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.


Donna Barr said...

On the one hand, I'm flattered you don't consider my character The Desert Peach a "stereotype" or by definition "funny," because it really does use fluff to disguise some really serious themes, and has -- literally -- saved some gay lives and converted a lot of homophobes.

On the other hand, girl, what is WRONG with you! Have you been in a CLOSET someplace? Go peek, sweetheart:

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading this article. I've heard the phrase before, "Nothing about us, without us." Meaning, some people believe that only people who have, for instance, gone though life as a gay person should be entitled to write gay characters. I'm curious how this will apply to the new breed of gay-themed writings cropping up, wherein there are gay male characters being written by trans male writers. The webcomic Baritarian Boy is a good example, where the authors tend to miss the point (perhaps because they've never really lived as gay men) and make their jointly written comic mostly about misogyny, all the while claiming it's about queer issues. Then there's the excrement coming from a trans male named Lycere Cunningham, who's admittedly a pedophile and convicted sex criminal, yet still somehow gets to put up a webcomic about the exploits of a young gay man steeped in so many old stereotypes it's amazing she hasn't been lynched yet for writing it.

Donna Barr said...

Well, men have written about women for centuries, so it's not new. I might as well admit I'm a fag hag (and a science hag, for that matter) and that my gay friends have always been there, to support or exasperate me. If I can't write about gay people, I can't write about men, period. Or dogs or horses or trees, I suppose. Although I try to make everything as real and human as possible.

And sounds like the icky people we will always have with us.