Monday 27 January 2020

This musical goes beyond the cringe with the gay jokes

Good comedy is about skewering the audience, and being gay should not be a punchline, writes Donal Lynch

‘Copper Face Jacks: The Musical’ where ‘zillions of culchie-jackeen gags go down a storm’. Picture:Arthur Carron/Julien Behal Photography
‘Copper Face Jacks: The Musical’ where ‘zillions of culchie-jackeen gags go down a storm’. Picture:Arthur Carron/Julien Behal Photography
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

People in Ireland love to laugh, the comedian Kevin Hart once said, before adding that we also love broad comedy.

Considering Hart has been credited with bringing gay panic jokes back to Hollywood this might have been considered the type of praise that should worry us, but a quick glance back at the biggest hits of the last decade confirms the truth of his statement.

From Mrs Brown's Boys to Mario Rosenstock, our biggest comedy successes have tended to lean heavily on caricature and physical humour. Broad is where the bucks are.

So you can hardly blame Paul Howard - he of Ross O'Carroll-Kelly fame - for broadly ladling on the cheese and trampling over political correctness for his latest creation, Copper Face Jacks: The Musical.

It features a running joke about dolphin rape, a promiscuous Conor McGregor clone who thinks culchies speak a foreign language (which, to be fair, they mostly do in the show - a sort of Darby O'Gill patois), and humourless feminists who "invented" the idea of the female orgasm.

Howard definitely knows his audience - the zillions of culchie-jackeen gags go down a storm. The show has been one of the hits of the summer.

All of which is, in most senses, deserved - it is well made and acted, with a great central performance from Johnny Ward.

But a pair of scenes in which two of the main characters come out (both have long power-ballad choruses which go "I am gay, and the GAA'') exhaust the cringe muscle. One of the characters is a little camp too and that's good for another belly laugh.

Only in Ireland could you get gay jokes in a musical, you might think, but the crowd eat it up. On a sweltering weekday night there is a standing ovation.

Which is probably fine if we think the only measure of comedy is: does it make people laugh?

To some, however, another test is who is being laughed at. If it's the powerful mocking the weak, the insider ribbing the outsider, it can seem condescending or even, after a time, offensive.

Your loveable cliches are someone else's ready-made playground taunts.

That's why, for instance, so many people who loved The Office were a little iffy about Derek - in which Ricky Gervais, who has previous for ''comically'' using the word ''mong'', takes the mick out of a man with intellectual disabilities.

That's why we also look back a little squeamishly on Little Britain, with its homosexuality-as-punchline - ''The Only Gay In the Village'' was the tooth-grindingly annoying moniker assigned to every gay man who came out in those years. That's why the makers of The Simpsons have recently had to rethink the character of Apu - who was Indian-as-punchline - and why a documentary has been made on the apparent racism inherent in the character. And it's why Howard's famous caricature of a rich southside rugby boy seems a lot more pointed and timeless than his sketchy piss-take of a country guard coming out. One is skewering privilege, the other is mocking vulnerability.

The idea of that being gay is itself inherently funny crops up everywhere. From Golden Globes skits to the "comical" kisses that talk show hosts give their male guests, the fact that a guy might like guys is a self-contained gag. And the funniest gags of all are camp men, especially those trying to hide their flamboyance.

But, the lighten-up brigade might say, we've had a marriage referendum (also referenced in Coppers: The Musical), and you all voted for it. We have a gay Taoiseach. We have a drag queen who is a national figure. So surely we've earned the right to laugh at, or make, a toothless gay joke or two without having people sniffing about tasteful they are.

Again we have to be careful with this way of thinking. Americans didn't all get the right to say the N word or make black jokes after Obama was elected - it was still just Chris Rock. And jokes written by people with no experience of the thing they're sending up tend to be clumsy and tame.

Perhaps crucially they are also safe and condescending because they are by definition about someone else, never the listener and the speaker. They are on the level of ''a man walks into a bar…'' Or a gay man singing: "I am gaaaaaaay."

The ironic thing is that there would be ample fodder for the real gay musical story of Coppers, which in its heyday was a twilight zone of closeted energy and desecration of GAA jerseys. There was always a sense there that even straight people were kind of cruising, which might have been the first sign that gay people were taking over.

In the noughties a current of surreptitious glances moved through the club for those who could spot them. And there could be a whole chorus line of guys who were biding their time until they broke away to the George, where the real high kicks broke out.

All of which might sound like a tall order to work into rhyming verse but if you can't have good gags about gay life in musical theatre, where can you have them?

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