Michael A. Jones, Betty White Was Great, But Why All the Gay Jokes?, Change.org, Gay Rights Blog, May 09, 2010
There's no doubt that television history was made last night with Betty White hosting Saturday Night Live. At 88 (and a half!) years old, White became the oldest person ever to host the show. She also was the first host ever spawned by a group on Facebook, with more than 500,000 people behind the push to get White on stage.
And make no mistake: White was funny.
But in what's become a regular theme with Saturday Night Live in recent years, some of the sketches left a definite "WTF" taste in viewers' mouths. And for whatever reason, a huge chunk of sketches last night revolved around the punchline of someone being gay. Is it that the writers of Saturday Night Live have some sort of fetish with homosexuality, or is it that someone being gay is the only thing that draws laughs anymore?
White, of course, deserves nothing but praise for making the show interesting. As I tweeted last night, her performance was the best on the show in at least two decades, and her general demeanor and comic timing were simply brilliant. The National Public Radio muffin sketch, the digital short remake of The Golden Girls theme song (not available online yet), and the Blarfangaar census worker sketch were among the funniest things Saturday Night Live has put on the air since the last time Justin Timberlake hosted.
But there were also at least three sketches last night that made being gay the butt of the joke, and one sketch that made prison rape seem like the funniest comedic weapon since the spit take. Could Saturday Night Live have aimed a little higher with such a comic icon as their host?
The first sketch to go the gay route was a series of bumps based on the Will Forte character, "MacGruber." It's a "MacGyver"-like scene where a bumbling hero tries to deactivate a bomb in 15 seconds in some ridiculous scenario. Last night, "MacGruber" was with his grandmother, Betty White. And the writing? It focused almost exclusively on Betty White's character teasing "MacGruber" with embarrassing stories from his past, like how "MacGruber" went through a gay phase, and how he has a small penis, and how he had breast reduction surgery. Ha. Ha. Meh.
Then came the "Manuel Ortiz Show," which put half the cast on stage in a spoof of a Latin talkshow where family members dance and gossip about each other. Yes, it was pretty brilliant to watch Betty White shake her hips out-of-sync with everyone. But the punchline of this sketch? That Betty White's son was a closeted gay man, prompting White's character to end the sketch with the line, "Well that explains why he doesn't like tacos." (Taco, of course, being slang for vagina.)
And then a third sketch showed a family of women in 1904 getting ready for a school dance, while a grandmother (Betty White) sat dolled up in a corner, doing needlepoint. Whenever it came time to get one of the homelier daughter's (Amy Poehler) ready for the dance, Betty White's character would bark, "She's a lesbian." Yes, the sketch resulted in a 1,000 Twitter updates with the quote, "You're barking up the wrong lesbian," but that was essentially the only laughline throughout the sketch: Betty White saying "Lez" "Lesbian" "Lesbo" and "Lez it up" with every line of dialogue.
It's not that these three sketches weren't funny; they certainly had their moments that drew laughter. But is it worth asking the question why Saturday Night Live felt the need to go back to gay jokes again, and again, and again? Is that really making the best use out of Betty White's amazing appeal?
Perhaps the only sketch that crossed the line (or crossed "the ocean," as Kenan Thompson's character put it) was a sketch where Thompson and White play some rough and tumble prisoners, sent to teach a group of low-level criminals why they should reform their lives and avoid prison at all costs. Their sage advice? That prison is a place where your butt will be raped. (They even sang that message to a tune from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.) Classy, SNL. After all, what's funnier than prison rape, especially in a culture where prison rape is not only a problem, but a downright epidemic? It's somewhat disturbing, as Just Detention International points out, that while the idea of rape is universally abhorrent, prison rape is a punchline. Apparently the only thing separating rape from being a disgusting crime versus something absolutely hysterical is an orange jumpsuit.
Again, Betty White rocked the house last night. This Saturday Night Live episode was the easiest hour and a half of television to watch in recent memory, with high energy, lots of love for Betty, and even a good musical guest (Jay-Z). But while there were lots of laughs to go around, it does seem worth a thought or two that a good many of the jokes revolved around being gay. Isn't there anything else that can score a laugh?
That's what led one writer, Robert Bianco at USA Today, to write that the folks behind SNL should have worked harder to do a little more with White's talent.
"Surely after the first dozen times she says "lesbian" or makes some sexual reference or gets bleeped out for cursing, the routine begins to lose some of its punch," Bianco writes. "None of this was White's fault, who once again proved that she is both a pro and an extremely good sport. What laughs there were ... were pretty much provided by her and her alone, and that's not something you can say about every host. She just deserved better."
So what do you think? Did she deserve better, or did this episode nail it out of the park? You can watch the full episode here (or below!), and let us know.