It was business as usual when Tonight Show host Jay Leno asked his guest, Ryan Phillippe, to give his "gayest look" because he once played a gay character on the soap opera "One Life to Live."
The mortified reaction of Phillippe, however, combined with the outrage of gay rights groups, hopefully represents the end of a shameful era where it was acceptable to portray homosexuals as punch lines instead of people. While Leno apologized, the industry has a sorry record of thoughtlessly exploiting gays for cheap laughs.
Gay advocates have traditionally given comedians and sitcom writers wide latitude because for decades their material offered rare visibility. At one time, it was a relief when comedians made cracks about the "love that dare not speak its name," even if it came with the cruel cost of homosexuals being made the constant butt of tasteless jokes. While their words stung, they were certainly preferable to railing preachers who declared gays sinful or the conservative politicians who attacked basic legal rights.
With little information about homosexuality – comedy offered a way to raise the topic among peers. Gay people could use the occasion of a joke to see how friends reacted and get a better idea who might be accepting – or who also might be gay.
Additionally, comedy served as a useful icebreaker in educating people about this controversial topic. For example, when I attended The University of Florida in the early 1990's, I would often speak to social science classes about my sexual orientation. Most of the students, at that time, had no openly gay friends. To break the palpable tension, I regularly told a joke about how I came out to my girlfriend.
I recounted to the students that since I was unable to utter the word "gay", I took three tangerines off of a tree. One represented me, the other my girlfriend and the third a guy I was interested in at school. I then guardedly told my girlfriend, "if I were to go on a date, who would I go out with. After that, with hesitation, I slid the citrus that represented me, next to the produce that represented my male crush. The self-deprecating punch line was, "that was certainly one way to tell my girlfriend that I was a fruit."
The joke was always a hit and many of the students opened their minds after they laughed. Humor was a way to find common ground so we could discuss the real issues of crass stereotypes and rampant discrimination.
Nonetheless, I would never dream of telling that antiquated joke today as the world has dramatically changed. In contemporary America, the majority of people know someone who is gay or lesbian. Visibility is no longer a major issue and there are positive role models for today's gay youth. There are also a plethora of state and federal laws that now protect homosexuals from discrimination, while the next generation is favorably disposed to full marriage rights.
Indeed, in 2008 there is nothing shocking or bizarre about the existence of gay people in everyday life. We are bankers, sanitary workers, doctors, parents, flight attendants and talk show hosts. Unfortunately, many comedians still act as if it were 1978 and immaturely treat homosexuality like an exotic novelty.
If one watches network sitcoms, gags involving gays are disturbingly ubiquitous. The wisecracks are astounding in their sheer number and outright brazenness. After all, could you imagine if Leno had learned that an actor's first role was a Jew and he urged him to "look Jewish"?
Unfortunately, there is a double standard when it comes to homosexuals in America. All too often, it is acceptable to disguise humiliation as humor, with the audience laughing at us, not with us. One wonders if many of today's writers could complete a sitcom script without lacing it with homophobic laugh lines.
Deciding when a joke is funny or anti-gay fodder is a delicate task. It does not help the gay and lesbian movement to be seen as killjoys, but, at the same time, much damage is done when we are comically killed for the joy of others. Society should be concerned whether the cumulative effect of demeaning jokes has a negative impact on gay teenagers, who are more likely to commit suicide.
So, where is the appropriate place to draw the line?
If gay individuals or groups do something that is actually amusing or absurd, it is perfectly acceptable that they be laughed at and lampooned. However, simply being gay – or insinuating that someone is homosexual – should not be considered inherently funny. The punch line should never be: "Ha, ha, ha, you're gay." If the comedy writers can't come up with more creative jokes, they should seriously consider new jobs.
Jay Leno's interview with Ryan Phillippe was quite perfunctory and the comedian had no apparent malice. He had simply trotted out a tired industry formula that had been repeated thousands of times. But, the old routine did not elicit a routine response, signifying that gay people are finally standing up to the stand-up comics.