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What is a "rape joke," anyway?

What's worse than finding a hair in your soup? Being raped.* -- @AntiJokeApple, June 2, 2012

"I was raped by a doctor... which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl..." -- Sarah Silverman, "Jesus Is Magic" (2005)

Seriously, what is a rape joke, why do you tell one, and how do you apologize for one? I empathize with comedians who get up on stage, alone, and develop new material, often without knowing where their minds and mouths are going to take them (or their audience). It's a semi-disciplined, stream-of-consciousness high-wire act without a net, and as any comic will tell you, they frequently fall. (See Patton Oswalt's remembrance of a bad performance in the early 1990s and the "Magical Black Man" who haunted and helped him.) But no matter what they say or do, they're still accountable for saying or doing it -- and, more than ever before (thanks to blogs and social media and video smartphones), they are held publicly accountable. So, when I heard that Daniel Tosh of Comedy Central's top-rated "Tosh .0," was in hot water for telling a "rape joke," the first thing I wanted to know was: What was the joke? That has to be where it all starts, don't you think? What did he actually say?

Well, I haven't been able to find out. A woman who, on a whim, went with a friend to see Dane Cook (no comment) at the Laugh Factory last Friday (July 6, 2012) also saw Tosh's set. She wrote on her blog that Tosh made

some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don't know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON'T find them funny and never have. So I didn't appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, "Actually, rape jokes are never funny!"

What she describes is heckling -- but not the kind where someone in the crowd simply calls out the comic for not being funny. She was openly challenging him on what he knew was dangerous ground. I don't know how far he went before she interrupted. (There's a magnificent recording of Patton Oswalt eviscerating an ADHD heckler for ruining the quiet moment just before a payoff; and another of him annihilating two despicable women blithely talking on a cell phone through his show. They deserve what they get and more.)

But you could also argue that if a comedian is going to provoke his audience, he shouldn't be surprised if they push back. She could have just started booing and hissing, which anybody in the crowd has a right to do, but she brazenly refuted his assumptions about what was funny. "I don't sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape," she wrote. So, what was his response? According to her blog entry:

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, "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..." and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn't hear the rest of what he said about me.

Tosh responded on Twitter:

toshrape.jpg

So, he says that he was misquoted and that some of his remarks were taken out of context... but doesn't say how (in 140 characters or less -- although he does have a blog). And he apologizes and links to the woman's blog account of the show, so what are we supposed to make of that? What pisses me off is the sanctimony of "there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them #deadbabies." (As a woman on Twitter replied: "Far more likely to be a rape survivor in your audience than a dead baby." That's a good joke.) And, after he's been called on his premise, even if it was countering rudeness with rudeness, where's the joke in "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?" -- if that's what he said? I don't know the answer, but if you're the goddamn comic who's talking about rape in his act, you tell me why it's funny. (The manager of the club contests the woman's account of what happened, but he doesn't clarify much.)

This reminds me a little of Michael Richards' meltdown at the same venue. They say it's not the original crime, it's the cover-up that always takes down politicians. For comedians, it's how they respond to unruly customers in the audience. The Laugh Factory isn't an opera house; comics usually interact with their audiences, especially in relatively small rooms where alcohol is served. If they can't handle that, they shouldn't be on stage.

The real problem, as I said at the beginning of this, is the lack of any apparent joke for people to talk about. Did Tosh think that insisting that rape was funny was funny because it so obviously is not funny? Was that the joke? (Because it's a legitimate one.) Was he making fun of the person in the crowd who yelled out "rape" when he asked what people wanted to talk about (according to the Laugh Factory manager he was soliciting contributions from the audience). Or was he just doing some kind of Andrew "Dice" Clay knee-jerk anti-PC schtick? Because, yes, it is possible to make a joke about anything, if you know how to construct an actual joke. It doesn't have to be a simpleminded set-up/punch-line formulation, either. Take a look at this two-minute bit by Louis CK in which he makes a joke about rape, but not at the expense of rape victims:

He turns the premise inside-out and examines the disconnect between sexual fantasy and permissible real-world behavior. It's normal for people to have forbidden fantasies -- but what if you don't know the other person well enough to know that? Or what if his fantasies don't mesh with hers? There's room for comedy in there.

Now, I know some people (including comedians) say there's nothing worse than analyzing humor, that nothing is more harmful to a joke than picking it apart to see how it works. Those people are wrong. Nobody who has any respect for comedy would say that. What kills humor is not being funny. Show me a joke that can't stand scrutiny, and I'll show you a hacky joke. The better the joke, the more examination it welcomes and rewards. ("I thought I lost it" -- Egbert Sousé.) Comedy always assumes a context and a point of view. And while we can disagree about what is funny or not funny, we first have to agree on what the premise of the joke is. What is the target? Is there one, or is it just an absurdist non sequitur? Or does it simply rely on the shock value of invoking a forbidden subject? Is it enough to, say, reference a curse word or "fart" or "poop" or "pee" or "anus" or "vagina" or "penis" or "chicken" (it's a laugh word!) or "Jew" or "faggot" or "nazi" or "nigger" or "cripple" or "retard" or "rape" or "dead baby" or... [fill in whatever offends or delights you most]? If you are Adam Sandler, then maybe you think the mere acknowledgement of a taboo or traditionally goofy gag (a prank phone call! a silly voice!) is sufficient, or that the object of your ridicule, whether the privileged or the outcast, doesn't have anything to do with whether you're a gadfly or a bully. But it does. (Not that the comedian should approach the creation of material logically; comedy is largely instinctual, and tone and timing are as crucial as anything.)

I thought Season 3 of "Louie" (a show I hailed as comedic genius in its second season) got off to a slightly rocky start with Louie's opening monologue of masturbation jokes. Yeah, OK, but saying you masturbate is hardly funny in and of itself. The bit was about how his eyesight was softening and he couldn't see his penis as clearly as he used to, which troubled him. Like he needed reading glasses for masturbation. Then he slipped into surrealism (like his earlier comedy -- and, specifically, like a character in Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry") to suggest that maybe his genitals were, in fact, becoming blurry, and the problem was not just his eyesight. Next leap: He imagined getting a "dick transplant," a beautiful young, brown penis from a virile Puerto Rican track athlete. Now he'd won me over, but I didn't really laugh until the payoff, which was worth waiting for: He also wanted to keep the old one, like when they built the new Yankee Stadium next to the original one. The simile is what finally cracked me up.

The second episode this season was called "Telling Jokes/Set Up." The first part involves how his daughters construct jokes. They begin with "knock-knocks" and then his youngest comes up with a truly magnificent traditional joke:

Q. Who didn't let the gorilla into the ballet?

A. Just the people who were in charge of that decision.

Louie continues with an analysis: "Just the folks who made that assessment. Their judgement was that it wasn't a good idea to let him in. I love this joke because -- I picture it. The whole story's in my head of people going into a ballet theater and the gorilla's just trying to text and not make eye contact, just trying to go in like it's cool...." And they refuse him admittance, because he's a gorilla. It just doesn't seem like a good idea to keep him in a crowded theater for so long because, sure, he's OK now, but he's gonna get impatient and maybe go a little stir crazy. Louie follows the premise through to its illogical extreme: "The gorilla kills everybody at the ballet once, shame on the gorilla..."

So, to Daniel Tosh I just want to say: Tell us the joke. Or shame on the gorilla.

_ _ _ _ _

* Leaving aside whether you think this joke is funny, it's based on a comedic principle. The punchline unexpectedly reaches beyond the expected parameters of the set-up. And it states something that is obviously true, but not what you anticipated. And so: funny. @AntiJokeApple mines this formula with tweets like: "Why did little Tommy drop his ice cream? He was hit by a bus." And: "Why was the boy crying? Because he had a frog stapled to his face." And: "Your mom is so ugly that she often finds it difficult attracting members of the opposite sex." And: "Why did Grandpa climb the telephone pole with a backpack full of bananas? He has a terrible illness and is slowly losing touch with reality." And: "Two cows are in a field. Suddenly, a rabbit leaps out and runs away. One cow looks around a bit, eats some grass and then wanders off." And: "How do you make a plumber cry? You kill his family." And: "Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead." And: "Whats funny about 4 black people in a car driving over a cliff? Nothing. They were my friends."

UPDATE (07/13/12): Just saw this excellent piece by Lindy West, re-tweeted by @pattonoswalt: "How to Make a Rape Joke." Excerpt:

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 f*cks.... 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.

[...]

Nobody is saying that you can't talk about rape. Just be a f*cking decent person about it or relinquish the moral high ground and be okay with making the world worse.

The Onion's response: "Daniel Tosh Chuckles Through Own Violent Rape."

UPDATE (07/14/12): Here's a bit from the first season of "Louie" in which Louis abuses a heckler. It's not complacent, black-and-white. It's ugly and it means to make you uncomfortable, to question the positions and the tactics of both the comedian and the heckler:

UPDATE (07/17/12): Louis CK explains, on The Daily Show, that he was not defending Tosh's rape joke(s). When he sent his tweet, he was on vacation and didn't even know about the whole Tosh situation. Watch this:

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