Straight comics love the word "faggot." Love it, love it, love it. It's so powerful. So exciting. So attention-getting. They use it for everything. "My mom is a faggot." "My toaster is a faggot." "My best friend is gay and has a poodle -- I didn't know faggots can own other faggots." You get the point. There are only two problems with using the word "faggot" like this: it's lazy and it's homophobic.
Using the word "faggot" is a lazy device used to get people's attention because it's still shocking to hear. Why? It remains the worst thing you can call someone. Comics have a lot of justifications for their use of the word. They're all excuses. And it's not just the straight guys -- female comics use it too, though to a lesser extent. Below is a list of the most common defenses and why each is total bullshit.
"I can use the word 'faggot' because when I was a kid, I didn't know what it really meant. I thought it meant you were just a whiny little prick. So when I use the word, I'm not using it in the homophobic way, I'm using it the other way."
I'd love to hear a white comic defend himself to a crowd by saying, "When I called my dog a nigger, I wasn't using it in the racist way, I was using it in this other, more nuanced way. No. really, let me tell you about my childhood ... " The only people who can use the word "faggot" based on an incorrect, playground definition are children. Once you grow up and learn what the word really means, you have a moral obligation to change your behavior so that you don't use a word that perpetuates the dehumanization of people whom you claim to respect. Using the word "faggot" is not the artistry of a comic, it's the cop-out of a coward too lazy to write better material. Yes, Louis C.K. covered the etymology of the word "faggot" in his show once, and it was really informative. But just because you've shown that you understand the history of a word, it doesn't give you a free pass to use it.
"But I'm not calling gay guys faggots. I'm calling my dog a faggot as a joke. How the hell is that homophobic?"
When you use a historically persecuted population to insult someone or something, you not only demean the object of your ridicule, you also denigrate the population itself by making those people the metric of something horrible. If you want to insult your dog, that sounds hilarious and you totally should. So call him a wimp. A loser. A dick. A draft dodger. A pusillanimous cat stasher. In short, use your words. Calling your dog a faggot is funny because it's absurd, but it's also homophobic. When you use the word "faggot," you are referring to all gay men as faggots, because that's what the word "faggot" means. You are legitimizing the idea that a faggot is a real thing that exists. There's no getting around it. The word "faggot" is an insult because of its history as a slur against gay guys.
"I'm a straight guy who was called a faggot in high school, so I'm allowed to use it as an adult."
The logic of this clever little chestnut is pretty effective -- if you're Ann Coulter. But ultimately it's just another desperate attempt to cling to a powerful word. If you're a straight guy who was a victim of homophobia, then you understand what it feels like ... to be a straight guy victimized by homophobia. Being called a faggot when you're straight has a completely different consequence than if you're gay. Being called a faggot doesn't make you gay, and therefore you cannot participate in the appropriation of the word "faggot" any more than a white person can appropriate racial slurs because someone may have called them one in the fourth grade. You can't reclaim a word if you're a member of the oppressing majority -- even if you experienced some collateral damage from the ignorance of your own people. The only way to earn the right to use the word "faggot" is by having sex with another guy and liking it.
"Hey, gay guys: It's just a word. Words don't have any real power. Get over it."
A new comic tried to make this argument on stage at an open mic. I couldn't help but think, "Words don't have any real power? And you want to be a stand-up comedian? A vocation that is built entirely on the meaning of words?" Stand-up comedy depends on the sole presumption that words have meanings, meanings represent ideas, and ideas are powerful enough to create action in the form of laughter and applause. If you can use words that inspire someone to love something, you can inspire them to hate something. Words do matter. Stand-up comedy wouldn't exist otherwise.
"But I have gay friends and they're totally cool with me saying it -- it's a term of endearment that shows how close we are."
Great! Then keep on saying it -- when you're with your friends. Just know this: when you use the word "faggot" in public, it reverts to a homophobic slur that communicates nothing but contempt for gay people. Remember when The Onion called that 9-year-old Oscar nominee a cunt? It was absolutely hilarious and exactly the kind of joke I like telling ... when I'm in a room among friends. You can get away with edgy jokes when the people you're with know you and understand your values. The writers at The Onion like and respect women, and in that context, the joke is perfect and it works. But once the joke is tossed into the public sphere, it loses its context (i.e., a shared understanding that women are liked and respected as equals) and thus it fails as a joke.
"Political correctness is ruining comedy."
Sometimes, yes. But lazy, ignorant comedy that depends on the exploitation of minorities who don't have an equal place at the table is just as bad. Gay men are used as the comedy industry's premise, and yet gay male comedians aren't included as regular, equal, on-camera members of the team on any of the most successful mainstream comedy shows. Using gay guys as the premise of the joke year after year without ever including an actual gay guy is simply gay exploitation.
"Comics need the freedom to work out material without being censored."
Being an artist is still a job, and when you perform, you are at work. Everyone has to edit themselves at work. Or at PTA meetings. Or anywhere public. Sure, artists have more freedom to cross lines, but those lines need to be crossed in a thoughtful way that conveys a point. Otherwise, a comedian is just using vulgarity for shock value, and at that point he may as well just drop his pants. I used to have a joke in which I called someone a retard. It got a big laugh, but I gave it up. It's hard to give up good jokes, but if comedy were easy, everyone would do it.
"I'd never have used the word 'faggot' if I'd known you were going to be so gay about it."
The gay rights movement has made some incredible progress. And there are a lot of awesome straight comics who like and respect gay guys enough to edit the word "faggot" out of their comedy. But we still live in a world where -- even in New York City -- gay men are shot and killed on the street simply for being gay. Using the word "faggot" contributes to that climate of hostility.
For years I sat in the back of comedy shows and whenever I heard a comic use the word "faggot," as if it weighed nothing, I stayed silent. I never challenged anyone's bigoted comedy because I didn't want to be disliked or burn any bridges in this industry. I traded my dignity for a career and ended up with neither.
I no longer keep my mouth shut. I've torn a few comics apart for being bigots, and if I've lost any shows over it, I haven't noticed and I don't really care. If, after reading this, a comedian shrugs and says, "Yeah, well, I like saying it and I'm not going to stop." I would say to that comic:
That's your choice. You know what you're doing.