What’s So Funny About Being Gay?

Times have changed, but homophobic comedy was always dumb and dangerous.

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Kevin Hart and Ellen DeGeneres on Ellen (Photo: Telepictures/Warner Bros. Television)

Is this where Kevin Hart got the idea for his old jokes about having a gay son, the ones that ultimately would lead to his giving up his dream gig as host of the 2019 Oscars? Did he watch this and figure that tweeting about beating the gay out of your son is comedy gold?

Those were the questions running through my head about seven minutes and 45 seconds into “Lamont, Is That You?” — the episode of the classic seventies sitcom Sanford and Son that originally aired on October 19, 1973. I stumbled upon it during a recent Sanford and Son marathon on YouTube.

In “Lamont,” Fred G. Sanford, the junkman played by Redd Foxx — a stand-up-turned-sitcom star who influenced future generations of black comedians, including Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, and Hart — has found out that his son Lamont was spotted going into a bar called The Gay Blade.

The scene that got me wondering was the one in which Sanford consults with the family physician, Dr. Caldwell, to get an official diagnosis that Lamont is gay. When the doctor tells him that no-one has ever died from being homosexual, Sanford makes a punching movement with his fist and says, “Well, he’ll be the first one when I find out.”

Cue laugh track.

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Redd Foxx and Davis Roberts in the Sanford and Son episode “Lamont, Is That You?” (Photo: NBC)

Cheap gay humor

The episode is full of this kind of cheap humor followed by raucous laughter from the studio audience. According to IMDb, this was the one that introduced the horizontal hand wave that would go on to become shorthand for “gay” on the series.

During the 25-minute running time, characters brand gay men as “sissies” and as “sisters” instead of “brothers.” Meanwhile, the writers recycle gay stereotype after gay stereotype: They present combing your Afro, changing your style of dress, and taking after your dominant mother who died when you were young as signs that you might be gay.

The set-up itself is fairly simple: Sanford’s buddy Bubba sees Lamont and his friend Rollo going into The Gay Blade. He cuts his own date short and runs to Sanford’s house to tell him. What follows are a series of misunderstandings in a comedy of errors.

Later, Rollo spots Sanford and Bubba entering The Gay Blade (they’ve gone there to spy on Lamont and Rollo, assuming they will eventually show up), and, well, you probably know what comes next. The happy ending: Both Sanford and Lamont have dates with beautiful women, putting their mutual fears to rest. All’s well that ends well, with confirmations of heterosexuality all around.

All in the Family and Maude, two other seventies sitcoms created by Norman Lear, had similarly themed episodes. The one-dimensional homophobia all three shows presented was pretty standard for the time.

The difference was that on All in the Family and Maude, we got to hear voices of reason. In the 1971 All in the Family episode “Judging Books by the Cover” (which featured future daytime soap stars Phil Carey, Anthony Geary, and Robert Hastings) and the 1977 Maude episode “The Gay Bar,” the writers presented the pro-gay side, and when we laughed, we were laughing at the ridiculousness of homophobia.

In “Lamont, Is That You?” though, the Sanford and Son writers — and the studio audience — seem to be laughing not at the homophobes onscreen but with them. Was the writing supposed to reflect the homophobia that’s rampant in the black community, where, presumably, there are no voices of reason?

Almost every joke is at the expense of gay people. Even Lamont, a generally progressive character who throughout the series stands up for foreigners, women, and other oppressed groups, checks his evolution at the door of The Gay Blade and nearly matches his father’s Neanderthal ignorance.

Should comedy not be held accountable?

The episode brings to mind the ongoing argument over the accountability of comedy. “It’s just a joke, relax,” we hear from defenders of the professionally funny. If we get upset and speak up over jokes about gays, or blacks, or women, we run the risk of being called “trolls” and “haters” by people like Kevin Hart and Ellen DeGeneres.

Yes, Ellen. She had Kevin Hart on as a guest on a recent episode of her eponymous talk show, and she defended him over Oscar-gate. Look, it’s fine if she wants to stand by the man. It’s OK if she agrees with many that we should forget his homophobic jokes and tweets because they’re nearly a decade old, and an apology with no real evidence of contrition should be enough anyway.

What I cannot understand is why she and Hart must dismiss everyone who dares to criticize him retroactively as “trolls” and “haters.” Did Hart become the victim and all of his critics become villains, even if they respectfully questioned the Academy of Arts and Sciences’ decision to hire a host with such a well-documented history of homophobia in a year where more LGBTQ-oriented fare than ever is in contention for Oscar nominations?

There always will be those who cross the line in their criticism, but to lump all of Hart’s critics in the discard box echoes what so many on both sides of the current political divide do. Talk is cheap unless it supports their agenda. To question, to challenge, to be contrarian is to be deemed a “hater” by default.

Then they tell you to “lighten up” as they get equally bent out of shape over an opinion. This is why civilized discourse has become a lost art.

Throughout the entire Hart controversy, there have been voices of reason who do not support him, ones who are going to need more than a tweeted apology, or “I’m sorry” with no actions to back it up. If Hart and DeGeneres would get off social media and listen, they might not be so quick to dismiss as “haters” and “trolls” those who expect more evidence of contrition before we forgive and forget.

The gay stereotyping in Hart’s 2015 film Get Hard didn’t reinforce his claim that he’s lived and learned, nor does his character’s squeamishness over a paraplegic’s penis in his new movie The Upside. The latter reflects the comedy persona that Hart, not the “haters” and “trolls” who unearthed his years-old tweets with a simple Twitter search, created.

If he were truly a changed man from the one he was a decade ago, maybe he’d demand better jokes.

A free pass for comedy?

If Ellen and Hart bothered to listen to the voices of reason rather than the social media “mob,” maybe they would wave us off anyway, because, as Joy Behar implied on The View, comedians should be given a free pass to be controversial and offensive.

But why? Are we the only ones required to have thick skin? Why should they get special privileges and exist in an alternate universe where comments are disabled? If you’re bold enough to be controversial and offensive, you need to be bold enough to take criticism, too.

“Everyone is too sensitive” applies equally to those who keep saying it, and I, for one, appreciate sensitivity. Without it, there’s less conscientiousness and consciousness, and we get junk like “Lamont, Is That You?” It’s possible to be funny and shine a harsh light on society without taking nasty digs at folks who already take enough digs from the general population.

It’s possible to be funny and shine a harsh light on society without taking nasty digs at folks who already take enough digs from the general population.

Misguided as her demonizing of Hart’s critics might be, Ellen is one of the funniest and most successful comedians alive, and her brand has never been based on cheap shots directed at marginalized groups. She’s proof that you can be funny without being nasty.

All in the Family and Maude are proof that you can use prejudice to get laughs without appearing to condone bigotry. It takes intelligence and effort, two things that, unfortunately, too often fall outside the skill set of comedians and sitcom writers, both then and now.

I’m not here to discount the overall brilliance of Sanford and Son over one unfortunate episode. I still love the series and have enormous respect for all of the actors, the writers, and Norman Lear.

In a way, in fact, I’m actually kind of thankful for “Lamont, Is That You?” It’s a crude but crucial reminder that TV has evolved, even if too many of the people who watch it haven’t.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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