CN: I am going to repeat some offensive and harmful jokes in this article, including ableist and sexist jokes, in order to highlight the kinds of problems I’m discussing here. Derogatory language, including slurs for various groups, are included. Particularly of note is a mean joke about contemplating the murder of a disabled person. This post also includes sexual themes, but not explicitly sexual descriptions.
I sat in a crowded room and yelled the word “slut” over and over and over again. I did it gleefully, at the top of my lungs, for years. I did it as recently as this past July.
I am a fan of Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I first saw RHPS when I was 16 years old in the basement of my high school girlfriend, though I didn’t yet understand what she found so exciting about it. I started attending the show regularly when I was 18 in Madison Wisconsin, where the Tiny Fools floorshow cast did the show every week at the dilapidated Majestic Theater. I soon joined the cast, and they became the first true group of friends I had in my life.
For several years RHPS was my life. I married a woman I met on the cast, and formed the deepest friendships of my life either directly or peripherally because of my Rocky involvement. The night that we closed the Majestic Theater, filling it beyond capacity with screaming fans, was one of the most exciting in my life. I get goosebumps just thinking about it even 13 years later.
For anyone who doesn’t know, part of the tradition of seeing Rocky Horror in a theater is call-back lines – literally yelling jokes in the theater. There are a huge number of traditional lines, passed from generation to generation of filmgoers. New lines are created frequently, often referring to current events, recent movies and politics, or local issues. Remembering thousands of call-back lines, and getting their timing right for the best effect, isn’t easy. I was really good at it, and best when able to play off of a few other friends who were also excellent.
Many of these jokes are mostly funny due to shock value, either because they relate to issues not discussed in polite company, or because they punch down. Rocky audiences are definitely not politically correct and don’t shy away from jokes based on sexism, homophobia, or ableism. Historically, serious fans of the movie tend towards queer and geeky subcultures, these jokes didn’t come with venomous intent behind them, and for many years that was enough for me.
In the past few years I have continued to see RHPS in various contexts – a kinky campground, a huge sci-fi conference, and traditional theaters. Now, with my greater understanding of social justice, it’s increasingly hard to yell “Seig heil!” or call someone a cripple even in jest (two jokes related to Dr. Scott, a character who is implied to be an ex-Nazi and who uses a wheelchair). I remember how freeing it felt to shout some of the more clever jokes and get genuine laughter back. Now I find myself analyzing them, and feeling pretty ashamed of some.
I think Rocky can give me an interesting lense through which to investigate humor. Where do these jokes come from and why are they funny? How does the history and tradition of Rocky impact these jokes and influence their meaning? To what extent does the intent of the joke-yeller matter? In what ways do these jokes influence the attitudes of audience members once they step outside of the theater? Finally, how to the problematic parts of the movie itself influence this discussion?
Some of the call-backs are pretty clearly neutral jokes in terms of oppression.
Frank-n-Furter: “I see you shiver with antici…..”
Audience: “This movie would suck without audience partici…”
These jokes vary from old to new, and from mildly to moderately funny. Many are just observations of things happening on screen that people would miss if they weren’t seeing the same film hundreds of times. “It’s Brad’s unbuttoning, rebuttoning shirt!” My favorites reference other movies, celebrities, and popular culture. The first time someone started chanting “His name was Robert Paulson” repeatedly in the theater after Eddie is murdered I laughed so hard I couldn’t breath. It will always be one of my favorite jokes.
A LOT of the call-backs are crude, but not necessarily oppressive. They’re often sexual, and the line between the non-offensive and the offensive crude jokes is a hard one to parse. I think “Rocky found a hole in the ground!” while Rocky is doing push-ups is pretty clearly okay, as well as most of the many references to spitting vs swallowing. The blatantly sexual jokes are probably what drew me to Rocky week after week in the beginning. At 18 it was exciting to be able to joke openly about sex in a fairly explicit way.
Some of the jokes clearly punch up:
Audience: “Brad, what do you call the White House?”
Brad:“Must be some kind of hunting lodge for rich weirdos.”
Or an audience favorite (which can be adapted for your local area):
Audience: “What do you think of Scott Walker?”
Frank-n-Furter: “I think we can do better than that.”
These jokes are harder to create and do well than the cruder jokes, but they keep being funny. Punching-up humor generally requires a little more thought and work, and the Rocky format does mean that easy jokes are more likely to persist, being picked up by occasional attendees. Only the die-hards learn the jokes that require memorization, precise wording, and careful timing, as well as an extraordinary ability to be heard over the chaos. But when the joke lands, it’s perfect.
Unfortunately, many, perhaps most, of the jokes heard at a Rocky showing are neither benign nor progressive.
Audience: “Slowly I turn, inch by inch, and weigh my options. Kill a professor, gain a parking space. Kill a cripple, gain a parking space. Kill a crippled professor, gain a damned good parking space.”
Ableist, sexist, and homophobic jokes abound. The first callback people learn as new Rocky fans is often the one I mentioned first in this article: Calling Janet a slut every time she appears on the screen for the first 20 minutes of the film. It’s not particularly creative, but it’s easy, so it persists. The problematic jokes range from the incredibly easy to highly complex, carefully timed ones. They persist throughout the entire movie, sometimes overpowering better jokes, and always being carried forward from one group of attendees to the next.
Does it matter? People think of Rocky as being a highly progressive, sex positive environment. Does yelling “slut” at a woman repeatedly have an impact in that context?
I think it does matter. While die-hard Rocky fans, the kind of people who join floorshow casts and stick around for years like I did, may often become politically conscious eventually, the audience members are mostly people who attend only occasionally. At this point, Rocky is mainstream and has been for decades. It’s a fun “subversive” thing people do on halloween once. In that context, the callbacks become one more incidence of catcalling, one more moment of using a slur for a man in a wheelchair, and one more time a drunk straight guy can call the man in a corset a “fag.” This matters – Rocky can become a place that normalizes these hurtful jokes, instead of one that turns the prejudice of the world on its head. I worry that it makes it just a little easier to use those slurs and insults at someone who is not inside of a 40 year old movie.
I also know that many of the people who excelled best in callbacks when I was heavily participating were able, cisgender, straight, white men. They were also generally NOT the ones getting into corsets in front of audiences, exploring the contrasts of feminine and masculine that Frank-n-furter embodies, or the internal sexual conflict of Brad. This makes me seriously wonder to what degree I am not the only one finding discomfort in these jokes. Is it easier for these guys who do not experience oppression to make the oppressive jokes without cringing? Were other people around me quietly less comfortable with some of the content? I remember one of those guys drunkenly going on at length to me about how he objected to political correctness at a cast party once. Years later that’s an uncomfortable memory.
I don’t think I can change the culture of RHPS audiences with one blog post. All I can do is decide for myself how to participate in the future. This means thinking a lot harder about jokes than I have in the past, and being willing to pass up audience laughter in favor of my politics. There’s still plenty of good stuff to shout and I don’t expect to leave theaters with my voice intact in the future, just as I haven’t in the past.
I just don’t think I’ll be calling Janet a slut anymore. It’s 2016. It’s long past time to stop.