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?

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8 responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Life and Times of Nathan Badley… and commented:
    After hearing about Daniel Tosh repeatedly over the last week, I ran across this post that seemed to lay out the entire situation perfectly. Something to think about, particularly if you are comedian who may or may not want to mention rape on stage.

  2. Really good post. I agree, and would add just because you can say somethings doesn’t mean you should.

  3. ” 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.”

    This is simplifying the issue into binaries. Does “right to free expression of ideas” means the absolute certainly of trying out any jokes without any chance of getting boo’ed, if an audience thinks it doesn’t please them? Does the booing qualify as an audience’s right to give instantaneous feedback for the comic to refine his act on the spot, or is only hollers of approval and applause the only feedback accepted?

    The woman gave a feedback. The comedian does not need to “silence” himself, unless he already equates telling “rape jokes” to be the exclusive kind of using words as power dynamics of rape: unstoppable pillage and plunder at the whim strikes one’s fancy. if he broadens the scope of “rape jokes” to be all forms and repercussions of rape as it occurs in society or in public imagination (of all types, not just those enjoying the roles of aggressors), then he can tell a DIVERSE array of jokes about rape as a social, widespread phenomenon involving many kinds of experiences, rather than just one that appealed to his base instincts of feeling “attacked” by what amounts to a “booing” audience feedback to a performer onstage.

    Finessing one’s material could entail a lifetime of studying, perfecting one’s craft/”art”, beyond the easily discouraged tendencies of an amateur/beginner who feels the lack of instant audience approval means immediate hanging up of those funny shoes.

    “Everything’s fair game”…that could entail an interesting study of statistical sampling of most rape jokes, and see how many of them hold the rapists versus the rape victim, as being the receiving end of the punchline. If “everything’s fair”, then the results would be expected to be both the rapists and rape victims are equal opportunity material for jokes. Is it so? Theoretically we say so in name “protecting” Tosh’s “rights”. Factually? Let’s find out…

    1. P.S. Apologies for the poor grammar in first paragraph (…)

    2. mainFrame, I agree with your initial argument that the quoted passage simplifies the issue into binaries. I addressed that in the adjoining paragraphs after the statement. I think the way a lot of the issue was debated in forums popular and otherwise took that route and that was what I was hoping to comment on. I’d also invite you to consult the numerous links placed earlier in the post. They comment on the dynamics involving who is “allowed” to say what to whom, particularly in this case, far better than I good. As mentioned in the post my goal was to address what I thought were some lingering issues stemming from the artificial binary that I thought had been set up in the initial discussion of Tosh.

  4. Good stuff Faina. Part of the problem in this controversy, like many others involving freedom of speech, is the mis-conceptualization of what that freedom entails. Tosh has the right to say whatever he wants on stage, and clubs and audiences have the right to pay for him to say whatever he wants. Yet, that does not mean he’s inoculated from criticism. If he has the right to say it, others have the right to say it’s tasteless, unfunny, and perpetuates horrible stereotypes. You’re totally right in that there is no false dichotomy. Tosh chose to build his comedic repertoire on edgy material. While that has given him success, he also has to live with its consequences.

  5. Great article! I have to say Tosh does have to right to say whatever he wants. Why should people live in fear of everything? Only adults should be attending his shows, therefore adults should know the things that bad things can happen. Does that mean it has to become taboo, because it is a serious thing? People tip-toe around saying everything these days, so someone doesn’t get their feelings hurt. Racism, sexism and etc will always be a problem if people continue making it a problem. Why shouldn’t we be able to joke about anything, it’s not like Tosh is a rapist or going around saying ” I suppose rapist.”. When you interrupt someone’s work, which is him doing a show, what are you expecting? I read her blog and it seemed as if she had never heard of Tosh before. Perhaps they should have researched who was performing, BEFORE going to see if it was appropriate for them. People want Tosh to take responsibility for his actions. But what about her’s? Lack of research on said show and rude enough to interrupt someone during it. Perhaps after the show, she could have made a comment to Tosh, but trying to “teach him a lesson” or embarrass him in front of an audience, is only asking for trouble.

  6. […] sketchy (and equally unfunny) “joke” about the rape of an audience member – which has been previously addressed by Humor in America – I believe that Cook has every right to say what he did, and I would never seek to put […]

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