"Bruce": A Name Too "Gayish" for TV

The strange story of how 1970s homophobia turned "The Incredible Hulk" from "Bruce Banner" to "David Banner"

My son will be turning four soon, and he has been on a superhero kick lately. He loves superheroes of every kind, but it can be a challenge to find superhero material that is age-appropriate for him. Much of what we watch together is older cartoons from the 1960s and 1970s, which are usually gentle enough for a toddler. We also tried some YouTube videos with Lego superheroes, and he became very interested in one that remade the titles to the 1978 The Incredible Hulk series using Legos. But, after watching the video, he wanted to know why narrator Ted Cassidy called Bruce Banner “David.”

Dr. David Banner—physician, scientist—searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have. Then an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry. And now, when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs. The creature is driven by rage and pursued by an investigative reporter.

As with so many of my forays into historical research, finding an answer was darker and more disappointing than I would have anticipated.

The official story seems straightforward enough. Executive producer Kenneth Johnson said at the time that he changed the name from “Bruce” to “David” because he disliked comic books’ tendency to give characters alliterative names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, etc. But he also added that he had a distinct prejudice against the name Bruce. And that’s where things got weird.

“A name like ‘Bruce’ doesn’t have the degree of adult intelligence that ‘David’ has,” Johnson told The Hulk! Issue 20 in April 1980. “‘David Banner’ is sold, different, non-alliterative, and not a comic book name.”

His implication that the name “Bruce” was somehow juvenile, unintelligent, and soft seemed to require more explanation, and both Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno and Marvel comics executive Stan Lee said that there was more to the story. Ferrigno told USA Today in 2008 that the change came about due to homophobia: “CBS felt that the name Bruce sounded too gayish, and they wanted David. I thought it was the most absurd, ridiculous thing I'd ever heard.” Lee told a similar story many times, with many variants, but also alleged that Johnson and CBS felt that audiences associated the name “Bruce” with effeminacy and homosexuality and therefore would not accept the name for the Hulk’s alter ego.

Given that at the time Bruce Springsteen and Bruce (later Caitlyn) Jenner were among the most prominent male stars of that era, this would seem on the surface an absurd notion. And yet it contemporary evidence indicates that it is true.

According to an article in a 1980 edition of the journal Maledicta, a scholarly journal researching verbal aggression, the name “Bruce” became associated with homosexuality in the 1970s as evidenced by a sketch appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In the sketch, two male homeowners discuss conditions in their community:

First man: “Do you object to all the homosexuals who are ruining our neighborhood?”

Second man: “I’ll ask my wife. Oh, Bruce.”

The sketch builds on associations in previous media, such as the 1970 sketch “The Bruces” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which a group of homophobic men all named Bruce denounce “poofters,” or homosexuals. The episode was first in wide distribution in the U.S. after PBS began airing it in late 1974. Criticism from Frederic Wertham of Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, as a homosexual living with a teenage boy, which made national headlines and sparked a congressional hearing, had also left lingering shades of impure meaning on the name Bruce.

I am not familiar enough with The Tonight Show in the 1970s to know how frequently Carson referred to homosexuals as “Bruce,” but scattered references suggest he did so more than once. Whether this was due to Batman or a cheeky play on Springsteen and Jenner, or whether Carson originated the usage, I can’t say. It is, however, evidence that the name had taken on a “gay” connotation in the late 1970s. According to the Maledicta article, the large size of Carson’s audience, and the audiences for other comedians who picked up on the reference, helped spread the use of “Bruce” as a stereotypical “gay” name and a stock gay character: “Johnny Carson and others with gigantic audiences can rapidly establish that Bruce is the basic ‘gay’ name.” Such an association persisted for decades. In the 1997 Simpsons episode “Homer’s Phobia,” Homer identifies “Bruce” as one of the “toughest” male name corrupted by homosexuals.

As that 1980 article attests, the association between “Bruce” and homosexuality was already well-known and therefore a plausible reason for CBS’s concern, even if that concern is unsurprisingly awful. I would, however, prefer if sometimes the oddball questions that catch my attention don’t deliver depressing descents into America’s long history of discrimination.