Is AIDS ever funny?

Published 08, Aug, 2012

Christopher Banks on the touchy subject of making fun of AIDS

“Dom, your song was so gay I’m pretty sure I just got AIDS from listening to it.”

How does that sentence make you feel?  If you were on a bus and overheard some idiot teenagers saying it, you might be angry.  You might be brave enough to say something. You could be intimidated into silence.  As you hear the group laugh, you may shrink down further into your seat and feel like an insect at the bottom of a sewer. 

But how would you feel if you heard this broadcast on a national radio network, read out and laughed at by adults – one of whom is openly gay? 

This is precisely the scenario that occurred in December last year on New Zealand’s youth radio network The Edge.  The sentence above was a text message sent by a listener and read out on air after Dom (one of the heterosexual hosts) chose to play “All I Want For Christmas”. 

Complaints were made to New Zealand’s Broadcasting Standards Authority, which were not upheld.  In part, the Authority justified their decision with the following:  

“…we acknowledge that there are a number of contextual factors which favour the host’s decision to read the text aloud and the broadcaster’s decision to air it. In particular, we recognise the radio station’s target audience and its expectations as to the type of content usually broadcast on The Edge. RadioWorks contended that the announcers were renowned for their wit and quirky senses of humour, and often engaged in light-hearted banter intended to entertain the programme’s target audience of adults aged between 15 and 39 years.” 

Double-standards when it comes to jokes about gays and AIDS are nothing new.  If the hosts had played a Hannukah song, and a listener had responded by saying “that song is so Jewy I think I turned into a lampshade just by listening to it”, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone defending it as “light-hearted banter”. 

Nevertheless, humour is a very subjective thing. 

Comedian Billy Connolly once acknowledged that sometimes awful things can make you laugh, and proceeded to tell the story of being in a shopping mall near Christmastime..... 

There was a man who used to hang out at the mall, that Connolly had spoken to on occasion, who had Tourette’s Syndrome. One day, he happened to be out Christmas shopping when he saw two middle-aged, middle-class women ambling past the man with a dim-looking oblivious toddler in a stroller.  Fake pine scent was in the air, and Christmas carols were playing over the tannoy. 

At the precise moment the women passed the man, his tic caused him to splurt “Fuck you!” and the carol on the tannoy climaxed: “…and a partridge in a pear tree!” 

The joke was not on the man with an affliction, but on the wonderful coincidence of timing and oblivious consumers being shocked out of their suburban complacency.  

Connolly’s story ends with him desperately trying to get around the corner so the man doesn’t see him doubled up with laughter – so his own embarrassment at being seen to laugh at such an awful situation becomes the full stop on the gag. 

Is it possible to make similar jokes about AIDS?  Is a life-threatening illness ever funny, given the horrific images of grief, deterioration, and misery that it can conjure up? Or is that precisely the reason why we need to be able to laugh about it? 

I believe for an “offensive” joke to work, certain things need to be in place in order for it not to be merely mean-spirited or shocking for its own sake.  Chiefly, the real target of the joke should actually be the prejudiced person, making it humour about ignorance rather than ignorant humour. 

British comic Ricky Gervais is a master at this.  On two occasions, he has incorporated AIDS jokes into his sitcoms. 

In “Extras”, Gervais plays Andy Millman, a small-time loser with thankless background roles in films who is desperate to make it big time.  At the climax of the first series, Millman’s dream is finally within his grasp, with a pilot for a sitcom he has conceived being commissioned by the BBC. 

Unfortunately, Millman has been paired to work with Damon, a gay writer who is so stereotypically camp he makes the swishy mannerisms of John Ritter in “Three’s Company” look butch by comparison (one senses this is part of the joke).  

Millman has already been established as a character who is prone to inappropriate outbursts, which consistently ruin his attempts to further his career.  

When Millman confides to his friend Maggie that he is struggling with the overly camp behaviour of his writing partner, the equally clueless Maggie tells the writer that perhaps he should “tone it down a bit”. 

Millman is called into the commissioner’s office, his pilot project on the verge of cancellation, and is given a dressing down about homophobia.  He tries to sweet-talk his way out of the comments, and just when it appears he might be forgiven, the commissioner says that “he won’t be around for long” – referring to the amount of time left to work on the project.  Millman misunderstands. 

What?  AIDS?” says Millman, with genuine concern, leaning forward.  Is it AIDS?” (See the video excerpt below.) 

It’s a knuckle-suckingly awful cringe moment, and hilariously funny.  The stereotypical association with homosexuality and AIDS is the same one used by The Edge, but seeing a character in a comeuppance moment because of it makes us laugh – and simultaneously feel sorry for the guy, as the comment was made out of concern rather than malice. 

In “Life’s Too Short”, Gervais plays himself alongside his real life co-writer Stephen Merchant.  They are visited by actor Liam Neeson, who has inexplicably decided he wants to move into stand-up comedy and asks to do an improv session. 

The sketch plays on Neeson’s deadly serious on-screen persona, with his funereal earnestness at wanting to become a comedian setting up the uncomfortable disaster that is to come. 

The most benign and well-worn improve scenario is devised, with Gervais playing a doctor and Neeson a hypochondriac patient. 

Knock knock,” Neeson says, with method concentration. 

Come in,” Gervais replies. 

Hello doctor. 


“I think there’s something wrong with me.” 

“What seems to be the problem?” 

“I’ve got full-blown AIDS.”

See the second video clip below. 

Neeson’s attempts at comedy only go downhill from there as he continues to play every scenario with concrete seriousness, and the situation becomes more hilarious as Neeson’s intimidating personality preclude Gervais or Merchant from even attempting to explain that he is clearly not cut out for comic work. 

But we may be entering an era where HIV and AIDS are no longer just a stand-in for our fears and embarrassment. Fellow writer, founder Brian Finch has decided to incorporate his experience of living with HIV into his stand-up act and in doing so is injecting something that is much needed into the area of uncomfortable comedy: an authentic voice: 

My fellow positive friends don’t find my humour that crazy, but to civilians, they don’t know what to do with it. Isn’t HIV supposed to be all about stigma and discrimination? How is it that we are seeing someone right in front of us bring out the taboo and lay it out for all to see? 

Any subject can be ripe for comedy, given the right context.  But it takes time, skill and intelligence – not playground cruelty.