Why the Tosh Rape Situation is so Confusing

Before you read any of this, go over to Jezebel and read Lindy West's How To Make a Rape Joke. This is one of the best things I've read this year. Its nuanced look at the controversy of joking about rape manages something no other response seems capable of--detaching from the emotional whiplash and framing all the social implications of this controversy into useful perspectives. I'll see you back here in ten minutes.

Okay good. Now that you're up to speed... I can appreciate West's presumption that the ethic of comedy is, at it's core, to shift power from the powerful to the powerless (and not the other way around). I don't know if I agree with the intrinsics of this ethic, but at the very least, it's good for society and I'm glad it's gaining popularity as of late. (It's like hearing "God wants us to feed the hungry." I'll take it.)

So West explains that the acceptable way to make a rape joke is to do so in a manner which makes the rapist the butt of the joke. Use the humor to take power away from the powerful and give it too the powerless. This is a great message, but I'd like to further explore the cold, dark, right-wing side of the debate.

Jim Norton defended Daniel Tosh on Opie and Anthony, saying, "I will apologize for child molesting jokes when Kevin Bacon apologizes for playing a child molester. This is why the public are such fucking twats, because never are actors asked to apologize for roles they play. They can address anything they want artistically, but as a comedian, if you address it artistically, these fuck-heads think it's okay to blog about it and that you should be punished for it. Why is that? The public are cunts!"

This is actually a pretty decent point, generally speaking. But I'll explain in a minute why it's not air-tight.

[Just to give you an idea of how hardcore these dudes are on this issue, one of the other ones--Opie, maybe--said, "It's okay that he apologized because everybody knows it means nothing." (Basically, it wouldn't have been okay if he had apologized and meant it.)]

Norton finishes his analysis with: "What a comedian will do sometimes, is take such a ridiculous point of view that no rational person can think that he means it. That's the part of it that's funny. It's so over the top that it's funny."
Okay. I'm going to explain why the public aren't "cunts" for blogging angrily about Tosch's rape joke.

First, we have to go back in time and visit comedy clubs 30 years ago.

Nightclubs had always filled up with people looking for a mixture of entertainment and alcohol. Some had live jazz. Some had a sultry young woman singing on a piano being played by a guy in a suit (this was probably also jazz). A newer form of entertainment featured people that came out on stage and told jokes. Often, they incorporated music into their review. The drummer would punctuate a comedian's one-liners with a rim-shot. Comedians told jokes. They were jokes. Comics said things that weren't true. They were just kidding. If Henny Youngman said, "Take my wife, please!" We laughed because he didn't actually want the audience members to take his wife. It was the opposite of the truth.

This may surprise you, but standup comedy has gotten less ironic over the years. Don't get me wrong, it SOUNDS more ironic, but what you're hearing is hip, sardonic snarkiness--irony's popular voice. But it's not irony.

At a certain point, comedians started doing "observational humor". Depending on your school of thought, you credit Carlin and Prior with inventing this and Jerry Seinfeld with mainstreaming it in the 80's. (I won't bore you about exactly how accurate this is.) What they began to do, is not to say things that weren't true, but rather to say things that ARE true. 

"Men want the same thing from their underwear that they want from women: a little bit of support, and a little bit of freedom." This is true. It's a unique connection between two mostly unrelated things. The word "support" does not mean EXACTLY the same thing when you apply it to women and underwear. But the observation is generally true, and the humor comes from the unexpected connection between two things.

Enter Hicks, Maron, Garafalo, and several dozen others. Comedy starts coming out of the truth directly, the humor comes from more sophisticated connections and unique interpretation and analysis of literal honesty. In certain circles, it becomes "hack" to say things that are patently untrue. If a comic says, "Last night I was having sex with my sister..." the sophisticated audience rolls their eyes--not because it's vulgar, but because they know it's (almost certainly) untrue. If a comic says, "Last night was awkward because I was briefly turned on by my sister," the audience laughs (or, at least is ready to laugh when the punchline comes) because they see that the comic is offering up a piece of himself for scrutiny by addressing a tabu which most people would bury. This attempt to process personal experience into comedy requires some actual courage and trust which creates a bond, priming the audience to laugh as long as the punch-line is half-decent.

In short, today's comedians are expected to humorously render the real world.

If Henny Youngman had said, "It'd be funny if you got gang-rapped right now," it would have been shocking for the time, but it wouldn't have been as alarming set against the context of what standup comedy meant culturally.

Rape my wife, please! *rim shot*
*eye-rolls from the people who didn't like it*
*nobody feeling victimized because nothing the comedian says is ever taken at face value*

(Also, with no twitter and no blogs, nobody would have known about it. This doesn't make it more wrong or right, but it does make you think about the relative force required to cause an avalanche today vs 30 years ago.)

Today, however... Homer Simpson said it best. "It's funny 'cause it's true!"

Comedians today traffic in the truth far more than in absurdities. The Stephen Wrights and Mitch Hedbergs of the world are niche successes, but even quirk-balls like Demetri Martin are generally weaving their absurdities as hypothetical twists on concrete reality.

"“I like parties, but I don’t like piñatas because the piñata promotes violence against flamboyant animals. Hey, there’s a donkey with some pizazz. Let’s kick its ass."

The setting in which this joke takes place is an absurd world. But within that world, it follows. There's a reason Napoleon Dynamite's principle punished Pedro for whacking a Summer Wheatley piñata. Because it insinuates violence against a real person.

Which brings us back to Daniel Tosh.

Let's take a look at an average Tosh joke.

"I gave a commencement speech recently at a high-school, that didn't go well at all. The administration got really upset with me... I refused to give that generic speech, 'As I look out here I see future lawyers and doctors.' I gave the real speech. 'There's felons here. Some of you will die in a DUI accident tonight.' Oh, I'm sorry. Explain to me why a dose of reality before community college is a bad thing?"

The reason this joke is tragic is the same reason it's funny. Because it's sorta true. Percentage-wise, not EVERY highschool is going to have a graduating senior die in a car crash on graduation night. But the truth of the matter is that an unfortunately high number of these incidents occur during the symbolically inappropriate moment of celebrating one's biggest life achievement.

Most of Tosh's jokes have some element of real tragedy in them, even if it's based on stereotypes. The reason sophisticated comedy audiences don't like stereotypes is because they negate individuals' abilities to stand out of their group. The reason sophisticated comedians don't like for their peers use stereotypes is because it's an easy way to kill without doing work. Stereotypes generally kill because they're generally true.

When Daniel Tosh said, "It'd be funny if you were gang-raped right now," it's not obvious that he wouldn't find it funny.

It's obvious that he would find it funny.

She was heckling him. Comedians don't like hecklers. What comedians like is for hecklers to get shut down, in the most dehumanizing way ever. In Louis CK's FX sitcom "Louie", he explains to a heckler why heckling at a comedy show literally makes her a bad person. And for better or worse, Louis CK is the reigning pope of comedy. I'm sure he hates this, but it's true.

If Tosh were joking about bee stings, and a woman spoke up saying, "You can't joke about bee stings because bee stings are never funny," and then a swarm of bees attacked her... This would be funny. It's a sliding scale, and humor is subjective, so even if you disagree that the bee scenario is funny, you can envision a version of this scenario that would make you giggle. Push that sliding scale to it's least empathetic extreme, and you have Tosh (based on his comedy act in general as a psyche profile).

This doesn't mean that Tosh would rape anybody or approve of her being raped. But on some level... he would find it amusing. And everybody knows it. And this is why he's eating shit on the Internet at the moment.
It's the same reason Michael Richards at it after he got heckled. It brings out your true self--or at least the ugliest part of your true self. Being racist isn't a crime, nor is having a sociopathic sense of humor. I actually agree with Jim Norton's assessment of the situation, with one exception: It IS okay to blog about it. And doing so doesn't make us cunts.... It means we're--as he would say--addressing it artistically.

From www.thefreedictionary.com:

Art n.
Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.

1 comment:

Greg said...

Just for the record, actors would absolutely be hammered for portraying a child molester... badly. As with much of art (and I include comedy here) one can get away with anything if it's good enough. Tosh's problem is that he hadn't crafted a good joke, he was responding to a heckler, and then defended that as if it were art. With some topics, it probably is worth taking one's time to refine material before throwing it out there impromptu.

And no, it wouldn't be funny if someone actually were gang raped right then, your bees analogy aside. The slapstick theory is fine, and we should absolutely be free to make jokes about terrible things, but I think even Tosh would probably have stopped something truly awful from happening to a real person. He's a comedian, not a football coach.