When I’m asked where I got HIV,” comedian Steve Moore quips in his stand-up act, “I say, ‘I know for a fact I got it from a toilet seat. Of course, there was a man sitting on it at the time.’”
Back in the early ’90s, when Moore was newly diagnosed and praying to live to 40, he was among the first pro funnymen to tackle the virus on stage. One night in 1993, his routine at the La Jolla Comedy Store in southern California was a laugh riot right up until he said to the crowd, “I don’t have AIDS, I have HIV. Do you know what that means?”
“Yeah,” yelled some guy in the dark, “it means you’re gonna die.”
The crowd fell deathly silent. Then Moore shot back, “Oh? And you’re not?”
Nearly 15 years later, AIDS is perceived as a “manageable” illness. But while comedy clubs have become crucibles of racial and sexual tension, Moore remains one of a very few comics to risk viral humor. Why, when people find release in joking about everything from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina, does the idea of AIDS comedy remain so disturbing?
Start with the joker’s status: As with, say, Jewish jokes, must you be one to make one? Village Voice social commentator Michael Musto says that with HIV, that’s not the issue: “Being Jewish is not a life-threatening condition.” And even positive comics say HIV doesn’t get the laughs.
Maybe AIDS was funnier when it was more grisly. “Before the cocktails started working, there was a broader militancy spurring AIDS comedy,” says Bob Montgomery, who produces gay standup shows at Manhattan’s Gotham Comedy Club. “Maybe it died out when treatment became more effective.”
And maybe the best HIV jokes never appear onstage simply because they’re strictly inside material. Joe Norton, a positive staffer at the AIDS fundraising organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, says, “My friends and I joke about med side effects, trips to the doctor, lipo and diarrhea, because we understand it so well.” Comedy club audiences, largely negative, wouldn’t get it. Even gay men, Moore adds, don’t want to hear about HIV—“especially if they’re out partying.”
Meanwhile, Moore—now, gratefully, well over 40—plugs away. “I’ve been positive for 18 years,” he tells audiences, “and if I’d known I was going to live this long, I wouldn’t have run up all those credit card bills.” Maybe it’s this willingness to see the actual lives of those with HIV that will empower us finally to heal from AIDS phobia. Seriously, folks: isn’t it time we had the last laugh on the virus?
YOU'VE BEEN A WONDERFUL AUDIENCE
A few samples of the good, the bad and the very ugly in HIV humor
- Doctor to Rock Hudson upon his HIV diagnosis: "Don't worry, Rock. You'll be back on your knees in no time."
- Q: Do you know what the most difficult thing about having AIDS is? A: Trying to convince your mother that you're part Haitian.
- Q: Did you know why they haven't found a cure for AIDS yet? A: They can't get the mice to butt fuck.
- Sarah Silverman, in her film, Jesus is Magic: “When God gives you AIDS, (and God does give you AIDS, by the way) make LemonAIDS."
New, Improved humor in the age of HIV:
- Some lyrics by Tom Wilson Weinberg, from his song, "Safe Sex Slut":
"He's a safe-sex slut
He's a latex nut;
Ooh, he's so alluring;
He used to shower after sex and now he showers during"
- Two from Judy Carter (teacher, author, motivational humorist and former stand-up comic), from the workshop, HIV: Humor is Vital:
- "One guy called his HIV 'Mary Lou.' 'Oh, I have a bit of Mary Lou.' And his mother actually thought he was finally with a girl."
- Rage against the insurance companies: 'I got this disease by being screwed, and now that I have it, I'm being screwed again by Blue Cross."
- A recent study has revealed alarming statistics that suggest senior citizens are the now biggest carriers of AIDS...
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