On Daniel Tosh, Rape Humor, and Artistic Integrity
By now readers of this blog, and followers of humor in general, are no doubt aware of the recent controversy surrounding comedian Daniel Tosh and the curious case of the misquoted rape joke. If not you can read about it here, or the original account here.
Long story short: Sometime last week, a woman attended a Daniel Tosh show at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Tosh, known for humor that frequently toes the line on appropriateness, was making comments about the humor of rape jokes. The woman responded that she does not think such jokes are ever funny. Tosh responds to this “heckler” by announcing to the audience “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?”
It is not my aim here to recount what did or did not happen, or whether such jokes are or are not appropriate. Both of those have been hashed out extensively. There was the Huffington Post‘s recap of the incident, complete with a collection of comedians defending Daniel Tosh. More importantly there was a slew of pleas to Please Stop Telling Rape Jokes, along with detailed instructions on How to Make a Rape Joke work and examples of 15 Rape Jokes That Work. Even The Onion got in on the action, giving what is probably the most pointed illustration.
It is important to note that comedians are not all in agreement over this. Here in my adopted comedy city of Austin there is a vibrant discussion of Tosh and more importantly over issues of who is “allowed” to say what to whom. Much of this happened in house on a private Facebook page for Austin comedians. With permission, I’ve included two of the more insightful takes from two comics whom I respect and admire.
From Kath Barbadoro:
I think it’s more about that a person probably shouldn’t be telling jokes where rape is the punchline, or that make rape seem like it’s less of a serious and horrible thing than it is, and expect people to not be pissed off or feel threatened.
Because “wouldn’t it be funny if this woman got gang raped right now” isn’t a funny joke, it isn’t even a joke. This doesn’t disprove the whole “anything can be funny in the right light” thing.
Basically I think it’s not about what is okay to be offended by and what is not okay to be offended by, because people can be mad about whatever they want just like people can say whatever they want. The point is that 1. all rape jokes are not created equal, some perpetuate a culture that is cool with rape and some don’t, and 2. what tosh did to that audience member is fucked up.
Sorry, but as a woman who is in comedy spaces a lot, I really need “jokes” about the audience gang raping a specific individual to not be okay. Is that seriously unreasonable? This isn’t a philosophical or semantic argument to me, this is a matter of self-advocacy.
From Brendan K. O’Grady:
I’m actually still less troubled by Daniel Tosh’s joking about a heckler getting raped than I am by segments from his TV show like “Lightly Touching Women’s Stomachs While They’re Sitting Down.”…As a performer and speech advocate, I’ll staunchly defend Tosh’s right to do what he did on stage at the Laugh Factory (and I’ll applaud the woman, who reportedly will still go see live comedy, if maybe after doing a little research into who’s on the bill beforehand next time), but I’ll condemn him as irresponsible at best and despicable at worst for the way he appears to look at women and other people in general, as evidenced by his other works.
It is a special time to do comedy in the age of the Internet. But it is also a double edged sword. The benefit of increased access to audiences carries with it the increased responsibility to be accountable for things said to those audiences. The last few years have given us numerous examples: Michael Richards, Carlos Mencia, Tracy Morgan, and now Daniel Tosh.
The “sides” that have emerged in this controversy are as intriguing as they are predictable. Supporters of Tosh often appeal to ideals of free speech as integral to an artist’s integrity. If Tosh, or any comedian for that matter, has to watch what they say for fear of offending then we are in effect silencing their right to free expression of ideas. Either everything is fair game or none of it is.
The other “side” appeals to notions of empathy on behalf of those to whom these jokes are “aimed” at. As Kath noted, “not all rape jokes are equal”–we should be mindful of the underlying premise of a joke to examine whether or not it hinges upon attacking those who are already in marginalized positions. Perpetuating harmful stereotypes or world views should not be the purpose of comedy, and comedians should adjust their material accordingly.
If these positions seem roughly sketched or resting upon a false dichotomy, that is because they are. What makes Kath and Brendan’s comment illustrative to me is in how they incorporate elements of both positions. Despite the reactions to several comedians in the aforementioned link, no one is actually saying Tosh isn’t allowed to say what he wants. His free speech rights have not been hampered. He did not go to jail, nor should he. Kath’s comments spoke to the idea that someone “probably shouldn’t be telling a joke where rape is the punchline” and that such requests are not “seriously unreasonable.” Brendan also makes a point to defend Tosh’s free speech rights, but that in doing so creates a space where he can “condemn him for being irresponsible at best and despicable at worst” for suggesting that comments about rape targeted at a specific person are part of his artistic merit as a comedian.
This last point is what sticks with me the most. I also do not find this to be an either/or scenario or that those who initially defended Tosh were doing so because they didn’t think rape is a serious topic. Correlation is not causality. However it does raise some points for reflection that jokes about the heinous act of rape were technically defended using the language of art, integrity, and free expression. Are these really the kinds of jokes that we want to defend in the name of those ideals? I’d just like us all to ponder for a moment what it means that those strange rhetorical bedfellows were made. If Tosh were to be immune from criticism on the grounds that he is an artist then wouldn’t that force us to reconsider the value of such art? If not, shouldn’t it?