“The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.”
There’s a famous story about Truman Capote hanging out in a bar in the Florida Keys in the 1970s when a woman, set at a queer zigzag by booze and poor impulse control, approached his table, lifted up her shirt, held out an eyebrow pencil and asked him to sign her navel. Motivated by the desire to be left alone so that he could continue his conversation with Tennessee Williams, he acquiesced to the woman’s request and spelled out his name in an ellipse around her bellybutton, writing all 12 letters as if they were numbers drawn on the face of a clock. Unaware that he had committed his autograph to flesh in clear view of the interloper’s perturbed and equally inebriated husband, no sooner had Capote watched the woman walk away than he found himself looking up at her incensed spouse who had returned to the table with his wife’s eyebrow pencil, his eyes full of venom and his body language replete with expletives.
There was, by now, complete silence in the bar, the man having made no secret of his outrage as he strutted across the room, his apparent jealousy inspiring the crowd to anticipate if not fisticuffs than at least the wretched sound of what passers-by outside might mistake for the skinning of an un-anesthetized chinchilla. “Since you’re autographing things,” the man growled while unzipping his fly, reaching in and hauling out his penis, “why don’t you autograph this?”
Speaking slowly and turning the syllables over in his mouth as if to savor the flavor of his own tongue, Capote looked up at the guy and lisped lazily before a rapt audience, “I don’t know if I can autograph it, but perhaps I can initial it.”
* * *
I first heard that story when I was 15, right around the time when I discovered that I was gay. At least I thought I was. This was back before I figured out that what I really was, was just sexually convivial, self-obsessed and so contemptuous of propriety that I would’ve grown a middle finger out of the middle of my forehead had I been able to, just to avoid being like all the ticky-tacky robots surrounding me, smoothing their hair and testing the stench of their breath against the palm of their hand, all the while wondering whether Jesus wanted them as a moonbeam or a buttercup. Being gay was what my physiology chose to do instead of chain-smoking or shoplifting. It was an expression of nonconformity that had less to do with some deep-seated urge to suddenly proclaim my affection for one type of sex over another and more to do with my desire to lodge a formal protest against convention. I hated the idea that heterosexuality was perhaps the most widely relied upon yardstick with which society measured normalcy, as if comparing straight sex to gay sex was somehow dissimilar to comparing pancakes to waffles and that declaring a lifelong allegiance to the yumminess of one while simultaneously decrying the putridness of the other was somehow akin to a moral act.
Equally infuriating was the presumed courageousness with which straight society typically infused its anti-gay bigotry, as if courage, like allegiance, was not a morally neutral virtue. After all, it is seldom the courage to be principled and civilized that keeps you alive on the battlefield, but rather it is the courage to be ruthless and cutthroat and as far from your empathetic center as possible. Of course, if that is what courage is, then what does that say about cowardice, particularly the cowardice of those who wholeheartedly embrace a prejudice with all the incuriosity of any group that prefers to stay in line and follow the leader as compared to those who might prefer to question the wisdom of forming the line in the first place, and then confuse the sensation of moving forward with advancing? Doesn’t the physics of human morality insist that below the neutrality of courage there exists something like purposeful wretchedness and willful ignorance?
I was determined to be gay, even if I had to sleep with other guys to do it, because, just as it was with racism and sexism, homophobia was not founded in reason so it could not be destroyed by logic. In fact, to merely talk about why it might be wrong to hate gay people made discrimination against homosexuals little more than a matter of opinion, no more substantive than announcing a dislike for argyle or Mexican food or dogs in sunglasses. It was for that reason that I believed homosexual affection had to be actively and deliberately demonstrated in venues where it was deemed most contemptible. Fags, I believed, needed to have the sensationalism of their lifestyle made mundane by the sort of repetitive and monotonous public display that straight society used to render gay relationships so full of voodoo in the first place.
Ironic that a mass movement predicated on the appeal of sodomy would be so incendiary to so many people who live their lives with their heads up their asses.
* * *
What worried me most about suddenly wanting to have sex with other boys was not the emotional and physical abuse that decent society required I either experience or worry about experiencing, but rather it was the immediate acceptance that I predicted my mother would offer upon seeing me step out of the closet. After all, here was a woman who owned a three-legged dog named Bleu, a table lamp full of living sea horses, a green dwarf parrot that ate nothing but fried chicken and peanut butter, and a closet full of wigs, water pistols and rubber hands; plus, she had the largest collection of orphaned heads lifted from every puzzle in every pediatrician’s office that she’d ever set foot into. How do you shock somebody like that and establish yourself as a rebellious personality? How do you not feel like just another benign eccentricity with all the cultural significance of a ceramic Easter Bunny that poops M&M’s or a roll of black toilet paper or a set of plastic hillbilly teeth?
Here’s how I imagined it going down:
INT. MR. FISH’S PARENTS’ DINING ROOM—NIGHT
MR. FISH, his MOM and his STEPDAD are having dinner together at the family table. It is 1980 and the house is completely surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of miles of New Jersey. There is silence except for the sound of clinking silverware while everyone eats. MR. FISH stops eating.
Mom, Dad, I think I might be gay.
Would you please pass the ketchup?
The ketchup, dear. He wants the ketchup.
He said that he thinks he might be gay!
Isn’t that what you said?!
Give me the ketchup first and I’ll tell you.
My hot dog’s getting cold.
You would know, wouldn’t you, you
goddamn fruit! If I see you touch that hot
dog again I’ll slap your face!
Mrs. Leviticus has a gay nephew named
Guy Saliva. She says that he’s so oversexed
that after he smokes a cigar he smokes a
How do you know that it’s being gay, son,
and not something like an iron deficiency?
I take a multivitamin.
Maybe there isn’t enough iron in it. Is it
shaped like a cartoon character?
Leave me alone!
Maybe you need less iron and a goddamn
kick in the head!
Mom, will you please pass me the ketchup?
When did all this gay nonsense first pop into
your pea brain, anyway?
When I was old enough to lick men’s
underwear ads into soggy holes in the Sears
Maybe you’re really a stamp collector.
If you don’t pass me the ketchup soon I’m
going to have to sit on my hot dog to keep it
You’d love that, wouldn’t you?
Pass me the goddamn ketchup!
Motherfucking, dear. Not
goddamn. Remember the lesson of
Jesus on the motherfucking cross.
I’m gay! Gay gay gay gay gay gay gay!
I just don’t see how you could be so sure.
I want a big hairy guy to fuck me up the ass
and then I want to watch television with him
afterward and play footsies while our balls
You’re not gay. You just need a library card.
The c-a-t-s-u-p spelling of ketchup makes
me think of cats. Isn’t that weird?
How could you be gay? You grew up
wearing speedboat pajamas! I wanted you to
be a Marine!
And there aren’t any gay Marines? Come on,
Mrs. Leviticus’ first husband was a Navy
SEAL who got slaughtered for his pelt. She
says that she wasn’t surprised, that his pelt
was why she married him. That and the fact
that he could play “Pop Goes the Weasel” on
a row of little horns using just his mouth.
OK, if you plan on being welcome in this
house and to keep drinking my root beer
and eating my ketchup and being gay at the
same time, I need you to do something for
It’ll be for the good of the family.
Date Judy the Mustache.
Judy. The Mustache. She’s the shemale with
the circus that comes through every summer.
For five bucks you get to watch her through
a peephole while she makes an apple pie
from scratch and then, after she sets it into
the oven to bake, she holds nails in her
mouth and builds a birdhouse. The whole
time she’s wearing nothing but a garter belt
and a hard hat.
Mom, will you please pass me the ketchup?
Mee-owww! Cats-up! Get it?
She’s in the trailer way in the back behind all
the tents, right next to the Unidentical
Identical Twins. Damnedest things you ever
saw, those twins. They look nothing alike!
I’m not dating Judy the Mustache!
But she’s got a penis! True, it’s a little
misshapen and definitely on the maroon
side, but what do you expect with all the
goddamn pies and birdhouses she has to
make? She’s working 12 hours a day, six
days a week! Jesus frigging Christ, we
should all work half as hard as she does!
Where’s your hot dog, honey?
I’m sitting on it, Mom. Dad wouldn’t give
me the fucking ketchup and the goddamn
thing was getting cold.
Motherfucking thing, dear, please.
He’s sitting on it, woman! Now leave him
alone! Son! Just consider it!
Why not? You get a penis and your mother
and me get to see you holding hands with
somebody with breasts and lipstick and her
She’ll put beard burns on your tummy!
Mrs. Leviticus has such bad 5 o’clock
shadows under her arms that whenever she
bowls she catches fire.
Why can’t you just act normal for two
seconds, you big sissy?!
Shut up old man and pass me the lousy
Just do it for your dear old dad!
If you get married you’ll be Fish the
Mustache, you fucking little useless piece of
no good dog shit! I thought I raised you
All right, give me the ketchup bottle and I’ll
go down and suck her dick. But I’m not
making any promises!
That’s my boy!
I love you, Dad.
And I love you, Son.
Hey, that reminds me, honey. Do you
remember that story that ran in the paper last
Thanksgiving about Mr. Kirby, the widower
over on Dudley who trained his cat to use a
regular toilet instead of a litter box?
It turns out that the only reason he did it was
so he could sneak into the cat’s bedroom
whenever the cat was taking a dump and try
on its underwear and dance around in front
of its mirror.
As MOM speaks, the camera slowly pans over STEPDAD and FISH and out of the dining room, coming to rest on a pot of hot dogs on the stove. A FLY buzzes in a manic circle upside down on the surface of the greasy water, hopelessly trapped and struggling hard against drowning.
The cat set up a video camera and got the
whole thing on tape. Seems she started to
suspect something was up when the dog
began complaining that somebody was
stealing money from his sock drawer every
time he shaved.
* * *
The thing about the Truman Capote story that so amazed me when I was 15 was how well it illustrated the ability of a good joke to recalibrate the politics of a dangerous situation and suddenly make it safe. Not only that, it demonstrated how jokes are uniquely capable of temporarily nullifying every prejudice within earshot of its telling in deference to both the high hilarity and camaraderie guaranteed by the levity of the moment. It didn’t matter that Capote was gay, for example, any more than it mattered that a grown man had just exposed himself in a public place. The punch line had given justification to every detail of the story, as if the exposition could be substantiated by the pyrotechnics of the gag. Why was this? Was it because humor was escapism and that a joke provided a welcome interruption for people who felt as if their souls were being continuously ground down by a dastardly and unrelenting reality hellbent on telling it like it was without ceasing? Was comedy a lens through which reality was skewed and ultimately perverted into a fantasy that had no real relevance to what was commonly referred to as the truth?
Or was it the opposite?
Was it more likely that jokes actually provided insight into a reality rendered invisible by mainstream thinking and conventional wisdom? It was generally understood that civility destroyed humor, sure, just as being well mannered crippled candor and often encouraged subterfuge and duplicity. This certainly wasn’t news to anybody. Still, I couldn’t remember ever hearing anybody ask why the insincerity of decorum was prized over the bluntness so crucial to a sense of humor, which it was. Joke making, it seemed to me, was the human equivalent of what animals did when they play wrestled each other in nature. For instance, when tigers tackle each other and roll around pawing and gumming jugulars they are reinforcing their communal bonds and practicing how not to exercise lethal behavior. They are learning about the strengths and limitations of their physical bodies and demonstrating what it feels like to be free and alive in the world. Jokes, likewise, represent the intellectual play that reinforce communal bonds between people and demonstrate how they should not exercise lethal behavior with each other. They reveal what our behavioral limitations are and teach us the importance of dissent from a standard that seeks to indoctrinate us with intolerance and humorlessness and paranoia and prejudice.
Jokes teach us that while a fart may not be at all amusing to a pastor whose job it is to stand at the head of a church and celebrate humankind as the greatest miracle of God’s creation, it is at least a reminder that a pastor and the antediluvian sales pitch that he preaches from the Bible are, minimally, not the whole story.
That’s when it occurred to me that instead of hoisting myself upon the broad shoulders of outrage and announcing that I was gay because I wanted to express my contempt for the priggishness of the dominant culture and the dishonesty that would be the guaranteed result from succumbing to it, I should be like Truman Capote in a bar in the Florida Keys in the 1970s and set about saving the world by inspiring people to want to publicly expose the indecency of truth by beautifying the androgyny of its nudity one yuck at a time.