This piece originally appeared on Lick the Fridge on October 2, 2011.
AIDS is no joke. I didn’t always know that.
When I was about 11 my best friend and I watched Eddie Murphy’s stand up comedy routine, Delirious, for the first time. For several years we practiced all our favorite bits on each other as if we were trying to be stand up comedians ourselves.
Our favorite segment was when he talked about this new disease called AIDS, and how it was so much worse than gonorrhea and herpes, and how people thought that only faggots got AIDS and died, but, really, it could happen to anyone, like when your wife was out having drinks with her gay friend and gave him a little peck on the lips goodnight, and then came home with AIDS on her lips and transferred it to her husband when she kissed him, and five years later the husband goes to the doctor:
“Mr. Johnson, you have AIDS.”
“AIDS? But I’m not a homosexual.”
“Sure, you’re not a homosexual.”
We thought that was the funniest exchange ever recorded in human history. We would take turns being the doctor and the husband, and we would practice Eddie Murphy’s patented delivery, white kids doing a black man’s impression of a white man, all nerdy and a little bit nasally. We would pause extra long before the final line, elongating the “sure” to enhance the doctor’s disbelief.
We laughed every time, and sometimes we would truncate the entire bit and just throw in the last line, “Sure, you’re not a homosexual,” when someone did something that we thought was lame or stupid, words used interchangeably with gay, and we thought we were so clever with our practiced routine, our irony, our homage to one of the great comedians of the day.
We were too young and ignorant to know anything of the seriousness of AIDS, because even though we understood that AIDS did kill people, like Eddie Murphy said it did, the people that were killed by AIDS weren’t people that we knew or would ever meet, and so, using Eddie Murphy as our guide, we decided it was more important to make jokes about AIDS than to care about the people that were dying of AIDS, because making people laugh, even if those people were just yourself and your best friend, was so much fun, and, hey, in the end, it wasn’t really our problem.
And when I sat in the bedroom of a tiny studio apartment in San Francisco and my dad told me he was gay and that he was HIV positive and that John was his boyfriend, I didn’t make any connection to Eddie Murphy or to Mr. Johnson. I just cried and wished it wasn’t so.
And a few months later when he called to tell me that John had died of AIDS and that he had really liked me and thought that I was a good kid, and that I would turn out to be alright, I cried a little more because I genuinely liked John even if he was gay. But my cries were muted because I was only fifteen and I had not let homosexuality and AIDS become part of my world, and I could do the Eddie Murphy Mr. Johnson bit in my sleep, and I was a little annoyed that my dad had called while I was watching Family Ties.
While I eventually discontinued the Mr. Johnson bit from my stand up comedic repertoire, it wasn’t until the summer of 2000 when my dad was admitted to the hospital with what turned out to be complications from AIDS that I finally began to understand that there are hundreds of thousands of Mr. Johnsons out there and each one of them is someone’s brother or son or father or partner or friend.
And on September 29, 2000 when my dad died of AIDS in a San Francisco hospital, it had been years since I thought much about Eddie Murphy or Delirious or Mr. Johnson. But I wasn’t totally disconnected from that comedic bit, for AIDS was more firmly entrenched in my mind than any other topic.
Yeah, AIDS is no joke. I know that now.