Seth Rogen, Andy Samberg, and others leveled 26 gay jokes at James Franco during Comedy Central's "Roast of James Franco," which sparked controversy earlier this month. Some critics argued that the jokes were attention-grabbing and revealed an "emotional insecurity" on the part of the performers who reflect a "thriving wave of anti-gay ammunition" still common in comedy clubs nationwide. Others have said they were just "stupid" and "ridiculous.” For his part, Franco shrugged off the jokes. "I wish I was gay," he said.
On behalf of gay people everywhere: we wish you were too, James.
This isn’t the first time comedians have encountered pushback from the LGBT community and its allies. In 2011, Tracy Morgan was widely criticized after launching into an anti-gay rant at one of his shows, though he later apologized and was encouraged by Louis C.K. to enter into a constructive dialogue with the gay community. Over the years, Jay Leno and others have also faced criticism about their use of gay-themed jokes. More recently, however, comedy has made some strides on the issue, with the success of LGBT-affirming sitcoms like Modern Family and the rise of openly gay comedians like ANT, a finalist on Season 2 of Last Comic Standing. But as hate crimes and bullying continue to threaten the LGBT community, what comedians say and how they say it matters more than ever.
Another Last Comic Standing alum, Myq Kaplan, is particularly interested in evaluating and reevaluating the words he uses and the message he sends through humor. At 34, Myq has racked up several high-profile gigs, including appearances on Letterman, The Tonight Show, and Conan. His comedy albums bear names like Vegan Mind Meld and Meat Robot, which might lead you to assume that Myq, a vegan, is focused solely on animal rights, but he’s also a frequent commentator on women’s rights, gay rights, bullying, and other social issues.
Myq's set on The Tonight Show in 2010 is a good example. Myq managed to incorporate several social issues into a single bit: "As a vegetarian, I strongly support — of course — gay marriage," he said. "Let me elaborate. I am gay-friendly, or as they called me in high school, 'gay.' I like women, but I also like speaking intelligently. I think that's the confusion to the football players and such.
"I think that the 'Roast' is in general a safe space where, ideally, it’s people who know and respect each other, not strangers and people who are vastly at differing levels of society," he said when I spoke to him about the Franco roast — which, he admits, he hasn't seen from start to finish.
"If you sign for up it, it’s fine," Myq said. "If you don’t sign up for it, and you’re a kid who just wants to be left alone, and you don’t know if you’re going to get beat up — in addition to have these names thrown at you — then that’s where the line certainly blurs and heads into a darker, undesirable color."
Myq knows a thing or two about the kid “who just wants to be left alone.” Taunted and teased in high school, Myq told me that other kids often called him "gay." Ever since, Myq said that he’s learned to view bullies as “ignorant, sad, wrong, confused” and has used comedy to overcome them.
However, Myq’s background doesn’t make it easier to steer clear of jokes that might make an audience feel bullied, targeted, or both. In one bit, Myq told me, he would tell the crowd that interacting with an audience is usually about looking at someone and figuring a way to call them gay. "I’m going to try to do something totally different on a more significant level," Myq would say. But then he'd ask a man to name his favorite color, and Myq would instantly yell out, "Gay!" no matter the man’s response. One time, Myq’s volunteer happened to be gay, which got him thinking about whether the joke may have come across as a crass way to make fun of gay people. He ultimately tweaked it to leave no doubt about his intent.
"Anyone can be offended by anyone or anything, and so you can only plan so far ahead," Myq said. Though it's possible that some people in any audience will feel uncomfortable, comedians aren't excused from being self-aware. "As a comedian, as an artist, as an human, you only have your own experience, and not every human thinks about their own experience at every moment," Myq said. "If you say something and you offend someone, then you can hopefully learn and have a dialogue and a discussion about it."