Life, Liberty, and Rape Jokes
Much has been said and written lately regarding
comedian performance artist freedom-fighter überdouche Daniel Tosh and his usage of rape jokes (and by “rape jokes”, I of course mean, “mentioning rape and expecting everyone to find it automatically hilarious because OMG THAT’S SO WRONG LOL!!!”). By now you have probably read the big talking points from his defenders: It’s just a joke and if you don’t like it don’t listen and we should be free to joke about anything at all and he’s an equal-opportunity offender and if you don’t like offensive humor don’t go to comedy clubs and GOD, stop being so whiny and PC! And that’s not even getting into whether or not she was heckling.
So let’s get this out of the way right up front: everyone should have the freedom to make rape jokes. OK? We are ALL ABOUT freedom over here, and if you think people criticizing rape jokes want to ban them, or whatever, you are all sorts of missing the point and you should probably spend more time listening and thinking and less time missing the goddamn point. No, the issue here isn’t CAN anyone tell a rape joke, but SHOULD anyone tell a rape joke (SPOILER ALERT: probably not. But more on that later).
Now, a lot has been said and written about rape culture and rape jokes and it’s all important and valid and worth reading, but there’s a lot more about this issue that kinda bugs me. Like what it says about comedy and comedians (e.g., most of them are assholes). See, where I come from, comedy is about making people laugh. But for some rape survivors, rape jokes aren’t so much “funny” as “triggering“. And a PTSD-related panic attack is about as far from laughing as one can possibly get. That’s kind of like offering someone a cupcake and then curb-stomping them. While everyone around them eats cupcakes and sings a cheerful I-Am-Eating-A-Cupcake-And-Still-Have-All-My-Teeth ditty.
And yet a lot of the Tosh-defense seems to center around the notion that people who don’t want to be “offended” shouldn’t go to comedy clubs. This is kind of bullshit for two reasons: first, being triggered is not the same as being “offended”. If I light your shirt on fire, what you are feeling is not “offense” it is “freaking the fuck out for a totally legitimate reason”. And if my reaction is to tell you not to be offended and to call you over-sensitive, then I am a gaslighting (so to speak) asshole.
Secondly, since when does comedy necessarily demand offensiveness? When did this become the rule? Sure, it’s sometimes important and necessary to use offensive material to properly make your point, just like it’s sometimes necessary and important to add seasoning and spices while cooking to get the proper flavor. But pouring someone a dish of paprika doesn’t make you a goddamn chef, and just being crass and mean-spirited and offensive and “edgy” doesn’t make you funny. Anyone can push buttons and get a reaction. A fucking toddler can do that, when they figure out that saying “fuck” will make Mommy and Daddy bug out. Why do comedians act like doing so is some sacred art form that must be protected at all costs? Abbot & Costello’s Who’s On First was far from edgy or offensive by today’s standards, and it’s pretty hilarious. Same with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 2000 Year-Old Man bit. Or Bill Cosby’s Dentist routine. Or Kermit The Frog and Fozzie Bear’s “The comedian is a bear!” sketch. Steve Martin’s Fun Balloon Animals included the phrase “God damn it” and made passing reference to STDs and chigger bites, but that’s only slightly more “edgy” than an episode of SpongeBob. Jim Gaffigan’s Hot Pocket routine doesn’t get more offensive than a few white trash/trailer park/NASCAR mentions (And he does four and a half goddamned minutes! On Hot Pockets!!). Even Strong Bad (for those of you old enough to remember who that is) managed to be pretty funny without getting “edgy”. Holy Shit!! How do these people manage to make folks laugh without being aggressive and mean-spirited and breaking taboos and giving people panic attacks???
Well, by being good at their fucking jobs. Because being “edgy” is basically a shortcut to laughs for people who aren’t clever or creative or insightful or FUCKING FUNNY. And not to be a downer or anything, but it really makes me sad that we’ve come to the point where enough people go in for that sort of thing that Being Daniel Tosh is actually a lucrative career (so far).
But fuck it. Let’s forget about how funny one can be without being offensive. As I said, sometimes being offensive is what you need to do to Get The Job Done. But when you make your little joke, and someone complains or gets offended, don’t hit them with “it’s only a joke” or “don’t take it so seriously”. If you don’t think jokes are worth taking seriously, why do you think jokes are worth your fucking time? I make jokes BECAUSE I understand how serious and important they can be. Jokes can be social or political or philosophical commentary. They can make people laugh while influencing the way we think. And let’s be frank, if you’re the type of person who thinks you’re Hot Shit because you make rape jokes, you probably look up to George Carlin or Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce, guys whose thoughts and opinions and values were ALL OVER their material, and they’d probably deck you if you told them their work wasn’t meant to be taken seriously (and if they were still alive).
Making a joke doesn’t mean you’re just shooting words into the ether that immediately dissolve and are never thought of again; making jokes means that you’re making people laugh, and, if you’re GOOD at it, you’re also making them think. And that combination is not something to be taken lightly. If you don’t want people to think about what you’re saying, just fart and slip on a banana peel. But if you’re going to delve into socio-political subjects (race, gender, or, I dunno, RAPE), take it fucking seriously. Say whatever you want, but whatever you say, OWN IT. Be prepared to discuss it and defend it and stand by it through thick and thin. If you’re not ready for that, stick to uncontroversial subjects; otherwise, you’re a child with a shotgun, in way over your head, with no appreciation for the power and significance of what you’re wielding. If I make a joke about, say, Catholicism, and somebody is offended because they think I’m implying that their religion is irrational and immoral and corrupt, I don’t tell them to chill the fuck out and be less sensitive. I tell them, “Yes, that’s exactly what I fucking think, and I’m happy to have a discussion about it, if you like.” I OWN what I’m saying. Likewise, if you make a rape joke, you should own the fact that you are comunicating one of two messages: 1) “I understand that, if my audience includes more than 5 women, there is, statistically, an excellent chance that I am telling a rape joke to a rape survivor, and that (s)he may well have a seriously traumatic reaction to said joke, and I’m totally OK with that.” Or: 2) “I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about my dumbass jokes.”
Seriously. If you tell a rape joke, you are saying one of those two things. Whether you want to or not. So either choose to take that responsibility, or tell a different joke.
That’s really the bottom line: think about what you say. Own what you say. Be responsible. Understand that your words mean things. Be a goddamned grown-up. Remember, comedy is a one-way street: when the oppressed make fun of the oppressors, it’s a powerful tool for freedom and justice and humanity; when the oppressors make fun of the oppressed, it’s just bullying. If you want to be a bully, that’s your deal, but don’t get shocked and indignant when people call you a fucking bully.
So, yeah, make rape jokes if you must, but be aware that, if you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what your rape joke means, and whether you should make a rape joke at all, you’re probably not ready to make a rape joke, just like a chimp isn’t ready to drive a tank.