A Gay Comedy That Doesn’t Rely On Stereotypes?

I was lucky enough to have my recent feature film Test (now streaming on Netflix ) play at several mainstream festivals — Berlin, Palm Springs, Seattle — in addition to dozens of wonderful LGBTQ festivals worldwide. And yes, I’m ashamed to admit I wanted that mainstream validation. I’m not always comfortable being “ghettoized” in the gay film festival slash distribution niche. It’s true those LGBTQ festivals can be the most amazing experiences. A sold-out audience at the Castro in SF? The Ford Amphitheater in LA on a summer night? You can’t beat either of those — thank you, Frameline and Outfest. 

Also, not insignificantly, in an era when plenty of very good not-gay indies make zero money and don’t get distribution at all, there remains an actual, viable market (still holding on!) for LGBTQ films, with real MGs (thank you, Wolfe Video) and foreign sales. Which is all to say: it’s good being gay in the micro indie world. (As for the major indie world, with budgets over 1M, that’s a different and more tortured story.)

So, with all that good fortune and real business going on — however micro it may be in the big industry picture — why am I still uncomfortable with so-called gay “ghettoization”?

I think it’s because: there are a lot of embarrassingly bad, pandering gay comedies out there, and to the chagrin of queer cinephiles they tend to draw the biggest crowds at queer festivals and tend to define those festivals in some important way. These bad comedies make me sad about the state of queer filmmaking. They make me sad on two levels: 1) they have no regard for images as such; the pictures only exist to capture what’s on the page; and 2) they rely on shrill gay stereotypes that feel more and more dated, as the extended Uncle Tom phase of our collective evolution refuses to die (thank you, network sitcoms). And when you combine those two things — tired stereotypes and perfunctory filmmaking — it’s a knockout punch of cringe-worthy shame, for this queer viewer at least.

It’s not as if bad comedies and bad filmmaking don’t exist at the “straight” festivals. Lord knows they do! Perhaps the straight equivalent is all those tortured rom-coms or three-act Screenwriting Lab cookie-cutter dramas that, also, seem to have ignored the fact that cinema is an audio-visual medium and not just a dialogue-driven, filmed “script” of dubious excellence but industry-sanctioned three-act structure (see my previous blog post on that subject). 

So, snark and hating aside, what’s my point? Well, I’m very happy that gay dramas seem to have turned the corner and are beginning to live up to the promise of early Queer Cinema. I’m thinking of movies like Weekend and Keep the Lights On and, yes, I hope and believe, my movie Test (now streaming on Netflix — did I mention that?). And now I’m wondering if — and hoping that — our queer comedies can grow up too. Isn’t it about time? Let’s have some Renoir or Mazursky or David O. Russell or Lena Dunham-inspired New Queer Comedies to join our New Queer Dramas at the Real Filmmaking Table. Stop pandering and start exploring. Enough with the skit-ideas out of a bad Glee episode. And if you are drawn to gay stereotypes, maybe explore them for a sense of verisimilitude and pathos and not always the cheap laugh? 

It’s hard to take sissies seriously, I know. That was one of my inspirations for Test: to show gay male dancers as real human beings and avoid all the easy “men in tights” sniggering. And it’s probably no accident that our greatest gay romance, Brokeback Mountain, takes place as far as possible from gay caricature and the urban milieu in which it thrives. But does it immediately follow that every gay comedy or dramedy that does engage those stereotypes has to devolve to the lowest common denominator of wisecracking so-called gay “wit”? I’m all for embracing the sissy in all of us and breaking down effeminaphobia. But I do think we have to examine carefully our cynical tendencies — as a gay/queer culture that wants to make money, or at least make a living — to cash in on the expected and deliver just another shuck and jive, another sissy minstrel show.

That’s point one, the stereotypes. Point two: the quality of the filmmaking. In the mainstream, it’s pretty common knowledge that comedy has always been less “cinematic” in general than drama. Bright lighting, simple composition, straightforward editing, and an uncomplicated toneless-tone are the hallmarks of mainstream comedy. That mode, when done well, can showcase brilliant material in a simple way (Bridesmaids, et al). But that toneless tone is deceptively simple. It is an industrial product that costs multiple millions to deliver. Don’t try to imitate it on a shoestring. The whole point is: it’s expensive, even if it doesn’t look like it is.

But comedy doesn’t have to have that flat, generic look and feel. There have always been exceptions, movies that are both funny and also count as cinema in some important sense: from Keaton/Chaplin to Paul Mazursky to (some) Woody Allen to indie directors like Greg Mottola, Noah Baumbach, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. And the good news about “cinematic cinema” is that it’s not necessarily expensive. It’s a common misconception that down-and-dirty guerrilla filmmaking must look rough. On the contrary, this is where you can be bold: with the look, sound and feel of your film. 

So: a call to arms! Let’s have some gay comedies that a) explore multi-dimensional characters with real depth and nuance, no matter how typically “masculine” or “feminine” they may be on the surface; and 2) some gay comedies that respect cinema as such and don’t see it merely as a means to the end of filming your screenplay. As gay men especially, we have a complicated history when it comes to our court jester function of making ‘em laugh. Everyone loves to laugh. But if we want to make grown-up comedies, I think we have to look carefully at what lies underneath that gay impulse. Let’s keep making ‘em laugh, but let’s do it a little more seriously.

As for the LGBTQ festivals that have been so important to my career and given me so much pleasure and emotion: I respect what they do and sympathize with their plight. They need to sell tickets and a certain kind of film still draws them in, even if it ultimately disappoints as much as it rewards. Luckily for us, the people who run those festivals are very smart, and they know and understand movies. If you make a good movie – comedy or drama – they will program it. If they program it, you may sell it. Let’s keep that market alive and growing, with new and fresh films and not just more of the same.