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.

1 comment:

VermillionCorsetryCouture said...

i remember a character in a steptoe and son film where a drag artist from a working men's club is later recognized out of drag by steptoe jr, complaining that his partner[male implied] has left him, he says ' she even took my butch cassidy poster!'

I also remember an effeminate male tattoo artist called 'vivian' in a dick emery film who worked from a narrow boat.