Comedian Billy Crystal, who famously played a gay in the sitcom Soap (1977-1981) was pushing his new FX show The Comedians, and was asked about his time playing a gay character. For those who don’t know, Crystal played Jodie Dallas, one of the first gay characters on network television. What was so interesting about Jodie was that his sexuality wasn’t always played for laughs (again, I write always because even the most gay-positive shows up to today still like to make gay a punchline at times), and the character was a solid, three-dimensional character. Okay, so the fact that he was also into girls (situationally) was a little weird, but over all, the character was a good representation of gay white men if judging by the standards of late 1970s television.
So on a press junket, Crystal talked about gay representation on television. Now mind you, Crystal has always been pro-gay as far as I know, so this isn’t the pearl-clutching of a homophobe. This is an ally. He said, “Sometimes, it’s just pushing it a little too far for my taste and I’m not going to reveal to you which ones they are.” He also said, “There were times where I would say to [the actor who played his boyfriend], ‘Bob, “I love you,’ and the audience would laugh nervously, because, you know, it’s a long time ago, that I’d feel this anger. I wanted to stop the tape and go, ‘What is your problem?’ Because it made you sort of very self-conscious about what we were trying to do then. And now it’s just, I see it and I just hope people don’t abuse it and shove it in our face — well, that sounds terrible — to the point of it just feels like an everyday kind of thing.”
Of course, because this is the age of social media, quickly folks lost their shit over what Crystal said, and he got a chance to explain himself. Sorta. Anyways, when asked about his comments, Crystal did that whole “you can’t say anything anymore without offending someone” routine, which is what lots of folks do. In his response, the legendary comic said, “First of all, I don’t understand why there would be anything offensive that I said. When it gets too far either visually…now, that world exists because it does for the hetero world, it exists, and I don’t want to see that either. But when I feel it’s a cause, when I feel it’s ‘You’re going to like my lifestyle,’ no matter what it is, I’m going to have a problem and there were a couple of shows I went “I couldn’t watch that with somebody else.” That’s fine. If whoever writes it or produces it…totally get it. It’s all about personal taste.” He then says, “We live in a very scary time in many ways. You can’t say this, you can’t say that, you can’t offend this group, that group. People come up to you and ask if you were offended. I don’t understand that. I understand it why everyone is watching out for the other person. That’s offensive to me.”
So, first I have to get one thing out of the way: Billy Crystal is free to say what he likes, and his lamenting that he can’t say anything without offense is just nonsense. Of course what you say will have consequences, good or bad – Billy Crystal isn’t a special little snowflake who can just say anything, and think, “I’m Billy Crystal, so what I’m allowed to say what I want to say and not get shit.”
Now, that’s done – I’m not sure if Crystal deserves the crap heaped on him for his statement – he deserves some. This is after all, the guy who famously dined with a comely Meg Ryan who faked an orgasm in a diner. So yeah, he deserves some of the shit. And yeah, one could argue that he’s only weirded out around gay explicit behavior because he’s had a lifetime of conditioning that said it’s okay to have half-naked women paraded for straight men, but -gasp- we cannot have gay men being sexually active on television! But now that things are changing, folks of the old guard (even ones that like us), haven’t caught up with the dismantling of the old double standard. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure if Jodie Dallas kissed anyone on screen, let alone had sex. So, I can understand that Crystal would freak out when he’s used to gay guys giving each other awkward hugs or deep meaningful stares across a room (and now he sees gay dudes making out, flirting openly, having sex – oh yeah, just like straight folks).
But wait – I hear folks saying, “What about Girls? Lena Dunham gets all kinds of crap storms for that.”
She does. You know why? Because (a) she’s a woman, controlling the nudity and the sexuality, and therefore the sexuality isn’t formatted for the male gaze and (b) she’s a gorgeous woman who still manages to look like a million bucks without having to look like a stick insect. Essentially, the issue lies in the heteronormative, patriarchal sexuality that is affirmed and celebrated in our media, and the growing acceptance of alternative views of sexuality, that threaten the status quo. So poor Billy is just caught up in the ever-changing landscape of media and sexuality and can’t deal. He’s all, “wait a minute – I remember the days when saying ‘I love you’ to a guy was a big deal” – which, gladly, we’ve moved on from. So yeah, I get Crystal’s heebie-jeebies because what he’s feeling discomfort about is just another example of his world slowly being usurped by another. It’s not his fault. He’s a good guy, but one who just comes from a different generation. It’s the same with Bette Midler, who also stepped in it earlier this year when she accidentally slut-shamed Ariana Grande. Like Crystal, Midler (who started her careers singing in gay bathhouses and telling cornily-filthy jokes) is also confronting an ever-changing business, that may or may not have a place for her brand of entertainment.
Look, I’m not suggesting that Crystal (or Midler) is past it. He’s not. He’s still a funny guy and he’s still young enough (66) that he’s could have some of his best work still in front of him (I’m hoping his FX series will work, because I have a fondness for Crystal – I loved 700 Sundays). And I’m not suggesting that folks who took umbrage with he said should just chill – because, it was kind of messed up. What I am saying is, cut the guy some slack because he may just be having trouble adjusting to the increasingly new normal.