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Daniel Tosh, Louis C.K. and why rape jokes can be funny

- July 11th, 2012
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Actor Louis C.K. arrives at the Hollywood FX Summer Comedies Party in Los Angeles, California June 26, 2012. REUTERS/Gus Ruelas

A lot of people will tell you that rape jokes are never funny. It’s a common line, especially among feminists, and one I don’t agree with.

And it’s exactly what one heckler said to stand-up comedian Daniel Tosh at a recent show at The Laugh Factory:

So Tosh then starts making 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!”

I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.

Comedy, at its best, is a coping mechanism. It’s a tool to deal with the sometimes overwhelming horror and despair in the world. Life can, on occasion, suck beyond the telling of it and sometimes people need just need to laugh at the absurdity of it all. It’s no coincidence that many comedians are depressed.

But discussing sexual violence, even in comedy, is a slippery slope. As Alyssa Rosenberg notes at Think Progress, if you’re going to make a rape joke, you’d damn well better bring your A-game.

Jokes about sexual assault seem, to me, to fall into a category that requires heightened scrutiny. Reveling in someone else’s vulnerability or humiliation is not an inherently funny thing, and it’s upsetting to a lot of people. If you’re going to upset a lot of people, and defend upsetting a lot of people, you have to have more than a pedestrian joke to offer up. You have to have a point, and you have to execute it with a high degree of precision.

One example of well-executed rape joke is in the most recent episode of Louie, FX’s critical darling written by and starring comedian Louis C.K., who has recently come under fire for tweeting in support of Tosh.

In the episode “Telling Jokes/Set Up” Louis, our protagonist goes on an inadvertent blind date with Laurie, played by Oscar-winner Melissa Leo. After some initial awkwardness, followed by booze-fueled fun, Laurie rapes Louie in her pick-up truck after he refuses to reciprocate oral sex. And by rape, I mean she smashes his head into a window, straddles his face and forces him to perform cunnilingus on threat of breaking his fingers. Splitsider has animated GIFs.

The punchline is that after it’s over, he oh-so-casually agrees to go see her again.

Genders reversed, I suspect this would have sparked a massive backlash. But there’s been barely a peep. In fact, the rape’s been little acknowledged in episode reviews. The AV Club even implied it was Laurie’s mocking Louie’s sexuality that made him give in, and not, say, the window-shattering head-punch or finger-breaking threat.

But there’s nothing trivial about this scene. It makes you think about gender roles and sexual violence. You cringe. You laugh. You wonder why you laughed. And you think why in god’s name would be agree to see her again? (Splitsider’s Roger Cormier posits it’s the same reason he rides his motorcycle: Because has terribly low self-esteem).

And outside his well-polished TV show, C.K. has done some very excellent stand-up routines involving rape jokes.

Now, I have no idea whether Tosh’s original jokes were as smart and funny as C.K.’s. I have no idea whether they were offensive enough to warrant heckling, which is a decidedly uncool thing to do to someone on stage. But the targeted rape joke he used in retort definitely falls into the “reveling in someone else’s vulnerability or humiliation” category.

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.

Officially not funny. It serves no purpose but to deflect criticism at one woman’s expense. If you can’t figure out why this isn’t cool, imagine yourself — or perhaps your wife, daughter or mother — in a room full of people laughing while a man on stage talks about how awesomely hilarious it would be if five men raped you/her right then and there.

Tosh shouldn’t steer clear of touchy subjects. He can’t spend all his time worrying about whether he’ll offend someone. That would make for bad comedy. But that doesn’t give him the right to go out of his way to make one woman feel unsafe and victimized.

[Update: Tosh has since apologized.]

 

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2 comments

  1. David Berg | July 11, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    The woman in question inserted herself into the show. As soon as you heckle a comedian you are fair game for whatever comes.

    Hecklers are very disruptive to any comedians performance and the great comics have learned through experience how to destroy these people in a funny fashion.

    I’d bet the audience laughed at his remarks and it shut her up which was the intent.

    Rape is not funny, but I’ve heard a lot of funny rape jokes.

  2. Lots of funny rape jokes | March 20, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    There is no such thing as a funny rape joke. There is no such thing as a funny Holocaust joke. There is no such thing as a funny torture joke. There is no such thing as a funny child abuse joke. There is no such thing as a funny retard joke… Except when I think they’re funny. And if you make a judgement about me based on what I might laugh at, that’s fair game, but I’ll still think it’s funny. And it’s quite likely that you laugh at things that I fight to be idiotic, or that your sense of humor or lack thereof tells me that you’re a bore.

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