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Gareth McLean, homophobia and crap jokes

March 21, 2009

Gareth McLeanGuardian TV critic and Radio Times soap expert Gareth McLean has penned a scathing attack on the use of gay stereotypes in comedy. He writes:

” … there seems to be no appreciation of the part that such characters, and the attitudes that spawn, them play in the continuing insidiousness of homophobia and the resultant violence, intimidation and bullying that gay men and women endure … “

His piece inevitably taps into Chris Moyles’ “insulting” use of the word “gay” in his radio show, the character Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? and most recently, the gay war reporter Tim Goodall from the understandably much-maligned recent new sketch show from ubiqutous “comedians” Horne and Corden.

McLean’s piece in the Guardian leaves me seething. Always a good starting point for a blog post, I find.

As a gayer/bender/poofta/homo/batty boy/fudge-packer myself, I have a rather different take. I don’t object to stereotypes in comedy because I know when I see a stereotype. If it wasn’t a stereotype (in whatever comedy I’m watching) it wouldn’t be funny (assuming it is). In fact, as difficult as it might be to believe, I actually know one or two people who bear more than a striking resemblance to the Tim Goodall too. If derogatory terms should be outlawed, should we outlaw the individuals in society who do actually bear a resemblance to the stereotypes comedians sometimes rely on for a cheap gag?

More than all of that however, I have more of a problem with those who hijack the supposedly derogatory terms using them to build a soap box on which to stand on than I do with the words themselves. If you’re to take Mr McLean’s viewpoint a stage further, presumably the world will be a much safer place for me as a gay man if we ban all the nasty names and the cheap gags. Excuse me whilst I reach for my tight white t-shirt and dog tag and rub wax into my cropped hair but dahling … I’m fuming.


Words on their own aren’t offensive. It’s the context in which those words are used which causes the offence. If the context is an overture to a violent attack then obviously it’s wrong. If we’re having a laugh then having a laugh is OK. OK?

Here’s an example. Some years back I found myself in a bit of a sticky situation. I had met my partner. I’d fallen in love. He’d given me a set of keys to his flat and I’d given in my notice to my then present landlady.

Up until that point I had always been in what Stephen Fry charming describes as “the vagina business” but having gone on a bit of a “Gay Road to Damascus” type experience, I found myself in need of “coming out”. I needed to explain why I was changing my chosen route, why I was moving in with a bloke called Simon who was five years older than me and why it was (should anyone call me on my new number) the landline answerphone had a message with Homer Simpson saying “I like my beer cold, my TV loud and homosexuals flaming!” Coming out seemed the best path to follow.

The process was traumatic. It was the greatest fear. Perhaps the most difficult thing in the world I could have done. I hated it. I decided to use my best friend as a trial.

It was an agonising telephone call I made her from Oxford Street. I ummed and aaahed. I hesitated. I couldn’t bring myself to say the word “gay” (because I’d spent many years denying it) and I certainly couldn’t bring myself to say the word “homosexual” either. In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to have the conversation full stop.

So with traffic thundering past in the background, sensing my obvious unease (and possibly tapping into something she had already sensed but dared not say before then) my friend took up the responsibility of driving the conversation.

“Are you engaged Jon?” she asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Are you pregnant?”

“Well no, obviously not.”

“So,” she said quite abruptly, “are you in fact a bender by any chance? Is that what you’re wanting to tell me?”

The word “bender” was the last thing I expected her to say, especially given her Sunday morning committments at church. “Yes,” I smiled, all nervousness now dissipated, “I am in fact a bender.” We laughed a great deal. The laughing was borne out of surprise and inappropriateness. It made less of the issue I was worrying about. I needed to laugh about it.

The joking continued in the coming weeks. She would call me to find out how things were going in my new relationship, whether I’d spoken to my parents and how other friends had reacted. Every time we spoke we would laugh over all the derogatory terms she could think of to describe me. Once she left a message on my answerphone using a put-on voice asking to speak to “a Mr C. Ferrett….”

Despite her best efforts to mask her voice (and the fact I recognised the number) it wasn’t until I called her back to discover the “C” stood for “Chutney”. Yes. Not only was I (technically) a fudge-packer but I could also be referred to as a “Chutney Ferrett”. It made me laugh. And laughing when I came out was the best way of dealing what was quite possibly the most traumatic process I’ve ever been through.

It almost certainly wouldn’t have helped to have Gareth McLean taking my friend (or me for that matter) to task over the use of language because it might be deemed homophobic.

Gareth Horne and James Corden are certainly not guilty of creating characters or script which might be seen as homophobic (just look at the latest clip on the YouTube which shows the camp and effeminate character Tim Goodall taking on an equally stereotypical character who has been taunting him as a “batty boy” – it’s the gay character who comes out on top – please forgive the pun).

If they’re guilty of anything, it’s only for having written and performed something which is largely unsuccessful. The gay joke is fine – acceptable – but the finished product doesn’t make me laugh out loud especially (although interestingly I’m finding myself laugh a lot at this character possibly because of his unfeasibly white teeth). It’s just duff material. They’re not the first nor will they be the last comedy duo to have turned out some duff material, and as much as I don’t want to do this (I’m not a big fan anyway) I’m prepared to forgive them for that.

Does perceived homophobic comedy increase the chances or provide motivation for a homphobic attack? I find it difficult to believe there will ever come a time when attacks on gay men will stop by narrow-minded crazed individuals who failed at the well-adjustment classes most of us attended at some point in our lives. I’m sure as hell certain that banning words or comedy characters won’t make a difference either. What might help is stopping ourselves from leaping on the bandwagon marked “Crying Wolves”.

  1. You’re gay? Oh.



  2. Seriously, I would have argued that comedians were making fun of the gay stereotype, as opposed to gay people. There is a difference.

    Of course, easier said than done. The next time a Chinese comedian does a fakey “ahhh-sooo” I’ll still wince internally. And quite possibly externally too. But who said comedy didn’t involve wincing as well as mincing? (boom! tish! etc.)

    (And yes, that was a terrible, possibly homophobic pun. But that’s the trouble with comedians and wannabe-comedians, they see the joke. And then they go for it without realising the consequences)

  3. vivieny permalink

    It is difficult, isn’t it, with the soap box brigade. Sometimes I wonder about their home lives (probably best not to though). And sometimes I think we all have the capacity to fall in love with other people, who may be the same sex as us, or not, or black or disabled or whatever – they’re just other people, for goodness sake. I do think it’s a shame when people hide behind stereotypes to their own detriment, or see the stereotype and not the person.

  4. I completely agree wih what you say:

    And I hate to say but yes, I do know friends like Tim Goodall ha ha.


    Antony x

  5. Matthew permalink

    Totally agree. The most funny and ‘offensive’ names for gay men I’ve heard have come from gay friends of mine. ‘Chutney Ferret’ being the most hilarious. There’s nothing new about minorities reclaiming derogatory names for their own to take the sting out of them. Words can hurt, but it is how they’re said. If something is said with venom, it is wrong. But a gay stereotype in a comedy is harmless. God, if I got offended every time a gay friend called me a “breeder”, I’d be miserable 50% of the time.

    The best thing about folks on soap boxes is you can knock them off.

    So…well said….you raving turd burglar! 🙂

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