It's a fact as old as humanity itself that penises are funny. They just are. They look funny, they move funny, and the way the humans who have them treat them is often hilarious.
Case in point: The apocalyptic comedy This Is The End. Written and directed by Seth Rogen and his childhood best friend Evan Goldberg, the movie is winning wide praise for its meta take on the classic disaster movie, casting Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel as versions of themselves living through the Biblical End of Days. (The movie starts with a party at Franco's tricked-out modern home, featuring a cavalcade of celebrities — Michael Cera, Rihanna, Kevin Hart — all of whom die horribly in the ensuing apocalypse.) In the wake of the earthquakes, fiery sink-holes, and giant lights sucking people into heaven, the surviving actors hole up at Franco's house to ride out the disaster together. And because they're all thirtysomething straight dudes and graduates of Judd Apatow University, their interactions invariably turn to dick jokes. The movie's climax involves maybe the biggest dick joke in the history of Hollywood. And, indeed, it is snorting-soda-out-of-your-nose funny.
The movie is so funny, in fact, that it was doubly disappointing — and confusing — whenever it partook in the dick joke's troublesome cousin: the gay sex joke.
Let me be clear: By "gay sex joke," I mean a joke whereby the punchline is any intimate contact between two men — and almost always, the men aren't gay. These jokes tap into the anxiety many straight men have about the abject horror of sexytimes with other men, or even the hint of it. The smarter and better versions of these jokes are more about that anxiety than the possibility of gay sex that causes it, but usually, they're just about the gay sex. And Hollywood comedies, especially of the last 30 years, are riddled with them. Before my showing of This Is The End, I watched a trailer for the Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups 2 that climaxed with a naked Kevin James leaping into a lake and landing on a naked David Spade, followed by Spade crying in agony, "I was inside you!"
Thankfully, This Is The End is too sly and self-aware to go for anything quite that clumsy. By casting actors who've built their careers on Apatowian man-boy comedy as, essentially, themselves, the movie often feels like it's about that kind of man-boy humor. It makes great sport of the self-involved egos and arrested adolescent psyches of today's A-list comedians — see, the movie seems to be saying, they always talk like this.
What is bewildering is that when it comes to man-on-man affection, This Is The End is incredibly sweet. But when it comes to man-on-man action, it is incredibly stupid. (Warning: From here on, it's all SPOILERS all the time.)
In the film, Rogen and Baruchel play old buddies from Canada whose friendship has been strained as Rogen's career has taken off in L.A. while, presumably, Baruchel is left to toil in relative obscurity back in Vancouver. The movie's story is ultimately concerned with whether this friendship can be saved, and the early scenes between the two carry a genuine, unironic affection. Rogen even lovingly arranges Baruchel's favorite bro pastimes — video games, junk food, pot — on his coffee table for Baruchel's visit, spelling out "Jay" in joints, or, as Rogen puts it, "Jay in 'J's!" And Baruchel is genuinely touched. It's clear these two guys really care for each other, and, much like Superbad — Rogen and Goldberg's first film as screenwriters — the movie celebrates the open affection between male friends as a genuine good thing.
Later, after the end of the world has started, Rogen snuggles up in his underwear next to Baruchel for the night to feel safer. When Hill promptly plops between the two old friends, he sparks an extended conversation about how to arrange their bodies for the night. In another movie, this could have devolved into a gay panic scene — I don't want your giblets near my buns!, and so forth. Instead, it's about how much Baruchel can't stand being around Hill, and wants as little contact with him as possible. Rogen and Hill don't really care where their giblets and buns end up.
Scenes like this prove that really funny sequences involving men touching other men don't have to be about men touching other men. No one ever says "fag" or "faggot," and no one ever recoils at the idea that they could be perceived of as gay. That is especially true of one of the most riotously profane exchanges I've ever seen in a Hollywood comedy, when Franco and Danny McBride get into an argument about the protocols of masturbation that ends up in a screaming match about all the different places they are going to, er, leave their deposits around the house.
That scene rides right up to the edge of homophobia, but never crosses the line, and it's a wonder to behold. I really wish I could just leave it at that, but, alas, This Is The End also cannot help but revel in several jokes that are quite literally about gay sex.
Early in the film, McBride, who ends up as the villain (other than the Devil, I mean), makes a joke about Franco "sucking dick" while Franco is in the middle of brushing his teeth, complete with white, foamy toothpaste dribbling down his chin. It's a cheap joke, playing off Franco's coy am-I-gay posing over the past few years, but it's ultimately harmless. Part of me wishes Rogen and Goldberg had actually taken it further, asking Franco to perform as if he was really gay and allowing the movie to dive into genuinely dangerous territory. But perhaps it's for the best, since instead, they wrote a scene in which a horned demon sporting an enormous black dick crawls on top of Jonah Hill.
The implication, played for laughs, is that the demon buggers Hill, but the even more uncomfortable development is that Hill is then infected by the demon's soul. Have anal sex, get possessed by a demon. How lovely.
The movie's final act finds Rogen, Baruchel, and Franco on the run in the city, where they fall prey to McBride, who's become the leader of a gang of cannibals. I do admire McBride's fearlessness in allowing himself to be cast as an irredeemably horrible person, but I still have to take issue with the movie's last big celeb cameo. It turns out that while amassing his roving band of cannibals, McBride captured Channing Tatum, and made Tatum his "bitch," complete with a dog collar. To drive the point home, McBride even boasts of "sliding" himself into Tatum, and Tatum in turn clutches McBride's leg. Reducing the studly Tatum to an S&M slave isn't just an uproarious sight gag, either. It's a powerful way to reinforce just how low McBride had sunk — not only is he eating human beings, but he's forcing himself upon a male movie star!
Cards on the table: When I first saw Tatum's face, I laughed from the sheer shock. But once that had worn off, I thought back to an earlier scene, when Emma Watson takes refuge in Franco's home. While resting in Franco's bedroom, she misinterprets a conversation she hears the guys have about avoiding a "rape-y" vibe with the only woman in the house. Believing herself in danger, she fights her way out of the home and takes all their supplies, chopping off Franco's "art penis" in the process — just to underline the point. Again, I laughed — in part at the audacity of attempting a rape joke about someone from Harry Potter. But we never see Watson in the movie again. And as I left the theater, I wondered what would have happened had McBride captured her instead. Would the audience have found it anywhere near as funny to see Hermione sporting a dog collar and wiggling her ass? No. The answer to that question is a big fat no.