The Art of Offending

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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  1. I bought one when I was in high school. I loved it, had it for years, but it was probably one of the least offensive on the site.
    On the front it said “I like my women how I like my coffee”
    On the back it said “Ground up and in the freezer”

  2. Thanks Zack, I enjoyed reading it.

    As I see it, everything is and should be a target for comedy but the manner in which you go about it will determine which side of the funny line you fall on.

  3. This was a great read! Personally, I don’t get offended by jokes, because that’s what they are. Even if a comedian were to say something I didn’t think was appropriate (highly unlikely), I could never see myself interrupting his/her show. Had that woman not said anything, Daniel Tosh would not have resorted to putting her in her place. He is a comedian, and if you’re familiar with his style, you have to realize that it’s going to have the potential to offend. Also, if you’re easily offended, why would you pay to see him?

    This is all being blown out of proportion, but that’s how it always goes. If you want to interrupt a comedian, then you should be prepared for the backlash that comes with it. Daniel Tosh should not have had to apologize for doing what he has always done, and that’s trying to make people laugh. If this woman was so upset, she should have just left. I can only assume that the woman took offense because she, or someone she knew, had been raped. Then again, maybe she’s just easily offended by a joke that could possibly happen, therefore it isn’t funny.

    The last thing I’ll say is this… I’ve listened to hundreds of comedians, some clean, some dirty, but not one time have I ever felt that a joke was taken too far. Have people ever listened to Jim Norton? I rest my case. Comedy is there to make us laugh, to make us think, and last but certainly not least, to make us uncomfortable. Some comedians incorporate all of these aspects into their show, some do not, but they all share the same goal, and that’s to entertain. If you can’t handle that, then sit on your safe, boring couch and die already. Just kidding.

  4. I believe it was Richard Pryor who stated that all comedy comes from pain, either your own or others. Gottfried’s joke wasn’t funny in and of itself, but the “too soon!” reaction was priceless. In fact “too soon” has become a punchline in and of itself. There is great laughter to be had in making other people uptight. Our human need to be psychologically coddled is rather pathetic when you think about it. Sticks and stones is God’s own truth. There’s a reason trollface has become a deity on the internet and “u mad?” his mantra. It is weakness plain and simple to become upset over a stranger’s words simply because you don’t understand their personal notion of humor (some might even call it intolerance). Some people’s reaction to that brand of moralizing is to turn up the heat until the people with nothing better to do than look for reasons to get offending gtfo of the proverbial kitchen. Don’t go see profane comedians, don’t go see gross-out comedy films, and stay the fuck off of 4chan if you don’t find humor designed to offend to your taste. Freedom of speech means exactly what it says. There is no “as long as it doesn’t upset anyone” clause. We’ve all got to put up with each other’s differences whether we like it or not and intolerance of another person’s taste in humor is no better than intolerance of any other aspect of their being so long as they keep it where it belongs. So if these folks will get the hell of my house and stick to their own sunshine and rainbows place, I promise not to tell dead baby jokes at childrens’ funerals…..any more.

  5. Great article/editorial. Thank you for writing it.
    I sincerely hope that people put some thought into that final question of, to paraphrase, why we want to be offended. I don’t mean that as a judgment or indictment of raunchy or “envelope-pushing” comedy or art. I simply think that the more all of us understand our own motivations for the things we do, the more we will be able to understand and empathize with other people’s motivations– and the more we understand other people, the better off we all are.
    One of the most important things I have ever learned in my entire life came from rapper/actor Ice-T. Years ago, when I was in college, Ice-T spoke. Before he began, he warned the crowd that he would not hold back from using “any word he had learned throughout his life,” and that some of his language choices might be offensive. A few people got up to leave, and others in the crowd began to laugh and mock the folks leaving. Right then, however, Ice-T stepped in and said how much he respected the people who were leaving for not only sticking to their morals, but for leaving a situation where they knew they would be offended, rather than sticking around and actually putting themselves through the aggravation of being offended.
    This has made a huge difference in my life with regards to the entertainment I choose, places I go, people I spend my time with. Obviously, I can’t always avoid situations/people that offend me, but by taking Ice-T’s advice to heart and actively trying to stay away from things that I know are going to piss me off, my life has been much more peaceful. Life is rough enough as it is, why go looking for a fight?
    And… when you step into a situation that you know beforehand might be offensive, remember that [hopefully] no one forced you into that situation. You made your choice, so don’t get angry that what you suspected might happen (your getting offended), did indeed happen.
    Again, this is definitely not meant to come down on any art, comedy, music, whatever that “pushes the envelope” in any way. There is, and should always be, a place for all of that stuff. What offends me may not offend you, and vice versa. These things are so subjective, that to say something “crossed the line” is impossible. There is no line! Because every one of us has different sensibilities and pressure points.
    And often, especially with comedians who purposefully seek to be edgy, there is no way to tell whether something has gone too far until after the fact. It is extremely difficult to accurately judge an audience’s reaction until you actually share your joke with your audience. As a society, we often claim to admire the “risk takers.” But we sometimes forget that many risk takers fail– perhaps more than succeed. That is why it’s called “risk taking,” and not “sure thing attempting”! The folks who fail help smooth the way for those who succeed, and we can’t demonize them if we want new risk takers to step up and try.

  6. Tshirthell used one of my ideas: “I didn’t buy his shirt because it says fuck, I bought it because it says fuck twice.”
    I also remember the great George Carlin said it best: “Anything can be funny. Even rape. Don’t believe me? Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd.”

  7. Speaking of 9/11 and tshirthell, anyone remember “I (plane) NY” where the plane was crashing into the N? Priceless.

    Awesome article, Zack.

    Daniel Tosh = Sometimes Funny
    Rape = Sometimes Funny


    Daniel Tosh = Rape

    Right, guys? Right?!

  8. Check out Frankie Boyle (Scottish comedian) for exceptionally offensive (and hilarious) comedy. Oh and good article. And sorry for all the brackets.

  9. I’ve read a conflicting report about what Tosh said at the Laugh Factory from the manager of the place.
    (I’m paraphrasing here) The manager said that Tosh had asked for some suggestions for what to talk about when an audience member called out “rape!” It was after that, that a woman said “Don’t joke about rape! Rape hurts!” to which Tosh responded with something along the lines of “Okay, it sounds like she was raped by 5 guys”
    Doesn’t exactly make what he said any better, but there’s definitely uncertainty over what actually happened.

  10. @Andrew C
    This is a perfect example of why everyone needs to be more cautious than we currently are about our knee-jerk reactions to things we read on the internet. There are so many sources of information these days, with everyone vying to be the first to report something, along with Twitter posts going live while things are still in the process of happening, that all too often fact checking and well-rounded journalism take a back seat to getting things up as quickly as possible.
    And then the readers and viewers of all these “news” outlets start reacting and commenting and re-posting (often in our own rush to “be first” among our friends and followers) that things have a way of being distorted and blown out of proportion long before the complete, factual story is ever told.
    I’m not saying that this is what happened with the Daniel Tosh incident; I’m not trying to judge who got what right and/or wrong, or which report of the incident is the most accurate.
    I’m simply saying that we all need to take every single thing we read and see online and on TV with a grain of salt. Perhaps be a little more thorough in our own research, and a little less quick (and anxious) to be judge, jury, and executioners.
    And remember, “news” is not necessarily a synonym for “fact.”

  11. I recently watched Reginald D Hunters stand up. One of his bits is about a woman that gets offended by a joke he says. His point was something like “Why are getting offended by jokes by a stand up comedian, you have come to watch the show expecting jokes. Nothing I am saying here is serious”. He says it a lot better but I agree with his sentiment.

    Too many people complain about a comedian making edgy jokes. If you don’t like rape jokes, don’t watch Tosh.0 or Louie CK. It’s not difficult to change channel or, not book tickets to see an offensive comedian.

    Recently, someone commented on Waitrose (English supermarket) facebook page, complaining about an advert they did recently. Waitrose responded by saying they did not mean to cause offence but would make a note. The complainer then moaned again saying how “just because you raise it in a barn doesn’t mean it is ok to kill it for it’s meat”. Thankfully someone replied an put her in her place. But why do some people enjoy finding things to be offended by?

  12. Oh T-Shirt Hell. My all-time fav?

    Jesus nailed to the cross with the words “Men who wear sandals get what they deserve.” If I wore that where I live I’d not be alive very long, lol

    Great article though. Loved it.

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