How to Make a Rape Joke, or, Why Lindy West is a Genius

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.

And this:

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.

And this:

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 this:

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…”

And this:

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.

How to Make a Rape Joke, or, Why Lindy West is a Genius
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64 thoughts on “How to Make a Rape Joke, or, Why Lindy West is a Genius

  1. 4

    Rule #1 for crafting a funny rape joke: there has to be an actual joke involved. Rule #2: it has to be a funny joke.

    Just saying “Rape is funny, am I right? isn’t a joke. Saying something disgusting and unfunny loudly, or using a weird affect, or gesticulating wildly, or using any one of a dozen other stereotypical comedian thingies doesn’t magically convert “shocking and serious” into “shocking and funny.”

    …it is cargo cult comedy, isn’t it?

  2. 5

    You can say whatever you want, and other people can say whatever they want about what you said. Heat, kitchen, goose, gander et cetera. And when you fuck up, (wo)man up and own up.

  3. 6

    I’ve always found comedians who make oppressed people the butt of their jokes to be unimaginitive and intellectually lazy. How is it clever to take a down trodden group of people and stamp on them some more? The “jokes” are obvious. Whatever oppressed group a comedian is talking about likely has a long history of be mocked or ridiculed and they are just jumping on the band wagon. It’s regurgitating old material. “Oh tell me Mr. Comedian about your cutting edge humour and how strolling down the well trodden path of making rape jokes is such a great demonstration of your effervescent wit!”

    It is much harder to actually disect the issue and undermine the oppression as you have mentioned. That requires thought, consideration, sometimes a bit of delicacy and it’s not so damned bleeding obvious as all the other tripe.

  4. 7

    Some would call it “censoring yourself. Others would call it “editing.”

    Any writer can tell you the value of “editing.” Any GOOD writer, anyway.

  5. 8

    It’s not about belonging to a minority gives you license to do different things or take different levels of care.

    The point is that jokes that mean the same thing are funny for the same reasons regardless of who tells them – but the meanings of words and collections of same are often inferred.

    This is **especially** true with jokes. This inferential process requires guessing at the motivations of the person telling the joke. And, here’s the thing:

    IF you share identifiable qualities with someone, you are more likely to ascribe motives and interpretations in more generous ways.

    If one of those identifiable qualities is directly relevant to the joke (say, shared or assumed-to-be shared experience of oppression), that truth will have an outsize effect on how someone hears what you’re saying.

    All in all, it’s about trust: when making a rape joke, do the people in the room that feel especially vulnerable to rape trust that you aren’t making things worse? You can communicate that explicitly with careful wording and use of tone, body language, etc. You can rely on the trust you’ve built in the room, either through decades of comedy-activism that supports people who normally get the short end of the stick like Louis CK. You can rely on the trust you’re given by shared ID and experience. You can try to build trust in other ways. Or you can just wing it and hope for the best. But that’s not crafting comedy. That’s just saying whatever is on your mind and hoping it’s funny.

    That’s the deal.

    It’s basic human psychology really. It’s about communication. If you don’t have a shared language, you ahve to work harder. If you have a shared language, but not shared culture or assumptions, you have to work harder. If everything about your behavior screams that you’re a jerk and you want to communicate that you’re not…

    Tosh, you’ve just got to work harder.

  6. 9

    General question: does anyone here actually like Daniel Tosh? Having caught bits of his show a couple times, I found this description from the original blog post that set this off striking:

    Some other guy I didn’t recognize took the stage. Of course, I would find out later this was Daniel Tosh, but at the time I thought he was just some yahoo who somehow got a gig going on after Cook. I honestly thought he was an amateur because he didn’t seem that comfortable on stage and seemed to have a really awkward presence.

    I never had quite that experience with Tosh, because I encountered him via his show and obviously anyone who gets a show on Comedy Central isn’t a total amateur, but I still thought he was pretty awful.

    Some of the things I’ve read about Tosh suggest maybe he’s trying for the “playing a character who’s an awful person” routine, a bit like Sarah Silverman. But if that’s what he’s going for, he seems to be doing a terrible job of making it clear that’s what he’s doing. Heck whatever he’s trying to do, he seems to be doing a terrible job of it.

  7. 10

    I used to. The first act I saw him do was good, it was “little kid” comedy I.E. stories from childhood/nostalgia based. He has decent comedic timing and phrasing as well. Unfortunately, nothing that I’ve seen him do since then is as good as that.

  8. Sid

    Greta, after a couple of days of feeling completely buried under misogynistic crap, this made me feel lots better. Thank you.

  9. 12

    Honestly, Tosh’s career has always baffled me. He really isn’t a funny man at all…his insults lack class and any thoughtful insight that a good comedian brings to the table.

    This incident really just highlighted what a terrible comedian, as well as a shitty human being, he really is.

  10. KT

    For me, the difference between someone like Sarah Silverman and someone like Tosh is that it is very obvious that Sarah Silverman is making fun of the awfulness of who she sometimes pretends to be. There is no mistaking that the butt of her joke is the awful personality she affects, there is nothing else to laugh at, there and there is almost no chance that there are people out there who are similar to that personality type that are feeling validated by her fake persona.

    On the other hand, from what I have seen of Tosh, if he is making fun of a certain personality type, then he is doing it by acting in a way that is virtually indistinguishable from the personality type he is making fun of. There’s no exaggeration or other humorous elements that make it clear he is playing a character. If he was doing what he claims to do (or what some claim he is doing) then I wouldn’t expect most of his fans to actually be the people he is supposed to be making fun of, but they are. If the people you are supposedly making fun of are the same people that find you super funny, then you aren’t doing it right. For example conservatives don’t tend to find Stephen Colbert all that funny. But white male assholes tend to be huge fans of Tosh.

  11. 14

    I think a lot of ‘offensive’ comics just aren’t that funny. I kind of feel like for something to be really funny, there has to be some truth behind it. With a lot of misogynistic comedy – like Tucker Max – the only ‘joke’ is ‘look what an asshole i am! and watch me get away with it!’ I think a lot of people laugh at it because they get to (momentarily) enjoy being assholes, or because we’ve been socialized to laugh when the person telling the joke thinks they’re funny, even when they are not.

    I used to draw comics. I had this rule that I kind of knew who might be offended by what I drew/wrote, and sometimes I didn’t care. Unless I was willing to say “if you were offended, I meant to offend you because I think what you stand for is bullshit” I didn’t do it, not out of self-censorship, but because I wouldn’t have found it funny myself.

  12. 16

    @Sid I feel much the same way. I’m a gamer, a comic book fan and an atheist and it seems like all my favorite things are currently rife with misogynists. So between that and all the politicians trying to limit my reproductive rights I’m -so- very depressed right now.

  13. 17

    Crip Dyke, thank you for helping me understand better why women tend to find so many men’s jokes offensive. I already knew that women felt the jokes tacitly endorsed the sort of misbehavior they’re lampooning, even though they wouldn’t be funny if the behavior wasn’t outrageously unacceptable. What I didn’t quite get was that I — even I — could be considered untrustworthy when telling the joke.

    Here’s an oldie as an example, that nearly all men and nearly no women found funny: There’s a new birth control pill for men. You take it the morning after and it changes your blood type. Women think it encourages male irresponsibility, which is threatening, while men laugh at the absurdity of a morning after pill for men.

    Now I’m wondering how Dick Gregory’s jokes would have worked if told by an ambiguous white. Actually, the one that ends “I go to the beach at night and lie in the moon” might be just as funny if told by Goth or a certain sort of nerd.

  14. 18

    bad Jim said:

    What I didn’t quite get was that I — even I — could be considered untrustworthy when telling the joke.

    Given that you just got done wildly exaggerating the extent to which “women” are offended by “men’s” jokes, and then suggested they (offended women) are stupid by declaring that they didn’t get the point of the joke, I wonder why that could be?

    Here’s an oldie as an example, that nearly all men and nearly no women found funny: There’s a new birth control pill for men. You take it the morning after and it changes your blood type. Women think it encourages male irresponsibility, which is threatening, while men laugh at the absurdity of a morning after pill for men.

    You think that’s why men laugh? Seriously?

  15. 19

    Bad Jim, to add a single data point, I’m a guy and I didn’t find that joke that funny. Partly because it’s about somebody being an irresponsible asshole and the joke is not at that asshole’s expense, and partly because the joke Fails Biology Forever: even if the pill somehow changed the guy’s blood type permanently by altering his DNA, that wouldn’t matter because the genes affecting blood type aren’t in any of the loci used for paternity testing.

  16. 20

    Gretchen, I merely meant the women to whom I told the joke. I didn’t understand their reaction. Back then, I didn’t get that the “point of the joke” isn’t the same for everyone in the audience. In my example, most of my female friends heard it as “it’s okay for men to be irresponsible” and didn’t like it, which was a problem because I didn’t mean to offend them; I was actually trying to please them.

    I like jokes that surprise me. Of course I’m blind to my own privilege – that’s how privilege works – and as a result I might laugh at a joke that someone else enjoys for different reason and which triggers a violently negative result in someone else.

    It’s also blindingly obvious that other people find jokes funny for other reasons than I do; they certainly laugh at things I don’t. Too much comedy is laughing at stupidity, and way too much is laughing at stupid people. A certain amount of ridiculousness is inherent in humanity, since there’s a mismatch between our pretensions and our animality, and pretty much all of us have done something dumb which was comical in retrospect, but too many movies and TV shows entice us to laugh at people who can’t help the way they are.

    DSimon, I did say it was an old joke. The idea of a morning after pill for men is still absurd, though, and that’s why I thought it was funny. The irresponsible attitude that envelopes the joke didn’t register with me because it was merely commonplace.

    Here’s my theory of humor: it’s only a matter of surprise. It doesn’t need to transgress boundaries (though that’s a fertile field) or relieve tension (here I part with Freud). The problem for me is that the comedy other people enjoy is more likely to offend than please me, as though what most gratifies them is the thought that “I’m not that bad.”

  17. 21

    I can’t write to save my life. I somehow managed not to say that my theory of humor is obviously wrong, which was the entire point.

  18. 23

    The oldest joke we know goes something like this: A king notices a commoner to whom he bears a striking resemblance, and asks him whether his mother used to work in the palace. The commoner replies no, but his father did.

    The sexism of the joke is rather obvious: who’s your daddy? It’s an unspoken assumption that they have different mothers. One part of the joke is the surprise, the reversal; the other is that having the wrong father is somehow shameful, and it isn’t as funny outside that context. Let’s be charitable, it’s thousands of years old.

    I like listening to jokes, I like telling jokes, and I really hate offending people. I hope we can bumble along, intermittently amusing and enjoying each other, learning to avoid the things that hurt and getting better at finding the things that tickle.

  19. 24

    Wait, so tone trolling is ok if you do it to comedians?

    It’s not even close to the same thing.

    Tone trolling is avoiding the specifics of what someone’s saying and complaining “Why do your arguments/opinions have to be so aggressive/use bad language?”

    The objections to Tosh aren’t due to his tone or style, but because the *content* of what he said was stupid and offensive.

  20. 25

    Wait, so tone trolling is ok if you do it to comedians?

    It’s not tone trolling when you talk about why a comedian isn’t funny. That’s called critique. But hey, nice try.

  21. 26

    What tone trolls means:

    Avoiding someone’s argument by whining about the tone, instead of substance.

    What tone troll does not mean:

    Criticizing someone’s bigotry, victim-blaming and/or rape apologetics.

    What understanding tone trolling isn’t:

    rocket science.

  22. 27

    Maybe none of you have realized, that Tosh has apologized. He has not asked to ” be liked or not be hated.” I have been following all of this controversey since it began, and as a woman, I just want to say SHUT UP. It was a joke! albeit, a badly delivered one, but it was just that. a joke. He can’t know that someone in the room is a victim of sexual violence. Comedians cannot cater to everyone’s sensitivities. Nor do I think they should! Many comedians deal with their previous pain through comedy. My friend has breast cancer, she is a comedian. She uses it in her act. None of you actually know if he has suffered sexual trauma. The likelyhood may be low that he has, but the point is, you do not know. From the way some of you are arguing, it sounds like, if you haven’t experienced it or part of that race or oppressed group, you can’t make fun of it. And for the person who said comedians who make fun of oppressed groups just aren’t creative and clever enough, I would like to see you ass get up on stage in front of a room full of sometimes drunk judgemental people. I think Lindy West’s article was awful, inaccurate, rambling bullshit that made me wanna blow my head off. I am very sensitive to those who have suffered from sexual violence. But I also know how to take a joke. People today just want to be the victim, of anything. So people will just take anything and blow it out of proportion. If he directly threatened her, “I am gonna rape you right now in front of everyone,” then of course YES she should be up in arms as would everyone else. He would also be arrested. But, being as that is NOT what he said, her reactions is a rad out of range…in my opinion. oh….and did we all forget about that little factor we all have in common…what is it? Freedom of Speech?? Right.

  23. 28

    I never heard about this Tosh guy, but I don’t get the impression that he’s a very intelligent person. I still don’t get why or how what he said can be called a joke. And I think it’s too bad there wasn’t someone in the audience to yell back at him, and asked how funny it would be if five big guys climbed on the stage and raped him.

  24. M

    Here’s the part that has gotten to me about this.
    First Tosh started with the whole there are a lot of bad things that happen and they shouldn’t happen, but we should be able to create jokes about them. Then he proceeded to use rape as the example. He got told that he wasn’t being funny and he went of the rails. Remember Michael Richards? Same thing.
    What I think is the sad part here is that anyone would take Tosh seriously as a comedian. It seems that his entire bit and delivery was lifted from the Carlin bit in 1990.
    That some of our better comedians would come to his aid when it is obvious he isn’t trying to be original confuses me.
    Tosh has a show where he comments on videos. Wow how original /sarcasm.
    Tosh does a bit about how you should be able to joke about anything as long as you correctly construct the joke. How original /sarcasm.
    Tosh gets told he isn’t funny and flies into a response that is baffling and wrong and just plain creepy. Why did his first response to that woman go to gang rape?. This was probably the only original part of his act for the evening (I am guessing). That probably tells us something about him.

  25. 30

    He can’t know that someone in the room is a victim of sexual violence.

    Yes, he can. Given how prevalent rape is in our society, it was as close as you can get to certain that several people in his audience were rape victims.

  26. 32

    Miss Lindey West,if a heckler starts, expect that the comedian will react…it’s going to happen…expect the unexpected at a comedy show!!! It’s not like Tosh new “she” was a victim & sure there is a possible chance that there are victims in the audience, and sure he shouldn’t have gone there; but a comic does not have to censor themself.What world are you from? Do some research before you speak about a subject(comedians) you obviously know nothing about. You do not know Tosh’s history, he could have been a victim. Alot of times comedians make reference or jokes about personal experiences in their own lives. Carlos Mencia (a comedian) did not find Tosh’s joke offensive and he was molested as a child by a Catholic Priest!
    Tosh makes fun of everything and everyone…he does not discriminate. All I can say is if you don’t like it(comedy shows)don’t go if you know the probability of this particular comedians jokes as being offensive or lude! If you don’t like a certain station, turn the channel…those with children, block it…it’s called choice!!! Comedians often make jokes about people/things that are NOT “politically correct”! I suppose in their minds if they can’t joke about everyday life occurances then why to stand up at all?! You have the choice to go or not go…stay or leave. Rape isn’t at all funny…but neither is abortion, racist jokes, homosexuality, religion, political(no that’s funny), or jokes about 9/11(in which I lost a family member)! These jokes are sooo tasteless! I could make a federal case of the racist jokes(Native Americans, Blacks and Spanish, by which are my genetic makeup) but I don’t. I could be upset about the rape joke because at age 12 a 25 yr old man grabbed my breast and tried to pull be on the side of my house…but I’m not!!! We can go on and on about it. I’m not at all saying that this is ok…but what I am saying is that this is what alot of people want to see! I don’t go to comedy shows…my choice. People of the world say messed up things to each other everyday…such as some peoples lude and disgusting comments to this situation to Lindey and others who were opposed to the comics jokes not even pertaining to the inquiry itself. So do we censor the world? This whole situation is rediculous & out of control…Tosh apologized…do you want his head on a silver plater?! He’s a comic, this is what they pay him for whether we like it or not!! You are entitled to your opinion just as I, and everyone else in America is…including Comedians. “Hope this didn’t offend anyone”…get it? Ha Ha it was a joke…

  27. 33

    Oh good grief, nobody is getting on Tosh’s case because he responded to a heckler. It’s WHAT HE SAID in response, along with the implicit idea that he thought that was he said was FUNNY.

    Again: this is not rocket science. If you need to have it explained, maybe consider that you’re subconsciously being obtuse on purpose.

  28. 35


    There goes another irony meter. “SHUT UP” vs. “that little factor we all have in common…what is it? Freedom of Speech??” ka-BLAM!

  29. 36

    I know it’s not “ROCKET SCIENCE” BRI…obvoiusly you did not read my statement clearly!!! The point “is” everyone can say what they want whether it be there joke(even if it’s not funny) their opinion, (which you just gave)or call it if you will “Freedom of Speech” as Lindsey and Pieter B stated!!! I never said that I agreed with what “HE SAID”!!! It’s the context in which it was even presented that was tasteless to me!!! Soooo on that note BRI…I believe that I explained both content and context in my statement!!!!!! So if “YOU” think that I am being “subconsciously obtuse on purpose” I guess that’s just a matter of your opinion!!! Again…people say F**ked up S**t to people everyday like “YOU” just did…And by the way I agree with Lindsey and Pieter B. “…what is it? Freedom of Speech??”

  30. 37

    @dsimon:: criticize freely, say how you feel. But when you say and I have read others comments, that tosh shouldnot have said that, you are indeed removing his freedom of speech. I said SHUT up mainly out of frustration from all the feminist bs. The thing is, so many ppl in this country want something to complain about. this being the newest bandwagon to hop on. I highly support ones right to speak freely, in critisism or on stage in the dorm of COMEDY.

    Has anyone ever seen Stephen Colbert out of his staunch republican character in a public arena? I have not. Has anyone seen tosh in public not at a performance? I have not. My point is that Stephen Colbert doesnt break character. It is quite possible neither does tosh. So, as a ton of ppl are claiming to be an insensitive bro. How would they know that to be true if theyve never seen him act differently? Im just raising some thoughts on tosh’s character and our countrys harsh and overly sensitive reaction. Bottom line, get thicker skin, BC the world doesnt coddle you.

  31. 38


    But when you say and I have read others comments, that tosh shouldnot have said that, you are indeed removing his freedom of speech.

    What is wrong with you?

  32. 39

    Pieter, ever since my first Internet connection (2400 baud modem to AOL), I’ve been replacing at least one blown irony meter a week. I’m going to have to find a wholesale source.

  33. 40

    Pieter, ever since my first Internet connection (2400 baud modem to AOL), I’ve been replacing at least one blown irony meter a week.

    Let’s not start the Four Yorkshiremen routine, but for me it was a 1200 and local BBSes.

  34. 41

    Shorter lindsey #37:

    Criticism is great, except when I think it’s not. Then it’s oppressing my freedoms! SHUT UP, THAT’S WHY

    Also feminists suck. I win.

  35. 42

    DSimon: bad Jim said it was an old joke. Blood types were used as a crude paternity test before DNA testing was possible.

    Re 23: I took the joke as “The king is the bastard, not the commoner.”

  36. 45

    “Has anyone ever seen Stephen Colbert out of his staunch republican character in a public arena? I have not. ”

    I have. It was… let me think… Literally every single time he’s not performing. And it’s true, he does the occasional interview as a performance piece, but it’s not that hard to find him speaking out of character.

  37. 47

    Joe, as was asked above, what is wrong with you?

    1) This is a TV show. It is not real life. It was written to make a point about heckling.

    2) The fictional heckler is asked relatively politely to be quiet, and persists in her obnoxious behavior for quite a while before Louis cranks up the nasty. He does not immediately say that it would be funny if she were gang-raped right there.

    3) It is not “almost the same thing.” It is not in the same state as what Tosh reportedly did,

  38. 48

    What is wrong with me? Whence comes this animus? I’m drawing what is a pretty obvious parallel.

    What possible difference does it make if it’s fictional or not?

    The same state? What do you mean by “state?”

  39. 49

    By far the most rape jokes I have heard refer to homosexual prison rape and it comes from fairly mainstream comedy series like “married with children”. I have no idea how common prison rape is in the US but ordinary US citizen seems perfectly comfortable with the idea that their country and state are de facto sending men to be indentured sexual servants.


  40. 50

    I think the differences between the treatment of Daniel Tosh and Michael Richards is telling in of itself.

    Daniel Tosh did exactly the same thing Michael Richards did. A fan heckled him, he lost his cool, and his act ceased being humor and became a humor-less personal attack. Hecklers are a fact of life in comedy, and being able to handle a heckler is one of the things that makes or breaks a great comedian. In no context is “wouldn’t it be funny if someone raped you?” funny. It’s not a joke, not just in the its-an-asshole-thing-to-say sense, but also in the this-doesn’t-make-people-laugh sense.

    There is a show called “The Whitest Kids U Know” on IFC, and one of their skits depicted an ad agency salesman showing an ad to his clients that he’d made for them. The ad depicted a man dressed as a cluster of grapes bursting through a wall, shouting that the sleeping children that he was going to “grape [them] in the mouth.” One of the representatives for the customer stopped the tape and pointed out the obvious problem that “grape” sounds a lot like “rape,” to the horror of the ad agent, who dismissed the claim as ridiculous. The tape was resumed and the the parallels grew even more similar.

    That is a funny rape joke. We’re not laughing because it convinced us that rape is okay, we’re laughing at the stupidity of the businessmen for being utterly oblivious to an obvious flaw in their marketing campaign. Standing up in front of people and saying “I wish that person over there would get raped,” is not a funny rape joke. It’s not even a joke.

    Anyway, my point is that when Michael Richards lost control and launched into a racial attack, his career ultimately ended. Not only that, he irreparably damaged the entire Seinfeld franchise. Michael Richards’ actions single-handedly erased Seinfeld from popular culture. He paid dearly for his outburst, even after his sincere apology.

    Daniel Tosh will likely brush this off and it won’t affect his career. He got away with the classic not-pology which featured the typical whine about being “taken out of context” (and not providing the proper context, of course, as most who complain about being taken out of context tend not to). There’s definitely a message here, and that message is “it’s wrong to attack someone’s race, but it’s okay to attack someone’s gender.”

  41. 52

    Obsessive polítical correctness is a bitch. I guess Greta has never heard of Lisa Lampanelli. White woman making fun of us “spiks” and ring f’ing hilarious.

  42. 53

    I’m late to the game, but I just wanted to say that I really liked this post. Thanks Greta!

    Also, ManoloMatos, Greta never asserted obsessive political correctness, so I’m not sure what you’re railing against (or for?)

  43. 54

    I think that rape is actually a very good subject for humor, if done right, and few people understand what it takes or doesn’t take to do it right.

    If you understand basic principles of joke construction, you know that any subject with a strong emotional loading is good for constructing jokes. A good solid joke generally involves two subjects with different emotional loadings, and all other things being equal, the stronger the better. So rape is a good candidate, like death, lust, pretty much any major misfortune, etc.

    The setup of a joke tells an ambiguous story with an obvious interpretation and a hidden one. The punchline or “reveal” makes it clear that the obvious one was wrong, and what the hidden one is.

    What makes a joke funny is not just the sudden shift in understanding of what you think of the scenario described, but a rapid shift in how you feel about it—and up to a point, the bigger the shift the better.

    Rape is thus prime fodder for comedy, because feelings about rape are understandably strong, and comics should not avoid it.

    Of course, you generally shouldn’t make rape victims the butt of the joke, but you don’t need to make the oppression itself the butt of the joke, as some people have been saying lately.

    A rape joke can be neutral with regard to rape and still funny, so long as nobody can reasonably suspect it’s endorsing rape, either.

    The best thing Louis C.K. said about this on his recent appearance on The Daily Show—which was a mixed bag IMHO, don’t get me wrong—illustrates that principle in a funny way.

    It was his closing joke at the end where he said he hoped we could get past this and back to killing the Jews.

    That was very funny and illustrative, and particularly funny in context, because

    (1) he’s not Jewish but was sitting next to sombeody who is, making a joke about killing Jews, and

    (2) he didn’t make the Holocaust the butt of the joke in any obvious sense, and overtly was making a joke at the expense of the victims, actually advocating killing Jews.

    I think most people would and should find that joke funny, because it’s just assumed that “killing the Jews” would actually be a very bad thing to do. You don’t have to say so. Everybody knows that.

    If somebody doesn’t find such jokes funny, but painful—say, a Holocaust survivor who just can’t hear that sort of thing joked about without being distracted from the actual joke by the painfulness of the subject—that doesn’t mean that the joke “isn’t funny,” as Tosh’s heckler said about rape jokes. It is funny, but some people can’t distance themselves enough from the overt meaning to appreciate the real meaning.

    Such a joke may also not be funny to anybody who thinks the joke teller isn’t actually sufficiently against the think they’re just joking that they’re for. Maybe the joke isn’t entirely ironic, and they like to joke about killing Jews, with the irony and hyberbole being partly an excuse to say something that will be painful to them.

    Whether the joke seems entirely harmless and funny depends radically on the degree to which you trust the the joker is being entirely ironic.

    The same goes for rape men telling jokes about women being raped. If you trust that the guy finds rape as abhorrent as you do, it’s likely funny and harmless.

    If you don’t, and doubt his motives, it’s not so funny and may even seem like evidence that he’s a sadistic sexist who likes to joke about such things at least partly because it’s he thinks it’s funny to hurt women.

    That makes rape jokes dangerous, if they’re coming from a man who gives you any reason to suspect they’re misogynistic or sadistic.

    Unfortunately, it also makes some feminist critiques of rape jokes (and some general “social responsibility” critiques of edgy comedy) dangerous as well.

    If your critique of rape jokes or jokes about dark subjects makes you think that rape jokes or dark humor are themselves evidence of sexism or sadism, then a lot of jokes are going to seem unfunny and sadistic, when they weren’t meant that way at all.

    (I’m not saying that Greta is making that kind of critique—just that some people have been lately, taking the fact that Tosh tells rape jokes as evidence in itself that he’s misogynistic. I’m just warning that you shouldn’t fall into that confirmation bias trap.)

    I guess one thing I’m saying is that I understand why comics are leery of feminist critiques of comedy, and especially of being told what not to joke about.

    Many people lately (not here) have wondered why comics tell rape jokes—why not avoid such a fraught subject with such great potential for offense?

    And some, because they don’t know the answer, or that there’s a good one, have even concluded that comics unwillingness to avoid telling rape jokes is thus evidence of sexism.

    It isn’t. Bad rape jokes, maybe, and sometimes clearly yes. Good ones, no. It’s not evidence of any such thing.

    Comics are quite right to be afraid of feminists, because most feminists, like most people, do not have a sophisticated understanding of comedy, yet many want to tell comics what to do.

    They can’t let somebody who doesn’t understand comedy tell them how to do comedy, or agree with those people about what their choices of topics say about them.

    They know, explicitly or intuitively, that rape is a great subject for comedy, precisely because it’s such a loaded subject.

    Tosh’s heckler’s account of her incident with Tosh displays a number of misunderstandings of comedy and comedy clubs, which makes me think that she may in fact be something like “a humorless feminist” who literally does not understand good rape humor, or good comedy in general, and especially edgy comedy, and certainly does not understand the dynamics of comedy clubs and heckling.

    It seems very plausible to me that she took offense to something she shouldn’t have, or took too much offense, or something. Without seeing the routine that triggered her outburst, I can’t know.

    I’m no fan of Daniel Tosh, and think he is something of an asshole, and may well be something of a sexist, too, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she misinterpreted the intent of an edgy joke involving rape, and took undue offense.

    She certainly acted like a “humorless feminist,” and was extremely rude to a performing comic, so it’s not surprising at all that he mocked her accordingly, and I think that’s most if not all of what he did, in this case.

    When he said “rape jokes are always funny,” it seems pretty clear to me, and I suspect to almost everybody else in the room, that he was mocking her ridiculously simplistic and bossy shout that “rape jokes are never funny.”

    I’m sure that almost everybody in that room thinks rape jokes can be funny, and I think they’re right.

    She was far ruder than she can understand if she doesn’t understand comedy with a fair bit of nuance.

    She obviously didn’t understand who Daniel Tosh was, and proceeded to misunderstand him in some ways, because she misinterpreted his being the guy “following Dane Cook,” and apparently some nobody.

    She’s got that exactly backwards. The last comic on the bill is never the nobody. Being the last act usually means you’re the headliner, who most of the audience is there to see, because they think you’re very funny.

    She stood up and told the headliner and the audience that the jokes the audience was laughing at weren’t funny.

    She made herself utterly ridiculous by doing so. In her well-meaning but thoroughly misguided way, she perfectly fulfilled the stereotype of the humorless feminist blinded by a stupid feminist critique to patently obvious facts.

    I’m sure many people in the audience were aware that rape jokes can be not just funny, but socially responsible from a feminist point of view.

    And many others presumably think that the test of what’s funny is whether people find it funny, whether they morally should find it funny or not. They’re not entirely wrong about that.

    (There are funny jokes you shouldn’t tell, at least not without some context to change the bottom line, because they’re evil. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not funny, and you shouldn’t conflate the two.)

    The upshot of all this is that I think feminists should be very careful about endorsing the heckler’s take on things, and blaming that nasty old Tosh.

    I do think he’s a bit of nasty old tosh pretty often, but that doesn’t mean that his heckler didn’t screw up bigtime by fulfilling the stereotype of the controlling feminist blinded by feminist theory who doesn’t understand jokes but wants to tell everyone else what’s funny.

    I think she was well-meaning, and Tosh may actually deserve some censure for whatever jokes set her off, but if we support her in that, without even knowing what rape joke(s) he told, or the context he set those jokes in, then we too are fulfilling the stereotype of clueless and controlling humorless feminists.

    Lets not do that.

    The stereotype of humorless feminists is way oversold already, so let’s not give the antifeminists real ammunition.

    (And again, I’m not accusing Greta or anyone else here of doing that. I just think it is happening around the whole Tosh mess, and we should understand the nuances of comedy well enough to avoid it. For example, Greta doesn’t seem to understand how comedy bills work, either—which is perfectly understandable—and how that may have contributed to the heckler deciding to heckle. She didn’t understand that whatever else Tosh is, he’s a bigtime experience pro, who could and would inevitably make her regret heckling.)

  44. 55


    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.

    I suspect a lot of people are misunderstanding what Tosh meant by this, rather unfairly.

    As I said above, his initial reply to the heckler seems to have been mockery of her ridiculously overbroad generalization that “rape jokes are never funny,” which to him and his fans seems patently false, and they’re not wrong. He was obviously kidding when he took the equal-and-opposite patently false extreme by saying that “rape jokes are always funny.” He was mocking her ridiculously simplistic prouncement with a ridiculously simplistic pronouncement from the chair.

    I suspect, less confidently, that he was also doing something else absolutely typical of edgy comics with an unreliable narrator persona you’re supposed to more or less see through. He was staying in character as more of an asshole than he or his fans think he really is, and I’d bet that almost everyone besides the heckler recognized that, there in the club, at that moment.

    In other words, you’re supposed to know that of course he didn’t mean it—it’s ridiculous over-the-top slapstick.

    He was staying in character, and playing along with the joke that the heckler inadvertently set up for him, by casting him as some sort of horrible sexist shithead.

    I suspect that’s also true of his followup about thinking it would be funny if she was raped by five guys right there in the club.

    Of course he doesn’t think it would be funny, or even “funny” out of context. His asshole character—the unreliable narrator he portrays, like Humbert Humbert in Lolita—thinks it would be funny.

    She cast him as a more evil person than he or his fans thinks is fair, so he took that, ran with it, and played it to the hilt, pretending to be her worst nightmare, a horrible pro-rape, completely sociopathic sexist monster. I assume that he assumed—correctly—that most people in the audience would get that joke, and infer that it was mocking her characterization of him.

    That may seem like a bizarre thing to do, but it really not—it’s a kind of joke that people here at FtB make all the time, assuming that everyone else here will know that it’s so over-the-top that it’s just ridiculous and goofy.

    For example, Ophelia Benson mock-seriously jokes about what a heartless bully she is, and Pharyngulites frequently joke about things like eating Christian babies, in so on. In context, to the intended audience, it’s so extreme that it’s obviously entirely ironic, not at all serious, and completely harmless.

    I have to give Tosh the benefit of the doubt that he was likely doing the same thing, playing the horrible sexist asshole he was accused of being, doubling down by saying that all rape jokes are funny, and doubling down again by pretending that actual rape would be funny. The very premise of the joke is that of course it wouldn’t be funny—it would be horrendous.

    It’s very much like Louis C.K. saying that we should get past this rape joke kerfuffle and “get back to killing Jews.”

    Notice the same collapse of levels there, going from jokes being funny to actual horrible actions being funny, which is funny because it’s so patently, ridicously false. Louis C.K. did what I think Tosh did, doublying down by collapsing levels in way that’s obviously ridiculous when actually you see it done.

    You’re supposed to know he obviously can’t mean that seriously any more than Ophelia’s going to physically bully someone into giving her their lunch money, or I’m going to steal Christian babies and roast them for dinner.

    It’s a joke whose over-the-top evilness is a big clue that it’s a joke.

    When somebody sets you up for that sort of thing, in real time, and you run with it, it can be comedy gold. I’m guessing that to many people in the audience it was very, very funny, because they understood it that way.

    Unfortunately, jokes like that don’t travel very well. If you quote Ophelia Benson out of context to somebody who thinks she’s a bully, it may seem that she’s acknowledging and even bragging that she’s really a bully, when of course she’s being an unreliable narrator for ironic effect, and means quite the opposite.

    I suspect that the heckler missed some degree of irony, and then miscast Tosh to some degree, setting him up to double down on that irony, twice, and bat it entirely out of the park.

    I don’t think that he should have gone that far, even in response to her very rude and ridiculous heckling, because you just shouldn’t beat up on somebody that hard when they’re clearly missing the irony, and clearly upset. (Even a heckler, who deserves almost anything you can dish out.)

    Still, I can see thinking of that, and saying it before I had time to think better of it.

    (I would very much like to hear a recording of that incident, if one surfaces. I hope somebody was sneaking a bootleg recording on their cell phone.)

    If that hypothesis is correct, Tosh doesn’t owe the heckler nearly the kind of apology many people think he does. (Even if he is something of a pig, but wasn’t doing what they think he was in that particular event.)

    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.

    I very much disagree. If Tosh really did not do what people are saying he did, as I’ve hypothesized, any honest apology is not going to satisfy them, and he shouldn’t lie to appease a mob. He should try to explain what he was doing, and only apologize for what he actually did, not for what people are saying he did and demanding an apology for.

    But of course if he really did do that, and was just saying the most hurtful shit he could, he does owe her an enormous heartfelt apology.

    (I’d really like to hear a recording of the incident, to know whether and how much to hate on Tosh. This stuff fascinates me.)

  45. 56

    The owner of the club, who was in the room at the time, says that the anonymous accuser’s account is factually wrong on several counts.

    I tend to believe him, up to a point, especially about some concrete details to which there were 280 witnesses.

    At this point, I don’t think we should necessarily take the anonymous accuser’s account at face value.

    I give Tosh the benefit of the doubt about certain things he hasn’t apologized for—I doubt that he did them.

    More detail over at the Atheist Experience blog:

  46. 58

    I mean really, Paul W., why aren’t you able to explain about comedy clubs in one post alone? And why does comedy club etiquette trump basic human decency?

    Frankly, given that Tosh has encouraged his fans to actually, literally assault women for shits and giggles, I find claims of the irony behind his wishing rape on a heckler to be quite extraordinary.

    …Tosh did a bit on his Comedy Central show just three months ago in which he encouraged his male viewers to videotape themselves “sneaking up behind women” and “lightly touching” their belly fat. And a bunch of them did, sending the clips into him and posting them on YouTube.

    Now, the whole point of this is that it’s non-consensual, invasive, and public. And though some of the women in the clips appear to be in on the gag, others are clearly pissed off. In several cases the women seem to be strangers to the guys doing the touching, and in one — hosted on the Comedy Central website, complete with a revenue-generating ad — a high school student is shown touching his teacher. (That clip, like many others, cuts out before we’re able to see the victim’s reaction.)

    I’ve been trying to track down some older blog posts I read before this incident, one about how Tosh played a videotape of an actual sexual assault of a teenage boy, by other teenage boys, FOR LAUGHS. And another about how Tosh mocked that “raping errbody” dude, but mostly for being concerned about the fact that his friends and family might be in danger of being raped. But the links are buried underneath miles of blog posts from literally hundreds of people denouncing (and a few defending) Tosh’s most recent offense.

    And of course there’s the news that Tosh is scrambling to remove a series of rape jokes from the pilot of his new animated series.

    In none of these examples have I seen any evidence that Tosh is mocking the perpetrators and enablers of rape culture, rather than the victims of rape.

    So the claim that Tosh’s “jokes” about rape are meant ironically strikes me as somewhat extraordinary.

    And that’s not even getting into the fact that the 6 – 12% of men who self-report as rapists on anonymous surveys will not take such jokes ironically, but will take them as literal encouragement that they are not “bad guys.”

    I’m just going to quote Melissa McEwan here, because she says it eloquently:

    Rape jokes are not funny. They potentially trigger survivors, and they uphold the rape culture. They tacitly convey approval of rape to rapists, who do not appreciate “rape irony.” There is no neutral in rape culture, and jokes that diminish or normalize rape empower rapists. Rape jokes are pro-rape.

    There are legions of rape apologists who desperately want to turn that assertion into a debatable point, so it is no surprise, though no less revolting, that the same lack of integrity and decency is now underwriting arguments that even an explicit incitement to rape a woman who objects to rape jokes is not harmful, and further that it is justified on the basis she was “heckling.”

    Daniel Tosh’s defenders are not clueless and do not need me to educate them. I refuse to credit as ignorance what is an entrained, practiced, deliberate enforcement of the rape culture. If you incite rape, you are an enforcer of rape culture. If you argue that inciting rape is harmless, you are an enforcer of rape culture. I’m not going to pretend there’s any debate about that.

    I simply cannot buy into the idea that comedy club mores and norms overrules human decency. If comedy club rules and norms permit behavior like Tosh’s, then they suck and they ought to change.

  47. 60

    SallyStrange @ 57:

    It’s the Courtier’s Reply, only with comedy clubs.

    SallyStrange @ 58, i.e., the very next “breath” (sentence):

    I mean really, Paul W., why aren’t you able to explain about comedy clubs in one post alone?

    So dumbasses won’t accuse me of making Courier’s Reply, or being unresponsive to evidence I hadn’t seen.

    I’m trying to spell some stuff out, some of which many people seem not to know about or have thought about, so that people can decide for themselves whether I’m making sense.

    My argument might be bad, and I could certainly be mistaken, but trying to actually explain my reasoning is anything but a Courier’s Reply.

    And one reason I posted my last comment above was that it undermined some things I’d said in the earlier ones. The comedy club owner makes it sound like the issue wasn’t that she was just missing some heavy mocking irony, as I had, suspected but that she got the joke/comment wrong in other ways.

    I’m willing to present new evidence that I encounter, even if it undermines my earlier interpretations.

    …Tosh did a bit on his Comedy Central show just three months ago in which he encouraged his male viewers to videotape themselves “sneaking up behind women” and “lightly touching” their belly fat. And a bunch of them did, sending the clips into him and posting them on YouTube.

    Now that’s very interesting, and very good evidence that Tosh is a flaming asshole who deserves censure. (Assuming that’s what he did; at least that’s easily checkable.)

    Flame his ass to a cinder for that, and I’ll agree with you.

    Tosh is a dick, and apparently happy to do cheap misogynistic shit, and he ought to get shit for it.

    I’m just much more skeptical about the specific accusations leveled at him by his anonymous accuser in the recent comedy club incident. Tosh says he was misquoted, and club owner, who was there, says she got the gist of the joke wrong. And there were 280 witnesses who could speak up and say that they’re both wrong and she’s right. So far as I know, they’re not doing that. (And if they are, I want to know and revise my opinion.)

    That leaves me in the position of guessing that however offensive Tosh’s actual joke or comment was or wasn’t, we shouldn’t be “quoting” him, e.g., the “wouldn’t it be funny if [she were raped]” and “like, right now” asking the accuser’s account as both verbatim and true, as damning evidence that he’s a flaming sexist asshole.

    It could be a Wally Smith story, and we could be Chris Mooney being to credulous, using juicy details that may not not be true as the “clincher” that somebody’s clearly an utterly atrocious asshole, rather than a garden variety shitheaded asshole.

    Our side is not immune to that shit, and we should not behave like Chris Mooney.

    I don’t think it’s very good evidence at all, because it’s exactly the kind of thing that can easily be a quote mined and/or distorted, intentionally or (more likely) unintentionally. I suspect he was misunderstood by his accuser, even if what he actually said was also pretty bad.

    It’s not the best evidence against Tosh, and IMO is not very good evidence at all.

    There is better evidence against Tosh. Use that, by all means.

  48. 61

    The concept of “funny” is completely subjective. We can attempt to explain why certain subjects, such as rape, are not funny but then we are confronted with a list of successful comedians that regularly joke about rape, violence against women, and other themes that are blatantly misogynistic. George Carlin, widely regarded as one of the greatest comedians ever, has a bit on his 1990 album “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” on why rape is funny, and actually tells a few rape jokes. The late Peatrice Oneal regularly joked about violence towards women. Jim Norton explores misogynistic themes in his material on a daily basis. Just the three comedians I’ve mentioned above were (and still are in Norton’s case) widely successful comedians and had a large following through out their careers.

    As soon as you say “rape isn’t funny,” you’ve lost the argument, because I can point to a crowd of people who purchase Tosh’s albums, watch his TV shows, and attend his stand up venues. I think a more accurate and defensible position to take is “I find rape jokes offensive and I won’t patronize any person, venue, or advertiser that facilitates them.” Certainly people already do this, but the comedians they are boycotting aren’t any less successful for it. Comedians have their crowd which is necessarily made of people that think they are funny. If the crowd shrinks too much then they don’t have a career. People protested the likes of Andrew Dice Clay (almost forgot about him) and George Carlin through out their careers. However, they are still around, and several people think they are funny.

    The best you can do is exercise your free speech and react as you see fit to comedians you find highly offensive. However, that’s what people have already been doing to the likes of Tosh, Carlin, Oneal, Norton, Clay, etc. and they still have a strong following. Trying to change what people think is funny is at best a low returns en devour and at worst futile. Usually your outrage will only provide more material for the object of said outrage. This has been true of just about every controversial comedian in the last 40 years.

  49. 62

    The statement “rape jokes are never funny” needs qualification:

    Jokes with rape victims as the butt or the punchline are never funny. Except to people who think it is cool and funny to actually rape people.

    Jokes with rape culture or rape apologists as the butt or the punchline are often funny.

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