I didn’t know if I wanted to tackle this subject today. I just arrived at my parents’ condo in Bozeman, Montana, and what I was going to write about was the Stratford history in Montana, my summers in Billings and Yellowstone, and dude ranches. But that was before I found myself crying in the spare bedroom.
You’ve probably heard about the Daniel Tosh thing. Long story short, a woman went to his show, didn’t like hearing rape jokes, called out, “Rape is never funny” or something to that extent, and he countered, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if she got gang-raped by like, five men right now?”
Disclaimer: I have never been the victim of sexual assault, thank God. I am not sitting on this bed, crying about this because of personal trauma. I do know women who have been sexually assaulted; it is not my recollection of their specific cases that has caused this reaction, either.
It’s the fact that some of my male friends don’t seem to understand why this is so upsetting, horrible, and deeply un-funny.
There’s a sense in the comedy world that nothing is taboo, that any topic can be mined for hilarity. Genocide! So funny! Murder! Side-splitting! Sexual abuse! Oh, stop, I’m going to die of laughter!
I sound kind of militant against this right now, but actually, my history is on the other side. As a semi-professional “One Of The Guys,” I have laughed at jokes about all of these things, proud of my inability to be shocked. I have let rape jokes fly by with a wink and a nod, have shrugged off Holocaust jokes, and have given a polite smile to racist jokes.
But in the last few years, I’ve been realizing that it’s okay for me to speak my mind, that it’s okay to publically disagree with people, and that it’s okay to set boundaries. So let me just say: I’m not going to let these jokes slide anymore. If that means your humor is crippled and you don’t want to hang out with me, have a good life.
Roll your eyes at this if you will, but here’s the thing about being a white man who can afford to pursue a comedy career: You have literally all of history to joke about. Joke about imperialism! Flags! Dating! There’s a thing called privilege. You have it. Run wild.
What this means, though, is that when you joke at the expense of a minority, you’re being lazy, and you know what? Jokes may be jokes, you may think you can joke about anything, but you best not start joking about something serious until you have some idea of what you’re joking about.
People of color face systematic oppression and don’t have the option to let their race “not be a thing.” One in four women in America faces sexual violence. Gay people have to stand up for themselves and their relationships all around the world and face the possibility of death for loving who they love. You know when they say that there are some things you shouldn’t joke about unless you’re part of a certain group? Well, guess what, that’s actually kind of true. Unless you’re thinking about the actual experience of one of these groups of people, don’t joke about the shit they have to deal with. You think that narrows your artistic horizon? Well boo. Fucking. Hoo.
The justifications I have heard for Daniel Tosh’s words are that jokes are jokes, that people are too sensitive, that it’s your right to be offended but not to interrupt a performance, that hecklers deserve whatever they get back.
My reaction to these, one by one:
- Since when is an invitation of violence against one person a joke?
- People are allowed to be as sensitive as they want. If you believe strongly in what you said that they reacted to, have a discussion about it. Defend your point. Stand by what you say. But don’t blame them for having an emotional reaction. That’s part of being human.
- At some point the “just leave if you don’t like it” argument just becomes an enabling circle jerk. If no one speaks out about something not being okay, then the people who think it’s okay just keep talking to each other, reinforcing it’s okay-ness. It’s called group-mind. A performance is different, in a way—you can, in some sense, speak with your money (ask for a refund, not buy a ticket, tell other people not to go). However, if you think that performances have traditionally been (and have a right to be) people behind a wall doing their performance with no reaction or interaction from the audience, you better read your history books again.
Shakespeare had to tailor his shows to the desires of the groundlings, to make sure that there were funny parts or sexy bits so that they wouldn’t spit on, yell at, or throw things at his actors. He accepted that. Maybe in plays today people are expected to sit quietly, but for most of history this hasn’t been the case (it started in the Victorian era) and there are still lots of performance forms where this is not what happens. Stand-up comedy is among them.
Part of the reason stand-up is so exhilarating—and I know, because I’ve done stand-up multiple times—is that you get to hear the opinions of your audience. You hear them groan at a bad joke, laugh and call out praise to a good one, and often, they heckle you. Heckling is when an audience member calls something out about you or your set: “You suck, get off the stage!” “You’re fat!” “You’re not funny!”
Louis C.K. has a great episode of “Louis” where he confronts a heckler and makes her genuinely ashamed. “These fifteen minutes up here are what we have,” he says, or something to that point. “You have your whole life. We comedians up here, this is where we go to feel happy, and you’re ruining it for us.”
I’m sorry, I don’t see what the lady at the Daniel Tosh show was doing as heckling. Heckling is, “You’re ugly and not funny,” or interrupting the show to point something out about how clever you, the audience member, are. This woman was not “self-absorbed” and trying to get a rise out of Tosh or the audience. She was just expressing that she didn’t appreciate the subject matter—a subject matter that Tosh will never have to face the realities of.
And what he responded with was not a clever comedian’s retort to a heckler. What he responded with was verbal assault against her person. I don’t want to get muddled up, but it’s not too different from him making jokes about slavery and then telling the audience that it would be hilarious if an unamused black audience member were lynched right then.
Stand-up gets interrupted. A person expressing an opinion THAT WASN’T AIMED DIRECTLY AT THE COMEDIAN BUT AT HIS CHOICE OF ONE TYPE OF JOKE THAT OTHER PEOPLE ALSO USE instead of quietly leaving and letting the comedian enjoy the proceeds of her ticket money (she’d already seen one act, they weren’t going to refund her) without realizing that he’d crossed a line, is somehow deserving of abuse.
I could go on about this forever. I’m sure some of you disagree with me. I’ll say now: You are free to disagree with me, but I am also free to disagree with you, and I am not going to change my mind on this, so we’re going to have to agree to disagree.
And if you don’t want to get called out, don’t joke about rape or race around me anymore, unless you’re coming from a perspective that knows what you’re talking about. Because I’m happy to be that woman, willing to use my voice to say that I don’t find that funny.
Maybe the world collectively can joke about or find humor in anything—I’ve heard at least one responsible rape joke, told by a woman from the perspective of universal women’s experience. I’ve heard some great stuff from Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle about race. But YOU, whomever you are, whatever your background is, don’t necessarily get to joke about anything. Or, you can try, but be ready to get called out and shouted down.
I’m going to go on a hike with my parents and hope that nothing upsets me enough to keep my next entry from being about Montana.