What’s so funny about being transgender?

Steve Carey (John Carrol Lynch) comes out to his brother on "The Drew Carey Show."
Steve Carey (John Carrol Lynch) comes out as a cross-dresser on “The Drew Carey Show.”

Is there anything funny about being transgender? No: There are lots and lots of things funny about being transgender.

I keep my breasts in a dresser drawer. My wife gives me her underwear that no longer fits. We have trouble sorting laundry sometimes in our house: “Is this your bra or mine?” How are those things not funny?

Have there been funny depictions of transgender people on TV? Yes. Drew Carey’s cross-dressing brother, Steve, on “The Drew Carey Show” was a hoot. On “30 Rock,” Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) fell in love with and eventually married a cross-dresser (played by Will Forte) who was appearing as Jenna in a drag show. (Jenna was so vain, she liked the idea of making love to herself.)

Tuesday night, “TMZ” looked at the “Mike and Molly” flap. Producer, creator and host Harvey Levin couldn’t understand why transgender people would be offended.

“I’m gay, and people in my office make fun of me all the time, they poke fun, they make jokes,” he said. “I roll with it … when I watched this clip (from ‘Mike and Molly’) it seemed harmless.”

Harvey. Bubbeleh. Do I have to explain how humor works to a big-shot Hollywood attorney? Really?

(And is there anything un-funnier than me explaining humor? No.)

Humor requires a couple of things. One of those things is risk. I have to take some kind of a risk to my own safety, security or reputation by making a joke.

An employee teasing Harvey Levin about being gay is taking a risk, because the employee could get fired. So: It’s funny.

But if Harvey Levin teases his employee, he’s just being a bully.

And if his employee was teasing an intern, he or she would also be a bully.

In comedy, “pick on someone your own size” is a great rule of thumb. Boxers don’t fight people smaller than them, and comedians generally shouldn’t pick on people who don’t have any power.

So it’s OK to mock Barack Obama, because he’s powerful.

It’s not OK to mock some random homeless guy in front of the White House.

It’s all about power dynamics. Mocking the powerless or marginalized is generally not funny.

Why was the “Mike and Molly” episode on thin ice? Because they—Mike and the other characters—were disrespecting the transgender woman by using the wrong pronouns and by talking about her genitalia.

Mike and the other characters (and “Mike and Molly’s” producers and writers, by implication) were safely mocking a powerless character from their own positions of power.

Had the transgender woman been a police captain or a city councilwoman—someone with power over the other characters—maybe it would have exposed Mike and his partner to risk. Instead, what was depicted was bullying and harassment of a weaker person by stronger people.

If and when transgender people start to have some real power, and aren’t being harassed just for existing, then it will be perfectly OK to mock us. (It’s OK for me to make jokes about being transgender because I’m risking something, which is why self-deprecating humor is generally safe territory.)

Until then, any comedy writer who wants to write jokes about transgender people had better tread very lightly, and maybe bring in someone who is transgender as a consultant or something.

 

P.S.: Updated to fix the typo in the headline. What’s so funny about not being able to spell?

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