Thursday, July 18, 2013

Punching Upwards: Rape and Comedy

I have been trying to write this post for years. Years. It was getting to the point that I feared it may be my own book about Dresden. I have read this post over, edited it, and tweaked it, more than anything else I have ever written. When the whole controversy with Tosh happened, I thought to myself Okay self, it is time. We are going to sit down and write this. And then I tried and everything I wrote just sounded so generic and fluffy and uhhhgggghhhh. So I decided to let it ferment for a while longer. Then I saw Sady Doyle's incredible articles about comedian Sam Morril and saw the shit storm over that and once again I thought to myself, Self, it is time to get this shit done. I've been sitting on this, tweaking and massaging it, for months since doing so.

I started in the same place I always did, why it was such an important topic to me, and my own complicated relationship with shock humor. If I had a mantra that I repeated to myself in hard times, it would be "Sometimes you either need to laugh or cry. Might as well laugh." That phrase, and the philosophy that goes with it, has carried me through some dark times, and enabled me to navigate some difficult problems and situations without pissing too many people off. Humor has enabled me to look at the darkest parts of the world around me, make sense of them, and then talk about them without traumatizing anyone too much. Humor is practically a way of life for me, and the darker a thing is, the more likely I am to have (at least to myself) been cracking jokes about it. I do feel I need to say this, but I realize now I don't want that to be the focus.

I looked at Mr. Morril's response. Everything about it depressed and bugged me, but nothing quite so much as his blatant appeal to authority of "I know comedy and you don't." That was where I wanted to start. I'm not a comedian, but I definitely write comically, can I declare myself a reasonable enough authority on the topic to override him? I wasn't sure, so I talked to my sister who's worked in comedy. I asked her thoughts on rape and humor and then harassed her for a comment because that's normal between sisters right?

To quote her,

"From my limited time working in comedy, people who rely on rape jokes for their big laughs have a shock in the place of a punchline.
Though I've heard some funny rape jokes, it's never at the expense of the victim."

Well, she is my sister, I shouldn't be surprised her views are similar to my own. She then reminded me that I actually know a stand-up comedian, and that he's gotten formal training from Second City. So I fired off a quick message asking his thoughts on the topic. I was a little worried, this wasn't someone I knew well, and I've seen people I thought were perfectly reasonable turn interesting colors at the mere mention of the topic of rape's relationship in comedy. My fear was totally misplaced. Maddox Campbell's* response nearly just got copy and pasted in its entirety for this article, but that felt like cheating. Here is some of it.

"It is important that nothing is sacred in comedy. Comedy is more than levity. It is, or at least can and should be, a means of talking about serious or uncomfortable issues without everyone getting their mental and emotional defenses up.
It also allows us to raise an important political issue to mind without being too straight-forward or preachy. So, writing jokes about rape is not belittling the seriousness of the subject, it’s doing the opposite. It’s saying, “I only have five minutes on this stage that I’ve waited all week to get on and competed with other comics to get and I’ve decided rape is worth discussing.”"

Obviously, that is not the only stance to take on the topic (and sadly not all comedians look at rape as "something worth discussing") but it articulates many of my own feelings well. I asked him if at comedy school they talked about rape jokes, he told me that they were too protective of their image to ever QUITE go there, but he did offer this:

"The basic rule when dealing with any touchy topic is "Don't make fun of the victim." Which is pretty obvious and also more about keeping the audience on your side. Also, if a character is the victim of a scene, they should win in the end of the scene. A general rule would definitely apply any one trying to do a scene about rape."

I've said for a while that there are two types of rape jokes. Ones that ask the audience to laugh at the victim, or the act of victimizing someone. They ignore the fact that by doing so, we're further victimizing them.

EX: My girlfriend told me "REAL men don't rape" I told her "REAL women do as their fucking told" 


Then there is the second type of rape joke, the one that makes me think that rape (or any topic) should never be taken off the table when it comes to comedy. The rape jokes that make fun of the rapist, the society around rape, and rape culture as a whole. The ones that tell victims "We see you, and we see what bullshit you're going through":

EX: We need more rape jokes. We really do. 
I love that some people applauded that. Needless to say, rape, the most heinous crime imaginable. Seems it’s a comic’s dream, though. Because it seems that when you do rape jokes that like the material is so dangerous and edgy. But the truth is it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. 'Cause who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape. 
--Sarah Silverman 

As I quoted above, comedy, at its best, should be a means to talk about the difficult and the dark to challenge people to think about it. Comedy should be a means of saying "No! I will not let this drop!" It is a way to try togame a system that tries to silence people. When people try to speak up against things that rub against people's privilege they're met with backlash of people getting defensive. If we make jokes about it, however, people don't get defensive, and suddenly we can talk about it. It's powerful. Comedy is powerful. Always supporting any rape joke because of free speech (which is not what that means--I'll get into that more at the end) is supporting rape culture. Sure, make jokes about horrible things, but when the people who are affected by these things step up and say "This is not okay" we need to listen. Rape victims are already silenced aggressively enough, do we really want to perpetuate that?

Yes, we're getting into rape culture now. 1 in 4 women are raped. Think about that for a moment. 50% of women in Canada will be abused in some form and there's a huge overlap in the men who rape women, and the men who abuse them. When comedians make jokes about how funny it is for women to get raped, get put in their place, get beaten, they ignore the epidemic levels this problem is at and they condone it. By condoning it, they perpetuate it. People will pay lip service to "everyone knows domestic violence is bad! It's just a joke!"  But here's the thing: it keeps happening. We as a society choose to look away, because it's none of our business what goes on in the privacy of people's homes, after all. So now we have a society where not only do we not interfere with domestic violence, we make jokes that are effectively condoning it, even if that isn't their intention.

Rape culture is a problem, and there's the commonly bantered around myth that "all feminists think men are rapists".  If that were true, it would make my marrying a man when I'm a bisexual woman a very bizarre choice (seriously, why the hell wouldn't I just date women exclusively?) but the sad fact is that it isn't feminists who think all men are rapists. It's the rapists that do. Seriously, go read that link. I'll wait.

People normalize their behavior. They assume everyone is stealing company stationery (or whatever their own naughty behavior they think everyone indulges in is) and it's no big deal. They assume even if other people aren't stealing stationery, they won't care because it's so minor. In this case rapists assume that their male*** peers are also predators, when in fact it is approximately 1 in 20 men. "Wait, but you said it was 1 in 4 women, right?" yup, which means the average rapist will assault 5 women in his life (about 85% of which will be known to him). So think about it next time you're in a room where there are 20 men, and we'll assume 20 women. One of those men is a rapist, probably, and 5 of those women are survivors of rape (while 5 more of some other stroke of abuse). When you make a joke about rape, you are 1) probably triggering those 5 survivors (and maybe those 5 abuse survivors, too), and 2) telling that 1 rapist in the room that you've got his back. You're confirming his assumption that it isn't just him, everyone does it. If not that, you are at least telling him "Yeah, I'll turn away and assume she was just drunk, regretted it, and called rape after the fact". If you've ever uttered that phrase, consider the social backlash women are met when they talk about having been raped, and maybe have a look at this infograph of how many rapists face any sort of legal consequence.

So what are we fighting for when it comes to rape in comedy? Is it in the name of "free speech"? People speaking out against rape jokes which ask us to laugh at the victim aren't silencing anyone - they're exercising their own free speech. Free speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Do we want to fight for the right of (almost entirely) white, male comedians to make rape jokes without consequences, or can we all finally just agree that sometimes people say shitty hurtful things, and holding them accountable doesn't mean we're silencing them? It means we're exercising our OWN freedom of speech. Can we agree that victims of rape get to be the ones who say what is and isn't okay when it comes to rape jokes, and listen instead of telling them to lighten up? I think comedy is important. That doesn't change the fact that we all culturally need to take stock of what we do, and don't, give a free pass on. I think we unilaterally need to strip "It was just a joke" from our cultural vernacular. It isn't a defense, and jokes should mean more than that.


*You can find his youtube channel Kick and Giggles for some sketch comedy fun or follow him on Twitter @maddoxCampbell
**I picked a random internet joke instead of an actual stand-up Comedian's because 1) I didn't want to give any credit to rape apologists, and 2) I didn't want to provide people with the platform to derail the conversation to being about some random comedian as actually a nice guy.

***Yes, men are rape victims, too, and not all rapists are men, but there are a LOT more male rapists than female, and a lot more female victims than male. However that is not what this post is about. The treatment of male rape victims is a post for another day.


  1. Good article. I have two thoughts about comedy and rape. Bear with me.

    When Tosh did his public ass showing, I was working for the Mirage at the time and he was a scheduled headliner coming up. Even though it was my job to sell tickets to his show, and to upsell his show to people seeing other shows, I not only steered people away from him but I also did my best to dissuade people from seeing him, even if they called in specifically for him. I have no regrets about this. I don't know how much I cost him in the end, but I know I did. I don't work for them anymore but that was even more satisfying than talking people out of seeing Criss Angel's show because damn.

    Conversely: I also was at a comedy club at the Palms once where the main act was Kevin James. He went on last and the people in front of him were so bad that by the time he got on stage the audience was in no mood for anything and James wasn't able to turn them back to his side. So he starts in on the most horrific shocking disgusting sexual based routine --with the rape joke punchline at the end-- ever and I swear it was like setting off a small nuke in the room. Every single woman in the audience (and I was in the front, so we were trapped up there -- nothing says "make me a target" like getting up in the middle of a guy's routine) turned that one color and the guys were all "thanks you just ruined my vacation, she's never getting that image out of her head and I'll never be able to convince her to go to a comedy club again" and we all left angry and that is why to this day Kevin James could be in the next Star Wars movie for all I know and I will not pay one fucking dime to see it.

    Comedy is a weapon but the rule is Punch Upward. Do not punch down. Someone recently observed that the more famous you get the fewer upward targets you have and your job gets harder-- which is as it should be.

  2. A) Yes.

    B) This all reminds me of "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes", in Cabaret. The MC sings a love song to a gorilla, and, at the end, finishes, "If you could see her through my eyes -- she wouldn't look Jewish at all. It's exploiting the ugly and selfish parts of the culture, while reinforcing them, and helping the audience to feel superior to an out-group. No one would openly use that frank of an anti-Semitic joke now, or any of the appalling "n-word" jokes I remember from the 1950s, but women are still fair game.

    C) Preach it. This only changes if people are not allowed to look away or to be complicit.

  3. You're kind of my hero for actively trying to talk people OUT of seeing Tosh, and I think the phrase "Punch upwards" actually sums a lot of what I say up incredibly well.

  4. I actually still see a lot of pretty blatant race humor, and not all of it following the whole "punch up" rule. It's just a bit more nuances and subtle (sometimes). I've also noticed a trend of POC basing their entire routine on their race, which is fine, but they're usually trying to get the audience to laugh at them, not with them, which I have complicated feelings on.

  5. First time comment, here. I wanted to say thank you for this.

    As a survivor of multiple rapes, I suspect that rapists tend to rape a lot more than five women each. Nevertheless, them feeling supported even if they've 'only' raped one is too much.

    Rape 'humor' has kept me out of comedy clubs entirely - my one attempt to go to one was rather truncated when the first comic was waxing rhapsodic about the different ways to coerce sex without actually forcing it. I got up and left, doing my best to ignore the heckling from the 'comedian' i was fleeing. Kudos to Mr. Ranier above for keeping people away from Tosh's show.

    I do think that harmful rape 'humor' is inextricably tied with the commodification of sex. People who think of sex as something two (or more, who cares?) people agree to and have fun doing together, do not, in my experience, find victim-baiting funny. In a culture where sex is a mutual activity, victim-baiting would be no more funny than a story about forcing someone to play basketball with you.

    I don't know how to move the cultural construct of sex from something you 'have' to something you 'do'. But i do think that as long as sex is viewed by a significant portion of society as a thing to be won or bought or traded, then there will be those who think taking it by any means possible is just fine.

    Anyway, I just found this blog recently. I rather enjoy your brand of humor, and Will's as well.

  6. I think Patton Oswald was the one who said "punch upwards" in his note to self thing, but I don't remember for sure. Too lazy to google right now.

    I was pretty subversive when I was selling show tickets (and to be fair to my employer I also tried to steer people TOWARD better comedians and shows). But I'm not the only one. I had a second job ushering shows on the weekends (which was considered extra, you got paid AND you got to see the show, so you could sign up for them or not depending on if you wanted to see a particular person) and every time Andrew Dice Clay would come to town EVERY female usher would somehow not sign up to work that show. Because when you're an usher, you have to stay inside and man the doors and listen to the routine. Sometimes twice a night. Because yeah. I worked his show once because I needed the money. After that, there wasn't enough money in the world to get me in that showroom again.

  7. Some very excellent points in here; the 'punch upwards' one is very good, as is the difference in the two forms of modern comedy. (Didn't Aristotle have a different view of Comedy and Tragedy?) I find it difficult to see why certain people have problems with comedy that does not make fun of the victim.

    I really liked, as issue-ridden as it can be, the play The Fantastiks. It holds a special place for me because I really enjoyed being in it in high school. But it has a song in it, a really problematically-titled song. Even though it uses the term 'rape' in the sense of 'abduction' a la The Rape of the Lock, and if you just ignore how much the word 'rape' is used in it and replace it with the word 'kidnap' or 'abduction' it's actually a fairly funny song... and at that point it's starting to feel like reaching. (Before The Fantasticks ended its run on Sullivan St. in NYC (and the theater was bulldozed to make way for condos, WTF) they had changed some of the lyrics a bit, but when the first three lines is the singer belting out a wide operatic scale with the word 'Rape,' there's not a lot that can be done to change the lyrics within the music.)