'The Dilemma' and the sudden dilemma over gay jokes in Hollywood
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. Movie.com’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.