Comedy and the Fag Word

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

The other night at a comedy show, two of my peers used anti-gay epithets from the stage. And it wasn’t in the context of some brilliant bit of satire. It was just, "What a faggot" and "that guy’s being a fag." I sat through three utterances and then I got up and walked out. Before too long, I had to come right back, though, because I was set to host another comedy show at the same venue afterward. It was awkward. One of the comics who used the epithets offered an apology, but I didn’t let him off easy, because he said things like "You didn’t have to walk out" and "I’m sorry you were offended."

I said, "Why should I sit there and feel like a piece of shit?" and I said "This is not about me choosing to be offended."

"No, but that’s part of it. That’s at least half of it," he said.

It didn’t go well. I told him that his apology was one thing, but if he was really sorry than he would stop using that language, on stage and around his friends. He didn’t like that. I told him that if he really wanted to say "faggot," he should EARN the right to say it by sucking several dicks before a comedy show. He didn’t like that either. In the end, I accepted his half-assed apology and let him go on his way. His friend, who had been the second individual to use the word, sort of hovered around the conversation but didn’t really have anything of his own to offer, and he slunk off without making eye contact.

The whole thing was an annoying ordeal, to be honest*. I don’t want to police comedy. I don’t want to be the PC brigade. I don’t want people to feel like they’re walking on eggshells, and I don’t want to be seen as an enemy of free speech. Say whatever you want, you know? But there’s no law that says I have to like what you say, or stick around to listen to more of it.

A few of the comics who tried to defend the offending comic to me (I’ve decided not to reveal his name for now) said that it was just the way he’s used to talking, both around his friends and on stage at Helium, where he hosts frequently. And I’m like, that’s supposed to make me feel better? I should what, defer to his force of habit? I guess I was just the wrong fag in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Lately, straight folks like to cite that one episode of South Park where they decided that “fag” is okay to say. But the thing with writers like Trey Parker and Matt Stone is that the fictional worlds they create are tailor-made to prove their real-life philosophies. You can create all the imaginary existences you want, and you can use any rules you want to govern those places, and that’s great. You’ve just created Fiction. And that fiction may have parallels to the world we live in, and that’s great too, but that doesn’t mean you can apply the rules of your fictional world to the actual world we live in and expect it to, you know, work.

Sometimes comedians use controversial language in a quest to be an “edgy” comic, whatever that is. They want to make rape jokes, and they want to make racial jokes and jokes about women and jokes about the disabled and they want to use language that they know they’re not supposed to use, because they want to be seen as rebellious and non-conforming. They want to be Louis CK, basically. But the thing about Louis CK is this: There’s only one of him. Just one! And anyone who is not him, is not him **! Louis CK puts a lot of work into his comedy, and when he makes successful jokes that revolve around touchy subjects, he explores things thoughtfully, and that’s why it’s funny! — Because he reveals something new, some unexplored angle, some unspoken attitude. He doesn’t just string a bunch of raunchy words together and expect to be patted on the back for it. Simply put, there’s a difference between a joke about racism and a racist joke. And just dropping the Fag word, just because you feel like it, just because you’re one of the guys, is not smart comedy. It’s not what people pay money for. That’s just some idiot’s ignorant ass on the couch with his friends. He should stay there.

What really frustrated me about hearing that language on stage is that it fanned the flames of the paranoia that I already experience, the fear that I share with other sexual/ethnic/religious/other minorities that even though people may put up a tolerant facade, behind closed doors there’s all kinds of discrimination and bigotry going on. And now, because I’ve witnessed casual homophobia first-hand, because I’ve seen the proof of it, I can’t help but evaluate my relationship to the comedy scene with greater suspicion. If I’m not invited to be a part of other people’s events or shows, is it because I’m green (and yes I am green, and no I am not uproarious every time I take the stage, but just like anybody else I work at it) — or are there more sinister forces at work? When other comics get together to brainstorm, when other comics have informal gatherings, when other comics go off to smoke a joint in an alley somewhere, when other comics network however they network, and I’m not there, is it because their extended adolescence extends to me and what I am? Is there a secret ick factor at work here? I can never know for sure.

I have a friend who stayed in the closet at his work for more than a year, because his superiors threw around a lot of homophobic language and he feared that he would not get promoted if they knew he was gay. And this is only in the past two years! In a liberal coastal city! I think maybe people assume that we’re living in some kind of utopian future because beer companies sponsor our pride events, but in face, there’s a lot of work that remains to be done.

There’s an expression that goes "When people show you who they are, believe them." I don’t want to judge people before I get a chance to see who they are, but it’s harder, now, to give folks the benefit of the doubt. And it’s experiences like the one that I had the other day, and hate-speech laden comedy show experiences like the ones that other queers have told me about, that made me want to start a comedy show for my community. People can talk all they want about how open and supportive Philly’s comedy scene is, but with a few notable exceptions, that has not been my experience. I had to go ahead and carve out a place for myself, and a place for other comics and audiences who want a space that’s free from outright bigotry, and now I know that I did right.

And it’s a challenge to have an inoffensive comedy show. It is. At our second Camp Tabu show, I had a musician perform who I hadn’t screened personally, and he got up there and sang a song about breaking his ex-girlfriend’s jaw because she broke his heart. I was mortified, and I got read the riot act several times by friends and acquaintances, and who knows how many other people were turned off for good? I learned an important lesson about accountability, and about the challenges of controlling other peoples’ content. But think of how many places this guy plays where people are like, "Domestic violence is funny! More! More!" for him to think it’s okay to sing songs like that.

Thing is, comedy is a contact sport. It tests boundaries of good behavior and explores taboo subjects. It’s well-nigh impossible to have a comedy show that’s not going to offend *somebody*. But trying to build a space that challenges the status quo in terms of the diversity of the audience and the comics on stage, trying to build an experience that doesn’t single individuals out for mockery based on their sexuality or their appearance or what-have-you, is a worthwhile endeavor, and I’m going to keep at it.

I’m not some humorless censor. I’m really not. I just think that straight comics who are really hellbent on dropping the fag word should earn it. They should suck a dick first. 

* For what it’s worth (a lot, actually!), the other comics at the show in question, the host of the show, and the manager of the venue, all approached me after the show to express their disapproval of the language, and assure that steps would be taken to avoid an incident like it in the future.

** I’m not saying that Louis CK is the only comic who can venture into dangerous territory. Many high-profile comedians, and even a couple local comedians that I know of, DO put in the work and DO illuminate controversial ideas through risk-taking comedy. I don’t discourage risk-taking. I discourage flaunting one’s ignorance.

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