Humor that doesn’t age well

After learning about Norm Macdonald death, I watched a few episodes of The Norm Show. While it had a great cast and some funny moments, its humor was totally in the Married with Children mode: sitcoms cliches “updated” with sniggering sex lines, crude insults, and mean pranks.

Norm’s bizarre plot is that he was banned for life from hockey (he really is a big guy and from Canada) for gambling and tax evasion and sentenced to five years as a social worker as community service. One mistake and he goes back to jail. Norm is a near-Fielding level sexual harasser and all around cheater, liar, thief, and bully. All the women fall in love with him, of course, and mistakes happen about every three minutes but his co-workers jeopardize their jobs to cover up for him.

Nikki Cox plays one of his love interests, a reformed prostitute. She had been on Unhappily Ever After, the thematic spinoff from MwC, as an underage sex bomb, recorded live in front of an audience of whistling Marines when she was 17.

They’re part of a whole genre of such shows appearing in the late 80s and 90s that riled every conservative outlet then and would cancel everyone involved today from the left. The pendulum swings.

I loved the show Soap when it was on. I finally found it on TV Land (for a while), and started re-watching. My 20-something son came in, watched some of the interactions with Billy Crystal’s character, Jody, and proceded to rail on about how homophobic the show was. I had to point out to him that

  1. this was the 70s, and, yes, many people at the time were very openly homophobic
  2. Jody, as a character, was always treated by the show like any other normal human being; the comedy was always in how others reacted to him, not making fun of him because he was gay
  3. At the time, Soap got a lot of grief for showing Jody as “normal”. In other words, people didn’t think at the time the show was homophobic enough!
  4. This shows you how much American society has changed in the last 40 years.

The problem with Jody’s portrayal on Soap is that nobody remembers the progression.

He started out not just gay but a transvestite who was considering surgery to become a woman so he and his roommate could legally marry. When the roommate breaks up with him, he attempts suicide. His mere existence angered all the conservative groups but the gay groups were upset as well because the portrayal played into ugly stereotypes about gays.

After that, the writers kept backing off from gayness. He has a one-night stand with a woman, and she bears his baby. He dates his lesbian roommate, and later he proposes to another woman. He did date some men in between, though.

Soap was a parody of soap operas, so plot twists can’t be taken too seriously. But the notion of Jody as a “normal” gay is belied by the way the show failed to give him situations that might have applied to anybody and always made his plotlines rely on Jody not being a normal gay.

At times, true, Jody was treated by his mother just like her other sons and some of the other characters didn’t care. That probably where the accusations that the show “normalized” the character came from. At the same time, some of the characters made homophobic remarks about him constantly and the audience was supposed to like them just as much as they did Jody.

I was just talking about this to Mrs. Cad the other day although it was about Philadelphia my story is more apropos to Soap. My cousin grew up in the 70s and came out in the 80s to the surprise of absolutely no one. He was shocked that the family still loved him now that they knew he was gay because for so many in that community even now but moreso then, being accepted by your family for being gay was the exception and not the rule.

So one thing I’m conflicted about (as a cis-hetro male) is the older portrayals of gay characters, from eras when it was completely socially unacceptable to even discuss it. Where you had (relatively, given it was still illegal) openly gay men play ‘camp’ characters for laughs. It was never explicitly stated that the character was gay, but it was understood by the more worldly audience (in those days actual “double entrendres” were a thing where a huge portion of the audience actually didn’t actually get the double meaning)

Specifically Keneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey the “Carry on” films I’m thinking of here. The Carry On films definitely have not aged super well for a few reasons (mainly rampant sexism, and occasional racism) but they also have their moments (the early ones do, at least, they churned out a ton of them on a production line, and whatever actual humor there might have been earlier on was lost). I’m not sure if the “camp” characters are something actually empowering in an era when homosexuality was a complete taboo, or just homophobic?

And, just to bring this part of the discussion back to “humor that doesn’t age well”, I remember a “joke” from the beginning of the AIDS pandemic -

What’s the worst part about getting AIDS?
Convincing your parents that you’re Haitian.

(for you youngsters who weren’t alive at the time, when AIDS was first attaining attention, it was hitting homosexuals and Haitians. Well, it turns out that (IIRC) a higher number of Haitians were sex workers (as a percentage), so it only appeared like Haitians were a higher risk. Also, it’s playing off of the “My parents would disown me if they knew I was gay” thing. )

That’s how I feel about the character Johnny in Airplane!. The character was never explicitly stated to be gay, but his voice and mannerisms make it clear to the audience that he’s supposed to be gay. The actor who played him actually was gay (and died of AIDS in 1985 :frowning:). And he is funny – having him be the one character actually doing jokes while everyone else was playing it straight was brilliant. But… I’m not sure how well the whole “lets laugh at the guy acting in a stereotypical gay effeminate manner” shtick has held up.

It’s held up very well, and has been expanded on. See RuPaul’s Drag Race.

That reminds me of a swishy interior decorator named “Mr. Bob” played by Jack Cassidy on an episode of Get Smart in the mid-1960s. When threatened by Maxwell Smart, Mr. Bob kicks his ass. For a second, you think you are watching a gay man defying expectations until Mr. Bob explains in his natural butch voice that he just acts effeminate because that’s what his clients expect of an interior decorator.

That was the plot of an episode of Cheers as well. Norm displayed a knack for interior decorating, but Frasier and Lilith’s yuppie friends wouldn’t take him seriously to hire until he acted…artistically weird? Not sure how to phrase it (“Last night I programmed myself to dream about your house.”). And then later on he tried to introduce Sam as his boyfriend to sell the gay persona.

Two instances don’t add up to a trope, but I have no doubt it happened elsewhere in prime time.

TVtropes lists Mr. Bob, Norm and some other examples.

Except, none of his jokes in that movie were about him being gay, or having an effeminate affect. And the affect wasn’t a bit - that’s just how the actor talked normally. Casting an actor that so clearly codes as gay, and then just not referencing the characters sexuality at all is the opposite of problematic. It’s something we still don’t see a lot of.

Sure, but now someone might complain that the lack of reference is an example of erasure making it problematic. Or maybe it’s sus now. I kid. Sort of. I do share your opinion about Johnny and the last time I watched Airplane his scenes didn’t make me cringe. And the man seriously know what to make of “that.” But I do think it illustrates that what might have been seen as progressive in 1980 might not be viewed as so progressive in 2021. Standards and expectations have changed.

That’s true in general, but my point here is that, at least in this particular regard, Airplane! is more progressive than most contemporary shows and movies, who would still have felt compelled to slip a few (no doubt, positive and reaffirming) gay jokes to that character.

It’s the internet, so you can always find one person to support any opinion, no matter how ridiculous, but nobody is seriously going to try to cancel Airplane! for being homophobic.

I’ve occasionally seen people take issue with the “Pardon me stewardess, I speak Jive!” scene and its racial humour, but I personally think it’s hilarious, and it isn’t punching down. As well, with more recent recognition of AAVE occupying a distinct and real place on the linguistic spectrum, the scene is kind of fascinating to me in 2021.

The two actors wrote their own lines as did Stephen Stucker.

One category of joke that seems really dated is when women are portrayed as desperate to land a husband. The Sally Rogers character on the Dick Van Dyke Show comes to mind.

There was a Honeymooners episode where Alice’s sister got married and, apparently by force of habit, made a diving catch of her own bridal bouquet. Alice claimed it was an accident–that “she tripped”. To which Ralph replied, “I wish I could trip like that, I’d be playing center field for the New York Giants!”

That still makes me laugh.

Sometimes in old movies I wonder what it is that makes an actor code as gay. Take Martin Landau’s character in North by Northwest or Frank Faylen’s character in the The Lost Weekend. I watch them, and I think they’re gay, but I don’t know why. To be honest, I’m not the most sensitive of people, and am bad at social cues, so what are the actors doing to make me think of them as gay? There’s nothing effeminate about either of them. Martin Landau does have a line about “feminine intuition” but that’s way late in the film and by that point it merely confirms what most people have already intuited.

When Thornhill first meets Vandamm in Townsend’s study, the way Leonard (Landau) delivers the line, “He’s a well-tailored one” seemed to me like a cue. A straight man in 1958 could have made that comment about Thornhill’s attire, but it would have been with a flat tone and straight face. Leonard’s expression and tone seemed almost leering, the way a het man would comment on Eva Marie Saint.

That could be it. It’s all in Landau’s delivery. There’s a pretty good documentary The Celluloid Closet, about gay characters in film that traces the development of gay characters from the silent era to the 1995, when it was shot. A lot of it had to be under the radar because censors would have put a stop to any depiction of gay people in a positive light, so subtlety was required. The camp characters got a pass, you were allowed to be gay, as long as you were a buffoon.