Are there any subjects that are too sensitive for comedy? It’s a question that has been asked a lot lately (see Tosh, Daniel), but history has already given us our answer: There are no taboo subjects in comedy, as long as the joke is funny and the perspective is correct.
For example, take incest. Please. You would think incest would be off-limits – it’s one of those things people can’t even talk about – but Arrested Development managed to make it funny. There was the running subplot about George Michael being hot for his cousin, as well as a standout third-season episode featuring real-life siblings Jason and Justine Bateman flirting and almost hooking up.
Still, even a show as bold as AD mostly stayed away from prison rape jokes (aside from a few one-liners) despite having a significant first-season subplot set almost entirely in prison. The few films that have attempted to make light of prison rape have, let’s say, had trouble finding an audience; the only examples that come to mind are Let’s Go to Prison (starring, coincidentally, AD’s Will Arnett) and Rob Schneider’s Big Stan. Maybe the lesson is this: You can make a joke about anything, even prison rape, but building an entire movie around it is not recommended. No subject is off-limits in comedy, but some are just too awful to think about for two hours.
Get Hard exemplifies this principle in the worst ways. Consider the lead character of James King, a disgraced stockbroker who has been sentenced to ten years in prison for defrauding his clients. Aware that he would be easy prey in the joint, he hires his car washer Darnell (Kevin Hart) to toughen him up. The catch is that Darnell has never been to prison – King only assumes he has because he’s black, and Darnell is desperate enough for cash that he is willing to play along.
When Get Hard is making fun of King for his elitist, out-of-touch views on race and income inequality, it’s actually pretty funny. Yep, racial prejudice can be funny. In fact, mocking regressive viewpoints is what Ferrell does best (Anchorman, Tallaedga Nights), and for a while, he does it well in Get Hard. As the audience, we view King’s arrogance through the eyes of the kind-hearted Darnell, who needs the money to move his family to a safer school district for his daughter. When King refuses Darnell’s request for a $30,000 investment in his car wash company and instead gives him a two-dollar tip, King is obviously the butt of the joke and Darnell the working-class hero.
But when the film’s subject shifts from race and income inequality to King’s fear of prison rape, the perspective gets badly skewed. One particular is scene explains the problem. After a few weeks of training, Darnell senses that King is not properly motivated, so he resorts to scare tactics. He takes him to a gay brunch spot and relates the following: “I’m going to teach you how to suck dick.” Under Darnell’s orders, King takes a stranger (Veep’s Matt Walsh, operating well below his comedic level) into a bathroom stall, kneels in front of him, and tries to psyche himself up to perform oral sex on him.
It’s a difficult scene to watch – seeing someone force themselves to perform a sex act is just not funny – but it goes from difficult to downright offensive with a single cut. After the camera holds on King’s disgusted face for a time, it cuts quickly to a shot of the stranger’s penis. That’s all the shot is – a dick – but the film treats it as a comedic punch line because we are so aligned with King’s perspective. He views it as disgusting, and so does the film, essentially imposing a homophobic view on the audience.
Getting the audience to see gay sex as the most disgusting thing in the universe has some troubling social implications. That attitude is the foundation for the homophobia that underpins hate crimes and discriminatory laws, both of which remains serious problems in a sizeable American subculture, and reinforcing that subculture in a mainstream movie is flat-out irresponsible.
But it’s also not funny, and here we see how having the proper perspective is the key to making comedy out of sensitive subjects. If the film had treated King’s homophobia like it does his racism – as the butt of the joke – Get Hard could have managed the impossible: a funny movie about prison rape. But it lacks a consistent satirical voice, and it is all too willing to abandon its perspective for the sake of a cheap laugh.
In fact, the dick joke reflects the film’s guiding comic ethos: to pander to the lowest common denominator whenever possible. Whether it is trotting out Ferrell’s chubby naked ass in the film’s first scene, having a lingerie-clad Alison Brie (playing his fiancée) dry hump him for no reason other than to titillate the teenage boys in the audience, or turning the male sex organ into an instrument of torture, Get Hard goes for the easiest laugh at any given time. When dealing with a taboo subject, that’s the wrong strategy.