I think about posts I want to write for a long time before I write them. Sometimes I think about them for so long I never actually post them (working on that). One occasional effect of this is that I hit on something that works well as a supplementary illustration of a post that I haven’t written yet.
For example, I’ve been following various debates on the clash between comedy and political correctness. There’s a strong resentment from many comedians over the idea that you can’t tell jokes about sensitive issues, when those jokes are often the funniest. I’ve always thought that those comedians are missing the point. The point is not that you can’t tell jokes about sensitive issues. You should. Often those are the topics that, for one reason or another, need to be joked about the most. The point is that a joke is still responsible for the message contained in it. It isn’t that you can’t tell jokes about LGBT people. It’s that if you tell a joke that boils down to, “ugh, gay, so gross,” you’re still responsible for spreading homophobia, and all the social consequences that come with that.
When I think about jokes about politically sensitive topics that are still socially responsible, most of the examples that come to mind also come from a highly politicized viewpoint. They are jokes about oppression that specifically target oppression. Those are awesome, but I don’t think comedians need to be out to make a big political statement in order to tell a good joke about a sensitive topic. Not every comedian wants to be Jon Stewart, and that’s all right.
Recently I got into the show 2 Broke Girls, which illustrates this point beautifully. It isn’t Orange is the New Black or anything else that is remotely trying to make a statement. It’s just two girls being broke and snarky. And, for some reason, they love queer jokes. I’ve yet to see an episode without at least one, and I’ve yet to find a single one offensive. The point of the joke, based on the six or so episodes I’ve seen, is never that gay people are weird or gross. In “And the ‘It’ Hole,” Max says to one character, “This is where I’d tip you with cash or offer you sex, but I’m kinda broke and you’re kinda gay, so much be nice.” Nothing bad about him is implied; it’s funny because Max is blunt. Gay people creep into their jokes less because there is something inherently funny about being gay, and more because they are part of everyday life on a show where everybody is snarky about everything. The gay jokes on 2 Broke Girls don’t make me feel oppressed; they make me feel normalized.
In the latest episode, “And the Life After Death,” they took that to a whole new level. Episode spoilers follow; my basic point has been made, and this part is just further illustration.
Caroline has just found out her nanny died. She goes to the funeral, assuming everyone will know who she is and be happy she came, only to find none of them have ever heard of her. The show does a beautiful job of making the dialog and situations humorous while the actual story is really quite poignant. Caroline was more or less abandoned by her biological mother, her nanny Antonia was the closest thing she had to a replacement. As her attempts to get people to remember her make her look more and more like a clueless, spoiled rich girl, the audience comes to realize that for Caroline, this is actually very serious. She’s being threatened by the possibility that her most meaningful childhood relationship was with someone who only saw her as a job.
Then, at the last minute, a woman comes up to her and says she knows who Caroline is, and not to worry, the biological family didn’t know who she was either. Turns out, she’s Antonia’s lover. Like the rest of the episode, the dialog is played for laughs, but what’s going on under the surface is serious. The whole emotional impact of the story relies on the audience understanding that, from Caroline’s perspective, Antonia was as emotionally significant as a mother, even if their relationship wasn’t recognized as such by outsiders. This sets us up to understand that, from Antonia’s perspective, her relationship with her lover was as significant as any marriage, even if it wasn’t recognized as such by the law or her family. When Antonia’s lover tells Caroline that Antonia loved her, treasured her, it is validated because it’s coming from someone who knew Antonia better than anyone else in that funeral. Without trying to be political, the scene beautifully validates queer relationships.
It also suggests that Caroline was important to Antonia because, just as Antonia was the closest thing Caroline had to a mother, Caroline was Antonia’s way of having a daughter. As someone who has needed to develop a family of choice to replace a mostly estranged family of blood, that scene was deeply meaningful to me personally. I’m almost crying writing about it. I’m sure their main priority was to make a funny story with a satisfying twist, and they succeeded, but the route they took was deeply respectful to queer experiences, and they deserve credit for that.