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It's Just a Joke?

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“It’s just a joke.”

This sentence is just as hard for me to hear now, as it was when I was in the 8th grade, when my gym teacher used it to excuse the bullying I was being subjected to. (You can read more about that here, if you’re so inclined.) Except today it’s not my gym teacher saying it; it’s a handful of you.

This is very personal to me, so it’s quite possible that this blog post will be a bit on the long side, but I think it’s important that the critics of our action yesterday understand exactly where it came from.

When we criticize comedy, or things of a comedic nature like certain advertising, as being anti-LGBT, I'm never surprised when people defend the offending material as being “just a joke” – one that GLAAD is too humorless to get.

And I understand that impulse, I really do. As someone who idolizes Andy Kaufmann and Bill Hicks the way others idolize John Lennon or Martin Scorsese, I want comedy to be sacred. Especially controversial comedy.

But just because something makes people laugh does not make it comedy. (There were lots of people laughing when I was shoved into a row of lockers or knocked down the stairs in junior high. I don’t think any of you would call that act, in and of itself, comedy.) That’s not to say there isn’t TRUE comedy to be found in our lives – or in the experiences of transgender people.

One of the funniest people I’ve ever known was Maddie Blaustein, a transgender woman  who was best known as the voice of ‘Meowth’ on the Pokemon cartoon. She had a stand-up routine about embracing her identity that revolved around her dead-on impression of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies, and she had a blazing wit, even when discussing the most difficult parts of her experience in private. But it was her decision to joke about that experience.

Several of you have written to me since our action went up last night, saying that Saturday Night Live is an “equal opportunity offender” and that we’re overreacting.  Yes, it’s true that SNL pokes fun at people of all shapes and sizes, races and genders, backgrounds and political leanings. But they poke fun at their behaviors or their mannerisms or the way they react in certain situations. They don’t poke fun at them just for being who they are. And this is such a crucial point to make that I actually sat down and transcribed this weekend’s “Estro-Maxx” sketch, including camera direction – and most importantly, the audience’s reaction.

I’m asking you to take a couple of minutes now to watch the video again, and this time follow along. (I’ve put the time code counting down the way it is on the NBC website, but I may be a few seconds off here or there.)

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1:55 (Bill Hader opens door.) “Let’s face it, life is pretty busy. Even when you’re not working, it seems like millions of other things (dog barks, dishes crash) suddenly come up.”

1:44 (closeup) So if you’re like me, a busy guy and a pre-op transsexual in his third month of hormone treatment (*slight laugh*) (camera widens to show Hader’s genitals perhaps tucked into pantyhose?) (*laugh*) you need an estrogen supplement that works for your schedule. Hey, there they are! (jiggles breasts into mirror) (*laugh*)

1:32 (Hader sitting cross-legged on bed, very feminine.) (*slight laugh*) You deserve to be in the body you want. But most hormone replacement therapies require you to take five estrogen supplements a day. Five! Who has time for that? (holds hands up, again very feminine) (*slight laugh*) But now there’s hope.

1:21 (holds up package) Once-daily Estro-Maxx. A single daily pill that gives you all the sex-changing hormones you need. 

1:14 (closeup of feet running on treadmill. Camera moves to closeup of Fred Armisen) Because I don’t want to spend my day taking estrogen, but I do want to become a woman. (camera moves to waist-up shot, shows Armisen running with breasts bouncing) (*big laugh*)

1:06 (figure in office chair spins around, revealing … I think Paul Brittain … with a full mustache, in a women’s business suit.) I’m the head of a major corporation. (*slight laugh*) I can’t spend all day increasing market share and turning my penis into a functional vagina (*laugh*)

0:58 (scene shifts to same man walking down a hallway with several co-workers) (*laugh*) But with once-daily Estro-Maxx, I can work while my estrogen does. (close up of man’s bottom in women’s pants.) (*laugh*)

0:54 (scientific-looking diagram of male body. Testicles are highlighted green.) Male Narrator: Once-daily Estro-Maxx does what you need. Grows your breasts, (breasts become highlighted in blue, start to enlarge) redistributes your body fat, (waist begins to slim and hips enlarge) and shrinks those pesky male genitals (testicles shrink, then fade away.) (*laugh*)

0:46 (wide-shot of character in pink women’s shirt and tight jeans walking through an airport security checkpoint. Camera shifts to closeup on character’s face as head spins around, revealing Bobby Moynihan with several days worth of stubble.) (*laugh*) I’m becoming the person I want to be. And without the hassle. Thanks, Estro-Maxx! (spins and walks through x-ray machine.)

0:37 (scene shifts to behind security guard Keenan Thompson as he’s viewing the X-Ray of Moynihan. Moynihan raises his arms. Camera moves to mid-shot of Thompson, whose eyes widen while viewing the screen, then he glances down at Moynihan’s torso.) (*big laugh*) (Thompson then smiles and waves Moynihan through the line.) Male Narrator: Once-Daily Estro-Maxx tackles gender reversal, so you can tackle life. (Thompson nods approvingly) (*laugh*)

0:29: (scene shifts to living room, where men from the previous scenes are all gathered around and drinking wine.)
Brittain: I need some syrup because my nipples are as big as silver-dollar pancakes. (*slight laugh – characters in scene laugh as well.*) 
Armisen: That’s amazing.
Hader, now wearing earrings: That’s Once-Daily Estro-Maxx. (*slight laugh*)

0:20 (camera shifts to group shot) Female narrator: Once-Daily Estro-Maxx is a powerful dose of estrogen (camera pans around group, showing the men appearing to tell stories, while gesturing at each other) (*laugh*)  If you do not wish to become a woman, you should not take Once-Daily Estro-Maxx. (Thompson shows up in his security guard uniform with a bottle of wine) (*big laugh*) Men taking estrogen may develop an interest in TLC’s ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ (Hader looks at camera, points at Thompson) (*laugh*)

0:07 (closeup of package on night stand) Male Narrator: Once-Daily Estro-Maxx; Nature got in your way – your estrogen pills shouldn’t. (*applause*)

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 Look at where the laughs are. Every single chuckle in this segment comes from the appearance of one of the sketch’s transgender characters – except for the laughs that Keenan Thompson’s character gets for being intrigued by one of the characters. From subtle things (Hader’s way of crossing his legs and wearing earrings) to very unsubtle (Thompson’s reaction) the laughs for this sketch all come from the idea that both the existence and approval of transgender people is absurd.

Here is the most important point. Replace Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Bobby Moynihan and Paul Brittain with Abby Elliot, Nasim Pedrad, Kristen Wiig and Vanessa Bayer.  Now reread all of the above lines as though they had been said by women.

Brittain’s laugh line would probably still  a laugh.  Maybe the Keenan Thompson bits would still get laughs, but not nearly as big. Why not? Because Keenan Thompson showing interest in a woman is not as “funny” as Keenan Thompson showing interest in a transgender woman.

Again – why not?

Answer that question to yourself, and you’ve hit upon the serious problem with this sketch.

From a pure script standpoint, this sketch is not at all anti-transgender and is actually rather respectful. In fact, some transgender people might agree with lines like “nature got in the way.” But the fact that the sketch gets all of its laughs from visual gags, aside from Brittain’s line, undermines that respect entirely. In fact, the respectful dialogue almost makes the sketch even worse, and here’s why.

By having the actors play these transgender characters more like straight men, this sketch is telegraphing how it really feels about transgender people; they’re actors, pretenders, and ‘men in dresses.’ Two of the characters even have obvious facial hair, one of whom has purposefully groomed his into a mustache. And by playing their appearances for laughs, the sketch is telling the audience that no matter how seriously transgender people take themselves, that doesn’t mean you have to take them seriously.

It’s not “just a joke,” and it’s not that GLAAD doesn’t “get the joke,” because there was not a single ‘joke’ in this entire sketch, unless you think the appearance or acceptance of a transgender person is funny.  SNL should be better than this.  

COMEDY should be better than this.

It’s truly a great thing to be able to laugh at yourself. And if the few of you who have written to me defending this sketch want to laugh at yourselves just for being who you are, go for it!  But that’s your decision to make, not anyone else’s.