Trigger warning: Discussion of rape, and of the trivialization of rape.
I was thinking of weighing in on the whole “rape joke” thing. But Lindy West at Jezebel pretty mush said everything I wanted to say, in her piece, How to Make a Rape Joke. I want to quote practically every other word, but I’ll just quote the bits that really jumped out at me.
A comedy club is not some sacred space. It’s a guy with a microphone standing on a stage that’s only one foot above the ground. And the flip-side of that awesome microphone power you have—wow, you can seriously say whatever you want!—is that audiences get to react to your words however we want.
If people don’t want to be offended, they shouldn’t go to comedy clubs? Maybe. But if you don’t want people to react to your jokes, you shouldn’t get on stage and tell your jokes to people.
This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks. Your girlfriend is censoring herself when she says she’s okay with you playing Xbox all day. In a way, comedy is censoring yourself—comedy is picking the right words to say to make people laugh. A comic who doesn’t censor himself is just a dude yelling.
And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…”
You can be edgy and creepy and offensive and trivial and, yes, you can talk about rape. Doing comedy in front of a silent room is scary, and shocking people is a really easy way to get a reaction. But if you want people to not hate you (and wanting to not be hated is not the same thing as wanting to be liked), you should probably try and do it in a responsible, thoughtful way. Easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.
Yes. This. Go read the rest of it.
There’s just one thing I want to add, the thing that’s been burbling in my brain since this whole thing started:
Are there Holocaust jokes that are funny? Well… yes. “The Producers” leaps to mind. Practically the whole second half of that movie is one long Holocaust joke. And it was hilarious. “Springtime for Hitler” was so funny, it practically made me pee my pants.
Are there jokes using racial epithets that are funny? Sure. Comedian and activist Dick Gregory titled his autobiography N***** (except he didn’t use the asterisks) — and in the dedication, he wrote, “Dear Momma — Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “n*****” again, remember they are advertising my book.” That’s pretty freaking funny.
What’s the difference between these… and Daniel Tosh’s rape joke and follow-up?
Lots of things. The fact that they’re actually funny, for starters. But the big difference that leaps out to me:
Mel Brooks is Jewish. And Dick Gregory is black.
I’m not saying it’s impossible for men to make funny jokes about women being raped. Lindy West’s piece gives some excellent examples of how this can be done. I’m saying this: If you’re making comedy about brutal oppression, and you are not in the group being oppressed, then IMO you should be damn careful with your humor. Your humor should be about the oppression — not the oppressed. Your humor should undermine the oppression — not contribute to it. And if you screw up, you need to not lash out and make it worse.
I get that this can be hard. I get that when you make art — and yes, comedy is art — dealing with sensitive hot-button topics, people can screw it up. So here’s a couple of hints. Hint #1: Telling a woman in your audience, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” that doesn’t cut it.
And Hint #2: If the Internet is blowing up with thousands of women screaming, “Fuck you, that’s horrible” — you screwed it up, and you need to genuinely apologize, not with some half-assed bullshit not-pology.
You can say whatever you want. Or, as Lindy West put it:
In case this isn’t perfectly clear yet: You can say whatever you want.
You can say whatever you want. You can say whatever you want. You can say whatever you want.
You can say whatever you want.
You can say whatever you want. That doesn’t mean you should.