Comedy’s fundamental strategy is that of misdirection. It sets you up for one thing, and — pop! –gives you another. In very direct humor, the moment of revelation, the punch line, can be an authentic surprise: crossing the street with a winning lottery ticket, a man is hit by a car. Or, in more reflexive humor, it can be based on the auditor’s knowledge of other jokes with the same set-up: the chicken crosses the road to get to the other side. Or the punch line can be so simplistically ironic that one wonders how it can possibly suffice: the aristocrats! (This last is the subject of a documentary that penetrates joke culture, revealing another thing: that the teller’s unique charisma has everything to do with the impression a joke makes.) The most critically successful humor of late conducts multiple grades of social observation into wry, overloaded tableaux, always with an overmatched bumbler at the center: David Brent, Larry Sanders, Larry David, and their daddy, Homer J. Simpson.
When we come to mainstream American film comedy, however, we find a different model. Movie comedy has to be pitched at a broad audience that is demographically identified to average out to a post-adolescent male. To find a common denominator amongst that audience, screenwriters tread the line between surprise and disgust. Perhaps the inaugural moment of the current epoch in comedy was Cameron Diaz’s mistakenly applying semen instead of gel to her hair in the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary. This episode has all the ingredients of adolescent anxiety dreams: bodies and bodily fluids, combined all wrong; the danger of the intimate other; the safety of retreating to laughter and to one’s “buddies.” It is not hard to see in these fantasias the opposite number to the romantic comedy, which performs many of the same functions from a differently gendered perspective. In any case, this strand of comedy provides a kind of socialization, offering reassuring camaraderie and drawing (by crossing) the boundaries of etiquette for easily embarrassed young males. The humor, then, is a disarming disguise under which threatening topics can be unveiled – perhaps primary among them, male love. It is homosocial comedy.
Twenty years ago, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Fully readable today, the book’s analytic clarity made it a touchstone for emergent scholarly inquiries into the social histories of the concepts of gender and sexuality. In her study of Anglo-American masculinity, Sedgwick argues that acceptable heterosexuality is defined, in our culture, against the abject state of homosexuality, with the corollary that whole sets of attitudes, behaviors, and mannerisms exist to reroute forbidden male affection through distancing mechanisms: the shared joy and pain of spectator sports, for instance. Most importantly, for Sedgwick, male homosocial desire is divided from erotic desire, which is homosexual and thus beyond a boundary. (It should be stressed here that Sedgwick does not schematically read all male affection as repressed sexual desire; rather, she holds that cultures define differently what counts as sexuality–as a glance at, say, two Indian men walking down the street holding hands reveals.) Paradoxically, then, much male bonding takes place in nominal relation to women. Talking about women, how to pick them up, what to do when women do this or that thing, boasting of prowess with women: these forms of male bonding reroute what is risky and precarious, male friendship and affection, into a comfortably heterosexual discourse. The consequence of this, unfortunately, is to render women in much male conversation mere objects to be regarded, discussed, frightened of, and obsessed with, from the safe distance of the proverbial frat house.
Such a line of thinking explains much about the fixations of contemporary comedy. Beer commercials, for instance, almost invariably proceed from the axiom: beer and friends reliable, women unreliable. (I would guess that promoting repressed male friendship, which takes an awful lot of beer to lubricate, makes a much better marketing tactic for Anheuser-Busch than promoting heterosexual dating and its two glasses of wine.) Similarly, the film Old School, along with many other homosocial comedies, has as its premise the escape from domesticity, conformity, and women who either suffocate or humiliate, back to a frat house and the alibi of alcohol. When Will Ferrell promises his wife he won’t drink, takes four or five hits from a beer bong, streaks naked down the streets, and finally suffers the humiliation of being driven home by his wife and three female friends (no doubt on their way back from a “rom-com” where they learned to recognize their true Mr. Darcy), the whole thing plays as a cautionary tale on the limits on male erotics and the danger of subverting domestic conformity. Like so many of the films featuring the unofficial company of Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Vince Vaughan, Old School generates humor out of the misdirected shock of hearing forbidden male affection speak its name.
But our culture has changed quite a bit since 1985, the year of Sedgwick’s book. Love does speak its name much more freely now, and the issue for these comedies is not exactly to guard the citadel of patriarchy from queer and possibly pleasant invaders. Instead, I think the constant use of gay themes to generate comedy bespeaks a certain kind of progress, when compared to the eighties’ repressive “buddy pictures,” for which the surfacing of such desires would represent a huge crisis, or the pathological view of alternative genderings on view in films like The Silence of the Lambs or Deliverance. A current beer commercial shows a regular guy amongst superheroes, who are asking him if he has any powers that would allow him to join the crew. He shrugs, then turns his shoe into a Heineken, delighting all, and getting a meaningful glance from a spandex-clad Superwoman. The commercial’s final shot, though, is of a Batman and Robin-like duo, the dom calling out to the beer-shoe guy, “You can room with me!,” while the Robin figure’s face registers shock and hurt. Gay allusions in a beer ad, usually the locus classicus of enforced homosociality? A sort of progress, I suppose, though note it still takes place in proximity to an objectified woman.
The best current example of this outing of subtexts has been made by the on-the-surface classically homosocial film Wedding Crashers. Ostensibly about two aging rakes’ learning to give up the thrill of the chase and substitute real love, the film’s psychic energies are much more concentrated on the de facto marriage of the leads, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan. In the first scene, the two divorce lawyers (interesting career choice, huh?) witness a spat between a married couple adjudicating their divorce. In the heat of battle, the wife snarls “White trash! Hillbilly!” before the two learn to compromise and part as friends. Late in the film, their friendship in tatters, Vaughan’s character tells his romantically disconsolate friend that he is getting married. Wilson looks at him, anger building, before letting slip the Freudian: “White trash! Hillbilly!” They make up and Wilson later apologizes to Vaughan for the insults, saying “I don’t even know where that came from!” But we do, if we’ve been paying attention. Their friendship is not dissimilar to a marriage, the film is letting us know, remarkably unthreatened by the homoerotic overtones of such a metaphor.
Max Weber once wrote that cultural reorientations are often sparked by charismatic individuals. If so, Vince Vaughan is that individual. Fearlessly displaying the neuroses underlying his Machiavellian player-tactics, Vaughan spends the movie being humiliated and finding it’s not so bad, while effortlessly keeping his status as the most engaging line-deliverer in American comedy intact. At one point, he is tied to a bed and endures (if not responds to–after all, this is still the mainstream) advances by his fiancee’s gay brother. Instead of being violently repudiated, that brother is later a groomsman at Vaughan’s wedding. If these somewhat generic comedies function as a barometer of our culture’s slowly reorienting mainstream attitudes, then the lightness with which Wedding Crashers is able to play with, instead of police, male affection is a sign of encroaching relaxation. Although women in the film are predictably given not much to do, if indeed it’s becoming more possible for men to express themselves to themselves, maybe we owe Vince Vaughan a beer.
Note: My apologies to S.Z. for the title.
P.S. Regarding the U.S. Open final: A tip of the cap to the majestic Swiss, but my favorite pugilist deserved to win. Lance Armstrong works harder than any other cyclist, and is rewarded by total supremacy. More courageously, Andre Agassi works harder than any other despite the heartbreak of losing the biggest matches. The victory he covets, and the reason he still plays, is to beat the best player in the world, be it Sampras or Federer, in a match of ultimate consequence. That is why he runs hills, lifts weights, endures unanesthetized nine-minute injections to his sciatic nerve. Sadly, he was denied for the fourth time in Flushing Meadows. If there were gods, they would have sped him to victory at one set all, 4-2, 30-love. But there are no gods, only Agassi, doing what he can.