Feature image by Jim Cooke
by Lindy West
Hello, precious flowers. I know it’s been a difficult couple days for all of us, what with certain people interrupting certain other people (so rude!) and certain other people suggesting that said interruptors deserve to be hilariously gang-raped (so edgy!). In case you’re not caught up: comedian Daniel Tosh made some rape jokes at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, a female audience member informed him that “rape jokes are never funny,” in retribution Tosh said it would be hilarious if she were gang-raped right there in the club, then Twitter went fucking nuts. If you want more information, just google “UUUUUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHH” and click on whatever.
At this point, the conversation has devolved into two polarized camps: outraged feminists arguing that “rape jokes are never funny,” and defensive comics wailing about how the “thought police” is “silencing” them. (The owner of the Laugh Factory disputes the account, explaining that Tosh made a rape “comment” and not a rape “joke,” but that’s pretty much irrelevant to the larger point here.) Here’s the problem: everybody is wrong. I actually agree with Daniel Tosh’s sentiment in his shitty back-pedaling tweet (“The point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them #deadbabies”). The world is full of terrible things, including rape, and it is okay to joke about them. But the best comics use their art to call bullshit on those terrible parts of life and make them better, not worse. The key—unless you want to be called a garbage-flavored dick on the internet by me and other humans with souls and brains—is to be a responsible person when you construct your jokes. Since the nuances of personal responsibility seem to escape so many people, let’s go through it. Let’s figure out rape jokes.
Male comics: this is not an issue of your oppression. You guys know that “thought police” isn’t a real thing, right? (I mean, not anymore—it was the first thing to go in the recession.) At no point in time will some shimmery grandpa-of-the-future say, ”When I was your age, Timmy, we had these things called ‘jokes.’ But then they came for our rape humor and our racism, so comedy died and chuckles were abolished.” I’m pretty sure there are a couple of jokes out there that don’t involve a lady getting raped. Like 100 at least! Hooray, comedy is saved! Nobody is taking away your right to talk about rape, make jokes about rape, or use the word “rape.” No cunty feminist killjoy is citizen’s-arresting you and taking you to brain jail for your shitty rape joke.
It’s unlikely but, say, after all this public outrage, Daniel Tosh actually does get fired from Comedy Central. A person being removed from a position of power at a private company (Comedy Central is not the U.S. government, FYI) after the public speaks up is not an affront to freedom—it is integral to freedom. If you make things that people do not like, people might stop buying your product. That’s the deal.
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.
That said, 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. The defensive refrains currently echoing around the internet are, “You just don’t get it—comedians need freedom. That’s how comedy gets made. If you don’t want to be offended, then stay out of comedy clubs.” (Search for “comedians,” “freedom,” “offended,” and “comedy clubs” on Twitter if you don’t believe me.) You’re exactly right. That is how comedy gets made. So CONSIDER THIS YOUR FUCKING FEEDBACK. Ninety percent of your rape material is not working, and you can tell it’s not working because your audience is telling you that they hate those jokes. This is the feedback you asked for.
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…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.
According to the CDC, one in four female college students report that they’ve been sexually assaulted (and when you consider how many rapes go unreported, because of the way we shame victims and trivialize rape, the actual number is almost certainly much higher). That means that if you’re a comic performing to a reasonably full room, there’s a pretty good chance that at least one person in the audience has been sexually assaulted. If you didn’t know that, fine, now you do. Congrats. So when you make a joke in that room that trivializes rape or mocks rape victims, you are deliberately (because now you know!) harming those people. On purpose. Not because you’re a rapist—you’re probably not—but because you’re selfish and amateurish and lazy and scared.
The reason that “rape jokes” become such a contentious issue as opposed to, say, “cancer jokes” or “dead baby jokes” (yawn) is because rape is different from other horrors in some very specific ways.
Say you knew for a fact that in any given audience there was at least one person who had been mangled in an industrial threshing accident—JUST STICK WITH ME HERE—and that we lived in a culture where industrial threshing victims were routinely blamed/shamed for their own death and/or disfigurement because they wore the “wrong” overalls, and people were afraid to report threshing accidents because the police department just employs a bunch of threshing machines in badges and little hats anyway (and everyone knows threshing machines protect their own), and historically humans were sold into marriages with threshing machines where they could just be tossed in there and chopped up willy-nilly. Oh, and also 90% of the comics in the show (yourself included) are threshing machines too, but since you’re this young, liberal brand of threshing machine with newfangled safety guards and you fervently don’t believe in mangling humans, you think it’s fair game for you to make “jokes” about idiot humans getting their faces and limbs shredded by those more sinister other threshing machines. But do you really think that isn’t going to traumatize the fuck out of some humans? Even if you’re “joking”? If you care so much about humans not getting threshed to death, then wouldn’t you rather just stick with, I don’t know, your new material on barley chaff (hey, learn to drive, barley chaff!)?
Part of progress is constantly reevaluating yourself and owning up to your shit. Here, I’ll start. I made a rape joke once and I genuinely regret it. Two years ago, in my review of Sex and the City 2, I wrote:
SATC2 takes everything that I hold dear as a woman and as a human—working hard, contributing to society, not being an entitled cunt like it’s my job—and rapes it to death with a stiletto that costs more than my car.
I chose “rape” on purpose at the time—because it’s gendered and jarring and I wanted to convey the severity of my disgust, as a woman, with that fucking garbage movie. But if I wrote that review today, would I write it the same way? Nope. I would probably write “bludgeoned.” Because right now, as I see it, there is no systematic cultural influence that leads to the mass bludgeoning of people. I would not be contributing to a culture of bludgeoning. I, Lindy West, am sorry.
So, comics. This doesn’t mean that everyone is obligated to be the savior of mankind. 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.
Here are four “rape jokes” that, in my opinion, work:
“In Kazakhstan the favorite hobbies are disco dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis.”
Okay. Why is that funny? Who is the butt of the joke? Rape victims? Nah, I’d say that the butt of that joke is Kazakhstan, or, at least, the caricature of Kazakhstan that Sasha Baron Cohen has constructed—a borderline-medieval old world racist mud-hole. He’s satirizing the casual misogyny of a certain set of crusty old anti-Semitic post-Soviet eastern European men in stinky suits. And I have no problem with that. Though I could be wrong! Again: no such thing as joke police! Culture evolves! Hooray! (This joke is almost certainly offensive to Kazakhs, but someone else can be in charge of the anti-Kazakh-joke manifesto.)
[Update: As several smart people have pointed out, I missed something obvious in my reading here. The point of Borat is that he gives people the opportunity to expose their own prejudices—the fact that anyone is willing to take this character seriously is extremely telling. Duh.]
2. Louis CK
“I’m not condoning rape, obviously—you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.”
Here’s why this joke doesn’t make me feel like shit: Louis CK has spent 20 years making it very publicly clear that he is on the side of making things better. The oppressors never win at the end of his jokes. That’s why it’s easy to give him the benefit of the doubt that this joke is making fun of rapists—specifically the absurd and horrific sense of entitlement that accompanies taking over someone else’s body like you’re hungry and it’s a delicious hoagie. The point is, only a fucking psychopath would think like that, and the simplicity of the joke lays that bare. That said, Louis CK is possibly the greatest comic in the world, but that does not mean that he is always right. I think even Louis CK would tell you that. And I guarantee you he puts himself and his audience through at least this level of scrutiny on every joke. That’s why the jokes are good.
3. John Mulaney
“Late at night, on the street, women will see me as a threat. That is funny—yeah! That isfunny. It’s kind of flattering in its own way, but at the same time it’s weird because, like, I’m still afraid of being kidnapped.”
Comedians are just people telling stories about the world, and it is okay to laugh at horror and talk candidly about ugliness. This is one of the best “rape jokes” ever, because it’s an honest commentary on our fucked-up cultural climate. The butt of the joke is John Mulaney. The woman running away from John Mulaney is not being mocked. This is a joke about how scary it is to be a woman and how easy it is for men to be oblivious. This joke is helpful.
4. Ever Mainard
“The problem is that every woman in her entire life has that one moment when you think, ‘Oh! Here’s my rape!'”
Pretty simple: This isn’t a joke about women getting raped—it’s a joke about the way that rape culture, which includes rape jokes,makes women feel. It’s like the difference between a black comic telling a joke about how it feels to have white people treat you like you’re stupid all the time vs. a white comic telling a joke about how stupid black people are.
So there you go. See? Nobody is saying that you can’t talk about rape. Just be a fucking decent person about it or relinquish the moral high ground and be okay with making the world worse.
I’m not a comic, but I’ve done comedy (and told jokes I regret), I’ve lived with comics, I’ve dated comics, I write jokes for a living, and I’ve had both transcendent and crushing experiences in comedy clubs. I’m not saying all of this because I hate comedy—I’m saying it because I love comedy and I want comedy to be accessible to everyone. And right now, comedy as a whole is overtly hostile toward women. I remember the (brief) vicarious thrill I felt the first time I saw Anthony Jeselnik say abusive things with shameless cheer, and I was an Adam Carolla and Howard Stern apologist for years. I get it. But I’m a grown-up now, I’m slightly sheepish about my younger self, and I’d wager that in 15 years most of the rape-joke apologists will be embarrassed that this conversation even happened.