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In defense of Jay

In defense of Jay


As one comedy writer to another, Advocate contributor Jim David asks Avenue Q creator Jeff Whitty whether his letter complaining about Jay Leno's gay jokes was really warranted. Making someone the butt of a joke isn't the same as bashing them

Jeff Whitty, the Tony-winning author of Broadway's Avenue Q, probably the funniest musical I've ever seen, recently wrote an open letter to Tonight Show host Jay Leno asking him, essentially, to cut out the gay jokes already. [Ed: Find Whitty's original letter and his subsequent "Reflections" on its impact at] The letter includes some heartfelt passages cataloging many bad things done to gays over the years, pointing to their relentless persecution. Jeff seems to be using these examples to build a case for Leno to stop making gay jokes: "Please, we're harassed enough, leave us alone."

It got a lot of attention in the national media, and Leno himself reportedly responded.

But as a comedian who has occasionally been accused of offending, I have to ask: Is one group more deserving of victimization than another? Can I make Jewish jokes, or should I lay off because 6 million Jews were killed in Nazi concentration camps? Black people suffered for years as slaves and second-class citizens--does that mean my joke where Condoleezza Rice talks like a ghetto homegirl is out? I hope not, because it makes people scream, especially black people.

I don't doubt for a second Jeff's sincerity as well as his concern that Leno may seem to be making it OK for America to laugh derisively at gay people. We've all had it up to here at some point. But the letter was about Leno's supposedly antigay jokes, and it included no specifics, so it's hard to see exactly what Jeff was so offended by.

There is a vague reference to a Brokeback Mountain joke, but that movie was a cultural phenomenon that entered the national dialogue and comedy acts nationwide, like Lorena Bobbit or Monica Lewinsky. Of course Leno is going to talk about it. The quality of the joke is left up to the viewer.

Leno makes jokes about everyone, especially politicians and newsmakers, and from my observation the jokes are pretty tame (in fact, one criticism Leno sometimes gets from other comics is that he can be too tame, too mainstream). Leno is known in the business as a jokesmith, creating a new monologue every night, and some jokes work and some don't.

I wouldn't classify him at all as an antigay comic, and there are plenty of those out there. I know, because I worked with them as a regular on Comedy Central's Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn, which was a Politically Incorrect-style talk show that was half discussion and half roast. On that show everyone took a beating--blacks, gays, women, Latinos, white guys, the Delaware Water Gap, you name it. You either took it like a sport and had a snappy retort of your own, or you were toast.

As angry as I got at some of the tacky gay jokes made at my expense, I always laughed it off and zinged my assailant with a better joke that shut them up. It was like a comic obstacle course.

Believe me, I can get as annoyed as Jeff when I hear a stereotypical, stupid gay joke from a straight comic. But then I have to examine myself and think, What exactly am I getting worked up about here? Is there actual malice behind it? Is the joke good and yet I don't like it? And what if a gay comic made the same joke? Just about every gay comic I've ever seen has taken gay stereotypes and turned them on their head, saying in effect, "See all the funny things gays do? And since I'm the one saying it, it's OK."

Unfortunately, comedy doesn't work that way. In a joke there's always a target. What matters is the intent.

What if Republicans feel personally offended if I make a Bush joke? Many do indeed, because they have waited after shows and told me so, often shaking their fingers in my face. Do you think for a second I'm going to stop telling the joke? Too bad, I say, lighten up, it's just a joke. I'm just joking about Bush, not his assassination (as Ann Coulter has done repeatedly with Bill Clinton, and why the Secret Service hasn't locked her up long ago, I'll never know).

Occasionally I have had to cut out jokes because I could tell they were hurting people's feelings and hitting a little too close to home, such as fat jokes in Las Vegas. I even have a joke where I use the n word in front of a black audience. Because of the construction of the joke and my lack of hostile intent behind it, they laugh.

Comedy is all about pushing the envelope, as Jeff, the talented author of one of the funniest and most envelope-pushing things Broadway has seen in years, knows.

It's been a long time since I saw any comic joke about truly harmful stuff, like beating up gays or degrading people with AIDS (Sam Kinison, thankfully, took most of those to his grave with him, and Andrew Dice Clay isn't the phenomenon he once was). Most true gay bashing these days is reserved for either reggae singers or right-wing nut jobs with a microphone who are truly trying to take away our rights. In my opinion, those are the ones we need to focus our energy on, because I feel that they do more harm in the long run than some comic.

Those are the battles I prefer to pick.

And "offensive" is usually in the eye of the beholder. Imagine what some people might think of South Park, Howard Stern--or Jeff's own Avenue Q, with full-frontal (and hilarious) puppet sex. I recently spoke to a friend who said she was loving the show until the puppets started humping. Then she clammed up. Should Jeff remove the offending scene from the show? Not on your life. Lighten up, lady.

I am glad Jeff wrote his letter and I'm glad it provoked discussion. But In Leno's defense, he did host the first openly gay stand-up ever on the Tonight Show, Bob Smith, in 1994. Other out comedians have appeared since. Some of his staff members are gay, and he regularly hosts gay celebrities like Melissa, Elton, Ellen, and Rosie, asking them about their partners and families the same as if they were married straights.

If Leno had made a joke like Kinison or Clay did, I would have cosigned Jeff's letter. But I doubt that was the case. Perhaps what Jeff is essentially saying is, "Write better gay jokes, Jay."

If comedians were suddenly required to offend no one, then all we could talk about would be the socks in the laundry. And even that would offend Chinese people.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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