Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Favorite Rape Joke

So let's start out here with the agreement that nothing is objectively funny. A lot goes into any joke being well received: timing, tone, shared cultural references, whether the things that came before build up adequately, one's expectations of what's coming, and honestly, whether the audience is in the mood to laugh. Two different people can say all of the exact same words to a joke, and one can be hilarious while the other can bomb completely. The same person could say the same joke about your mom, exactly the same way, and if you're out drinking and having fun you may laugh till you're in danger of soiling yourself; if your mother is dying in the next room you might just stare at them in blank horror and quietly hate them for the rest of your life. Or not. A lot of factors go into it.

Humor's a complex system with a lot of moving parts.

There's been a lot of talk about rape jokes, the people who tell them, and the people who object to them. Like humor itself, there are a lot of factors at work here.

One factor that goes into a lot of humor is being deliberately shocking and transgressive. Breaking cultural taboos is exciting and surprising, and if you think about it, you've probably been giggling maniacally at jokes like these since you were five, on the playground, and saying "poop" just out of earshot of the teacher. We chafe under the restrictions imposed on us by society (be polite, don't lash out, don't pick your nose, don't talk about controversial political ideas, don't wish ill on people, respect your elders, respect religion, keep fit, don't be disgusting, don't be rude, don't be unpleasant, and on and on) and having someone talk about deliberately breaking taboos, even if we agree with them, can be pretty cathartic. The infamous "Aristocrats" joke is one of these (there's a really good documentary about it), George Carlin has a squirmy, fantastic routine where he talks for about twenty minutes about picking scabs, and probably the big king of transgressive jokes are dead baby jokes- laughing about fatal violence against defenseless infants. Very little about dead baby jokes are ever specifically funny, except for the fact that someone would say something so appalling in joke format- all the fun of it comes from being horrible and naughty, especially when they're a back and forth between two people, like some game of morbid infanticide chicken.

Unless you're an exceptionally horrible person, you would never actually tell a dead baby joke to someone whose child has just died.

If you're a stage comedian, and you want to tell a joke about a dead baby, you're basically rolling the dice that you're not out on stage on the night the local grieving parents support group decided to go out to cheer themselves up. Or that you can couch the joke as part of a larger act that is funny without hinging on people laughing at that one bit (maybe you're doing a long bit about your horrible experience as a dog owner and one of the things you find it's buried in your yard is your neighbor's missing toddler. You know, something incidental, but still a calculated risk- the truth is, if a joke lands badly enough, it may not matter how funny the rest of your set is. The audience might no longer be in a mood to laugh).

The statistical problem with rape jokes is twofold. A pretty significant portion of your audience has probably been raped or has a loved one who has been. And a solid 90%, easy, of your female audience has been afraid they would be.

I'm actually of the opinion that no subject ought to be completely off the table, because, frankly, anything CAN be funny given the right set up and execution. But it isn't necessarily going to be, and you don't have the guarantee that just because something makes you chuckle, it'll land with everybody. In any given audience, a certain percentage of people are going to laugh, and a certain percentage aren't, and the people who don't laugh cannot actually be objectively wrong, because humor isn't objective. People have a right to say "wow, that's really insensitive, it isn't funny, and you're a bad person for saying it." If you're doing comedy, you're getting up there and taking a calculated risk. As much as you, as an artist, have an imperative to push boundaries, surprise your audience, and be true to your own principles, you also have something of an obligation to anticipate how the people on the receiving end of your humor are going to receive it.

And then, you make a choice.

Do you try to amuse a broader range of people by backing off certain subjects? (Which is, in and of itself, a whole range of questions, with as many factors as the joke itself: could you salvage it with a different set up? Do you believe morally in what you're saying? Is shock humor your whole thing? Will you alienate your base audience by doing so?) Do you approach them differently? Do you carry on as if nothing has happened? Do you lash out at your critics (probably not a good idea, especially if it's cheap ad hominem)?

And then, whatever you do, you deal with the fallout. Because there's always some sort of fallout.

My favorite rape joke in stand up comedy is this Louis C. K. bit (video link).

(For those not watching the video he describes being a young comedian and going to his hotel room with a waitress. Their perfectly consensual make outs are going well, but when he tries to take it to the next stage she pushes his hand away and after a while she leaves. Later they meet again and the waitress asks him why they didn't have sex. He says, well, you said you didn't want to, and she explains to him that she was really likes it when guys ignore her resistance and just go for it. He says I wish you'd told me, I'd have done that, and she says no, it doesn't feel real if I have to ask, and which point he launches into a frustrated rant about the ridiculousness of him being expected to rape her on spec, just on the off chance that was going to turn out to be what she wanted.)

Firstly, Louis C.K. has a delivery I think is hilarious, and liking him generally as well as this being part of a larger show I quite like means I'm pre-inclined to be amused. It also operates on one of those kind of inherently funny Catch 22 premises, where a sane, relatively decent person is interacting with a world that wants him to jump through a series of hoops, but isn't willing to tell him what they are. It says something about consent I think is true and valuable. There's a fun reversal of expectation- the girl wants rough, nonconsensual-seeming sex, and the guy does not. And aside from some sexual frustration on the part of both parties, and a bit of regular frustration on Louis C. K.'s part no one is hurt at the end of it. It's very gentle and accessible for a joke that's ultimately about deciding whether or not you're going to rape someone (though honestly the main joke is miscommunication and unreasonable expectations, which is part of why it's so gentle).

George Carlin also had a small bit on whether or not rape could ever be funny, I believe followed by the observation that it does not take any particular cleverness or creativity to piss off a feminist.

A lot of times when people come out and say "hey, man, not cool," about humor, or art or movies or whatever, there's a tendency to write them off as prudes or people without any sense of humor, and I don't think that's necessarily true. I would say it's easily possible to love stand up comedy and still not think Daniel Tosh is funny, for example. I don't think rape is funny (or racism, or war, or any number of other things), but I think rape jokes can be, in the same way that it's possible to jump a motorcycle over several cars and through a wheel of fire. It can be done and if you succeed it's a great show. And if you don't succeed, it ends up pretty gross.

And really, it's important to be aware of both potential outcomes before you rev up your bike. 


  1. Nice piece. There was a long thread over on AW a while ago about rape in fantasy fiction, and why it's such a sensitive topic compared to many of the other horrible things people do to one another. It's a complex issue, but I think you hit the nail on the head with regards to rape jokes. I know for me, a lot of the frustration is also because it seems to be the one crime where the victim is often seen as being to blame and the perpetrator is often seen as sympathetic (like, you know, any nice guy could rape a gal under the right circumstances), and jokes often reflect this perspective.

  2. Cracked also did a fun article on this.