“I went out to dinner last night. I made a big mistake. I thought I was going to Outback Steakhouse but wound up at Brokeback Steakhouse. You don’t want to know what the special was.”
— Jay Leno, “The Tonight Show”
“Brokeback Mountain” was the most talked about film in this year’s Oscar race. The buzz generated both box office and public awareness, plenty of awards and noms and raised the profile of the gay community in mainstream America. But at what cost?
The film’s plot — two gay cowboys who struggle with their hidden sexuality — became fodder for latenight talkshow hosts and comedians of every race and gender. For many gays and lesbians, the exposure was worth the cheap shots.
“It’s better to be looked at than overlooked,” says lesbian comedian Kate Clinton. “Being included in mainstream humor is fine with me.”
GLAAD prexy Neil Giuiliano agrees: “Anytime a film or TV show crosses over into the national discussion, it’s going to be fodder for comics and the subject of satire. With all the buzz ‘Brokeback’ has received since December, I’d be more concerned if Jon Stewart and David Letterman weren’t talking about it at all. Much of the success of ‘Brokeback’ came about because people like Letterman and Howard Stern talked about how much they loved the film, yet they also joked about or satirized about it, because that’s their job.”
A GLAAD spokesperson says the org’s constituents, for the most part, didn’t object to the humor — though some jokes certainly crossed a line of decency: Some felt Leno, who had ‘Brokeback’ jokes in his “Tonight Show” monologue for dozens of nights, went overboard.
That’s not to say other hosts didn’t go to the well a bit too often as well. Steve O’Donnell, lead writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” says that “comedy writers are like binge drinkers”: While it was important for his staff to have fun with the subject matter, he never wants them to condemn a particular group.
“We wanted to treat it less like a parade of human sexuality and more pop culture,” says O’Donnell, who has written for both Letterman and Chris Rock. “We made some sort of stumbled attempt to get lighthearted entertainment out of it.”
Clinton was amazed that the film didn’t create more of a political stir, rather than just fodder for the comedy circuit.
“I was surprised there wasn’t more ‘Brokeback’ backlash, especially from people like Pat Robertson,” she muses. “Geez, SpongeBob SquarePants put him over the edge.”
“Brokeback” may have been a lightning rod because of its subject matter, but it’s far from the first film to be the target of comics. “Gigli” was a comic gold mine for months, and even box office champs such as “Star Wars” haven’t been immune to latenight frivolity.
Indeed, there’s no way to know for sure, but the “Brokeback” barrage of jokes might have played a part in the film not being voted best picture at the Oscars.
Regardless, now that the film has left theaters and heads to ancillary life, latenight hosts are back on the Paris Hilton/Britney Spears jokes-a-plenty wagon.
“My gut feeling is that the humor did as much harm as good,” says O’Donnell. “After all the joking and skits, the republic still stands.”