When Universal Pictures altered the trailer for its upcoming Ron Howard-directed comedy The Dilemma to remove a joke about how “electric cars are gay,” it set off a miniature controversy about use of the word “gay” as a pejorative, especially in such an uncreative iteration as “electric cars are gay.” After all, maybe right now is not such a good time to be throwing that around, what with the entire country trying to convince gay teens not to kill themselves, because ostensibly one day they’ll get older and finally be in a place where calling something or someone “gay”—you know, “gay” like an electric car, which is gay somehow—isn’t an insult. Then again: free speech, fighting the specter of political correctness, etc.
Whether you saw the argument as a timely and important issue, or much ado over what is, let’s face it, a throwaway joke in a middlebrow Ron Howard film delivered by middlebrow actor Vince Vaughn that’s gotten more attention than it probably deserves due to its tangential connection to a timely and important issue, both Vaughn and now Howard have an altogether different take—that it’s a threat to comedy as we know it.
A couple of weeks ago, Vaughn issued a statement saying that jokes like “electric cars are gay” help to “bring us together” and “break tension” by joking about our differences, because gay people are just so tense these days. Damn, why are they so tense? Oh, right. Well anyway, over the weekend, Howard issued his own complementary statement in a very long, kind of preachy e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, essentially arguing that, even though gay people probably don't need any extra shit right now coming from a Ron Howard/Vince Vaughn pic of all places, if he allows himself to be “strong-armed” into changing the joke, it would be denying comedy’s right to be offensive as a means to provoking thought. And next thing you know: Orwellian police state, where laughter is verboten. In part:
THE DILEMMA is a comedy for grown-ups, not kids. It's true that the moment took on extra significance in light of some events that surrounded the release of the trailer and the studio made the decision to remove it from advertising, which I think was appropriate. I believe in sensitivity but not censorship. I feel that our film is taking additional heat as an emblem for many movies and TV shows that preceded it that have even more provocative characterizations and language. It is a slight moment in THE DILEMMA meant to demonstrate an aspect of our lead character's personality, and we never expected it to represent our intentions or the point of view of the movie or those of us who made it.
Fair enough. As we said before, the timeliness of the trailer—and the fact that it coincided with the “It Gets Better” campaign and some of the most fervent discussion about the bullying of gays this nation has ever had—undoubtedly contributed to the sensitivity with which it was received. And definitely there have been other movies and TV shows who have made “this is gay” jokes without Anderson Cooper calling them out. But then, perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to choose one to lead off your trailer, especially if you never expected it to represent your movie. Surely Vince Vaughn says something else Vince Vaughn-y in there.
Did you think it wasn't offensive? I don't strip my films of everything that I might personally find inappropriate. Comedy or drama, I'm always trying to make choices that stir the audience in all kinds of ways. This Ronny Valentine character can be offensive and inappropriate at times and those traits are fundamental to his personality and the way our story works.
Will comedy be neutered if everyone gets to complain about every potentially offensive joke in every comedy that's made? Anybody can complain about anything in our country. It's what I love about this place. I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film. But if storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and a provoker of thought.
Again, fair point, but keep in mind that this is all in defense of keeping the joke “electric cars are gay,” which only gets less funny the more you hear it. But perhaps the fact that it’s not funny is the point? Perhaps it’s an illustration that people who resort to using “gay” as a go-to punchline are part of a lazy, unfunny, slowly dying breed that should be mocked for their lack of creativity? Actually, in that sense, it is pretty thought-provoking. You’ve stirred us again, Ron Howard!