Andy Samberg Breaks Caricature

2.15.2009

By Joshua David Stein

This from a show with only three gay writers out of 21 and no gay cast members. But Samberg poo-poos the episode's gayness. 'It wasn't on purpose. Sometimes you have a really dirty show. Sometimes you have a really gay show. As much as I'd like to say we made the [painting sketch] in response to Prop. 8, we didn't.' Furthermore, he says it's inaccurate to think that the sketches mock gays. The source of the humor, he claims, isn't in homosexuality itself but in the fraught relationship straight men have with it. 'It's bro-gay,' says Samberg, 'which I love just because dudes that are bros and super antigay are the ones who need to get it the worst. They're the ones we have the most fun fucking with.'

And if you think about it, he's right. The kissing family is, by all indications, a heteronormative nuclear family. The guys in the car are simply 'dudes.' Despite the candles and the soft sex music, Rudd and Samberg are nothing more than painter and painted. The humor is in the notion -- which makes many people very uncomfortable -- that beneath the thin veneer of heterosexuality is a current of homosexuality yearning to breathe free. On SNL, ambiguously gay duality is played for laughs and no one -- at least no one with a working sense of humor -- can deny it's funny. As Samberg says, 'It's a slippery slope, but sometimes that shit is just funny.'

But to justify the gay jokes as merely an act of provocation is to leave the door open for insidious stereotyping. The mincing foppery of Beyonc's backup dancers may well be a role-playing game meant to rattle homophobes, but it is an imprecise weapon of indeterminate range. Samberg et al, lisping in unitards and pumps, look a lot like gay stereotyping. This problem could be solved, or at least ameliorated, if Samberg were gay or if SNL's cast and writers were gayer. But Samberg is too damn good a comedian to make lapsing into vulgar caricature -- be it gay, white, or Mark Wahlberg talking to animals -- a habit.

The best illustration of Samberg's talent and the embodiment of his agent provocateur philosophy is his impeccably timed, heat-seeking missive to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. At a speech at Columbia University on September 24, 2007, Ahmadinejad claimed, 'In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country.' By that Saturday, the 27th, Samberg and his writing partners had written, recorded, and shot a surprisingly catchy love song to Mr. Ahmadinejad called 'Iran So Far.' The joke of the song wasn't -- or wasn't merely -- that one man could care so deeply about another as to pen him a ballad; nor was it merely Fred Armisen's eerily realistic Ahmadinejad that rendered that scary despot cuddly and adorable. The work was in the words. 'Talk smooth to me, without a tie,' Samberg raps, 'Your pants high-waisted, damn, so fly / We can take a trip to the animal zoo / And laugh at all the funny things that animals do.'

'The rap,' says Samberg, 'is the vessel for the jokes we are thinking of.' At one point, Samberg, playing the piano atop a double-decker bus as it rolls through Times Square, raps, 'I know you say there's no gays in Iran / But you're in New York now, baby / It's time to stop hiding / And start living.' Like the bus, the line has a number of levels. In two unrhymed couplets, Samberg deflates a bigot, supports a city, condones a way of life, and makes you laugh.

Similarly, says Samberg, 'no one is going to look at my character in I Love You, Man and say 'It's funny because you're a straight guy playing a gay guy.' It's funny because the character is funny.' That's one small step for Samberg but one giant leap for comedy.

I Love You, Man opens March 20. Incredibad, the new album from Samberg's band, the Lonely Islands, is available now.

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