If you didn't laugh, you'd cry

'Don't mess with me or I'll open up a vein and take out the whole front row'
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The Independent Culture
A man walks into a spotlight and cracks a joke. Ouch! It's an Aids joke. The man in question is the American stand-up comic Steve Moore. He's gay. And HIV positive. And before the audience has recovered from the shock of hearing a gay man of all people joke about such a solemn subject, he's asking a man at the back for a sip of his beer, and warning any would-be hecklers not to mess with him, or he'll "open up a vein and take out the whole front row". A few people giggle nervously - the man at the back simply squirms.

Moore is one of a tiny minority of gay comics prepared to tackle Aids with the same degree of irreverence he brings to bear on other subjects, from straight parents' disappointment at producing a homosexual child to the dynamics of gay men's relationships with straight women.

But he isn't completely out on a limb. In Paul Rudnick's comedy of gay sexual manners, Jeffrey, we are encouraged to laugh at the exploits of a gay New Yorker crippled with fear of sexual contact and emotional commitment in a world conditioned by Aids. In the opening scene, Jeffrey complains that "sex wasn't meant to be safe, or negotiated, or fatal", before noting that "the sexual revolution is over. England won". According to Rudnick, the series of sketches that follow are not an exercise in avoidance but "a tribute to the enduring wit and infinite compassion of the gay community, and to the heterosexual friends and families of that community".

And then there's My Night with Reg. Kevin Elyot's eloquent black comedy was recently condemned by Gay Times' Aids columnist Simon Watney, who wrote that, given the play's failure to propagate the safer sex message, "all of us who've worked for the past 10 years or more in HIV/Aids work might, frankly, just as well have stayed in bed". Still, it continues to raise a laugh with those audiences prepared to accept that not only is Aids a nice little earner, it's actually rather funny.

I'm joking - because that's what we do. It's all very well arguing that Aids is no laughing matter. The bottom line is, it is. Gay men have learnt to cope with the unimaginable horrors of the epidemic by coating our anxieties in layers of prophylactic irony. One of the distinguishing features of an Aids funeral is the combination of insurmountable grief and inexplicable humour - as yet another gay man tells yet another amusing story about yet another dead friend, and yet another coffin strewn with flowers and fairy-lights sails away to the strains of yet another silly show tune.

This strange sense of occasion is reflected rather accurately in Jeffrey, where the death of a Broadway dancer is marked by his colleagues from Cats strutting their stuff to a chorus of "Memory". What is even stranger is the length of time it has taken for such authentic expressions of grief to make their way from the funeral party to the public stage.

Or perhaps it isn't so strange. In terms of the strain it places on otherwise healthy notions of free artistic expression, Aids is a complete nightmare. Historically, anyone wanting to represent the illness and its effects has tended to shoulder the responsibility for media distortions, resulting in the kind of narrow prescriptiveness that was once the scourge of anyone wanting to depict any aspect of gay life. The true extent of this bizarre form of self-censorship was spelt out by the gay writer Edmund White, who decreed in 1987 that "if art is to confront Aids more honestly than the media have done, it must begin in tact, avoid humour, and end in anger". For White, humour seemed "grotesquely inappropriate to the occasion", suggesting "that Aids is just another calamity to befall Mother Camp".

Eight years and several works of fiction later, White appears to have modified his opinion somewhat. His latest collection of short stories, Skinned Alive, contains an autobiographical tale entitled "Watermarked". In it, he addresses an ex-lover whom he describes as being "almost unbearably flippant about all the tragedies we're forced to live through", before finally admitting, "I approve of the style."

As well he might. One of the lessons we should all have learnt from the Philadelphia experiment is that flippancy isn't necessarily such a bad thing, if only because truth has a nasty habit of flying out of the window when a film-maker places too much importance on being earnest. When Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning Aids drama opened last March, a number of gay critics complained that Tom Hanks's portrayal of a dying gay man who never so much as kissed his lover was "inauthentic" and therefore "offensive". They might just as well have asked why the film didn't contain any jokes.

After all, 1994 was the same year that gay film directors Richard Glatzer and John Greyson gave us Grief and Zero Patience - two of the best films about Aids, which also happen to be two of the funniest. In the first, a gay man contemplating suicide on the anniversary of his lover's death is overtaken by an absurd plot involving a courtroom soap-opera, a photocopier repairman, and a semen-stained sofa. In the second, the search for Patient Zero (believed to be the man who first brought Aids to America) is turned into an all-singing, all-dancing parable on the subject of scapegoating, with a cast that includes a Victorian sexologist, a vicious drag queen who goes by the name of Miss HIV, and a pair of lovestruck, singing sphincters.

Neither the director of Grief nor the director of Zero Patience display much by way of tact. Nor do they seem particularly concerned with avoiding humour. Zero Patience does end in anger, with a bunch of Aids activists storming a museum - but even this is a cue for a show tune. Still, their purpose is deadly serious. By resisting the sentimental pieties evoked by a film like Philadelphia, films like these exist to remind us that there are more heartfelt responses to Aids than group hugs and Kodak moments. Far from suggesting that "Aids is just another calamity to befall Mother Camp", what Grief and Zero Patience both demonstrate beyond all reasonable objection is that humour is part and parcel of how we cope with life's hard knocks, and that laughing in the face of Aids isn't quite the same thing as treating it lightly.

There is a scene in Jeffrey where our hero is cornered by two men threatening to beat him up for being a fag. "I got a knife," one queerbasher warns, brandishing his blade. "What you got?" "Irony," Jeffrey says defiantly. The audience laughs knowingly. The joke is, irony isn't much of a weapon. The tragedy is, sometimes it's the best that we can muster.

n 'Jeffrey' is at Greenwich Theatre, London, SE10 (0181-858 7755); 'My Night with Reg' is at the Criterion, London, WC2 (0171-344 4444)