Ron Howard on 'The Dilemma's' gay joke: It stays in the movie
Comics have been making gay jokes for years, but perhaps none of them has caused as much of a stir as the quip uttered by Vince Vaughn when he made fun of an electric car by saying, "It's gay," in the trailer for the upcoming Ron Howard comedy, "The Dilemma." Coming just as the media was full of stories about taunts and attacks on gay teens that drove some to suicide, the joke hit a raw nerve. After CNN's Anderson Cooper publicly took issue with the trailer's joke, saying "we've got to do something to make those words unacceptable 'cause those words are hurting kids," a full-blown controversy erupted. Universal Pictures pulled the trailer, substituting a new one scrubbed of any gay humor.
But that was three weeks ago, and this is now. Universal has confirmed to me that the joke is staying in the movie, which is slated for release in January. The decision is ultimately Howard's call, since he is a final-cut director, although my sources tell me that Howard sought advice from a variety of sources, not only from talent involved with the film but also from people at Universal and in the larger comedy community.
I've already staked out my own opinion on the issue in a column I wrote several weeks ago. I concluded that "comedy is a lot like free speech--sometimes you have to hold your nose to support it." In other words, I'm not sure that I'm all that comfortable with most of the gay jokes I've heard, but once you start trying to make value judgments about one joke over another, you're on a slippery slope to the arid wasteland of political correctness.
Howard recently asked if he could respond to a series of questions I'd raised when the news first broke about the controversy. He's provided answers to everything I initially wondered about, and even asked a few provocative questions of his own. He makes one particularly important point about an issue that was lost in all the hubbub, but applies to a lot of art that is viewed as offensive or controversial: Just because a character in a film says or does something wildly inappropriate doesn't necessarily mean that the filmmaker agrees with it.
He explains why the joke stays in the film, as well as offers his take on the difference between sensitivity and censorship. Here's what Howard has to say:
I've been reading your posts about THE DILEMMA with a lot of interest.
In the couple of weeks since you started covering the debate over our
joke, it seems a larger conversation made up of many questions about all
sorts of freedoms of expression has broken out: When's it okay to walk
off of a talk show if you disagree with the guest? Who is appropriate to
cast in a movie and who gets to decide that? Should news people be held
to a different standard in what they say? How risqué can a photo shoot
be for a men's magazine promoting an all-audience show? What role does
comedy play in both pointing out differences and unifying us through
They're all good questions and I'm certainly not the person who has
definitive answers to all of them. The debate about what is appropriate
in films and advertising has been going on since well before I started
in the business -- which is to say a very long time -- and will never
have a conclusion. But I do have some answers to the five questions you put
forth in your post. I suppose you're right that since our
movie about two friends trying to do right for each other has been caught up
in this larger debate, I'll have to face these questions as we start to
promote THE DILEMMA. I figured I'd address your questions here and maybe
answer them once and not from, as you said, "every reporter with a
functioning brain." So here we go.
So why was the joke in the movie? Our lead character of Ronny Valentine has
a mouth that sometimes gets him into trouble and he definitely flirts with
the line of what's okay to say. He tries to do what's right but sometimes
falls short. Who can't relate to that? I am drawn to films that have a
variety of characters with different points of view who clash, conflict and
learn to live with each other. THE DILEMMA is a story full of flawed
characters whose lives are complicated by the things they say to and hide
from each other. Ronny is far from perfect and he does and says some
outrageous things along the way.
Was it in the script or was it a Vince Vaughn ad lib? Vince is a brilliant
improvisational actor, but in this case It was always in the script. THE
DILEMMA is a comedy for grown-ups, not kids. It's true that the moment took
on extra significance in light of some events that surrounded the release of
the trailer and the studio made the decision to remove it from advertising,
which I think was appropriate. I believe in sensitivity but not censorship.
I feel that our film is taking additional heat as an emblem for many movies
and TV shows that preceded it that have even more provocative
characterizations and language. It is a slight moment in THE DILEMMA meant
to demonstrate an aspect of our lead character's personality, and we never
expected it to represent our intentions or the point of view of the movie or
those of us who made it.
Did you think it wasn't offensive? I don't strip my films of everything
that I might personally find inappropriate. Comedy or drama, I'm always
trying to make choices that stir the audience in all kinds of ways. This
Ronny Valentine character can be offensive and inappropriate at times and
those traits are fundamental to his personality and the way our story works.
Will comedy be neutered if everyone gets to complain about every
potentially offensive joke in every comedy that's made? Anybody can
complain about anything in our country. It's what I love about this place.
I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as
strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film. But if
storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making
creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and a
provoker of thought.
And what do you have against electric cars anyway? Nothing! We have a
couple of them in our family including the one I primarily and happily
drive. Guess what that makes me in the eyes of our lead character? But
then again, I don't agree with everything Ronny Valentine says and does
in this comedy any more than Vince Vaughn, the screenwriter or any
member of the audience should for that matter.
Photo: Ron Howard at an Academy luncheon in 2009 honoring its Oscar nominees. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times