Friday, 10 July 2009

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

1 comment:

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

Fantastic post, although it looks like you say Joe once when you mean Cliff in the "Brothers" part.