Ambiguously Hurtful Humor
06/16/2011 05:13 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2011
Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press
Okay gays, pull out the rotten tomatoes, aim straight at your computer screen, and fire. Because I am about to defend Tracy Morgan, the most LGBT-hated man in comedy this week, and speak out against another harmful form of humor: the gay parody.
Believe me when I say I don’t find Morgan’s alleged bashing of gays at a Tennessee nightclub last week harmless. Or — and I am not going to pull punches here — funny. In the very least. In fact, I thought his reported line saying, “bullied kids should just bust some ass and beat those other little f*ckers that bully them, not whine about it,” utterly ridiculous. Same with the joke about stabbing his kid to death if he came home and announced “I’m gay” in a fey voice. But Tina Fey gave Morgan a verbal smack down, Morgan apologized and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) gave the controversial comedian the coveted gay pass by granting him a spot on its upcoming “Amplify Your Voice” anti-bullying public service campaign.
All’s well that end’s well in Tracy Morgan land. You can all go back to 30 Rock watching.
What this Tracy Morgan debate completely missed, however, was the more duplicitous stylings of comedy aimed at LGBT people these days. Tracey Morgan’s rant was a blip on my mental radar — in and out like the Eminem lyrics that caused a media maelstrom ten years ago. On the other hand, Robert Smigel, it’s your turn at the mike.
Smigel, best known for Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, as well as TV Funhouse, a regular cartoon segment parodying public figures and pop culture, is also responsible for the much-touted, highly laughable segment “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” It used to be funny to me — a gay woman in her mid-30s who has been out for 15 years and who appreciates a good lampooning as much as, well, Al Franken and Lorne Michaels, two of Smigel’s regulars on TV Funhouse.
Then I watched the most recent episode of the Ambiguously Gay Duo on Saturday Night Live with a close friend of mine who just came out of the closet. And it just wasn’t funny. It was painful.
“Nothings meant to be harmless, it’s meant to get a laugh… and I think the reckless stand up who is working on energy, has more possibility of not being tidy about it,” said Faith Soloway, a lesbian comedian in Boston who parodies gay stereotypes in her own work, including the web comedy “Secrets.” “But there is the more insidious torture of ‘acceptable gay humor’ vs. out and out bashing humor and how we are almost paralyzed by that. Because you’re a nerd if you say ‘that’s offensive’ but the damage is just the same.”
My friend, who is 37, has struggled with his internalized homophobia for years and kept his orientation so well under wraps that when he finally told me, I actually said, “You’re kidding.” Walking from his apartment that day, I couldn’t believe he had lived in such secrecy. After all, we had grown up together with my sexual identity on the table, and we did live in the 21st century in New York City.
And being a good-natured, likeable pacifist, my friend appeasably laughed at Ace and Gary’s calisthenics in Ambiguously Gay sexual positions, and the Ambiguously Gay penis-shaped car ramming into a brick-wall opening and even during the Ambiguously Gay “can-can dancing” punch-outs of the bad guys. But these representations of gay men not only made me cringe, they made me angry, as I realized I was not just watching the “Dark, Clenched Hole of Evil,” but the reason for my friend’s shame. For these are the laughable stereotypes he has tried to avoid his entire life, whether they come from the guy in the Giants jersey at the sports bar doing a limp wrist and a lisp or in a clever cartoon in which the word “probing” becomes overused code for gay sex. The only difference between Morgan and Smigel is the packaging.
But what is to be done? The “Dark, Clenched Hole of Evil” received as much positive attention as Morgan received negative. This website called the comic feats of Jimmy Fallon and Jon Hamm “something to behold.” GLAAD’s media watchdogs uttered nary a bark and Smigel went on to his latest project. I even watched the “Ambiguously Gay Duo” clip a second time and felt like a humorless lesbian firebrand with an axe to grind.
MTV recently asked whether or not Morgan’s career would survive his gay blunder. That’s a no-brainer. I ask whether or not LGBT kids will survive the taunts that are supposed to be funny. Soloway says, “More work needs to be done in our own resiliency, other gays owning humor and speaking out.” All of this is true. But somewhere, out there in the great expanse of our country, a young gay man took note of how not to act, how not to appear gay, how not to live openly, lest he subject himself to the jokes that never seem to end, harmless or not. Tracey Morgan was the easy target this week. The Smigels of the comedic world prove a much more lithe beast.