A couple of weeks ago, Cubby and I went to see Piff the Magic Dragon. Piff, a dragon-costumed magician with a deadpan sense of humor, is terrific. Half comedian and half trickster, he combines seemingly impossible feats of magic with a quick wit in a show that relies heavily on audience interaction.
He also has an assistant, a typically buxom Vegas showgirl named Jade, who is both helper and delightfully sarcastic comic foil.
At one point in the show, Piff called up a boy from the audience to participate in one of the tricks. Because Piff asked, we knew that the boy was 10. He was clearly excited to be there, and gamely participated in the skit, which among other things involved his face being pressed on multiple occasions into Jade’s ample cleavage. Every time this happened, it elicited howls of laughter from the audience. “Lucky kid!” a man behind us said. “Bet he’ll be thinking about this all week.”
As I said, I think Piff’s show is mostly brilliant. But this particular bit gave me pause, not only because of the boy’s age, but because of the assumptions underlying the audience’s approval. What boy wouldn’t like to have his face pressed in between a woman’s enormous breasts? Of course it’s exciting for him. Of course it’s something he’ll never forget.
Then, yesterday, we attended the Ohio Renaissance Festival. Like the Piff show, it was great fun. The performers clearly put a ton of work into what they do, and it’s mostly delightful. But during one show—a very loose reworking of the Hercules legend in which the titular character is a charming but stupid fellow called Jerkules—I was once again reminded of how people sometimes, well, just don’t get it.
In the show, written and performed by three gentlemen who call themselves Theater in the Ground, Jerkules is tasked with performing an errand for his father, Zeus. First, Zeus asks him whether or not he’s completed his other chores. “The Minotaur?” Zeus asks. “Beheaded!” Jerkules assures him. “And the Isle of Lesbos?” Zeus inquires. “Converted!” Jerkules crows, thrusting his crotch out and grinning hugely.
Truthfully, I think the joke was lost on a significant portion of the audience. But there was enough laughter to show that a lot of them got it and found it amusing. Now, I understand that the whole thing is supposed to be bawdy slapstick. After all, the action takes place in a literal mud pit that is supposed to be Zeus’s latrine. I get that Jerkules is, well, a jerk. And as with the Piff show, I appreciated the effort that went into the performance.
Again, though, I had to wonder if the creators had really thought about how that particular moment might come off to audience members who were, you know, not male and/or not heterosexual.
I pictured them in the writing room, throwing around potential bits. When someone suggested something about Jerkules turning the lesbians straight with his prodigious appendage, did anyone pause and suggest that it might not be the funniest thing? Or that it might actively hurt some of the people in their audience?
Notice that I don’t say offend some of the people in their audience. I understand comedy. And I think there’s a big difference between jokes that give people a poke and jokes that actively cause harm.
Do I think the boy who participated in Piff’s show was traumatized? Probably not. He seemed to take it in stride. But I don’t know. Maybe he was embarrassed. Maybe he wasn’t. But what if he was a gay kid, or a questioning kid? What if hearing an auditorium of people laugh at his situation reinforced fears he has about himself and his feelings?
Would that be worth the laughs? I don’t think so. Also, I don’t think people would have reacted the same way if the child had been a girl having her face thrust into a grown man’s crotch.
And what about women in the audience at the Jerkules show, women who might be victims of sexual assault, or queer women who came to the Renaissance Festival to have a good time, not to be reminded that there are people who think “lesbians just haven’t met the right penis” jokes are hysterical? Should the performers have considered them when crafting their show? Or was the fact that enough people laughed proof to them that they’d made the right choice?
A lot of the comedians from my youth, most recently Eddie Murphy, are now apologizing for their jokes that treated queer people, women, and other groups as punchlines. Do I think they need to? Actually, I don’t. I think those were different times, although I do appreciate the sentiment.
But I do wish people writing for current audiences would give a little more thought to what their words might do to the people who hear them. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author.