That joke isn't funny anymore
It doesn't age well, does it? When you look back upon the great corpus of Monty Python's work in television, audio recordings, stage, and film, you have hundreds and hundreds of very funny hours, classic gags that are quoted and referenced throughout pop culture. But the gay stuff, it doesn't really work anymore. Just set aside for the moment the debate that crops up now and again these days over whether "The Lumberjack Song" is anti-Transgender:1 the Pythons did a handful of sketches and gags over the years that went straight for gay stereotypes depicting homosexual men as effeminate and promiscuous, lisping and limp-wristed.
An irony being, of course, that one of the guys writing and acting in these sketches was Graham Chapman, who came out in the early '70s.
There are varying, confusing, and contradicting accounts of whether any of Chapman's fellow Pythons suspected or knew Chapman was gay before he went public, and although there's very little doubt the other Pythons were ultimately very loving and supportive of Chapman, there are some conflicting accounts as to how they initially took the news. There are, as well, some conflicting accounts as to whether Chapman thought the gay sketches were funny and fair game, or whether he was just a good sport about all of it.
But that, while interesting to Python fans, isn't really the point.
The point is that what's funny changes over time. That things people might have laughed at thirty or forty years ago might be cringeworthy now. You can shrink or expand that timeframe as you like: there's racial comedy from a hundred years ago that's appalling now and jokes about gun violence and mental health that stopped being funny sometime in the past decade. In Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), Richard Pryor reconsidered the way he'd used racially-charged language in just the previous few years of his career. What seems funny can change in as little time as the meteoric rise and fall of a single comic genius's short career.
This is all about James Gunn, naturally. And, to a lesser extent, about Dan Harmon, Michael Ian Black, and Patton Oswalt, all of whom have been hypocritically targeted by a pedophilia-obsessed right wing Twitter personality who managed to get Gunn fired from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise by Disney, got Harmon to quit Twitter, and triggered panicked behavior from people like The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson. A lot of pixels have been spent on talking about how much Gunn has evolved as a human being, how Gunn has apologized for attempting to make jokes about topics like rape and pedophilia, about how Gunn is apparently a pretty decent guy who is loved by his colleagues, and how the Twitter personality who led the crusade to ruin the careers of Gunn and others is a perennial asshat who peddles in conspiranoid theories and hypocrisy in what will ultimately be an attempt to overcome his own miserable mediocrity (hence why we aren't even mentioning Mr. Asshat by his given name--in the pre-Internet age he would have been an anonymous basement dweller whose letters to the local newspaper would be passed around for laughs and then filed to the trash can, and we ought to scrape him off our shoes as best we can).
And that is all well and good and wonderful. I'm all for personal growth. The universe knows I've had my own personal growth on any number of topics, that I've said and done things I regret and would rather not revisit if I can avoid them, and however miserable a specimen of humanity I am now I am humble yet pleased to think I'm a somewhat less miserable specimen than once I was.
But let's do talk about ourselves for a moment, and not just about the evolution of James Gunn. When you look back on those old tweets, it's not that they're in any way defensible as jokes now, and it's not that they necessarily were defensible as jokes then, and some of them (as Todd VanDerWerff points out in the Vox piece linked to above) aren't really well constructed as jokes. But a few of them, let's be honest about ourselves here, a few of them are lines that you can imagine getting a snortle ten or twenty years ago. Not because rape and pedophilia are funny, but precisely because they aren't, and there's a vein of dark humor--no, I don't mean "edgy," whatever anybody means by "edgy" (what a stupid fucking concept, "edgy")--a vein of "sicko" humor that chuckles past the graveyard and laughs at all the awful things there are.
Nobody seems to want to talk about that, because it treads very close to sounding like a defense, which it isn't, no more than one would want to offer an apologetic for Monty Python's early-'70s queer-bashing sketches. The point isn't whether or not any of these awful old bits should have been laughed at, or could still be laughed at, or if you're not laughing you need a sense of humor, or if you were laughing you should still be laughing. The point is merely that we did laugh, and that's probably because we were thoughtless and horrible people, but we're maybe a bit more considerate and a bit kinder now, and we're moving on.
There was a hot minute in the 1990s when all sorts of awful garbage was considered mainstream funny. Andrew Dice Clay, for fuck's sake, and I myself never really understood the appeal of the man--less because he was telling jokes about molestation and misogyny and more that I didn't really consider, say, shouting a nursery rhyme and then changing the last line to some random obscene image to be much of a joke at all. (Compare, say, George Carlin telling "The Aristocrats" (in The Aristocrats), which is--well, it's "The Aristocrats," so it's juvenile, vile, repulsive, but entirely sold in the delivery, which Carlin was a master of but Clay... enh... not really.)2 Howard Stern was relevant. South Park was less a venerable two-decades-old institution of cultural satire and more about crudely-animated schoolchildren being bleeped for obscenity every few lines of dialogue. Stand-up comics and late-night talk show hosts told jokes about two of the most notorious and well-publicized domestic violence cases of the decade, O.J. Simpson's murder of his ex-wife and Lorena Bobbitt's maiming of her husband allegedly in retaliation for his sexually, physically, and emotionally abusing her.
Speaking of that and to the point: a week ago, shuffleplay on the home media center summoned forth the late Robin Williams doing a typically manic stand-up routine about John Bobbitt's penis. A routine that was funny enough at the time to make it into a stand-up comedy box set but, y'know, and to the point of this post: a little tedious and insensitive, and Williams' choices of "funny" dialects during parts of the routine come across as a little racist (though probably not intentionally), and were people--were we--really laughing about the story of a possible rape victim assaulting her husband with a deadly weapon? Well, yeah: we were. We did. Maybe not all of us, but lots of us. Not knocking Williams here, who was wonderful and is missed.
But that joke isn't funny anymore.
I understand why we're talking about Gunn and not ourselves, I understand why we're talking about appropriate subject matter and not ourselves, I understand why we're trying to quarantine our conversations about this in various ways to minimize our own exposure. And I understand the many reasons some people are underscoring and bold-typing their objections to certain subjects, though I also wonder if they were always so adamant about their objections.
But maybe we need to be more honest about ourselves. I think we do both ourselves and our creations a disservice when we fail to acknowledge that its not just authors but audiences who change, learn, and evolve. Sometimes the problems with a work aren't merely with the creators and publishers; we consumed the media because standards were different, we were different. Monty Python didn't do the gay judges bit just because they were a bit homophobic,3 they did it because they thought it would get a laugh (and it did, and not just the BBC's laughtrack). James Gunn did the pedophilia bits because he knew they'd get a reaction, and for no other reason.4 And he was right.
These things have such a long tail these days, that we can go back and see now all the problems we didn't see then. But that's on us. We were callous. We were ignorant. We weren't as open-minded. We weren't thinking it all the way out. Now, now we're doing better.5 This doesn't retroactively excuse anything, nor does it change anything now. But let's not get too sanctimonious about the whole thing.
1I hate to write it, but probably. It's super-catchy, super-fun to sing, and you could take it as being little more than a fun and catchy song about the joys of being a man who likes wearing women's underwear... only the sketch clearly tries to mine humor out of the "irony" of a "burly," "butch" man being effete, and the response of the chorus of Mounties and the lumberjack's girlfriend is disgust and rejection, affirming the idea that the lumberjack's predilection for brassieres and garter belts is transgressive (any play on words here is accidental and difficult to avoid).
2The Aristocrats is on my mind in this context largely because Sarah Silverman uses "The Aristocrats" as a platform to tell a rape joke that--contrary to the popular conventional wisdom these days that rape jokes aren't funny--is kinda funny. It's also kind of shocking, very disturbing, and possibly more than a wee bit defamatory. But I don't think I want to include a link and/or get into a long discussion of it because I think that conversation ends up out in the woods somewhere.
3Being artsy college types with a troupe member who came out and introduced the rest of the company to his live-in boyfriend, one suspects they may have been less homophobic than an average Brit of their day. Which isn't to say not homophobic, but one imagines the Pythons at least being more receptive and willing to correct their prejudices.
4One of the most offensive things about the current alt-right campaign is the obsessive way they label someone making a joke about pedophilia a "pedophile," as if writing about something makes you the something. Given that the lead asshat who pushed for Gunn's firing previously pushed the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria child sex ring conspiracy theory, it's hard to tell if he's being disingenuous or just stupid, but some of those who have taken up his flag--and some of those who aren't alt-right but who have defended Gunn's firing--are clearly the latter.
It's not just offensive because of the defamatory character of the attack. It's also offensively stupid, and that's something I want to be clear on. To the extent that some of the Gunn jokes are jokes, the joke only works if Gunn isn't serious and the thing he's joking about is in fact awful. A pedophile making a comment about being touched by a child isn't making a funny or unfunny joke, he's simply describing his predilection.
Loop it back around to the Python's gay judges or gay soldiers sketches. To the extent they ever were funny, they were funny because of the ironic juxtaposition between the audience's belief about how judges and soldiers really are and how they're being presented in the sketches. If, in fact, British judges are all gay men and gay men behave in a stereotypical high camp manner, the judges sketch isn't actually a sketch. It's a scene. A dramatic one, perhaps. A pointless one, almost defensively.
To argue from a comedic line (however unsuccessful the comedic element) in this kind of context that the person delivering the line is really what the joke is about is fatuous. It's an argument predicated not just on the proponent being dishonest or dumb but also on the audience hearing it being credulous and/or stupid enough to believe it.
To say this to me, you must think I'm stupid? That's offensive.
5Right, okay. There's a whole 'nother essay buried here that I don't actually want to write, but I'd like to plant one of those little gas company underground line flags on it?
That would be that there's this problem with social conservatives that ties into and contributes to things like the Gunn firing, which is that a lot of them haven't really grown or evolved on certain subjects, and part of the reason they feel insulted and affronted is that they still want to laugh at forty-year-old gay jokes or thirty-year-old race jokes or twenty-year-old domestic violence jokes--or whatever--and not feel bad about continuing to laugh at things everyone else used to laugh at, too. And these conservative types, not only do they feel lectured at and affronted and maybe even a little guilty about wanting to laugh at the same jokes even when they stopped being funny, but since they assume they're normal (everybody kind of assumes they're normal, even while feeling insecure that they aren't), they figure social liberals who say these jokes aren't funny anymore really do think the jokes are still funny, they just can't say so because of political correctness, and virtue signalling, and the innate hypocrisy and insincerity of liberals in general.
So one of the things going on here underneath all this is the expectation that liberals will cave, because we don't mean any of it and we should all go back to laughing at racist jokes or gay jokes or misogynistic jokes like everybody used to--remember when we were all united by our ability to mock minorities and the disenfranchised? And if we don't, and we eat our own instead, well, fuck us, that's sort of win-win for them, y'know? If they can't get unconditional surrender, they can at least have a scalp.
But what they can't face is that maybe they're the ones whose time is passing, that they're increasingly out of touch with the mainstream, that the rest of us really do mean it and we're trying to be better people.