Gays, Get A Sense Of Humour

gay jokes

Leading comic writer David McGillivray takes a look at gay humour and what happens when we try to stifle it with political correctness.

Gay men can be pretty incompetent. Hopeless at sports. Empty-headed. Couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. But if there’s one thing for which almost everyone gives us credit it’s our sense of humour. And that’s humour of every degree from the sharpest wit through wry observation to bitchy sarcasm. I expect we developed it as a defence against oppression. The same sort of thing happened to Jews. But whereas Jews have been at the forefront of comedy from the birth of mass media more than a century ago, there’s been openly gay comedy only for the past thirty years. Now all that pent-up homo humour seems to have erupted over popular entertainment. It’s a rare evening when there isn’t at least one camp comic fronting a TV show, topping a comedy bill, or merely adding the gay point of view to the topic of the day. Gay humour has never been more popular. And that’s as it should be. We’re very funny people.

It appears, however, that no sooner have we been allowed to be ourselves than we’ve lost our sense of humour. We’re not allowed to make gay jokes any more. (This is of course an exaggeration. But I’m a comedy writer. I write stuff for comic effect). Let’s have a bit of background. I come from a time before racism, sexism and homophobia had been invented. In 1968 I wrote something for a Rag Week magazine put out by the North London Poly, now part of the London Metropolitan University. When I got my copy I found that it was full of queer and “darkie” jokes, far worse than anything that would be allowed today. I know that, in the light of the Savile scandal, we’re no longer allowed to say that things were different then. But things were different then. Nobody, including me, would have dreamed of complaining. But the jokes made me feel uncomfortable. You can tell, can’t you, by the fact that I’m dragging them up again after all these years.

Flash forward a little over a decade and we find such jokes becoming history. Gradually the men who used to crack them – the likes of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson – are banished from TV. Another twenty years on and we’ve come out the other side. Comics with the “right” credentials, i.e. they’re either gay or gay-friendly, feel able to make gay jokes again. Well, that’s all right then. Except that it isn’t. Guardians of comic decency, both gay and straight, but often self-appointed, regularly crack down on what they see as unacceptable. What is unacceptable here? There are far too many examples to quote. Here are just three.

Newnownext, a US website highlighting current trends, quotes what it feels are “the most appalling and homophobic” Tweets made about Proposition 8, the amendment to the Declaration of Rights, which states that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Included is one Joe Schneider’s, “If gay marriage is legalized, can you fags please quit being so faggish?” Those posting comments are duly appalled. When Liverpool footballer José Enrique has his teeth whitened, team-mate Suso Fernandez Tweets, “This guy is gay.” The F.A. fines him £10,000. Finally, and perhaps most significantly for us, Graham Norton (in case you didn’t know, he’s gay) refers on his TV show to a drawing of a woman and claims that she looks lesbian. When his guest, Ruth Jones, says that this may not have been the intention, Norton concedes, “You’re right. She could have gone to a very bad hairdresser.” Although only one viewer complains, Norton’s production team is warned by the BBC against “perpetuating or reinforcing a potentially offensive stereotype.”

It doesn’t do to analyse a joke. The analysis destroys it. So instead I’ll make just one great, sweeping generalisation. Most jokes rely for their effect on the precept that other people – women, the elderly, Australians, builders, Muslims, chavs, blondes and indeed gay men – behave differently or strangely to us, whoever we may be.  So it was and so it will be forever and ever. Let’s not fight it. If the object of the joke is to humiliate, that wasn’t acceptable in 1968, and it isn’t acceptable today. But none of the three jokes quoted above has that intention. Although it doesn’t do to analyse jokes, let’s analyse them.

Joe Schneider seems to be giving up the battle against gay marriage, which he seems to think is inevitable. His only hope is that, when it happens, fags will act less like fags and more like him. Obviously that cannot be. (It’s a joke). Even at the age of 19, which he is, footballer Suso seems to know that gay men are generally held to be stylish and fashionable. Therefore if his team-mate has newly whitened teeth, he must be gay. (He isn’t. It’s a joke). And look at Graham Norton, joking that lesbians have bad haircuts. He might just as easily have joked that gay men are hopeless at sports, empty-headed, and couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. Did you see what I did then? Are these stereotypes really offensive? They’re jokes. They use stereotypical statements, but in a jokey way that surely no one would seriously take seriously?

Along with our sense of humour, we also share with Jews the ability to laugh at ourselves. (This trait is also supposed to be a British one although from the amount of criticism levelled at gay humour you wouldn’t think so). Most people who have stood in a bar or at a party listening to drag queens slagging off each other, all other men, all women and children, and more than likely their pet cats into the bargain, will have spent too much time laughing to worry about political correctness. The bitchiness comes across as shtik, more of a bonding exercise than anything else.

I have been thinking more about humour of late because a former Facebook friend was posting sexist jokes comparing women to whores and dogs. When I complained, he retorted, “Get a sense of humour.” I unfriended him. But now I feel like saying the same thing to those who want to stifle gay humour. Isn’t that funny?

Words: David McGillivray

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