During a July 6th performance at the Laugh Factory, clip show host and mediocre stand-up comedian Daniel Tosh made a rape joke. When a female audience member objected, Tosh allegedly responded with “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now?” Like Michael Richards back in 2006, Tosh countered a heckler with a threatening and unfunny attack, rather than with a clever diversion. Tosh eventually apologized to the woman and his larger audience via Twitter (a medium, which we all know, is built for genuine statements of contrition).
But Daniel Tosh and his apology don’t matter. Men who like to rape women are not going to rape less women based on whether or not Tosh apologizes for making an unfunny rape joke. Tosh was not apologizing for contributing to the climate of fear in which so many women exist. Like a chastened child forced to say “sorry” on the playground, Tosh’s apology had nothing to do with making amends with those he offended and everything to do with getting out of trouble. That’s generally how these “scandals” go.
But with the entrance of comedian/actor/director Louis CK, this public story became infinitely more interesting. On July 10th, in the midst of the kerfuffle, CK logged onto Twitter and defended Tosh. Comedians offend people for a living so when they defend other comedians (and they often do), they are really defending themselves and their craft. But soon enough CK realized that he made the critical error of alienating his base (liberals, feminists, academics) so he headed to The Daily Show to assure them that when he tweeted his support for Tosh he had not been aware of the rape-joke scandal. You see, he was “in Vermont.” I think we can all agree that this is a terrible excuse. But CK then went on to discuss how the incident led him to read some blogs on the subject of rape and that he now understood how rape “polices” women’s lives, adding: “They have a narrow corridor: they can’t go out late, they can’t go to certain neighborhoods…”
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It was refreshing to watch a smart comedian like CK speaking in favor of educating and informing himself on all angles of a complicated issue before speaking about it on national television. As CK states in the above interview “all dialogue is positive.” The fact that for almost two weeks, a corner of the media (including cable news programs, blogs, tabloids, online magazines, and social media addicts like myself) was engaged in a critical discussion of rape and power and representation is pretty amazing. I’m a big believer in the power of dialogue, context, and debate so I was happy to see that Louis CK was doing just that instead of reciting the “hyperbole and garbage,” to use his words, that is usually offered up in response to delicate topics. But then, because he’s a comedian, CK capped off this great moment of nuance and understanding with a piece of advice to all of those angry women who had been talking and writing and complaining about Tosh: “Now that we heard you—shut the fuck up for a minute.”
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to shut the fuck up. That’s why I am still talking about Daniel Tosh and his incredibly stupid rape joke almost three weeks after it happened. Because the point is not that comedians can’t make jokes about rape. I believe even the most horrifying of human experiences can become the subjects of genuinely funny jokes if they cause us to think about these horrors in a new light, either by overturning what we thought we understood about the subject or, even better, by forcing us to look at ourselves and our own culpability (and sometimes, if the offensive jokes are really funny, none of those things even matter). For me, stand-up comedy is at its best when it walks the line between hilarity and horror; make me laugh when my first instinct is to cry. Isn’t that the comedian’s job?
And when comedians or celebrities or politicians or even good old-fashioned real folks screw up and say or do something that is wrong or hurtful, we owe it to ourselves to talk about it rationally and in context. We need to stop going for the easy fix, the easy laugh, and the sound bite. Because taking down statues and banning costumes from movie theaters don’t stop pedophiles from raping children or maniacs from shooting moviegoers. These measures only offer the appearance of having done something. They offer powerful images and headlines but they won’t stop these atrocities from happening again. Instead we need to talk to each other. And once we’re all listening, I’ll be happy to shut the fuck up.