Can Gay Jokes Kill?
The boundaries of queer-minded comedy come up once again this fine Friday, thanks to a gay punch line and some politically-minded video editing.

We’ve addressed this topic in the past, specifically with regard to Sarah Silverman and the dearth of gay funny bones.

Today we turn our attention to a Canadian comedian named Harland Williams. (And, no, that’s not the wrong clip.)

Williams, whom you may remember from Half Baked and Big Money Hustla$, appeared on Conan O’Brien this week and delivered a fairly recognizable joke: Brits call cigarettes “fags” and it’s confusing for North Americans. Here’s the transcript:

Harland: You know what they call cigarettes?

Conan: What?

Harland: The British — they call them fags.

Conan: Right. That’s what they — yeah, that’s the term for cigarettes.

Harland: Yes. A guy in my class comes up and he goes, “Look mate, you think I can bum a fag?”

Conan: Right… (laughing)

Harland: I said, “I don’t know. Can you?”

Conan: All right… (laughing)

Harland: He’s like, “No mate! I’d like to smoke a fag.” And I said, “Yeah, I’d like to boil a couple of lesbians myself!”

We don’t recommend boiling the lesbians. They’re much, much better fried. Maybe broiled, but never, ever boiled.

We jest, of course, but the Good As You gays are “annoyed:” “…He positioned the punch in the affirmative voice, rather than as a glib question that puts a negative spin on the horror of “smoking fags” (‘What’s next, buddy — you gonna boil some lesbians?!’)” Everyone’s a critic!

It seems to us that the joke’s apex is more inflammatory in this video’s particular context: Ellen’s comments on Lawrence King’s death. The question thus shifts. It isn’t whether or not Williams qualifies as funny, but whether or not such jokes can be blamed for anti-gay violence. And we say “nay.”

A little adds up to a lot, yes, but a simple joke on late night television does far less damage than having politicians like Sally Kern running around. Or, even worse, Stacey Campfield, who attempted to prohibit “gay speak” in elementary schools. Williams’ comments on Conan are nothing more than a new take on an old joke. And, to be honest, we found it kind of funny.

Had Williams said, “I like to boil lesbians” or “I think you, the viewer, should go boil some lesbians,” that wouldn’t be funny. It would just be crazy!

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  • Judas

    By joking at fags, we are being demeaned. Demeaned is a step away from disenfranchised. Even more than we are already.

    It’s Middle America laughing away at fag jokes that perpetuates second class citizenship for gays – not the insane ramblings of extremists. As long as we are ridiculous enough or strange enough to laugh at, we will be fair game for discrimination.

  • Jeremy/G-A-Y

    First off ,Andrew, I think it’s a little disingenuous to make it sound as if we at Good As You were simply “annoyed.” In presenting the clip, we presented both sides of the issue and asked readers to give feedback about it.

    Secondly — Nobody is saying that this is the same thing as Kern. There is room to discuss both the overt and the benign forms of bias

  • CitizenGeek

    The joke wasn’t that funny, but I agree with Queerty: it’s not offensive, it doesn’t create the climate that killed Lawrence King. In fact, I think it’s a little unfair of G-A-Y to put that joke in the context of Lawrence’s death.

  • mikeoutwest

    The real crime here is that Harland Williams’ joke just wasn’t funny. Like, at all. Not because it was homophobic, but it was just kinda stupid. Look, even Conan kinda recoils in this “who the f*ck booked this douche?” sort of way. Unfortunately, Harland’s (really, Harland? Your parents named you Harland? Was your mom still kinda doped up from anesthetic and “Harland” just popped out? Whatever.)… right, Harland’s taste level and IQ are at about the same adolescent level. And, finally, if you’re going to go on a national late night comedy show, at least come up with some original jokes, buddy.

  • Jeremy/G-A-Y

    CitzienGeek: We didn’t put it in the context of Lawrence King, the Youtuber did. See, this is why accurate information and linking is so important!

  • Paul Raposo

    Harland Williams has a history of using anti-gay “jokes” and of not being funny–I’ve seen many of his TV appearances and his two one-man shows and they stink. Thank God for Canadian contant rules, otherwise he’d never be on TV. But he has made anti-gay jokes in the past, so that one ws just par for the course. And not surprisingly, abetted by O’Brian and his easy homophobia. Just once I’d love to see an out LGBTQ personality go on TV and ridicule straights.

  • sonofmaddy

    I think Ellen was on the something when she spoke about the slain boy. I too am sick and tired of gay panic jokes—from all the “Brokeback Mountain” cracks a few years ago, the daily “Family Guy” plot pranks on feminine men, and even the arch but regressive masculine hi-jinks of “Extras.” Young people, and even sensible adults, can be highly susceptible to this kind of thing, especially when they are constantly being bombarded with fear disguised as funny.

  • CitizenGeek

    Jeremy/G-A-Y: Ah, well then it’s unfair of Queerty to mislead me into thinking that G-A-Y was behind the video! :/

  • erik11

    Until we stop treating ourselves like Saints in the Catholic church, we will never reach “equalty.” Many older Gay friends are stuck in the repression of the 60’s and continue to act like that. This joke wasn’t offensive, and is no more egregious then a blonde joke or a helen keller joke or . Many jokes aren’t that funny to the protagonist. Big deal.

    Seriously, until we can make fun of ourselves, no one is gonna lighten up. If you think this encourages young people to make Gay (or Ghey) jokes, you are sadly mistaken. South Baptist Ministers and their minions are going to keep that going.

    It’s like a yapping dog…you react to its sound, and then you are teaching it that they have power over you…they simply yap and you come running. I think it best to simply ignore it, and take action when our CIVIL LIBERTIES are effected.

    Otherwise, let’s just be adult and above the emotional manipulation. Wait until the big stuff to get stirred up.

    My 2 cents.

  • Charley

    The effects are that it makes it OK to laugh at a segment of the population, us. Most of us have been laughed at our whole lives for being different, starting out in grammer school, whether we realize or want to admit it or not. It’s hurtful and getting to be very dangerous, combining comedy about us with hate from right wing religious fervor.

  • erik11

    You cannot stop people from making jokes…remember… freedom of speech. It’s MORE dangerous to start restricting our freedoms over sensibilities.

    And last time I checked, its still against the law to batter, to murder, to discriminate….

  • emb

    Yeah, the joke wasn’t funny even insofar as it made any sense. Still, it raises an interesting point: I think the tricky part is that some speech — while rightfully protected — creates an environment in which the cumulative effect is that the object of humor becomes dehumanized, and ultimately victimizable. I hate the slippery slope, but there we are: if it’s OK to make gay-panic jokes about Brokeback Mountain, the it’s ok to classify gay men as Those People Who Buttfuck. Then once we’ve classified a diverse population by a single characteristic, beating them up is not so unimaginable.

    We went through this with African Americans already, remember? As long as they could be portrayed in strict, one-dimensional stereotypes, it was ok to deny them equal rights. Today we’d be highly unlikely to hear a “comic” on Conan making an analogous “joke” about blacks.

    So it’s weirdly a serious issue, I think…

  • Andy Peters

    “The joke wasn’t that funny, but I agree with Queerty: it’s not offensive, it doesn’t create the climate that killed Lawrence King.”

    It may not create the climate but it can certainly add to it.

    I’m torn between what Ellen had to say and issues of freedom of speech. Making demeaning gay jokes is like making a big show of drinking a keg of beer around a guy who’s on the wagon. It has the potential to bring out the worst in him. The more rational parts of the country can think for themselves and say, “No rational person is going to boil a lesbian or inflict pain on a gay member of the community based on that joke.” But there are those–they’re usually the ones who try to imitate the stunts on JACKASS–who don’t see these statements as humor and all it does is add fuel to their hatred.

    I’m not sure if ending demeaning gay jokes will reach those people. I’m not sure anything can reach someone that stupid.

  • Countervail

    I thought Harlan was a big homo? No?

  • M Shane

    In the absense of any real humor, the “joke” has the sole impact of being sadistic. If there was some word play evoked from “smoke”:
    to. . .insead of “boil” it could be funny .

  • seitan-on-a-stick

    So, will we get a follow-up from GLAAD instead of Queerty editorials or is this just another “Shock” and “Awe” posting my the oft-innapropriate and naive Queertians? What would the Heterosexual Right-wing advertisers of this site think?

  • Robert

    This is a complex issue. We people approach this subject it is usually with vastly different perspectives. Those who do not perceive any offense in the comments Harland made usually support that position with one of two arguments:

    (1) “They’re just words/It’s just a joke” [“We need to be able to laugh at ourselves” is a variation on this argument]
    (2) “Freedom of speech”

    Personally, I don’t buy the second argument at all. As much as people rely on this concept, there are plenty of exceptions: speech that isn’t covered under the First Amendment. Truth in advertising: the First Amendment should have an asterisk next to it. Sexual harassment in the form of speech is not protected under the First Amendment. Indeed, you can be penalized, sued and prosecuted for this type of speech. The famous Supreme Court statement: “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” Threatening speech can get you arrested. Libelous speech results in monetary penalties.

    Conceptually, the First Amendment may protect all speech. In practice, freedom of speech is defined by its exceptions. Free speech is vague, and our society is still in the process of determining the boundaries and limits of speech. While policing speech is a horrific choice, allowing total freedom of expression is a dubious option. In such a situation, a woman may be subjected to sexist, denigrating language without protection.

    To the first argument, which flows nicely from this previous point: words are not just words. I can point to critical theorists, linguists, psycholinguists and psychologists that would make a strong, firm argument that words carry great significance (even if they are arbitrarily assigned). Language, as a general phenomenon, carries with it the cultural norms that build society.

    But, ignoring the vast breadth of work on language and its relationship to culture, there are plenty of practical examples. When you hear a song and a particular line or phrase strikes you in an emotional way, the words are carrying more than just phonetic expression. They mean something.

    If words were devoid of meaning or political significance, there wouldn’t be a movement in many marginalized groups to reclaim words: queer, queen, dyke, nigger, homo. [See: here for more examples].

    The fact that there is a strong movement across the board to reclaim words reveals the power dynamics involved in language. Words are anything but insignificant, since words are the primary means of communication between people. Even pictures and images are subject to words: we can’t interpret or express meaning without relying on words.

    This being said, context is vitally important. Words can be shaped by deliverance. Satire is, after all, inverting the expected. Harland failed to convince me that he was being satirical. His joke didn’t seem to be turning on its anti-gay sentiment.

    Sarah Silverman, however, is so extravagant and over-the-top that I can believe she is turning the joke on itself. Demeaning anti-gays in what appears to a demeaning of gays.

  • M Shane

    p.s.” boil’ doesn’t seem to get it., possibly “fricasse”.

  • fredo777

    Is it just me?

    The video wouldn’t work here or by watching it directly at The Tube.

  • fredo777

    Update: Never mind.

    It’s an issue with my browser.

  • M Shane

    Very good Robert, that makes the “joke ” a different animal; wouldn’t it then matter who was listening(another layer of context)?

  • kate

    First, I think that making fun of someone, or in this case a group of people, goes a long way to including them into society. I recently read an article about a polish sociologist in Britain reccommending that polish jokes become more common in order to integrate them more into the society. Personally, I think this is true. I know in social circles that sort chiding commraderie is very important.

    So the real question for me is what exactly consitutes a derogatory gay joke. In my opinion, I don’t think Harland’s was. The main comedic idea-not saying that it worked- was the humour that comes from a word meaning two things, and the fact that something entirely innocent, asking for a cigarette, becomes something sexualized and ridiculous. The punchline about boiling lesbians only works if you recognize that act as ludicrous. Just like the concept of smoking a fag, and yet that is part of the language in Britain. In America smoking a fag sounds weird and ridiculous, and yet they say and do just that all the time in the U.K. So Harland compared it to something that would also sound weird and ridiculous to the British-boiling a lesbian. Why would a joke inferring that cooking a gay person is a ridiculous concept incite someone to violence or hatred towards a gay person. Sorry i just don’t see it.

    I didn’t find it funny because the joke was obvious-everyone knows the double meaning of fag and cigarette. I like comedians who point out things i would never have thought of or noticed before, but that’s just me.

    I think when considering whether a joke is derogatory you have to consider just what it is that the comedian is making fun of, in this case it was language, not gay people.

  • Snoodle

    Not a funny joke, but unfair to have it portrayed that way…

  • Robert

    M Shane:

    It would matter who the audience for the joke was, but only in terms of consequence. It would alter the joke only by degree, not by nature.

    If the audience for a homophobic joke is a homophobic audience, is the joke still homophobic? Yes, I think so. It may not be directed AT a gay person, but it still reveals a mindset and attitude about gay people.

    Sally Kern used homophobic diatribes in a meeting. Did it only become offensive when a gay person heard it? Since the intended audience wasn’t all of America, is the rest of America still allowed to be offended and demand action?

  • Charley

    If it was just “jackass” comedy I would just laugh and let it pass. Well meaning straights (allies) will not defend us if it is OK to laugh at fag jokes. They just sit there and go along with the laughter. We need their support.

  • Dawster

    this particular joke wasn’t a good example. if you want a good example, check any of Jay Leno’s monologues.

    this was a bad edit… but ellen is completely right.

  • M Shane

    Yes, David, it would have to stop with the intended audience, otherwise you get into a problem with a potentially infinite digression of sorts & nonesense. I’m unfamiliar withSally Silverman, but realizing that gives the joke dimension.

  • kevwyn

    I wholeheartedly agree that my life and the person that I love needs to stop being the easy joke ripoff,, its not even a challenge anymore. If we jump into the wayback machine, all oppressed people had to endure(and still have to in many cases) being the poplular targets for little minds. Right now its our cross to bear and we need educate and work harder to break down the stereotypes of “mainstream” culture. Why can’t everyone move on from making jokes about gay people and make fun of people for thier looks like everyone else??? strike a pose gay power!!

  • hells kitchen guy

    Seems like a lot of drama for an innocuous joke.

  • wheatpup

    Speaking of this…I just heard a song today from Taylor Swift..she’s an 18 y.o. country star whose latest single “Picture To Burn” has the lyrics:
    “So go on and tell your friends that Im obsessive and crazy, that’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay”

    What’s up with that?

  • Thea

    It’s so easy for someone to poke fun at things they don’t understand, but it’s really quite simple. Gay people are born gay just like straight people are born straight.
    Let the people who have never committed a sin, cast the first stone.
    Then let the rest of us, laugh while we get out our glock 9’s and chase them down the street!

  • M Shane


    Correction, my above assesment is missing the point. I wasn’t thinking of the propriety and net effects of the joke when told to any audience by a bigoted person. It wouldn’t matter who it was being told to, if the person telling the joke had nefarious intent.

  • Somebody

    @erik11: Well, that’s not entirely effective. If you want to silence a yapping dog you should hit it.

Comments are closed.