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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Dilemma' and the sudden dilemma over gay jokes in Hollywood

Vince_vaugn There’s a maxim in show business that dying is easy, comedy is hard. And in comedy, nothing is harder to gauge than where to draw the fuzzy line between what’s outrageously funny and what’s deeply offensive.

The latest film to find itself on the wrong side of the funny fault line is “The Dilemma,” the upcoming Ron Howard movie that took a big PR hit late last week after CNN anchor Anderson Cooper complained about its trailer’s use of the word “gay” in a joke. The trailer, which Universal pulled from theaters Friday, opened with Vince Vaughn's character making a presentation about electric cars in which he says: “Electric cars are gay. I mean, not homosexual, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”

Cooper, who had been hosting a weeklong CNN series about bullying against gays and a series of suicides by gay teens, appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where he said that he was “shocked” to see the trailer in a movie theater. Although the joke probably falls into the category of mildly amusing and not so horribly offensive, Cooper said he was disturbed that “they thought that it was OK to put that in a preview for the movie to get people to go and see it.”

My first reaction was shock that Cooper was shocked. After all, “The Dilemma’s” gay gag hardly broke new ground. “The Hangover,” 2009’s biggest comedy hit, made a gay joke using a word so offensive that I can’t repeat it here. In 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Seth Rogen's and Paul Rudd's characters  swap insults, calling each other gay for such cultural offenses as liking the band Coldplay and wearing macramé jean shorts. Gay jokes are lobbed back and forth all the time on network TV and in comedy clubs.

We live in an era where everywhere you look, someone is taking offense at supposed transgressions, be they religious, racial or otherwise. A number of critics have criticized Disney’s new film “Secretariat,” saying its portrayal of black groom Eddie Sweat was Uncle Tom-ish.’s Jen Yamato called it “the worst cringe-worthy ‘Praise Jesus!’ black stereotype of the year.” The cover story of the current issue of the Jewish Journal raises the charge that Jean-Luc Godard, the renowned French filmmaker who is being awarded an honorary Oscar this year, is an anti-Semite.

I’ve always been a stout defender of the rights of artists to speak their minds without censorship or cultural restraints. I wasn’t offended by “The Dilemma’s” gay joke, I thought “Secretariat’s” depiction of Eddie Sweat was a not-implausible portrayal of a black man who grew up in the pre-civil rights era South, and I think that while you could accuse Godard of having all sorts of crackpot political views, it’s a big stretch to call him an anti-Semite.

But everything is in the eye of the beholder. As a straight white guy, it’s easy for me to watch Vince Vaughn say “It’s gay” and shrug off other people’s sensitivities by saying, essentially, hey, it’s just a joke. My sister, who is gay and has an entirely different life experience, felt the joke was an insult. After all, if Vaughn had said the car was such a Jew or so retarded, wouldn’t it sting?

Think back to what happened this year when then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel ridiculed liberal activists unhappy with the pace of healthcare reform as “retarded.” Emanuel was met with a storm of criticism, including a swipe from Sarah Palin, who compared the offensiveness of the R-word to the N-word and demanded that Emanuel be fired.

Rush Limbaugh leaped into the fray, saying he found nothing wrong with “calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards.” When Palin defended Limbaugh from a new wave of complaints, saying he used the word satirically, Stephen Colbert, knowing a good comedy opportunity when he saw it, called Palin a “[expletive] retard,” gleefully adding, “You see? It’s satire!”

Colbert’s gibe really demonstrated how complicated our reactions are to supposedly offensive terms. If the R-word is offensive when used as a euphemism for “idiot,” as Emanuel intended it, is it also offensive when Colbert uses it to make fun of Sarah Palin? Or once it has crossed the threshold to satire, has it lost some of its sting and taken on a new meaning?

This is why the flap over “The Dilemma” has opened so many complicated issues. Words used in a comic context take on different meanings to different people at different times, largely because of who’s talking and what’s happening in the outside culture. Marketing insiders at Universal say that they not only tested the trailer with rank-and-file moviegoers but also submitted it to a number of gay rights watchdog groups. According to Universal, no one complained. (GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, disputes this, saying it had asked the studio to remove the joke.)

What is clear is that the ground shifted under Universal’s feet. In recent weeks, the media has been full of horrifying stories about violence and bullying against gay teens, some of which has resulted in suicides. So what may have seemed like a relatively harmless joke when it was filmed months ago now has far darker undertones. (Universal hasn’t said whether it will cut the joke out of the movie itself.)

Even though most of the industry executives I spoke to said they were baffled by how quickly “The Dilemma” became embroiled in controversy, they were quick to realize that it could easily happen to them next. As the producer of one upcoming comedy put it: “The first thing I did when the news broke was go check out our trailer to see if we had any remotely inflammatory jokes in it.”

Comedies are our favorite form of escapist entertainment. But is it really a comedian’s responsibility to worry about whom they offend? If so, they wouldn’t be comedians anymore — they'd be out of business. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin were comic gods because they managed to offend virtually everyone, whether they were rich and famous or an oppressed minority.

No one’s saying “The Dilemma’s” gay electric car joke is the stuff of legend. But it’s still comedy. And comedy is a lot like free speech — sometimes you have to hold your nose to support it. If you don’t stick up for the flimsiest kind of humor, then you can’t protect the most important kind either.

Photo: Vince Vaughn in the film "Couples Retreat." Credit: John Johnson/Universal Studios.

Comments () | Archives (40)

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This comment is for Anderson Cooper and all those who feel the world should walk on Hollywood Rice Paper..."GIVE IT A BREAK ALREADY"...get over yourselves and the PC all make the majority of us sick! Because you're in the limelight and have exposure to the media you think that we all should conform to your views...wrongo...get over yourselves, your family ties,... and take a dose of reality. If it wasn't for your connections you wouldn't be much dirtbag...Are you supposed to be an investigative reporter? Or a Hollywood Propagandistic New World Hitler? Freedom of speech is just that! Just because you reach more viewers via bandwidth doesn't make you right "Silverspoon" us ALL a favor and shut your PIE-HOLE!!!

Excuse me! EXCUSE ME!! Is this the same sensitive guy who first intoned the tag TEABAGGER, on national news? Oh, that was free speech, right? Gotta laugh at some of these people. They make comedians look downright dumb.

As someone who is extremely interested in film development, I am intrigued by the difficult issue of an audience’s comfort threshold be it sexual content, violence, or, in this particular instance, comedy. I am also interested in the often-toted theory that the duty of show business and people in the spotlight is to progressively shape culture. Can comedy even exist without pushing audiences’ comfort zones to some extent? Due to previous gay jokes in the media that you pointed to as evidence, I can see why Universal overlooked the potential risk of this gay joke.

I believe that the movie “The Dilemma” is an illustration of how the media makes examples out of otherwise camouflaged instances to push their own agendas forward. I think it was convenient for Anderson Cooper to target “The Dilemma.” The trailer and the joke were taken out of context and placed in the middle of an extremely taboo topic due to recent media attention surrounding anti-gay sentiment. Due to Universal’s oversight of the context of their humor as you deftly stated, “what may have seemed like a relatively harmless joke when it was filmed months ago now has far darker undertones.”

Although I agree with your argument for freedom of speech, I do think people in show business can go too far and hence warrant media backlash. For instance, Michael Richards’ tirade against a black audience member during one of his comedy shows in 2006 received necessary criticism from the media. Michael Richards was not playing a character and instead he leaped over the line of humor and into his own personal racial viewpoints. With these two extremes in mind, where does the media draw the line for acceptable humor? As an expert in culture and entertainment, I am curious to hear your take on the responsibility of Hollywood content creators and performers to the culture they are helping to shape. Do you think filmmakers should take this responsibility into higher account when developing material or do you think that this could pose unnecessary creative roadblocks? Thank you for analytically discussing the more pertinent overarching issues surrounding “The Dilemma.” I look forward to reading your future posts.

it's interesting that Mr. Goldstein stands up for low-brow anti-gay humor by writing an article in a week of newsworthy gay suicides with the line "There’s a maxim in show business that dying is easy, comedy is hard." You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Goldstein, and the LATimes should seriously reconsider its editing process.

Comedy is going to be a lot of fun when you can't make fun of anyone. NOT. that is what comedy is. an escape from reality, to step outside the everyday pragmatic box that we live in and have a good time at somebody else's expense. of course we will not replicate a comedic scene in a movie, because it's a MOVIE. the same way, movie goers are not going to dream inside a dream, inside of another dream to kill their worst enemy (like Leo), the public is not going to sincerely call our homosexual friends gay for driving a prius. this insanity needs to stop immediately otherwise there will be no fun, no escape, reality 24/7, and that will just suck. (not suck in the homo kind of way, just in the "I don't really like it" manner) oh jesus, even my comments are being self-edited. woops, just offended an atheist...

A hybrid car jumped off a bridge after Vince's hurtful comments.

The problem is that it wasn't a gay "joke" in The Dilemma. Vaughn's character was using the term to describe something that was...lame, or stupid. You just wouldn't see the phrase "That's So Black" being used to make the same point. And that's the argument that Anderson Cooper is making. It's not about begin politically correct; it's about stopping hate speech. If a lifestyle is constantly referred to as inferior, and ridiculed, then it's no wonder our kids are having such a hard time coming out these days.

Oh, please. The gay "joke" in and of itself isn't the transgression here, and everybody knows that (see "The Hangover," and so on). It's the fact this appeared in a trailer, because when it's in the movie itself, nobody in the media -- or GLAAD, for that matter -- has a comment unless it's WAY over the top. I guess the buzz on "The Dilemma" must be tragically awful, because, I'm sure you all remember that there's no such thing as bad publicity, especially in entertainment.

Maybe we can arrange to have the Westboro Baptist Church at the next social event you go to, John. It's free speech, no?

I agree entirely with Patrick Goldstein and almost all those who commented so far, that comedy and comics should not be suffocated by politically correct putzes. Homophobic bullies do not bully because the adolescent humor in many current films uses the word "gay" in a demeaning way. Young gay men do not suicide because both the stereotypical homophobe and the stereotypical gay can be and are a target for humor.
Free speech requires the use of words. Some words, like "gay" have multiple meanings and uses. Banning the words impoverishes our language. We are, after all, the inheritors of Anglo-Saxon English, known for being earthy and raw, and used by Shakespeare in that way.
That said, we all know the phenomenon of public and media sensitivity. Right after the terrible Las Piletas fire a friend's son, a college freshman, accidentally started a fire in a dumpster outside his dorm and was prosecuted for felony arson. Extracting a plea bargain (that involved his being permanently banned from campus, community service and time-served) was difficult. At any other time, his admitted crime would have been treated more gently. This, our week of mourning for the loss of a young gay man who should have lived, was not the week to impugn gays in any way. Likely most of us were imagining the nightmare of that young man's final hours. We needed a target for our anger.
A kind of "surfing" has developed in the News Industry.
A public figure, like Anderson Cooper, but more likely the folks over at Fox, will "spy a wave" of public sentiment and will "surf that wave", they believe right into the hearts and minds of the public.
That's at least one element of the Tea Party success.
Anderson Cooper generally is more circumspect, balanced, and calm.
But who am I to comment?
I really liked Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin.

Amen, freedom of speech is a two way street, you don't have to like the other side of the road but you must support it. I don't like half the things any form of media says anymore because everyone seems so up tight that they need to get that stick surgically removed. Calm and tolerance and the ability to make light of a situation is necessary here. Turn on an episode of South Park already have a quick laugh and get over it.
I'm not saying the bulling to death of these teenagers isn't tragic and shouldn't be dealt with, I am saying censorship is not the answer. Not saying the now fabled "G" word isn't going to solve it. That's a whitewash of the issue at hand. Pretending the elephant isn't in the closet doesn't stop people from feeding it the peanuts. People are prone to hate what they don't understand. If kids are being bullied to death, it's the kids involved, parents and yes the schools who need to address this issue at a localized level. The media's reactions to the issue at hand is like a Doctor using an atom bomb on all of us to cure one person's cancer. It's overkill. Make the issue bigger and the problem at hand gets that much harder to solve.

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