Photo: “The Prom,” Netflix

That One Joke in ‘The Prom’

EDIT: This article has been amended to clarify that The Prom (2020) is an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name.

In Ryan Murphy’s 2020 film The Prom, there is a line that goes something like this:

“If they don’t have gay people here, why is my Scruff going crazy right now?”

A little context is in order. This scene comes directly after Meryl Streep’s character, Dee Dee, and her squad of Broadway misfits James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells, interrupt a school board meeting in support of Emma, a young lesbian who wants to take her girlfriend to her school’s prom. Because of the PTA’s homophobic beliefs, personified by PTA leader Kerry Washington, the school has elected to not hold a prom at all because of Emma. So, these Broadway stars, eager to capitalize on misfortune to gain clout and revive their careers, interrupt this school board meeting in solidarity with Emma. Immediately after this scene, the principal of the school, played by Keegan-Michael Key, interrogates Meryl Streep, asking her why she’s doing what she’s doing. And then, James Corden’s character says this:

“If they don’t have gay people here, why is my Scruff going crazy right now?”

It’s a throwaway line, barely meant to be analyzed or thought about. It is a line that, remarkably, doesn’t come back at all. I mean, later in the film, we get to interrogate James Corden’s character’s sexuality, but no mention is ever made again about his using Scruff.

Oh, for those who are unaware, Scruff is a gay hookup app. Think Grindr. In fact, the only conceivable reason I can think of for the screenwriters namedropping Scruff instead of Grindr is that Scruff is less recognizable for a straight audience, so it might fly under the radar if any parents are watching with their kids.

This line is out of place. It is a standout in the catastrophe of bad decision-making, horrible writing, and plain disrespect that surround and envelops Ryan Murphy’s The Prom. I want to focus on it, however, because it presents me with an interesting lens with which to analyze and dissect this monstrosity.

Photo: “The Prom,” Netflix

So, to start with, what exactly is the point of this line of dialogue? Well, it seems obvious, doesn’t it? This is supposed to be a joke. James Corden’s character is the comic relief, this is made incredibly obvious from early on. But beyond the comic relief, it is also evident that Corden’s character fits the stereotypical “gay best friend” archetype. What exactly this entails is readily apparent, because the characters that fit this stereotype are meant to be flashy. Out, loud, and proud, fabulous, limp-wristed, sissy-boy, fairy, bonafide fags.

You know, as a part of this extracurricular activity I do called speech, there is this competitive event called “humorous interpretation,” which is where competitors prepare a ten-minute humorous one-man performance where they play several characters. Because they have to play several people, and because these characters are supposed to be funny, these characters often fit loud, identifiable stereotypes. I judge humorous interpretation at the high school level, and whenever I see high school students playing a stereotypical flamboyant gay character, I automatically give them low marks for it, because they should know better than to play into those harmful stereotypes. I expect high schoolers to be able to comprehend that.

James Corden, Ryan Murphy, and the screenwriters of The Prom are in their 40’s and 50’s.

With all of that in mind, what is humor in this particular line of dialogue? Well, let’s take it from the top. “If they don’t have gay people here…” This is the setup. We are led to believe that the place where the film is set, Edgewater, Indiana, is a very conservative place that is not accepting of gay people. That’s the setup.

“…why is my Scruff going crazy right now?” This is the punchline. The punchline here actually serves us a double whammy. The obvious implication, as derived from the setup, is that there is a contradiction between the conservative appearance of Edgewater, Indiana, and the very active gay hookup scene that exists there. Pointing out this contradiction is funny. In addition to this, there is added meaning when taking into consideration that James Corden’s character is a flaming stereotype of a homosexual man. The humor, to put it bluntly, stems from a gay man being involved in gay hookup culture.

Gay men are promiscuous. That is the joke.

If you’ve been paying attention, you might notice that I’ve been referring to “James Corden’s character” rather than James Corden himself. Now is as good a time as any to talk about the elephant in the room — that being the controversy surrounding James Corden’s casting and his portrayal of a gay man. James Corden is, for all we know, a straight man. He has made many references in interviews to being straight since his youth, and he has been happily married to a woman for eight years. James Corden’s character, Barry Glickman, is gay. This creates a dissonance, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t gay characters be played by gay actors?

Well, not necessarily. Some of the best gay films of all time star straight actors. Gregg Araki’s Teenage Apocalypse trilogy, one of the landmark works of New Queer Cinema, features three films all starring James Duval, who is straight according to my research. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivered a phenomenal performance in Mysterious Skin, Trevante Rhodes is haunting in Moonlight, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz and Olivia Coleman all dazzle in The Favourite — Straight people are allowed to play gay characters. Obviously.

But there’s the catch, isn’t it? Straight people can play gay characters, but those characters need to be good characters. If the film is poorly written, or those characters are reduced to harmful stereotypes, those characters will not be good characters. And when a straight person plays a poorly written gay character… well, that’s just rubbing salt into the wound, isn’t it?

In the film adaptation of The Prom, Barry Glickman is not a well-written character in the slightest. His main personality trait is being gay and being resentful of straight society. His gayness is represented by being stereotypically flamboyant, and his resentment is resolved by him simply forgiving his parents, which comes out of nowhere, feels undeserved, and is unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Ryan Murphy’s take on Barry Glickman is a satire of gay men designed to capitalize on the director’s hatred of them. And this joke is the apotheosis of that hatred.

So, the other elephant in the room. Ryan Murphy. Ryan Murphy is gay. Ryan Murphy’s films are indicative of a furious hatred for gay men.

Photo: “The Normal Heart,” HBO

Let’s talk for a second about Murphy’s 2014 film, The Normal Heart. The Normal Heart is an adaptation of the play of the same name written by Larry Kramer. Larry Kramer was a gay activist who rose to prominence in the 80’s during the AIDS crisis. He was a founding member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and he went on to create ACT UP in 1987 after leaving Gay Men’s Health Crisis in ’83. The Normal Heart is a more-or-less autobiographical play chronicling the founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Kramer’s dismissal from the organization.

Kramer was an… angry man. He was angry at a lot of things, and rightfully so. Reading any of his works will give you a taste of just how phenomenally full of rage he was. Here is an excerpt from an article Kramer published in the New York Native in 1983, titled 1,112 and Counting:

I am sick of everyone in this community who tells me to stop creating a panic. How many of us have to die before you get scared off your ass and into action? Aren’t 195 dead New Yorkers enough? Every straight person who is knowledgeable about the AIDS epidemic can’t understand why gay men aren’t marching on the White House. Over and over again I hear from them, “Why aren’t you guys doing anything?” Every politician I have spoken to has said to me confidentially, “You guys aren’t making enough noise. Bureaucracy only responds to pressure…”

…I am sick of guys who moan that giving up careless sex until this blows over is worse than death. How can they value life so little and cocks and asses so much? Come with me, guys, while I visit a few of our friends in Intensive Care at NYU. Notice the looks in their eyes, guys. They’d give up sex forever if you could promise them life.

I am sick of guys who think that all being gay means is sex in the first place. I am sick of guys who can only think with their cocks.

I am sick of “men” who say, “We’ve got to keep quiet or they will do such and such.” They usually means the straight majority, the “Moral” Majority, or similarly perceived representatives of them. Okay, you “men” — be my guests: You can march off now to the gas chambers; just get right in line.

Larry Kramer resented hookup culture because he had to. His people were dying. My people were dying. And the cause was preventable with a simple push towards safe sex, or even abstinence if that’s what it takes. And yet, they weren’t.

And why is that? Why is hookup culture so intertwined with gay culture? Well, the culture we live in is cisheteronormative. Gay people have been systemically excluded, targeted, discriminated against, and killed by the government for decades. Gay people are depressed, and they have been for a long time. Hookup culture is an escape. Sex feels good. It is addicting.

And who could blame a gay person for engaging in this kind of sexual promiscuity? What makes hooking up with another man any different from any other deadly vice — gambling, alcohol, cigarettes. What makes gay men having promiscuous encounters with multiple partners any different from any other vice? Well, social stigma. Gay people are the outsiders. Gay people are deviants. Gay men are sickly, diseased, emasculated, fairy faggot queers who deserve to burn in Hell. So, it’s no wonder that when a plague broke out that happened to be perfectly suited for transmission via promiscuous sex, gay men got sick. And straight people stopped giving a shit.

But Larry Kramer gave a shit. Larry Kramer cared so deeply about his community — his people — that he would do anything in his power to save them. His work prior to the AIDS crisis, particularly his 1979 book Faggots, shows that he saw hookup culture as a tool by which gay men become detached from love in the traditional sense — from feeling. Sex is merely a means to an end. Larry Kramer had a vested interest in making sure that his people did not die, sure, but his motivations came mostly from wanting his people to be happy. To be fulfilled.

This is reflected in The Normal Heart, too. Kramer wants gay men to be proud of who they are, to stay safe, and to love each-other. He is resentful of hookup culture, but only because he is resentful of what it has taken away from gay people.

There is no sense in the 2014 film adaptation of The Normal Heart that gay men are meant to be sympathized with. I mean, duh, the text is inherently sympathetic, but Ryan Murphy’s direction adds a whole new shade of regret and loathing to the text. Whereas Kramer’s hatred of hookups came from love, Murphy’s comes out of spite. I’m no psychologist, but this might derive from his compulsive fear of contracting HIV while he was in college. He would get tested frequently, even though he was celibate. Murphy hates hookup culture because it represents a personal danger. He doesn’t hate it for the complex reasons that Larry Kramer hates it. As a result, many of the gay men in The Normal Heart 2014 feel like caricatures, mere puppets for Murphy’s paranoia.

Gay men are promiscuous. They are to be scorned.

That is the joke.

This long-winded tangent about Larry Kramer leads us back to James Corden and The Prom. Ryan Murphy hates gay male hookup culture, and it directly funnels into the way he portrays this one line. This one, simple, take-it-or-leave-it, utterly inconsequential, throwaway line. So, out of everything I could have conceivably talked about, why did I spend so much time on this one joke?

The Prom 2020 is an unholy abomination of a film that is a pastiche of the very thing that it is — a white liberal celebrity circle jerk about love and acceptance that accomplishes nothing and pisses off everyone in the process. The film exists primarily as an Oscar vehicle for its main celebrity cast, while it completely ignores its main character, Emma. The direction is bad, the cinematography is disorienting, it’s flashy and insubstantial and dull. It portrays a homophobia that doesn’t exist, vanquishes it, and then pats itself on the back for doing so. It is masturbatory nonsense for the straights. It is uncomfortable wish fulfillment that alienates the gay people that it claims to be aligned with.

And it all comes back to one line.

“If they don’t have gay people here, why is my Scruff going crazy right now?”

What a joke. What an embarrassment. What an absolute spit in the face to the very people you claim to be “helping” with this godforsaken nightmare of a vanity project. I sincerely wish that every single person involved in the production of this film never sets foot on a film set ever again. The Prom is a catastrophic, tone-deaf, clusterfuck of an embarrassment to gay people. And I sincerely hope Ryan Murphy considers retirement after this.

Here’s to those Golden Globe nominations, Mr. Murphy.

Filmmaker-ish. Critic-ish.