Were the James Franco Roast Gay Jokes Offensive?

Haha! Ha. Ha? 

Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images for Maserati

James Franco’s roast aired on Comedy Central last night, and, as some members of the media reported after last week’s taping, the jokes largely depended on Franco’s contested sexuality. (I’m not one to riffle around in the celebrity closet, but Franco’s penchant for gay roles and rumors of dudely make-out sessions during his time at Columbia University are both things that exist in the world.) Franco may or may not be gay or something like it, but, in any case, his roasters felt the need to use that possibility as a way to access an otherwise fairly impenetrable persona.  

I do not begrudge the comedians this tactic. However, a number of my gay-blogging compatriots have predictably taken at least a little offense at the implicit notion that “the gay” is still inherently funny. I will abstain from getting into the tiresome debate about the intersection of the political and the risible, but here is one small point worth considering: Were the jokes really at the expense of gayness in general, or were they based on Franco’s imagined embodiment of it? From what I saw, the latter was the case; specifically, the jokesters all seemed very focused (to the point of fetishization, really) on how much crazy gay sex Franco was having, often with the person speaking.  

BuzzFeed published a full accounting last week, but here are three selections:

Seth Rogen: “He’s a tough guy to pin down, although I’ve heard many guys have been able to do it.”*

Andy Samberg: “He doesn’t even clean his jizz off my back when he’s done.”

Sarah Silverman, on why the gay question doesn’t even matter: “He literally can’t open his eyes enough to see who he’s fucking.”

I’m trying, but I’m really not seeing how these demean gayness or even gay sex in the abstract. As a colleague of mine put it, they are “the kind of jokes you make about a group that is losing, not gaining, stigma.”* I’ll be less elegant: Aren’t they just saying that Franco is a big slut [used in the affirming, sex-positive sense] who happens to be gay? Such people exist, and, in my experience, they don’t tend to be over-serious and are prone to making fun of their exploits. Who knows if Franco really practices that “lifestyle,” but in the world of the roast, it sounds like his peers reckon he could get a lot of steamy man play (which, seconded!), and that is never a bad thing. Of course, this interpretation may also make these particular bits of spoken word more compliment than joke. But then, no one ever said Comedy Central roasts were funny. 

*Correction, Sept. 3, 2013: This post originally misspelled Seth Rogen’s last name. Additionally, due to an editing error, this article originally misquoted the writer’s colleague as saying that the gay jokes in the James Franco roast are the kind of jokes that you make about a group that is “gaining, not losing, stigma.” The reverse is the correct version.