“But why aren’t rape jokes funny?” you ask.
Ok, I’ve now learned I can’t start blog posts in media res. Let me back up a bit.
Last night I was listening to Culture Wars Radio, Ed Brayton’s radio show that broadcasts out of Grand Rapids, MI. He had Jamie Kilstein on the show which, if you haven’t heard his stuff, you should immediately listen to his stuff. Seriously, there’s videos on his website, go watch a few.
I should mention now that I love to know how things work. Something becomes infinitely more amazing and wondrous to me when I grab its mechanism, when I can figure out how it does the thing it does. That’s why I adore listening to magicians and comedians talk craft with one another, since the way in which these two professions can, in front of people, manipulate an audience into delight baffles and charms me. I will happily listen for hours to discussions of slight of hand techniques, or how to properly ditch X, or how to write a joke that pushes a social boundary, or why the Simpsons is funny, but is it more than conventionally funny?
So, when Brayton and Kilstein started discussing the most recent comedy kerfuffle, which would be that Daniel Tosh is a moron, I sat up and listened for a good “why”.
For those of you who don’t much like feminist blogs or comedy blogs or Twitter or any of the other places where this was discussed, here’s what happened. Basically, Daniel Tosh was doing standup and mentioned that rape jokes were always funny. An audience member yelled back that rape jokes were never funny.
At this point, things are pretty standard. Comedian makes a statement, somebody in the audience responds, they go into “deal with heckler” mode. And apparently the impulse was to ask the following:
“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…”
What, in the name of all that is good and nommy (Ceiling Cat be praised), would be funny about a woman being gang raped in front of a comedy club audience? Is this something that you require some sort of special pHD to get? What could possibly have been funny about that?
Cue Twitter firestorm in which people call him an asshole, he pretends to apologize, other comedians come to his defense…you guys have probably read my blog before. You know the drill.
Let’s look at another example from last week. Another of my favorite comedians, Bill Corbett, made a Twitter mistake. For those who don’t know him, you know him. He was the second voice of Crow on MST3K, as well as Observer (Brain Guy), a number of other small characters, and is now one third of Rifftrax.
Corbett’s mistake was a two-part tweet.
At first he posted something that was not really an apology, saying he would look into it later, but largely trying to justify his behavior under the “all’s fair in comedy” clause. A couple of days later, he came back with a really well-written, tear jerking, and heartfelt apology for what was an honest mistake on his part. A friend of mine described it as “Jason Alexanderesque” and I agree.
Now, what was the problem with these jokes? They were just jokes, right? What made them offensive and why should a comedian who’s supposed to make people a bit uncomfortable if they’re doing comedy right apologize for making somebody feel uncomfortable?
The answer is that in both cases, the comedians were “punching down.”
Punching down is a concept in which you’re assumed to have a measurable level of power and you’re looking for a fight. Now, you can either go after the big guy who might hurt you, or go after the little guy who has absolutely no shot. Either way, you’ve picked a fight, but one fight is remarkably more noble and worthwhile than the other. Going after the big guy, punching up, is an act of nobility. Going after the little guy, punching down, is an act of bullying.
“But why aren’t rape jokes funny?” you ask.
(see why I wanted to start in media res?)
The reason why rape jokes are generally not funny is that the target of the joke far too often is not the rapist, but the rape victim. In the Tosh example, he’s not making a joke in which the five hypothetical rapists (and the idea that rape is intrinsically funny) are ridiculed and mocked for being awful, he makes one in which the woman he’s talking to needs to be brutalized by five people in order to shut her up.
A number of his defenders have described this as “edgy.” “He’s challenging our perceptions of rape!” No, he’s not. He’s going for the easy out by playing to our prejudices about rape victims and women who he implies are best kept quiet by forcing them into sex. People were telling that joke when Lenny Bruce was playing to crowds of three. People were telling rape jokes in fucking Pompeii, for the love of Ceiling Cat! That’s not edgy, it’s entirely predictable.
The thing is, rape jokes can be funny.
But what makes them funny is that the comedian in cases like that isn’t taking a shot at the victim. They’re punching up, addressing how terrible rape is and how awful the perpetrators of it are. In some cases they’re addressing rape culture, the tendency to look for rational excuses for a behavior that boils down to “that person gets off on forcing people to have sex,” or even recognizing how easy some people have it (i.e. men, who don’t really have to worry about rape all the time).
Punching up in comedy isn’t always about rape, obviously. What made George Carlin such an amazing comedian is that he was an expert at punching up. His best comedy was attacking institutions and repositories of power.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is George Carlin’s “Religion is Bullshit” routine from the You Are All Diseased tour in 1999. Arguably his most famous routine, at least on par with the Seven Dirty Words. If you haven’t heard it in a while, take a listen. BTW: All George Carlin routines are NSFW due to language.
Now, who is he making fun of? Carlin is clearly making fun of somebody or something. Actually, he’s making fun of two things: religious institutions…and god.
Talk about punching up!
Seriously, at no point in this routine does Carlin go into a riff about how dumb he finds religious believers, how ignorant they must be, how gullible or credulous. He doesn’t talk about how only a moron believes the bullshit story he lays out at the beginning nor does he get into a series of jokes about how believers will believe anything (it’s right there in the name).
Instead he talks about religious institutions and how they’re always asking for money as if god can’t handle a buck. He talks about the ridiculousness of prayer. He presents the problem of evil as if god were incompetent or ambivalent.
He goes after the powerful.
Daniel Tosh and his supporters live in a fantasy world where everybody has equal power, and that’s why it’s ok to go after everybody equally. But we don’t live in a world where everybody is equally powerful, has equal access to the mechanisms that make them safe, or is held in at least a default of equal regard. Lindy West puts it really well:
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.
And the thing is, Tosh is known for this kind of shit. Like that time that he encouraged people to “sneak up behind women” and “lightly touch their belly fat”, recording their reaction to send into him. Because encouraging people to record themselves touching unwilling people and making them out to be fat on television is funny…how again? I’d be more entertained if he got people to do it to mobsters.
You know what was a funny version of the same joke? Watch the episode of 30 Rock titled “Lemon in Real Life” (season 2, episode 8). During the course of the episode, Tracy Jordan mentions his love for “sharking,” and toward the end of the episode ends up sharking Jenna in front of what he thinks is a live audience he’s being broadcast to via satellite. I can’t find any clips from the episode, but take a look at this jpeg of an interaction to get a general idea of how the joke works.
You’ll notice, again, that the target of the joke here is not the “ladies on the street” that are being exposed and filmed. The target is Tracy, who’s willing to blame the Puritans for ruining the fun he could have by embarrassing random women on the street. The joke isn’t, “Look at how humiliated that woman is,” it’s “look how dumb Tracy Jordan is.” Again, same joke that Tosh was trying to do, but one punches up (at out of touch, coddled actors) and the other punches down (at women who don’t meet a vague standard of beauty).
Much has been made about comedy as art during this whole affair, often coming with some variation on “comedy is supposed to challenge people.” The questions then become, “Who are you challenging and why?” Are you trying to challenge an established power structure, or are you going after people who are already mistreated on a regular basis? Are you trying to poke holes in a pristine facade that is carefully maintained or are you just recycling stereotypes like a shadow puppet Punch and Judy show?
If comedy is to be good, if it is to be challenging, then comedians have to challenge the people who pose a threat to them and their audience. They need to join the audience together rather than pitting them against one another. They need to punch up.