Jackie "Moms" Mabley

What Are You Laughing At?

LGBT+ comedians are enjoying enough success to offset the barrage of gay jokes that seek to demean. They have Paul Lynde and Jack "Moms" Mabley to thank.

Recently, country singer and star of the United States’ version of The Voice came under fire after homophobic tweets from 2010 and 2011 were dug up. Among the offensive tweets (which also targeted women and foreigners) was “Grown men who wear Chuck Taylor’s might as well write on their fore head (sic) ‘Cucumbers turn me on.'” Shelton immediately apologized for the tweets, explaining, “Everyone knows comedy has been a major part of my career and it’s always been out there for anyone to see. That said anyone that knows me also knows I have no tolerance for hate of any kind or form…”

While it’s not likely that many people were shocked that a redneck country singer (“Redneck Side of Me”, “Rebel- icious”) made homophobic comments, his explanation for his behavior raises the question of where the line in “comedy” is between that which is offensive and that which is amusing. Comedians have long made homosexuals the brunt of the joke, sometimes as a part of their act and often in other venues.

Eddie Murphy, Andrew Dice Clay, and Adam Corolla are a small sample of the comedians who have ridiculed gay men, usually referred to as “faggots” or “cocksuckers” in their acts, while former SNL star Victoria Jackson has been vocal in interviews about how much homosexuality disgusts her. Gay bashing is such a regular part of many black comedians’ stand-up that it led Nick Delmacy of CypherAvenue.com to conclude “For the most part, when you see ‘gay’ depicted in black comedy it’s seen as something disgusting, abnormal, hidden and kept on the ‘down low’.” (“The Brunt of the Joke: Black Comedy & Homophobia” 19 September 2013).

In fact, two comedians have actually threatened to kill their sons if they showed signs of homosexuality. Traci Morgan noted that his son “better talk to me like a man and not in a gay voice or I’ll pull out a knife and stab that little nigger to death”, while Jo Koy, best known from Chelsea Lately, said he would do the same if he found his son in bed with another man. There’s little doubt that these kind of threats cross the line into offensive.

Then there are comedians like Lisa Lampanelli, who regularly ridicules gays and lesbians. However, Lampanelli ridicules every demographic group equally, and she makes herself the brunt of the joke as frequently as she does others. For example, discussing the fact that Courtney Love gave her a lip-lock kiss after a celebrity roast, Lampanelli lamented, “I thought if I was ever in a lesbian relationship, I’d be the ugly one.” Lampanelli’s actions off-stage suggest that her humor isn’t born of actual animosity to the LGBT community, though. In 2011, she donated $50k to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, $1k for every member of the Westboro Baptist Church who showed up to protest her show (48 WBC members showed up).

Fortunately, a growing number of LGBT+ comedians are enjoying enough success to offset the barrage of gay jokes that seek to demean. Out lesbian Kate McKinnon is enjoying a banner year, with great reviews for her performance in Ghostbusters and an Emmy win for her work on Saturday Night Live. McKinnon is one of many lesbian comedians who have enjoyed success, including Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Judy Gold, and Wanda Sykes. Suzanne Westenhoefer was the first openly lesbian comic to appear on television, on a 1991 episode of Sally Jesse Raphael, followed by being the first gay comedian to have her or his own HBO comedy special.

Gay comedians have not enjoyed the same level of success. Generally, gay men succeed in comedy portrayals more than gaining notoriety for their stand up. Comic actors such as Stephen Fry and Mario Cantone are best known for their film and television roles. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t plenty of gay comedians working the circuit.

All of the LGBT comedians working today owe part of their careers to comedic giants who helped open doors for them. Paul Lynde didn’t do stand-up, but his flamboyant comic persona carried him through a successful career. During the early to mid-’60s, Lynde was best known for his portrayal of a frustrated father in both the Broadway and film versions of Bye Bye Birdie, singing the anthem for exasperated parents everywhere “What’s the Matter With Kids Today”, and for his portrayal of prankster Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. However, it was when he joined the game show The Hollywood Squares in 1966 that Lynde became a true American celebrity.

As the coveted “center square” on the show, Lynde was able to parlay his flaming personality into being a fan favorite. For those unfamiliar with the show, the idea was for contestants to play tic-tac-toe by calling on various celebrities seated in a giant tic-tac-toe grid. Celebrities were asked a question, which they answered, and contestants could claim the square as theirs if they could determine whether the celebrity answer was correct or not. Lynde quickly became known for his comedic responses and double-entendres. Frequently included in those responses were not-so-veiled references to homosexuality and his own sexual orientation, groundbreaking for the time in that not only were such things not discussed on television, they certainly weren’t embraced in the manner with which audiences seem to appreciate Lynde’s sense of humor. Among his more notable gay quips:

Q: In “The Wizard of Oz”, the Tin Man wanted a heart, and the Lion wanted courage. What did the Straw Man want?

Lynde: He wanted the Tin Man to notice him.

Q: What unusual thing do you do if you have something called “the gift of tongues”?

Lynde: I wouldn’t tell the grand jury. Why should I tell you?

A large aspect of Lynde’s humor was his tongue-in-cheek demeanor, which belied the fact he was gay:

Unfortunately, Lynde’s growing problem with alcoholism led to a decrease in roles outside of The Hollywood Squares, and he was arrested several times for public intoxication and confrontations with police. Reports were that Lynde was a bitter, mean drunk, hiring call boys and then treating them horrifically. Lynde died in 1982 of a heart attack, with rumors circulating that he had hired an escort for the night who fled the scene after his death and that Lynde was found with a bottle of poppers in his hand.

Far less controversial than Lynde was lesbian comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in either 1894 or 1897 (there is some question), Mabley began her career in show business at the age of 14, adopting her name from Jack Mabley, a fellow member of the vaudeville circuit and briefly her boyfriend. Years later, she recalled, “Jack was my first boyfriend. I was real uptight with him and he certainly was real uptight with me; you’d better believe. He took a lot off me and the least I could do was take his name.”

Mabley eventually became the first female comedian to land a gig at the esteemed Apollo Club, and eventually set the record for the most appearances there. Throughout her life, she appeared in a small number of films, but it was once she started appearing as a guest on talk and variety shows beginning in the ’60s that she became a household name, even scoring a top 40 hit with her remake of Dion’s “Abraham Martin and John” in 1969.

Mabley’s act was built around a false persona she created, an elderly black woman in a frumpy housedress who spoke about her lust for young black men. She also used her comedy to point out issues of bigotry in society, but in a much more subtle manner than fellow comedians such as Dick Gregory. Behind the scenes, though, Mabley was a class act who dressed eloquently and carried herself with dignity. She was also, despite her comic routines, a lesbian who frequently dressed as a man. Her sexuality was no secret to those who knew her well, and close friends eschewed the name “Moms Mabley” in favor of “Mr. Moms”. Despite having four children, she spent more time with girlfriends and gay friends than in heterosexual circles.

While the term “trailblazer” is often thrown at early performers, Moms Mabley truly fits the term. Her success helped blast open the door for a slew of young female comedians in the 1960s, including Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and Totie Fields. In 2013, Whoopi Goldberg made a documentary honoring Mabley’s legacy, Moms Mabley: I Got Something to Tell You, featuring some of comedy’s best paying tribute to her:

While Lynde and Mabley had to keep their sexual preferences under wraps to achieve success in a judgmental heterosexually-based society, they still managed to make show business more welcoming to LGBT comedians, allowing us today to enjoy the comedic stylings of Ellen Degeneres, Mo Rocca, Kate Clinton, Wanda Sykes, Samson McCormick, and, new to the scene, 63-year-old Julia Scotti, the trans comedian who was a hit on this past summer’s edition of America’s Got Talent:

Blake Shelton was born a year after Moms Mabley passed away, in 1976, the same year that Paul Lynde hosted a Halloween music-variety special. Undoubtedly, his upbringing in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma, taught him that making fun of gays and lesbians was acceptable, and it’s doubtful that he had much exposure to the talents of Lynde and Mabley. Perhaps if he had, he would have learned that comedy can be non-discriminatory and still be funny. While it’s certain that people will still use the LGBT community as fodder for hate-filled humor, the LGBT pioneers of yesteryear assure that we have an equal voice in the comedy conversation.