracked by people who knew homosexuals and believed gays were an oppressed minority. Anyone who disapproved of homosexuality at this time wasn’t going to make jokes about it, since they would have believed it to be a topic too distasteful and unfit for public humour. When someone like Lenny Bruce jokes about “faggots”, it must be remembered he hasn’t really got any better word to use, and that he is broaching new material for his style of honest discussion. Homosexuality is at first comedically acceptable as a social problem.

If previously, writers could barely hint at homosexuality in serious drama, now the freedom to confront it face-on was one of the benefits of the new, more liberal society satire was supposed to portend. Comedy about homosexuals was one of the privileges of smart, adult-oriented humour, and so was actually an indicator of slight acceptance. Humorists almost always avoided disgust, condemnation and the belief that a homosexual was a failed heterosexual. Residual condescension or incomprehension may be trickier threads to disentangle – the pervasive belief that boys will be girls, and that cross-dressing meant gay men really wanted to be women. Effeminacy was a new source of humour. The stage revue “Beyond the Fringe” (1961-1964) raised the banner for popular satire, but even its stage directions couldn’t help falling foul of the censor because of homosexual allusions. A sketch mocking TV advertising with camp male models butching it up was forced to amend its stage directions to satisfy the Lord Chamberlain, responsible until 1968 for approving every English theatre script. The production was informed the actors could not call each other “love”, and changed the stage direction “Enter two outrageous old queens” to “Enter two aesthetic young men”.

Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook in "Beyond the Fringe"

Satirists would argue for acceptance of homosexuality and ridicule bigotry. American cabaret would look at gay sexual attraction, visits to a gay bars and the problems of coming out to one’s family. The enormously popular British TV programme “That Was The Week That Was” offered a carefully considered reversal affairs by casting a spotlight on “The Twilight World of the Heterosexual”. Being sympathetic didn’t mean that writers were free of out-of-date expectations. Much of the early satire in favour of homosexuals employs rough irony, and homosexuals sometimes received a comic elbow to the face as the humorist’s arm was drawn back to stab at homophobia. While mocking bigotry and panic about homosexuality and gay stereotypes, there was always the temptation to get a guaranteed laugh by indulging those some gay clichés, exercising shared anxieties about perversion and the tell-tale signs of homosexuality.

Indeed, many of the emerging humorists were eager to revive the gay stereotypes that had until recently been taboo. In America, the humorist Terry Southern found homosexuals and stereotypes about them hilarious, although, of course, he knew many as friends. With gusto he re-established the enduring stereotypes and mannerisms. Lisping, bitchiness, effeminacy, and transvestism comically disgraced assorted bastions of macho American pride, making for “insane faggot hassle”. In the UK, the ex-school-boys of “Private Eye” likewise found gay men silly and funny in themselves. References to mincing, limp wristed, fashion-obsessed pooves were scattered about its issues. In its earliest years, “Private Eye” was very fond of throwing the word “poove” around as an all-purpose comic word. It was almost a catchphrase for the magazine - a word they would use which most magazines couldn’t or wouldn’t. They even offered an “I am a Poove” T-shirt for sale. There was little thought given to its use. “Poove” was a silly, slightly transgressive word that would enliven any piece they happened to be writing at the time.

Homosexuality stepped out of the realm of social satire to become a matter of political importance around 1963-64. A number of political scandals of national importance in the US and UK arose whose homosexual elements could not be suppressed. In England, John Vassall had been arrested for spying for the Russians. He had been blackmailed because of his homosexuality, and it could not be kept from the papers. The homosexual element of the 1950s Burgess and Maclean “Missing Diplomats” crisis had been omitted at the time. Since Vassall’s homosexuality was front page news, editorial cartoonists and satirists could now claim the right to also treat the same material. Now we start to see the entrenchment of longstanding jokes about the British navy, Establishment and civil servant being riddled with ‘em, as popular cartoonists discover how they are going to portray a recognisable homosexual. Gay spies were in the air and 1963 also saw Ian Fleming give his blessing to Cyril Connolly’s attentive gay parody of James Bond, “Bond Strikes Camp”, in which Bond is forced to dress as a woman and seduce an enemy general. The US had its own anxieties about gays in the government, the “Lavender Scare”, and there was a profusion of coarse gags when President Johnson’s closest aide was arrested for soliciting sex in a public toilet in 1964. In all of these satirical critiques there was the recurring consideration that if homosexuality was legalised then many of these scandals would not have happened.

By the mid-1960s camp clichés are well on the way to being firmly established, as old associations are revived about camp behaviour and theatricality. For many, a certain type of theatricality is identical to camp and therefore homosexuality - bachelor actors with perpetual smiles and twinkly eyes, whose humour of irony, triviality and aestheticism alternates between blithe chirpyness and passive/aggressive bitchery. The male models of “Beyond the Fringe” were full blown caricatures, complete with cries of “Whoops!” and limp wrists. The assorted media types who crop up “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) elicit a few stinging, knowing comments from the Beatles. 1965, however, was the breakout year for “camping it up” and “camping about”. The public would soon know instinctively that camp was gay, and gay was camp. Camp, as both an aesthetic and a particular word, had obviously existed prior to 1965, but Susan Sontag’s much discussed “Notes on Camp” (1964) gave it popular currency. 1965 saw the appearance of several mass-market entertainments allowing critics the opportunity to throw around their new-found familiarity with camp, at ease that the general public would know what they meant, and which also meant they didn’t have to use words which directly referenced homosexuality.

Victor Spinetti in "A Hard Day's Night"

“The Loved One” was intended to be the break-out black comedy of 1965. In Terry Southern the film shared a writer with 1964’s success “Dr Strangelove”. (Rumours persist that the weak President in “Dr Strangelove” was originally intended to be more obviously fey, while some critics took General Jack D. Ripper’s concern about “loss of essence” and impotence as suggestive of homosexuality). The idea that camp was an in-crowd style led a number of critics to think that “The Loved One”’s smarmy, creepy “faggot” grotesques were for the benefit of gay audiences and might exclude the straight crowd. Since its director Tony Richardson was bisexual, the co-writer was Christopher Isherwood, and half the cast (Gielgud, Liberace, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowell) were gay, this may not be a wholly erroneous assumption. The sprinkling of gay stereotypes in “black”, “sick” and irreverent comedies and brash satires of the 1960s is not merely because there is a growing license in sexual matters in society but because the films are often either written by Southern, adapted from his works, or else the film-makers are trying to capture the same tone. They are usually brief but unfairly noisy and histrionic eruptions. Candy” (19 68) features a riot in transvestite bar. “The Magic Christian” (1969) features a homoerotic stripping Hamlet, two kissing wrestlers and Yul Brynner in drag singing to Roman Polanski. Polanski’s comedy “The Fearless Vampires” (1967) offers Herbert von Krolock, a foppish, flirtatious vampire intent on the young male lead. Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” (1968), a send-up of the theatrical world offers a theatrical couple, the bombastic silly transvestite Roger De Bris and his “assistant”, the haughty, preening, hissy queen Carmen Ghia, both also casting glances at the male lead. The homosexuality of Severn Dardin’s Soviet spy Kropotkin in “The President’s Analyst” (1968) is largely incidental, and the character is a positive play on audience expectations. It seemed in the late 1960s every other stylish thriller/crime caper featured some sort of camp or gay character adding a little titillation of perversity and outré mannerisms to plain criminality: Dirk Bogarde in “Modesty Blaise” (1966), Eric Porter and Murray Melvin in “Kaleidoscope” (1966), Eric Portman in “Deadfall” (1968), Noel Coward and “Camp Freddie” in “The Italian Job” (1969), George Sanders in “The Kremlin Letter” (1970), and Martin Balsam in “The Anderson Tapes” (1971) (besides the non-gay but camp villains of the TV series “Batman” and “The Monkees”).

Roger de Bris in "The Producers"

Yul Brynner in "The Magic Christian"

Hebert von Krolock in "The Fearless Vampire Hunters"

1965 in England saw the arrival of Julian and Sandy (played by the gay actors Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick) on national radio, eventually achieving audiences of 15 million. The two characters appeared in regular sketches on the show “Round the Horne” (1965-1968) written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman. Julian and Sandy were two camp men, who, besides delivering the show’s usual broad puns, unusual innuendoes, double-entendres, extravagant characterisations and catchphrases, also introduced an unwitting British public to the gay slang Polari. The daring in the appearance of these sketches was that previously there had been an outright ban on gay characters on comedy radio shows. In 1949 the “Green Book” set BBC policy for variety writers and producers. One of its commandments was that there was “an absolute ban upon jokes about effeminacy in men” (so unspeakable is homosexuality the word’s not even used in its censorship). Any jokes about gay men in light entertainment (as distinct from satire) had to be sufficiently ingenious they would escape the notice of BBC officials. The sketches usually involved Kenneth Horne visiting some new commercial venture - Bona Books, Bona Pets, Bona Drag, Bona Law, etc. As Horne entered, Julian (Hugh Paddick) would say "Ooh hello! I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy!" Sandy (Williams) then following with “Why Mr Horne, how bona to vada your dolly old eke”. The pair were bright and chirpy, offering a torrent of polari and barely concealed innuendo to the bemused Horne’s questions. The characters were originally conceived as two aging out of work actors, but the producer thought the characters were too sad and suggested making them younger "chorus boy" types. Instead of being posh, nancy-boys, the two were gossipy queens, slightly bitchy, speaking in a camp East End demotic laced with Polari. They were among the first of their kind to reach a mass audience. The exuberance of the performances was funny itself without the audience necessarily being in on secret gay codes.

Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams

Julian and Sandy stand out as being the only recurring identifiably gay characters up to this point in popular entertainment. Kenneth Williams’s earlier turns in Tony Hancock’s radio and TV shows are too bizarre to classify. Casual, throwaway gay gags start to crop up more readily in comedy shows in the late 1960s as homosexuality gradually became more mentionable. Alan Sues was “Laugh In”’s “resident pansy” (1968-1972), contributing assorted nelly one-liners. Likewise, in the UK, at this time the enormously popular and long-running radio sketch show “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again” would usually reward any mention of the words “gay”, “camp” or “poof” with some simpering retort or bitchy “ooooh”ing. Even “Mad” magazine and the horrendously stolid “Punch” realised that gags about homosexuals wasn’t going too far. The gay stereotype had reached the point that a comedy queen was usually some flaring bitchy, narcissistic monster (as repeatedly portrayed by cameos by Tim Brook-Taylor and Graham Chapman), corresponding to the new figures in such contemporary films about the gay lifestyle as “The Boys in the Band” and “Staircase” (both 1969). These brittle, self-loathing, pitiable psychological cases are reflected in Barry Humphries’s stark but intelligent portrait of the horrors of the closeted life, his character Brian Graham. This brand of homosexuality is noted for the gossipy vindictiveness encapsulated in “Valley of the Dolls” (1967) deathless line “You know how bitchy some fags can be”. While America had also established its own idiosyncratic belief that “Bruce” was THE stereotypical gay name.

"Brian Graham"

Alan Sues in "Laugh-In"

Part 2: 1970s