What is the job of a comedian? To make us laugh, you say?
Laughter is but one skill of their trade. Saying a comedian’s job is to make us laugh is like saying a taxi driver’s job is to turn a steering wheel. No. Like the cabbie, the comic’s job is to take us somewhere. A great comic can make us think afresh, help us to see the world and our lives from a different angle. Comedians are no different in that sense from novelists, painters, film-makers, poets or any other creative artists.
That’s not to say all comedy should deal in matters of political significance or philosophical profundity. The absurdities of our language, bodily functions or a trip to the supermarket are just as valid as Mark Thomas’s systematic 90 minute deconstruction of the machinations of a petrochemical multinational. But whatever their shtick , comedians should be (and usually are) aware that they are taking their audience somewhere, however happy, sad or dark that place may be. I don’t go to see Stewart Lee or Doug Stanhope to be taken to a happy place, and I don’t go to see Michael McIntyre or Patrick Kielty… actually that sentence ends there.
I believe comedians, like all artists, should take some responsibility for where their journey ends. Fare, please, don’t forget the tip.
My timeline this morning was filled with not one but two Twitter furores (Twittores?) about rape jokes. In an LA club, Comedy Central star Daniel Tosh had reportedly replied to a heckle saying rape jokes are never funny by pointing at the heckler and asking “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” In a subsequent, and it must be said half-hearted apology, Tosh claimed it was out of context, adding in the obligatory 140 characters: “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies.”
I’d scarcely caught up with that story when I heard the rumblings of a new Twitterstorm, this time with Richard Herring at the eye. Wait a minute… Richard Herring? Richard Herring? The impeccably PC, comedic scourge of discrimination and prejudice has made a rape joke? Really?
Well, to be accurate, Richard Herring had made a not-rape joke. In an interview with the Metro paper, he recalled a put-down he’d once used against an annoyingly loquacious heckler: “You’re the one woman in the world where a man would put Rohypnol in your drink and then leave you in the pub,” he’d said. What Herring meant, as he attempted vainly to explain to his Twitter followers, was that Rohypnol would be a handy way to shut the heckler up. The way it was understood, by at least some of his detractors, was ‘You’re so ugly you couldn’t even get raped.’ To return to our analogy, cabbie Herring intended to take his passengers to the station, but took a wrong turn and dumped them in the canal. I despise the modern trend of the ritual public apology but I’d like to believe, at least in private, Richard is thinking: “whoops.”
One of my favourite things on the internet is a YouTube channel called “If Websites were people” and in particular their delicious skewering of fauxminist magazine Jezebel. One of the best moments shows the Jezebel character in a restaurant. Her date says “I’m starving” and she eyes him suspiciously: “was that a rape joke?” she asks. Despite being genuinely concerned about humour which makes light of rape, or which trivialises or mocks the experience of victims, I’m also concerned about the McCarthyite zeal with which the evil rape joke is hunted down and its author persecuted into repentance and contrition.
I was in a comedy club just last week, and my favourite act by far was young and (I hope) rising pottymouth comedian. In her set, she made a joke about being fistfucked in her sleep by a violent, butch lesbian bully. I won’t reveal the punchline, because I think you should go see her for yourself if you can. Suffice to say I laughed like a howler monkey, and so did the entire room around me. I’d lay long odds that the South Manchester audience was 90% educated, leftish, pro-feminist Guardian readers, but how many got up from their seats in disgust, or booed or hissed or heckled? Precisely none. I doubt any of us stopped to think, hey, was that a rape joke? The answer, unlike Richard Herring’s effort, was an unquestionable yes, but we were too busy laughing to notice.
Context matters, not just in the intention but in the comprehension. You could grade rape jokes in order of acceptability according to who is being raped, who is doing the raping, and who is telling the joke: man; woman; victim; rapist.
One of the clichés of this debate is that the question should not be ‘is it offensive’ but ‘is it funny.’ I don’t think that is enough. From a moral and political view, it is not just whether the joke is funny, but where the humour takes us. The comedian I saw last week didn’t take her audience anywhere they weren’t happy to visit. Richard Herring took his somewhere that neither he nor most of his audience intended to go. Daniel Tosh, on the other hand, appears to have known exactly where he was going: he was using the cultural power of rape to take his audience, and a specified target in particular, into a slightly more fearful, hate-filled, uncomfortable world. For what my opinions are worth, I find that pretty loathsome.
All artists, in whatever medium, should be aware of their own responsibilities, but their primary responsibility is to their own art and their own consciences. It makes no more sense to me to argue that a comedian should never mention rape than it would to argue that a novelist should do the same. Comedy is an appropriate vehicle for any issue, but that doesn’t mean any joke is appropriate. In attempting to witch-hunt rape jokes out of existence, feminists risk stifling a popular medium, on a vitally important topic. I believe, reluctantly, that artists of all stripes need to be free to make the world a darker, nastier place with their writing, their work or their performance, but they should also be prepared to accept the inevitable response. Whether the topic is rape, dead babies or skipping to the supermarket, a joke is never just a joke – it’s a journey.
When I wrote and published this, I hadn’t quite anticipated just how big the Tosh story was going to get. It seems every man, woman and dog has now stated their piece about the case, with many good points along the way. In among the piles of pixels, there were two pieces in particular I saw which stood out for me. Lindy West again proved herself the jewel in Jezebel’s purse with How To Make A Rape Joke – which manages to be not only insightful but funny (see, it can be done) while poet/rapper El Guante cuts right to the heart of the issue in his blog here. Go see.
I’ve had a message from the comedian I was praising in the original edit of this article. She’s just got a new day job and has asked me to take her name off this. I’ve left the content in, but edited out her name. Hope no harm has been done and very much hope she doesn’t give up the night job!