Jul 16 2012
When I was in high school, trapped in the computer lab not doing my homework, I found my way to that mecca of digital intolerance known as T-Shirt Hell.
The concept was simple: the most offensive shirts conceived by man, available in sizes small through Comic-Con. One shirt I remember in particular proclaimed “Postal Service World Tour” on the front, while the back featured the dates and locations of postal office shootings as though they were concerts. My friends and I would report back to one another about the latest amoral designs to be posted, usually prefacing a shirt’s description with “you’re not going to believe this shirt they just added.” However, there was one significant aspect to the site we couldn’t figure out. As a business, T-Shirt Hell needed to sell their product. And my friends and I wanted to know: who in the world was buying it?
Last week, the internet went Backdraft on Daniel Tosh after an incident at the Laugh Factory Comedy Club in Los Angeles. To acutely summarize: Tosh was doing a bit about his sister being raped, an audience member yelled out “rape jokes are never funny” and Tosh reacted by asking the audience wouldn’t it be very funny for said audience member to be spontaneously gang-raped. What followed was a heated discourse amongst causal comedy fans, comedians, understandably incensed women and the ignorant trolls that make their home in every nook and cranny of the internet.
The prevailing viewpoints on the matter are:
a) Rape jokes are never funny. There is a line, even in a craft as open as comedy, and rape jokes are by design bound to cross it.
b) Rape jokes can be funny, but not when the victim is the punchline.
c) If you’re not a comedian, shut-up.
d) Who the f*** is Daniel Tosh?
My views align most closely with B, but before we focus on rape-specific humor, let’s look at what that brand of comedy is a larger part of. In the last couple of decades, comedy consumption habits have changed. Dirty comedians have always been a part of the comedy culture, but television censorship and cult followings have often kept them out of the headlines. Now, aside from a few bleeps, you can have an incredibly filthy one hour set play on basic cable. The options have expanded, and comedians are enjoying a new found freedom in the form, one that namely says: anything goes. From this mantra we’ve gotten ourselves into some dark places, places where Michael Richards hurls racist epithets, where Daniel Tosh wishes a gang-rape on an audience member, and where Tracy Morgan informs his audience he’d stab his son if he turned out to be gay.
Who let comedy get to this place?
Well, we did of course.
Let’s look at what we chose to consume last year. The highest-grossing comedic film of 2011 was The Hangover Pt. II. The Tony winner for best musical was Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s The Book of Mormon. South Park aired its 15th season and Family Guy started its 10th. What these comedy heavyweights all share in common is a reliance on extremely offensive humor. That isn’t to say there isn’t thought behind the jokes and craft in their telling (except maybe in the case of The Hangover), but it doesn’t matter. No one’s demanding Daniel Tosh try to make his gang-rape comments more eloquent. But what kind of line can we reasonably expect to draw when a stand-up comedian telling rape jokes is not ok but a musical featuring forced female circumcision wins nine Tony awards?
The detractors who feel there are ways to joke about subjects like rape that don’t come at the victim/survivor’s expense are absolutely correct. Lindy West of Jezebel did a great job of making this point in her article “How to Make a Rape Joke”. An excellent example comes in the form of Chris Rock’s iconic “Niggas vs. Black People” routine. Rock takes his audience through the various ways in which a few exceptionally ignorant individuals are causing a negative perception of African Americans. The most ingenious element of this bit is that while Rock is speaking about one specific race, he’s clearly directing us to take note of how perilous it is to lump a bunch of people together. He takes material that’s offensive on its surface and provides the depth in his commentary to justify going as far as he does.
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