A man walks into a bar. He sees another man, and they kiss. No, it’s not a scene from the recent Pride celebrations. It’s America’s favorite new punch line.
One SNL episode earlier this year, hosted by Paul Rudd, featured no fewer than six sketches that found humor in the idea that two guys might actually want to have sex. Rudd later turned up in I Love You, Man, a basically harmless comedy that nonetheless built nearly all of its jokes on the squealing discomfort that audiences feel at the idea of “Oh my God, those two dudes totally just almost kissed.” The 40-Year-Old Virgin featured a now-famous scene in which Rudd (again!) and Seth Rogen swapped “You know how I know you’re gay … ” jokes, mostly involving bread bowls and macramé (and a love of balls in the face). The Hangover features not only the usual bromance boy-’rassling and naked-assed-dude-in-a-jockstrap gag but also a mincing, lisping gay Asian villain so over-the-top that you’re no longer sure if you’re supposed to be laughing at the outrageousness of the stereotype or simply at the stereotype.
And into this fray, with impeccable timing, arrives Brüno, in a swirl of lamé, lederhosen, and bejangled codpieces. The fearless Sacha Baron Cohen is often called a “satirist,” though that’s only true if you believe that a man pushing a dog’s nose into its own poop is “satirizing” the dog or the poop. In reality, Cohen simply uses his outrageous characters to show us sides of ourselves we’d rather not see. Or, more often, sides of other people we’d rather not see.
Which brings us to the uncomfortable part of this humor of gay discomfort. You never have to worry whether Rudd or Cohen is actually homophobic, the way you may have once felt guilty and queasy watching a young Eddie Murphy’s routines about “faggots.” You can safely assume that what you’re seeing is not offensive but “offensive,” in the same way that Sarah Silverman’s racist jokes about Jews are in reality jokes about racism. This strain of irreverent, post-P.C. crudeness will be familiar to, say, readers of Vice magazine: a pose that says, “We’re so past things like racial and sexual epithets that we can use racial and sexual epithets at will.” But the fact is that while you’re laughing ironically at The Hangover, you’re likely to hear the guy next to you laughing at that hilarious Chinese fag.
When Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor used slurs, they were doing what comedy often does, what it exists to do: speak the unspeakable and thereby drag it into the light. But what’s unspoken in this new humor of homo-heebie-jeebies is this: We’re not all as enlightened as we’d like to think. Sometimes comedy can point that out to us, and sometimes it can simply exploit it. This current comedy two-fer-one—by which you get laughs both from the knowing ironic crowd and the insensate clods—is all too tempting, since it allows you to “bust” taboos while benefiting from your own taboo behavior. It’s worth remembering, though, that Andrew Dice Clay started out as a kind of parody act, until he realized people laugh just as hard at straight-up jokes about Polacks and bitches and he figured what the hell and went with it. All jokes are pressure valves, of one form or another. It’s just a question of what they’re allowing us to release.