Talking About Rape Jokes (Again)

July 28, 2012
By | 10 Comments

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, tabloidsonline 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.


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10 Responses to “ Talking About Rape Jokes (Again) ”

  1. Jeffrey Sconce on July 28, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    Excellent post, and another reminder that comedy is all that matters anymore, politically anyway.

    Louis CK definitely derailed his otherwise nuanced discussion on TDS by telling women to “shut the fuck up” at the end (and this from a guy who actually has the skills to tell an amazing pedophile-rape joke, which he did last season). Still, I’m not sure why we have to assume he went to Twitter to “defend” Tosh and then decided to concoct the Vermont story as a way of backtracking. After all, his tweet says nothing of Tosh’s blunder/situation (like “Stay strong, bro!”)–it just says he likes his TV show. So I’m with you on ill-chosen capper to his interview, but I can’t call him a liar without more evidence.

  2. Amanda Ann Klein on July 28, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

    Ultimately, I don’t care whether Louis CK was defending Daniel Tosh or just happened to tweet in the wrong place at the wrong time. At this point, comedians defend each other as almost a knee jerk response in these kinds of situations. If Louis CK did intend to defend Tosh, he would be no different from the vast majority of comedians. That’s how they do.

    But having said that, I really do think CK knew exactly what he was doing. I follow CK on Twitter and (as you probably know) I am on Twitter A LOT, and the man NEVER tweets. He only ever logs on to announce a new show or ticket sales, and will occasionally banter with someone. So yeah, I find it suspect when he just happens to say something positive to Tosh right in the middle of the Tosh scandal.

    I won’t call him a “liar” though, because I am too fond of the man to slander him. I will just say, I think he screwed up (boo!), he made amends by educating himself and having a really smart conversation with John Stewart (yay!), and told us all to shut the fuck up (boo!), which was unfortunate.

  3. Christine Becker on July 28, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    I’ll second the impression that Louis CK almost never tweets about anything but himself (and Sarah Palin’s vagina). When he offered the Vermont excuse, I scrolled back through a whole slew of his tweets, and the only one not about him was a shout out to Lena Dunham, right when everyone was criticizing the show about race. Maybe he was in Vermont then too.

  4. Christine Becker on July 28, 2012 at 3:06 PM

    Oh, and I should add: great post!

  5. Kelli Marshall on July 28, 2012 at 5:49 PM

    This comment section needs a “like” button. (I’m talking to you and your post, CB! #Vermont.) As always, great post, Amanda! =)

  6. Kristen Warner on July 28, 2012 at 8:03 PM

    Thanks Amanda for making this a real thing and not just the random screaming into the internets that we do when this foolishness occurs. I’m gonna go ahead and say it: I think Louis CK lied. I think Vermont has Internet; I think it also has phone lines and it certainly worked when he decided to tweet Tosh about his ~most fabulous~ episode at the worst possible time ever. Does him taking cover and saving his ass courtesy of John Stewart’s show make him bad or unlikeable? Absolutely not. But I think it’s a flimsy and quite convenient excuse. But that’s that and as someone very correctly stated–short of a deathbed confession we will simply never know for sure.

    But that is not what bothers me. Louis, as often as he self fashions to the contrary is a professional. He is a brand and he has a public who devoutly support his brand so he needs to do the labor to ensure their support is not in vain and that he is all that they believe him to be. And that is where my will gets crossed–the fans. I too have supported Louis because he is one of a few white comedians who discuss white privilege and complicates issues of race. But my admiration does not disallow critique–something I find is very hard to do among this fandom. And in this instance, it is necessary. Does he “owe” us women a pound of flesh? No. But I don’t have to take his weak ass apology/complisult either. Can I expect more? I dunno. But I do expect more from his fans. Because my black femininity can’t afford less.

  7. Evan Davis on July 29, 2012 at 1:06 AM

    Dear Ms. Klein,

    I’d like to offer thoughts on three of your points:

    1) Perhaps I’m too naive or too trusting, but I believe Louie when he says that he didn’t know about the scandal when he tweeted. Based on Louie’s past interviews, he’s not usually one to hide behind bullshit and doublespeak in order to protect his brand or to paint himself as any nicer or more decent than he actually is. More importantly, the tweet itself made no reference to the scandal. Calling it a defense–as most people did when it was published–seems like a reach. Contrast, for example, the Tracy Morgan scandal last year, in which Louie very explicitly and directly defended Morgan’s conduct on Twitter. Louie’s defense of Morgan is an entirely different and potentially bigger can of worms, I’ll admit. But it also suggests that if Louie intended to defend Tosh in light of the scandal, he would have done so rather plainly. Furthermore, his desire to go on Jon Stewart’s show and discuss the issue openly only serves to demonstrate his ease with being open about his feelings on the controversy. (Louie has never struck me as being one to listen to publicists and PR image makers, either.)

    2) While Louie did ask for women to “shut the fuck up for a minute,” he said it after he took men to task for refusing to listen to women and their feelings on this issue. He was trying to humorously demonstrate that both genders seemed to be performing gender stereotypes about the Tosh incident. Whether his attempt at humor was successful or not is another matter, but it seems more complicated than merely claiming that Louie was trying to silence women’s voices with that comment.

    3) The entire Tosh controversy is a non-starter. It is impossible for us to know the precise joke and heckle response Tosh made, how it was made, and the context in which it was made. Unless Tosh or another party comes forward with a verbatim transcript and an accurate description of all the other elements of Tosh’s performance–the vocal inflections, the rhythm and cadence of his speaking pattern, his body language and eye movements–we cannot judge what the joke was or at whom it was targeted. The blogger’s assessment of Tosh’s material is vague at best, and her only quote–“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”–has been disputed by another person in the room that night. Not that this person should be trusted over the blogger, but it raises questions about the evidence marshalled to accuse Tosh of misogyny and rape apology. As someone who performs stand-up comedy, I find it incredibly frustrating that an entire discourse around this incident has emerged over the last few weeks without the proper material available for people to make an informed judgment one way or the other about it. If Tosh’s joke was as the blogger claimed, then it was not particularly funny, and it seems pretty offensive. But I’m not ready to make that claim until the evidence of that sees the light of day. Michael Richards was caught on tape in 2006, and could therefore be properly assessed as making virulently racist comments on stage; Daniel Tosh was not.

    • Amanda Ann Klein on July 29, 2012 at 1:39 PM

      Hi Mr. Davis
      First, let me say that I’m really pleased to have a stand up comedian weigh in on this issue. Second, your raise valid points, but I won’t respond to #1 and #2 since I discussed #2 within my piece (ending on that comment negated, at least for me, all the good stuff CK did with his interview) and #1 (we’ll have to agree to disagree about whether or not CK’s tweet was a defense) within the comments section.

      However, as to # 3, this is really important and I’m glad you brought it up. If I hadn’t been constrained by an 800 word limit on this piece, I would have written more about how Tosh’s performance even became subject to public scrutiny. You are correct— unlike the incident with Michael Richards, which was caught on tape (and had it not been caught on tape I would not have believed such vile things could come out of Kramer’s mouth), the Tosh show was not recorded. Only the people who attended that July 6th show at the Laugh Factory know for sure what was said or not said. All we know for sure is that Tosh made a joke about rape, an audience member objected to that joke, and that Tosh responded with something that offended that woman enough that she and her friend went home and wrote a blog post about it. For that reason I was careful to write that Tosh’s response to the heckler was “alleged”

      You correctly argue that a joke’s humor is often based on context, inflection, body language, etc., and even if that young woman’s testimony is 100% accurate, those of us who were not at the Laugh Factory are still missing those key things. Maybe every person in that audience—other than the heckler and her friend—thought Tosh’s rape joke was hilarious and appropriate in context of the larger show. But this particular woman was offended and she decided to write about it. Given that most of the research done on rape victims shows that more than 60% of rapes are never reported, I applaud anyone who speaks out about what does or does not make her comfortable in relation to this subject. Women often don’t speak out about rape for fear of reprisal or fear of being labeled as misunderstanding a situation or being “too sensitive.” I’m glad this particular woman said—this bugged me, I thought it was inappropriate, I’m going to write about it.

      The point of my piece was that whenever these types of public scandals occur, it’s important to talk about them in an honest and balanced way, rather than with reactionary articles arguing that either all comedians are misogynist pigs or all women who get offended by this kind of thing are humorless shrews. Or even to break this debate along gender lines. It’s so much more complicated than that. My point was that these arguments have the potential to go on and on and resolve nothing if they remain “arguments” instead of conversations.

      To that end, I really am delighted that you joined this conversation. I find all of this talk to be really useful, even if we ultimately disagree.

  8. Phil Scepanski on July 30, 2012 at 12:03 PM

    A lot of the discourse about this controversy seems to imply an ethics of humor, without explicitly stating it. As CK highlighted in his characterization of feminists, nobody wants to be accused of not being able to take a joke.

    In that sense, while I read your article as being an endorsement of CK’s ethics as a comic, it seems more instructive to think of him here as a consumer of comedy. He took the controversy as a charge to educate himself about rape just as many feminist bloggers made use of the controversy to inform people (myself included) of facts and theories about sexual violence in a way that was obviously pro-social.

    This leads me to the thought that when comics offend with a joke, it often has more to do with a joke not being funny than with the content itself. You suggest this in your article. And the point about context (I might add, the ritual of the heckler/response might also have played a hand in causing a disconnect between an audience member who genuinely offended and a comic who misinterpreted their actions as a joking challenge to be maximally offensive). But no matter, if the joke had gone down as funny, rather than just mean, it would never have entered the virtual public forum the way it did. It is possible even, that the funny jokes about rape, or genocide, or racism, are more pernicious in that they make us comfortable and thus complacent about such social ills.

    This raises a number of interesting ethical questions. Are successful jokes about rape more pernicious than the failed ones? If you accept the claim that the response to this event was more pro-social than the joke was anti-social in a utilitarian sense, does that inflect your reading of the situation? Is it even possible to proactively come up with an ethics of edgy humor or can we only judge joke by joke?

    • Nora Stone on August 6, 2012 at 12:10 PM

      Thank you for getting to the heart of things, the questions that underlie event-based arguments.