Innuendo has for a long time been seen as one of the key tools in the arsenal of the queer male comedian. If you look closely, there was even one in that last sentence. Most of the significant figures in the history of gay men in comedy are renowned for their use of double entendres to convey humour; Kenny Everett, Kenneth Williams, Julian Clary are all acts that rely on this type of joke. Before I delve any further into the meat of the matter (can’t help it), I will provide some definitions.
When I use the term ‘queer comedian’, I am referring not to a comedian who necessarily identifies as queer, but one who uses their queer identity as part of their act. The working definition of ‘innuendo’ that I will be using is that in essence it is a humorous euphemism to express a subject relating to sex, usually relying on a play on words. I’ll be focusing on gay men in this article for two reasons. Firstly, it is gay men that have a more prominent association with innuendo, and secondly, I am one, and my motivation is largely self-interest.
One of the challenges that queer comics face at most gigs they perform at is presenting their queer identity in a room that isn’t a queer space. This often involves an adaptation of that identity, or at least an explanation of any of the tropes of queer culture that a predominantly heterosexual audience may not be au fait with. Were I to talk about Grindr or bear culture on stage in any detail, there is likely to be a significant proportion of the audience who would be lost.
This is a case of semantics, but it is also the case that there is a definite feeling of ‘not in my back yard’ running through some elements of heteronormative society. That is to say, whilst there has been a dramatic reduction in homophobia in recent years, there are still many people who think gay men shouldn’t talk about sex in the same way as heterosexual people might. This is where the innuendo comes in. By talking about sex using innuendo, the queer male comedian is able to present their sexual identity in a way that is oblique and playful, and most likely a lot more palatable to an audience that would otherwise be uncomfortable with the topic. Looking back at the roots of the association between gay men and innuendo, it seems to have begun with Polari, the gay vernacular used to mask the true subject of conversation from prying ears when homosexuality was illegal.
It is my personal view that nowadays, the use of innuendo by gay male comics is an act of marking their sexuality as the other, and establishing it as a taboo subject in what is tantamount to an act of self-censorship. I think that gay male comedians identified as part of the ‘alternative comedy movement’, which is in itself another argument for another day, succeed in making sex funny in the same way as heterosexual alternative comics often do; frankly talking about the mindfuck that everyone’s sexual identity inevitably is. Paul Sinha is a good example of this if you want a ‘reading list’.
Sex reduces us to little more than our id, and consequently makes us act and think in ways that in hindsight seem embarrassing or amusing. I don’t wish to denigrate the idols of the past. The fact is that a lot of queer empowerment has come from comedy. The use of innuendo in shows like Round the Horne gave gay men a visibility that would otherwise have been denied them by censors. It mustn’t be forgotten that Julian Clary did push the boundaries of not only representations of gay sexuality, but sex in general on television.
However, I believe that what was once empowering is now at risk of becoming reductive. Stereotypes of gay men are still rife in comedy, and while we’re making the transition between “don’t drop the soap” and “How to Look Good Naked”, these representations of queer identity aren’t going away. I don’t wish to call anyone out and say that what someone does to get a laugh is actively harming the gay rights movement, because that isn’t what I feel, but it’s certainly the case that the once controversial and groundbreaking image of ‘gay comedy’ has become tame and almost twee. I think that subversive representations of gay men, and for that matter sex positivity in general is sorely lacking in the world of stand up comedy. Besides, innuendo is the last refuge of someone who doesn’t see the beauty in unadulterated filth.