Gay jokes aren’t that hard to pull off. Whether the comedian is straight or gay themselves, they only need to be clever, to pick out something fundamentally true about gay people or culture and play with it deftly. Unless you just reject identity-based humor altogether, a well-crafted gay joke delivered in the spirit of good-natured frivolity should not offend. That should only happen when the joke is malicious or, as is more often the case, draws its “humor” from lazy stereotypes.
Star writer Gary Shteyngart’s trailer for his new memoir, Little Failure, clearly took up a lot of people’s time and money in the pursuit of that last kind of lazy gay laugh. The ad is a looong series of cheap jokes and pointless cameos of Park Slope favorites like Jonathan Franzen, Alex Karpovsky, and Rashida Jones, but the worst moment comes when Shteyngart’s publishers at Random House inform him of his book’s unflattering title. Upset, the author asks if he can talk it over with his … husband.
OK, we know Shteyngart is married to a woman, so that’s weird, but let’s see where this goes. Next frame: a man in a fluffy pink bathrobe stirring coffee in a girly mug. Ha! And here comes another pink-robed man, rubbing his husband’s shoulders to a soundtrack of silly sex jazz more suited to a hot tub than a breakfast scene. Funny! Oh, I see, it’s gay-rumor magnet James Franco—he’s a lot hotter than his “baby,” so that’s just hilarious. Now they’re talking shyly in hushed, mock-feminine tones about the size of Shteyngart’s penis—tee-hee—and Franco reveals his own book, a recounting of the two men’s “erotic journey,” the notion of which is too gross to take seriously! L.O.L.
Look, I’m sure Shteyngart and the folks at Random House thought they were making fun of the author’s shlumpy looks and demeanor, but there are ways of doing that which don’t necessitate lazily dusting off tired homophobic clichés. Why did he need to have a husband to poke fun at himself—because only gay men are narcissistic or insecure? Why fill the domestic scene with so many trite effeminate affectations? And why use the notion of gay desire and eroticism as a punch line in such a boring way?
As I said, I really love a good gay joke. In fact, I’ve written appreciatively about some that Franco has been a part of in the past. But there is nothing piquant, surprising, or even chuckle-worthy about the idea of husbands having coffee and talking about their writing or even their sex lives—I’ve done it, so I should know. Of course, considering the source, it’s clear this trailer wasn’t produced with malicious intent; it’s just the product of unimaginative, lazy thinking. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any less offensive.