By Ryan McAndrews
Ryan writes a humor column for the Ohio University student-run newspaper, The Post. His most recent column is here.
All I need to do is say “the Daniel Tosh thing”, and I assume everyone who regularly reads this blog knows exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re not familiar with the story, here is a handy link explaining things. The important point I want to mark here is not so much the incident itself, but the reaction to it: Tosh was vehemently defended in the days that followed by fellow big-name comedians and fans alike. Even Patton Oswalt, whom I couldn’t fan-worship harder if I tried, leapt to join Tosh’s legions of Twitter defenders. Dane Cook’s response in particular was a favorite of mine, if only because it revealed him to be a terrible person on top of being a terrible comedian.
Regardless of one’s own personal feelings regarding the morality of rape jokes, there’s no denying that mixing the subjects of rape and comedy is like mixing a lit match with dynamite. Critics attack rape jokes and their perpetrators with a vitriol practically unheard of in any other regard. Jokes about race, religion, genocide and even Tyler Perry fly past audiences with minimal outrage- so what’s so special about rape? Why is this the one seemingly “untouchable” subject in comedy?
The first distinction that should be made is the one that spawned this article’s title: at some point throughout the history of comedy, the words “unfunny” and “immoral” seem to have been conflated into a single insult. When you hear a tasteless joke about dead babies, the automatic response? “Dude, that’s not funny.”
Even if its sentiment is accurate, I take issue with the use of the term “not funny” to describe tasteless or offensive jokes- because it implies that the moral consequences of that joke are mitigated if the joke happens to make a certain number of people laugh. If one feminist critic is angry at a rape joke, but 300 frat boy douchemonkeys in the audience are cracking up, is the joke really “not funny”? The “Dude Not Funny” response, in my experience, invariably leads to defenders of the joke accusing the critic of “having no sense of humor” or “not getting the joke”- and both sides missing the point of the argument entirely as a result.
Comedy is subjective; it varies from person to person. Jokes that make Taylor laugh might fall flat to my ears, and vice versa. (I once caught him laughing at Madea’s Witness Protection. We’re all worried about you, Taylor.)
But we’re not just talking about jokes in a vacuum here- we’re talking about the moral, social and political implications those jokes carry. To put it very simply: whether a joke is funny or not has nothing to do with whether or not it’s harmful. I’m not denying that a rape joke can be expertly crafted, flawlessly performed, and provoke uproarious laughter from its audience. Even in spite of this, it’s still enforcing the dangerous cultural idea that rape is a punchline- and that rape victims don’t need to be taken seriously.
Sure, the comedian telling the joke might be able to separate it from the reality of rape- but what about the asshole in the audience? What about the friends he repeats the joke to at the kegger later that night? Are they all perfectly able to divorce rape jokes from actual rape? What happens when one of them goes home and makes a video like this one? When angry feminist bloggers yammer on and on about “rape culture”, uh, turns out that’s what they’re referring to.
If you’re making rape jokes on stage, in front of a wide audience, you’re contributing- however slightly –to an environment in which rapists are not only encouraged, but also protected. And as far as I’m concerned, no amount of laughter is worth that.
Tomorrow, part two explores offenses rape jokes incur, as well as how they contribute specifically to rape culture.