Nearly a decade ago, when AIDS awareness was in its infancy, the disease was believed to be confined to the four Hs : homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians and hypodermic needle users. It wasn't long before two more Hs --homophobic humor--joined the misinformation show.
One of the first, big-time AIDS jokes, an attack on gays, was chronicled in a behavioral science journal by Alan Dundes, a UC Berkeley anthropology and folklore professor:
\o7 Q: Do you know what "gay" means?
A: "Got AIDS yet?"
\f7 Meanwhile, as increasing numbers of people died of and learned to live with the disease, a second type of AIDS humor emerged. It didn't trash the gay lifestyle or turn patients into punch lines. With jokes on the effectiveness of AIDS diet plans and the do's and don'ts of condom etiquette, this more positive humor was gentle and supportive.
In some cases, it helped AIDS patients and their families to focus on something other than fear and pain, to reconcile the irreconcilable and to reaffirm the human spirit.
In the last year, however, AIDS humor has taken a new, darker turn. By nature, observers say, it has always tended to be on the black side. But this recent crop of satire, jokes andcamp is wilder, funkier and far more frank than ever.
Some of it is so tasteless it might have been inspired by one of John Waters' early films.
It offends many who claim that such material dishonors the dying and the dead. But the new breed of beyond-the-edge comedy is not coming from homophobes. It's chiefly the work of young gay men, some of whom are gleefully living with AIDS.
Indeed, the creators of this over-the-top approach claim their work empowers those dealing with AIDS to fully accept the grim reality of the disease and then transcend it.
* Diseased Pariah News (DPN), the San Francisco-based quarterly described by editor Wulf Thorne as "somewhere between Spy magazine and Good Housekeeping for the HIV set." When the magazine began publishing late last year, its first 10 subscribers were offered an eventual bonus of paperweights containing the ashes of DPN co-founder Tom Shearer. He died last spring and is now affectionately known among staffers as "the deaditor."
The magazine has a circulation of 2,500 and regularly features a nutrition column, "Get Fat, Don't Die," a "Meat Market" personals section and a comic strip starring "Capt. Condom." Says Thorne, who is HIV-positive: "We think that if you're going to croak sooner than you'd like, at least you can live while you're alive."
* The emergence of musical comedies such as "Heart String" and "AIDS: The Musical." "Heart String," which has played throughout the country and is scheduled to open at the Shrine Auditorium in February, features singer-dancers dressed as Trojan women performing the show's safe-sex anthem, "Take a Trojan to Bed Tonight."
The decidedly more outrageous "AIDS: The Musical" briefly played to sold-out audiences at a small theater in Santa Monica last summer. In the play, a hospitalized man hallucinates that he is on an AIDS game show. Dancers appear costumed as AIDS-related diseases: "Kaposi's Sarcoma" and "The Fabulous Miss Thrush."
* The appearances at local AIDS benefits of registered nurse Debbie Trent-Johnson, who plays a drag queen-style character named Tra-La-La. "Tra-La-La's a blowzy, frowzy type who wears wigs, tight clothes and trashes it up all over town," says Trent-Johnson, who is married and a mom.
On the job at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital's Immune Suppressed Unit, she ditches the Tra-La-La costume but incorporates the character's attitude in her bedside manner.
"The sense of dread and doom here is relentless, but this helps," Trent-Johnson explains. "Some of my patients are very clear-eyed. I had this patient who said to me, 'Debbie, they're sending me get-well cards! Don't they know I've got AIDS and I'm gonna \o7 die\f7 ?'
"We laugh about all kinds of things. Incontinence is really not very funny, but there are times when we find ourselves just laughing our heads off about it.
"We also have pet names and running gags for people here. There's a doctor I call Cleopatra, because I think he's the Queen of Denial. He can never admit his patients are dying. He always pushes for tests that dying people don't need. When he does that, we just say, 'Cleopatra's on his barge again.' "
* Increasing lightheartedness in the reporting of AIDS-related matters by the gay press. In his "HIV Watch" column for the San Francisco-based Bay Area Reporter, Michael Botkin occasionally refers to people with AIDS as "dead meat specials." The column also goes "obituary cruising."
"I go through the papers and pick out the closeted AIDS obituaries," says HIV-positive Botkin. "For instance, a man who dies of lymphoma who's under the age of 50 or 60--it's pretty obvious that's somebody who died of AIDS.