“You can say whatever you want. You can say whatever you want. You can say whatever you want... That said, a comedy club is not some sacred space. It’s a guy with a microphone standing on a stage that’s only one foot above the ground. And the flip-side of that awesome microphone power you have — wow, you can seriously say whatever you want! — is that audiences get to react to your words however we want.”
— Lindy West, blogger and comedy writer
“Humor is dangerous. It just is. The same thing that will make one guy fall on the floor and roll around laughing will make another guy pull out a gun.”
— J. Paul Slavens, Denton musician and wiseacre
Earlier this month, comedian Daniel Tosh stepped in it. “It” being the ongoing culture war over comedy and political correctness.
What exactly happened is in dispute, but the crux of it is that the stand-up comic tried to make the topic of rape a little less tense.
Tosh, who hosts Tosh.0 on Comedy Central, was performing a stand-up concert at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood. The comic reportedly asked the audience to suggest topics that Tosh would then mock, using his sarcastic brand of jokes.
According to reports, someone in the audience shouted “rape” as a suggestion. What happened afterward is still in debate, but a woman in the audience reportedly spoke up and said something like: “Actually, rape is never funny.”
Tosh allegedly retorted that it would be hilarious if the woman were gang-raped right there in the club, in the middle of his bit.
The show ended, and Twitter erupted. Suddenly, a risky bit improvised off the cuff in Hollywood was major entertainment news. Feminists and people who don’t like Daniel Tosh used their social media accounts to blame Tosh of contributing to “rape culture” and even accused the comic of being a “rape apologist.”
Those two terms might be furrowing brows right now, so let’s explain: Rape culture is a concept with origins in feminist academia. Simply put, “rape culture” is a concept in which rape and sexual assault are common and normalized by media. Culture critics point to our habits of blaming the victim, trivializing rape and sexual objectification of women as evidence that 21st-century Americans are up to our ears in rape culture.
Rape apologists are voices — both individual and institutional — that criticize those most vulnerable to sexual violence and excuse predators by shaming victims’ choice of clothing, transportation and schedule.
Daniel Tosh appeared contrite before tweeting that, hey, just because something is atrocious doesn’t mean it’s off limits for comedy. (For the record, Tosh is absolutely right. The Holocaust was no laughing matter, but the Mel Brooks musical The Producers mocks Hitler with such incredible wit that you laugh at one of the greatest atrocities in European history. Hard.) To Tosh’s mind, even dead babies can make a great bit for the right stand-up routine.
Feminists fired back, insisting that it’s never OK to make rape victims the butt of the joke, and that some things are too serious for jokes.
One blogger, Jezebel.com’s Lindy West, tempered the debate by talking sense. Comedy is an elective experience, she said. Stand-up isn’t for the faint of heart because it’s our sensitivities that make punchlines funny. And then she advised comedians to pay attention to the feedback they get.
If you’re offending a lot of people, West writes, chances are your bit about how rape is hilarious needs some work. West pointed out comedians and routines that mock rape effectively, with cheers especially to funnyman Louis C.K.
What felt like moments after West commended Louis C.K. for being smart about his dangerous joke, Louis C.K. tweeted a message to Tosh that Tosh.0 makes him laugh. The feminist blogosphere turned on Louis C.K., denouncing him as a rape apologist.
In the end, it was Louis C.K. who had the most soulful and smart things to say about the fracas between comedians, who are predominantly male, and feminists, who are predominantly female.
He told The Daily Show’s John Stewart that he had been ignorant of the blowup. He’d been on vacation in Vermont when Tosh talked out of turn, and was watching Tosh.0, a half-hour show in which the host mocks people who capture themselves doing severely stupid things on video and then post them on the Internet.
Louis C.K. explained that, in the aftermath, he’d learned that “rape is something that polices women’s lives. They have a narrow corridor. They can’t go out late. They can’t go to certain neighborhoods. They can’t dress a certain way,” because they might be sexually assaulted and held responsible for it.
“That’s part of me now that wasn’t before,” he said. “And I can still laugh at a good rape joke.”
Basically, Louis C.K. said, all dialogue is positive.
He got big laughs when he insisted this ruckus over Tosh’s rape riff reaffirmed some stereotypes. Stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke, he said. (“See?” he added when some female voices booed him.) Stereotypically speaking, comedians crumble under even gentle criticism, he said.
It’s easy to take sides in conflicts like this. Can’t comics wise up for once? No one thinks it’s easy to stand in front of a huge audience with nothing but jokes, a sense of timing and a mic stand to protect you. And can’t feminists lighten up? Laughter is life’s balm, and people get together and laugh after funerals, for Pete’s sake!
We Americans — with our unlimited access to media of all kinds at all times — could, in fact, use more wisdom and a thicker skin. We need to laugh at ourselves and one another because we have to work together to do anything of worth.
But maybe we could use some Louis C.K.-style perspective to ease the pain of these culture skirmishes that seem to be as part of our marketplace as the unfettered lust for Apple technology.
Let’s step back and look at comics and feminists with objective eyes, shall we?
A comedian’s job is to look deeply into his own culture, find the sensitivities that surround conflict and the foibles that make us all anxious. A comedian’s job is to diffuse that anxiety by mocking us and our discomfort. When a comedian does this well, the world is a little less scary for a moment — and a little more unified. Because if the job is done well, we’re all laughing.
And a feminist’s job? A feminist looks deeply into her (and his) own culture to find the jagged edges of systemic injustice to women and girls and demands that they be righted. If a feminist does a good job, the world is better for women. And a better world for women is a better world for everyone.
In the real world — the world where we work, study and worship — feminists and comedians are propelling us toward the same thing, really.
Comics want to make the world more ridiculous, because tension discharged is tension that can be redirected for good. Good comics shrink our divisive demons down to a size small enough so that we can squash them.
And feminists are working toward a world where women can be safer and more active. Safer women can laugh along in earnest with the men they love, the men they work with and the men they will one day raise.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.