Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Queer jokes for a straight crowd

Are they laughing with us — or against us?

HANDS DOWN. Garth Merkeley (seated, top left) of comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action figures that gay comics like him have the best defence when it comes to gay jokes. "Minority groups can use their minority status to make fun of themselves." Credit: photo by April Dawn Plett

This weekend, thousands of queers across the country will share the same experience.
No, not Pride.
We’ll sit in cinemas, surround ourselves with straight people, and laugh at a straight guy making jokes about … us.
Does that make you uncomfortable?
Ryan Paulson, the creator of a Winnipeg Fringe Festival play called I’m Uncomfortable, notices that mainstream audiences often laugh loudest at gay jokes. For instance: His joke about the publicity shot he hands out. Apparently, the photo makes him look like a lesbian. (You can judge for yourself by watching this YouTube clip.)
Paulson, who’s straight, is pretty sure that when audiences laugh at the joke, they’re laughing at him. But, he says, “there’s no denying it trades on a stereotype.”
Garth Merkeley, a gay comedian whose ensemble show Hands Down premieres next week at the same festival as Paulson’s, takes advantage of the nervous energy created by gender-bending jokes.
“A lot of the time,” says Merkeley, a member of sketch comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action, “you can add to the laugh and make it a bigger joke.”
But when it comes to making jokes about queers — especially if you’re a straight comedian — how far can you go before you’ve gone too far?

A couple of weeks ago, one of Winnipeg’s most popular stand-up comics, Al Rae, performed at the city’s Gas Station Theatre.
Reminiscing about the iconic Farrah Fawcett poster he had on his bedroom wall as a teen, Rae quipped, “I looked at it and desperately tried to feel attracted to her.”
That punchline got the biggest laugh of the night.
Gay jokes, says Rae, are like Josef Stalin at the Politburo. “You don’t want to be the last one to laugh,” he says. “People might think you’re queer.”
But straight guy Rae only takes advantage of gay jokes in front of certain crowds. If it’s a liberal audience like the one at the Gas Station, he’ll go for it. But if he’s performing at a suburban comedy club or a small-town bar, he’ll often hold back.
“I worry I’m buying at a high cost and people are laughing for the wrong reasons,” he says. But no matter who’s in the crowd, “you can do some pretty offensive shit in front of a mainstream audience before they turn on you.”
And, Rae adds, they’ll turn a lot quicker against race jokes than gay jokes.
“I’m still surprised how much homophobia is tolerated,” Rae says.
When Paulson makes gay jokes, he tries to turn them on himself — or his straight family members.
In I’m Uncomfortable, he recounts the time his Pentecostal dad came up from rural Wisconsin to visit him in New York City.
When Paulson’s gay roommate made a crack about coming out of the closet, Paulson’s dad innocently said, “Yeah, I got stuck in the garage once.”
Paulson figures that gay jokes get big laughs because they’re more unique. “Making a straight joke is so accepted,” he says. “But most people don’t hear gay jokes.”
Paulson thinks it might be easier for him to make a gay joke in front of a straight audience, since the crowd is more likely to identify with him and thus feel more comfortable laughing. “It would be an interesting experiment,” he says, “to see the same joke told by a straight comedian and a gay comedian.”
Garth Merkeley of Hands Down says he’s pretty comfortable when straight comedians take on gays. “As long as it’s in the spirit of casual ribbing,” he says.
Besides, he figures that gay comics like him have the best defence when it comes to gay jokes. “Minority groups can use their minority status to make fun of themselves.”
In the past, Hot Thespian Action hasn’t taken great advantage of the fact that two if its five members are gay. But Merkeley promises that, with Hands Down, that’s about to change.
The Winnipeg Fringe Festival runs from Jul 15 to 26 and boasts at least seven other shows with cool queer content: Altar Boyz, Moving Along, Stop Kiss, Zombie Prom, Brazil Nuts, Don’t Make Fun of Jesus and The Importance of Being Earnest. For program highlights, check out