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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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Mr. Goldstein,

I was just saddened to my core to read your article today. To have no understanding whatsoever of why someone like Anderson Cooper or Ellen Degeneres would find the gay line offensive is offensive in itself. You brushed over the deaths of the gay teens, and the TORTURE of the gay kids in New York, as if it were simply a minor incident. Your multiple examples of similar gay jokes seemed to make Anderson’s case, but instead you felt that it was just a part of the comedians artistic repertoire. Yes, the movie has every legal right to use the line, despite the tragic deaths and torture of these young people. And Anderson Cooper has every right to say that he is offended by it. Yes, you have every right to publish off handed, thoughtless articles, inciting unbelievably hateful and tasteless comments on the this website. I used to expect more of the LA Times. Apparently, however, the writing now reflects the $50.00 per year price of home delivery. Now that I think about it, I’m not at all certain which is sadder.

As a straight white middle-aged guy with a sensible haircut, I say: make fun of me, Hollywood. I can take it. After all, I'm the only thing that comedy screenwriters have left.

Well, the straight white male has spoken so the rest of us have to shut up? Just kidding, but the thing about free speech is that it doesn't mean a comedian gets to say whatever he wants and everyone else has to keep quiet about it. It means we all get to say what we want and we have to deal with the consequences. If a commedian says something controversial then he should be ready to stand up to whatever comes back at him. And let's be honest, when they say a commedian "offends everyone" what it really means is he offends gays, women, and some racial minorities. Usually not jews (unless he is jewish), not usually blacks (unless he is black)and never straight white men. Gay people have to hear this crap constantly--is it any wonder we get sick of it and the smug reactions from straight people who never have to deal with this.

It is extraordianary that Mr Goldstein goes to such extremes to defend freedom of speech for a hack comedy that displays a total lack of sensitivity for the recent suicides and torture of gay youth, and yet the comments submitted on his article ON THIS SITE are moderated BY MR GOLDSTEIN!! Since my own earlier comment was not posted, I'm curious what constitute the terms of "comment moderation approval?" Apparantly, my criticism of your article did not meet the LA Times very high standards.

I actually talked about this subject with a couple car buddies of mine, and they both agree electric cars are gay. They both happen to be homosexuals, but they agree with Vince Vaughn on this one. Of course one of them is more macho then most straight guys. Actually, I think the proper term they use for this type of automobile is a "Hair Dresser Car" (It also includes the Del Sol, S2000, and any Mercedes C type.)

Oh, and go watch the South Park episode the "F-Word." South Park already mocked this incident before it happened.


Patrick Goldstein is so (makes face) Jewish.
Patrick Goldstein is so (makes face) Muslim.
Patrick Goldstein is so (makes face) Asian.
Patrick Goldstein is so (makes face) Black.
Patrick Goldstein is so (makes face) gay.

Get the point, kids? It's not okay. Class dismissed.

This article is gay.

Mr. Goldstein, let's just pretend we live in an alternate universe for a moment. Let's pretend all the kids started using "jew" as a word to mean stupid or lame. Let's pretend that suddenly all the kids when they saw something dumb said "that's so jew." And then this derogatory term spread all over the media. Suddenly everyone on TV was using it as a put-down. There's even a song called "You're so Jew" that becomes a hit by a Christian girl (who also records a song called "I Kissed a Jew and I Liked It"). Let's pretend that everywhere you go you hear people using the word as an insult--everywhere you go. You hear it from unthinking celebrities and school children, even politicians and political commentators. Let's pretend several Jewish kids killed themselves in part because of all the negative feedback their getting and that same month a really stupid looking movie comes out and a lummox actor says "that's so jew" in the preview then you read a commentary in the paper by someone saying "hey it's a comedy!" and you read a lot of stupid comments by non-Jews saying how Jews are too uptight and comparing them to Hitler. Now Mr. Goldstein--tell me again how we're too sensitive.

So, Chris. Your two gay friends are as stupid as Vince Vaughn--what's your point?

“Electric cars are gay. I mean, not homosexual, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”, is the actual quote. If we want to get technical, the quote itself is clarifying that the insult is not referring to gays at all. I've referred to things many times in the past as "gay". It was derogatory, but it wasn't meant to denigrate homosexuals, it was more just a habit. It was a way to rag on guy friends and part of the fun was that it was understood that you were being immature for using it, therefore kind of making fun of yourself. I really don't use the term anymore out of respect to gay friends and also because I've grown up. But it's how a lot of guys talk. I haven't seen the movie, but going off of Vince Vaughn's filmography, I'm guessing he's playing another one of his arrested developmental childish adult characters (which I'm not knocking, he's good at this). In context, it probably makes total sense that he would talk this way. The joke is no longer in the trailer, so I can't judge how it was delivered. But judging from the rest of the trailer, he's playing a character who doesn't deal with things in a mature way and therefore makes things worse. Hence where the comedy comes from. The trailer works just fine as it is. That joke probably never should have been there. But the issue here is that people in this country seem to enjoy getting offended. People are constantly getting indignant whenever possible, at the drop of a hat. We need something that's an easy target to be angry at. Yes, it is tragic that kids are being bullied for being who they are. No one in their right mind would deny that. But I can tell you straight out, it's not a line from a Ron Howard movie-- that's not even homophobic, just immature-- that is going to turn someone into a gay bashing bigot. These problems are far more deep seeded and one way to keep those problems going strong is to make a straw man that completely ignores the real causes. A positive out of this whole"Dilemma" is that it has gotten people talking about a serious issue and perhaps bringing more light to it. It's just the conversation itself is going in the wrong direction. Anyone who is going to blame the existence of these issues on innocuous jokes in, again, a Ron Howard movie, is actually doing more harm than good and should just stay out of it.

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