In 1972, during an impromptu TV appearance with jazz singer George Melly, Monty Python star Graham Chapman, rather drunkenly, came out publicly as the first gay comedian in British history. This casual announcement caused no small amount of outrage – homosexuality had only been decriminalised three years previously and it was far from universally accepted. 41 years on, our attitudes have changed: the recent British Attitudes Survey revealed four-fifths of people now have no objection to homosexual relationships, and same sex marriage is soon to become law. But has the comedy world kept pace with this social change?
Certainly, directly homophobic jokes are no longer accepted by audiences. Where you might have had a few non-ironic, ‘come over a little queer’, innuendos in working men’s clubs in the 1970s, these are now restricted to the school playground. But homosexuality still remains to some extent a taboo and therefore a basis – if not a target – for comedy. Consider, for instance, how a comedian can get a laugh out of allusion to a homosexual act or homosexual attraction, which wouldn’t be possible with the heterosexual equivalent. Comedians can also continue to spout gay-innuendo, as long as it is done from behind the mask of a character (cf Al Murray) or irony (cf Jimmy Carr). In other words, we as a nation no longer think homosexuality is wrong but are happy to laugh at it, provided we believe the comedy’s creators share our enlightened views.
Chapman’s coming out in 1972 was closely followed by the première of Are You Being Served – perhaps the source of Britain’s most famous comic gay character. Though now dated, Mr Humphries camp behaviour crops up later in Gimme Gimme Gimme, Benidorm and Little Britain, while the trope of a closeted or secretly gay man resurfaces frequently, for instance Fraiser’s Gil Chesterton, The Simpsons’ Smithers and Ted & Ralph from The Fast Show. On the live circuit, numerous all-male sketch groups coax wild laughter out of subtle suggestions of attraction between the actual cast members and their attempted or successful sexual advances (passionate snogs in male sketch groups are so frequent it’s a wonder anyone is still able to believe they are unplanned).
A reasonable question is whether this is something we should be concerned about. I would not for one second suggest the people making the above work hate gay people or necessarily hold even slightly homophobic views. After all, comedy’s role is merely to play on taboos, it is society that is responsible for creating them. Comedy reflects the world and its prejudices and, if we don’t like what we see, this is just the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass (to quote Oscar Wilde – perhaps the world’s most famously ill-fated homosexual comedian). One could easily claim that playing on gay taboos does not involve saying homosexuality is wrong, merely that it historically exists outside of the mainstream.
But doesn’t comedy have a duty to question and to change the world, rather than simply playing to its basest interests? After all, no self-respecting comedian would tell racist jokes, even if their audience happened to consist entirely of BNP activists who genuinely enjoyed them. Isn’t laughing at a situation predicated on homosexuality saying, in some way, that to be gay is somehow slightly ridiculous – not wrong or evil – but somehow lesser, not ordinary, not completely sensible.
There is perhaps a hint of macho culture at work – a culture often accused of pervading comedy – where the jokes of the playground are rejected but their underlying narrative is accepted and played on. It has been frequently noted that men playing women gets laughs but women playing men does not, and that this may be down to the gender-power-play at work. Perhaps the same process exists when a straight man ‘plays gay’. Certainly the reverse wouldn’t be funny – the heterosexuality of a straight man, in itself, is never made the basis for a joke. Doesn’t the mere fact of this suggest something not entirely comfortable at work behind homosexuality’s portrayal in comedy?
It is also interesting to contrast how frequently, how well and from how early on drama – on stage and screen – has tackled the real life issues of homosexuality, gay life and gay culture, and has succeeded in presenting numerous three-dimensional gay characters. Perhaps comedy is starting to do this, although its tendency toward stereotype makes it not best placed for the challenge. But surely, through satire, it is perfectly positioned to tackle the existing power-play between gay-straight relations and the place of gay stereotypes in culture. Where are the stand-up routines and the sketches poking fun at the casually accepted cultural view of homosexuality as effeminate or butch, transgressive, ridiculous or naughty?
Graham Chapman did much to advance gay rights, mainly by living in the public eye as a non-stereotypical, and successful, gay man. But his comedy work with the Pythons made as much comedy hay from ‘poofs’ as anyone else. Perhaps it’s time for comedy to take a more active approach to gay representation – to stop meeting expectations and start setting them. If homosexuality has become a cheap laugh and an easy target, why not take aim at the harder target – comedy itself.