In a promo video hyping Comedy Central’s highest-rated show, host Daniel Tosh promised, “On season 3 of Tosh.0, we’re raping everybody.” The clip’s copy read, “It’s about to get pretty rapey up in here.”
Apparently, that should have been printed as a buyer-beware on tickets for Tosh’s gig at the Laugh Factory last weekend. If it had been, one woman in the audience might not have fled the building, stunned and frightened, after Tosh joked that it would be hilarious if she were gang-raped in the middle of his set.
By now most of the internet has heard (and exploded over) the young woman’s account on Tumblr of what went down: she had a problem with his bit about “rape jokes always being funny… rape is hilarious,” so she committed an act universally reviled by comedians: she heckled him. “Rape jokes are never funny,” she shouted.
What happened next sparked a heated debate online and in the press about comedy and rape culture. Below, I deepen the conversation by discussing the mechanisms of humor, power and privilege with comedians and comedy writers W. Kamau Bell, CeCe Lederer, Zahra Noorbakhsh, Sara Benincasa, Christina Gausas and Sofia Quintero.
To start us off, I give you my contribution to this debate: “Rape Joke Supercut: I Can’t Believe You Clapped For That,” a 90 second video by remix artist Elisa Kreisinger in collaboration with me (on behalf of Women In Media & News), Fem 2.0 and the Women’s Media Center. I’m a media critic and a media activist, so when the story broke on Tuesday people started asking me what they could do to get Tosh fired. I told them they had every right to use their free speech to condemn the comic’s gang rape threat, and they should to write about it, talk about it, and boycott him if they choose—but trying to get him canned specifically for that incident was the wrong response since Comedy Central isn’t responsible for what Tosh says off camera at a stand-up gig. That said, the network is responsible for the content it airs, so I suggested that Elisa produce a supercut of every rape joke ever made on “Tosh.0” to present to Comedy Central and parent company Viacom with larger questions about programming standards, accountability, and corporate responsibility.
This is not that video. Since odious rape premises are so integral to their star’s schtick, a supercut spanning 88 “Tosh.0” episodes over four seasons would be nearly as long as a feature film. Besides, such a video could easily be co-opted as “a highlights reel of misogyny.” Instead, we focused on the comedy landscape at large in a way that directly complicates the heckler’s complaint. Featuring Daniel Tosh along with some of the most popular comedians working today, Rape Joke Supercut illustrates the difference between the hilarity of jokes that undermine rape culture, and the cruelty of those that normalize rape and demean victims:
FEMINISTS VERSUS COMEDIANS?
“I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke,” the great George Carlin said on his 1990 album “Parental Advisory.” The line came during the climax of his classic bit about Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd, an image he conjured in a joke that goes on to completely dismantle the irrationality of victim-blaming (more on this later).
The Tosh incident has opened up needed space in the zeitgeist to dissect the mechanics of rape culture, a silver lining for those who love both comedy and justice. Unfortunately, media have gotten the story wrong in a number of significant ways. Dozens of TV, radio, newspaper, magazine and wire service headlines misreported that “Daniel Tosh Apologizes For Gang Rape Joke,” a naïve reading at best of his tepid fauxpology. Strip away the double speak and “all the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to offer a sincere apology” clearly translates to sorry if you were offended and BTW, you’re a liar. His follow-up rationalization (“The point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them #deadbabies”) was a misdirection to shift focus from the line he crossed after he was interrupted. Quibbles about context aside, he never contradicted the substance of the incident. The only dispute of the young woman’s story came in classic gaslighting form from the Laugh Factory’s owner, who claimed that even though he “really didn’t hear properly,” he was still somehow sure that her account was inaccurate…and Tosh was “so sweet” to apologize. This too was also often uncritically reported, then regurgitated in victorious “bitch be lyin’!” sentiment from men and women across the interwebs.
Beyond the misleading headlines, news outlets, social media and comedy fans alike framed the Laugh Factory fallout as Feminists Verses Comedians, a multi-layered mischaracterization. Despite much proof to the contrary, the feminist response to Tosh has been misrepresented: we’re not claiming that “rape jokes are never funny.” Just as Carlin proved they can be decades ago, so did feminist writers Kate Harding (“15 Rape Jokes That Work”) and Lindy West (“How To Make a Rape Joke”) last week, with laugh-out-loud examples from Wanda Sykes, Tig Notaro, Louis CK, The Onion, and even Dane Cook, who has been known to brag on stage about “chainsaw fuck[ing]” a “disgusting whore’s cunt.” (As Harding noted, if Cook can get it right even once, that’s proof that “no one else, anywhere, ever, has an excuse to screw this up”). “Make whatever jokes you want, but just make sure your rape jokes are actual JOKES, not douchey threats. Here’s mine,” comic Eliza Skinner tweeted, with a video of her explaining a crucial difference between two pop music acts: “a Black Eyed Peas song is about how great tonight’s party is going to be, and a Ke$ha song is about everything leading up to her rape. ‘Got into this van, van. I didn’t know that man, man. I don’t like to think, think, so I start to drink, drink. Where’d I get these scabs, scabs—what happened?”
Comedy itself has gotten a bad rap in the press, with the heaviest buzz centered on dude-bro comics and fans defending Tosh by tweeting endless permutations on “Fuck the bitch…she was asking for it” and “you should be raped like NOW!!!” to his critics. Far fewer column inches have been devoted to the many comedians who pushed back against the hackneyed use of rape for cheap laughs (Katie Halper compiles some of the funniest and most pointed examples at The Nation, including my favorite from comedian and FX comedy writer Hari Kondabolu: “A video of me getting heckled by a baby. If you’ll notice, I didn’t respond by asking for the baby to be killed: http://bit.ly/qbw9AR”
On MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry” Sunday, stand-up comic and “Citizen Radio” co-host Jamie Kilstein blew a hole in the notion that comedians should be in lockstep support of Tosh. “Comics don’t agree on anything. Everybody’s talking about the ‘comedy community,’” he said on MSNBC. “We don’t even have health insurance. But suddenly we have to defend rape culture and it’s like ‘Comedians: assemble!’ That’s horrifying that this is the sword we want to die on.”
So, why did comics who usually disagree about everything—even those known as creative, unusually inventive comedians—choose to circle the wagons around Tosh’s gang rape invitation? The knee-jerk explanation has been that anything goes, no matter how vile, when responding to a heckler. But under the surface, the bro-code reaction speaks to uncomfortable fault lines around gender politics and unexamined power that comedians rarely like to acknowledge.
A JOKE OR A THREAT?
Before examining that underbelly, first thing’s first: hecklers are the devil. They’re rude. They’re often oversensitive. They should do their due diligence: Tosh’s objector said she knew nothing about the performers other than that the headliner was Dane Cook, who should have his own caveat emptor tattooed on his bicep, or at least screen-printed on an Ed Hardy shirt. A few minutes on Google would’ve tipped her off to skip it in the first place. “Be an educated consumer. People don’t say I like ‘Music.’ They say I like country, or hip hop, or rock,” says W. Kamau Bell, host of FX’s “Totally Biased,” which debuts Aug. 9. “Nobody ever accidentally buys a Miley Cyrus record and thinks its going to be The Clash. The Laugh Factory is the mainstream, Top 40 comedy club. Or you could go to Meltdown, the alternative, acoustic comedy club. There was a show somewhere in LA that night that she’d have loved. I’m not blaming her for what happened, not at all. I just wish she had seen a good comedy show.” And if they’re unimpressed they should leave rather than interrupt, because they have no idea where that performer’s thought is going—and once they disrupt a comic’s attempt at art, the rest of the audience may never get the chance to find out. In no other profession do observers think it’s appropriate to start doing the professional’s job: “no one comes into a biologist’s lab and pees in his Petri dish,” notes stand-up comic and former Colbert Report writer CeCe Lederer. “No one’s forcing you to listen to bad jokes. Walk out. Trust me, that’ll cut deeper anyway. The most brilliant heckle can’t hurt a fraction as much as the absence of a laugh,” she says. (Disclosure: Lederer plays “The Desperate Bachelorette” in “Reality Rehab,” a satirical media literacy web series I produced.)
For all these reasons, hecklers should expect instant, pounding ridicule. Case study: Louis CK demolishing a chatty jerk in this Louie sketch on FX, calling her “the worst thing that ever happened in America” who “wouldn’t even exist if your mom hadn’t raped that homeless Chinese guy.” (See? Offensive can be funny, when it’s an absurd misdirect.)
But they should never expect vindictive, thinly veiled threats of sexual assault for daring not to keep their mouths shut. Yet that’s exactly what Tosh hurled at this young woman by shooting back, “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…”
The thing is, gang rape happens every day, at homecoming dances and parties and military barracks. It is happening somewhere — like right now — as you read this. And in a coincidence that has gone unnoticed, on the very same day the Tumblr story blew up, Canadian police charged the owner of the Big League Comedy Club with sexual assault that allegedly took place inside the Ontario club. Yes, Daniel, rapes even happen at comedy clubs—so maybe you can understand why the woman and her friend high-tailed it out of the Laugh Factory when you started with the chuckle-chuckle about how she should be brutalized by your audience (who reportedly “guffawed in response”) as payback for her crime of objecting to your routine.
Feminist outrage this week has been specific to that attack, not to whatever led up to the heckle. Mockery of hecklers is fair game, just like every conceivable topic is fair game for comedians. The problem is that Tosh, more than this audience member, broke the rules of comedy. He wasn’t creative, or clever, or cutting. He wasn’t even amusingly crude, a la Kathy Griffin’s standard-issue retort, “I don’t go to your job and knock the dicks out of your mouth.” Instead, he fell down on the job by reacting with rage rather than humor. His comeback was a declarative statement about an individual, not a setup with a payoff. As the comic in control of the room, he invited the audience to become complicit in a verbal assault—and potentially a physical one. There was no actual joke there, just an angry little reminder that women who step out of line can be shut up in the most violent, sadistic of ways. Not that they necessarily will be, but that they could be—like, right now.
Oh, but Jenn, you’re not a comedian! Who are you to say what qualifies as a joke?
OK, then, take it from Colbert’s former writer Lederer: “He wasn’t doing the work. Saying ‘Guys in the audience, rape this woman,’ that’s not a joke. That’s just lazy. A joke is hard. It has structure. It should be trying to go for something.” The low-hanging fruit of sexism is easier, and more vacuous. “You’re always going to get a giggle from someone if you say something wildly inappropriate. Work a little harder, man. #deadbabies? That was a meme that ended like six years ago. It wasn’t ever his own material!” she says, exasperation in her voice.
Kids playing The Dozens are funnier than Tosh was after being heckled. It’s the mark of a weak artist if you have to resort to bullying because you can’t think of a witty comeback. Letting hostility cloud his ability to riff, he committed one of the cardinal sins of the dark, poorly ventilated basements and back rooms of comedy clubs: he was boring. Comedy is a subjective art form, and even the greats die on stage once in a while. Still, whenever a stand-up takes the mic, the goal is always to win over every member of the audience. As writer and performer Sofia Quintero told me, the incident reveals as much about Tosh’s talent as it does about rape culture. Tosh “had to call in the cavalry of hypermasculinity to regulate a woman for having the audacity to publicly suggest that maybe he’s not living up to his end of the audience-performer contract,” Quintero says. “If one woman heckler can get you that shook, son, maybe this game isn’t for you.”
POLITICAL AND COMEDIC PRIVILEGE
In Daniel Tosh’s world, rape is a shortcut to a punchline he’s too lazy to make. In the real world, rape is violent, it’s painful, and it’s among the worst physical and psychological attacks that anyone can endure, whether the perpetrator is one acquaintance or a group of soldiers sexually torturing women as a weapon of war. It happens every two minutes in America. It is, in its own way, a form of terrorism. Yet “for most male comics,” recovered-rape-joke-teller Johnny Marbles wrote, rape is “basically abstract, something that only happens in your darker police procedurals and never to real people… Never to people you know. Never to audience members, one in four of the women in the room, for whom the idea isn’t quite so absurd.”
That’s at the heart of so many male comics’ confusion and anger about feminists insisting that Tosh’s gang-rape slap-down was, without question, a threat. Comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh, whose solo show All Atheists Are Muslim sold out during the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June, thinks their confusion is misplaced. “It’s the position of privilege. As a guy he can stand on the stage and laugh at the idea of this woman being raped because he’s not the one who has to watch out behind him when he leaves the club. It puts the woman in a really creepy-ass position where she has to worry about whether someone will follow her home, because sick people are out there and maybe one of them will take him seriously. He had the authority in the room. That’s how he used it?”
Along with white privilege, male privilege is a well-worn concept to progressive activists and academics, though there’s still a lot of resistance even among liberal men and white people to the idea that unearned social, political and economic benefits are bestowed on those at or near the top of gender and race hierarchies and denied to others. These are institutional biases that exist regardless of individuals’ intentions, motives or accomplishments. For comedians like Richard Pryor, Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho and Janeane Garofalo, interrogating these systems through humor is essential to their art. But in general, the stand-up world—historically (and still largely) dominated by white men—has been very loathe to acknowledge such systems of power around gender and race, no less build smart material around these issues. After all, we’re still in a climate where comedians, journalists and media outlets routinely insist that women just aren’t funny. And there’s an additional sort of privilege at play in the world of comedy: the control that comes with the microphone. Since comedy is so often the art of the outsider, and always requires vulnerability on the part of performers, it may be especially difficult for comedians to acknowledge the power dynamic implicit in their jobs.
Whether in enormous auditoriums or dingy, brick-walled cellars, he (or she) who has the mic is in charge of reality and perception at a comedy show, at least for the duration of their set. It’s their voice that matters, their perspectives that shape the audience’s ideas and emotions. They rule the room. And when that privilege bumps up against the ugly side of unexamined male privilege, you get Tosh’s gang rape crack, instantly recognizable as a threat by those without the luxury of never having to think about rape as anything more than an amusing premise.
When you’re a celebrity, whether you’re a comedian or a politician, your words take on added significance. “When Sarah Palin puts out a map that says ‘we’ve got you in our crosshairs’ and then Congresswoman Gabby Giffords gets shot, in the head, it’s not like anyone thought Palin really wanted someone to try to assassinate her. But it shows that what you say can have real consequences,” says Lederer. “When you joke about a concept, that’s one thing. But when you take it out of the abstract, when you say, ‘It would be funny if that girl, the one right there in the blue shirt with the bangs, got gang raped right now,’ it could be misconstrued as a call to action. Whether you mean it doesn’t matter.”
This is particularly true in Tosh’s case. It’s safe to assume he didn’t actually want five men in his audience to show him how hilarious it would be if they took him up on his gang-bang challenge. Yet even with that benefit of the doubt it wouldn’t have been completely unpredictable if one or more of them had taken him up on his suggestion. This is hardly hyperbole: Tosh enjoys a weekly cause-and-effect relationship with his fans. On “Tosh.0” he regularly encourages his millions of young male viewers to film themselves doing all manner of stupid, silly, embarrassing things – and they dutifully upload the results on YouTube in the hope that he’ll play their clips on air. Back in April, for example, “Tosh.0” sparked what comedy site Splitsider called a “disgusting, awful movement” of men posting “vaguely rapey” videos after the host announced that “I need you to film yourselves lightly touching women’s stomachs while they’re sitting down.” The body-shaming goal was malicious enough (“Make sure she’s aware that you are in fact feeling a roll”), but his warning could have come off of a black-market bottle of Roofies: “But be careful because they like to pretend that they don’t love it.” One kid even did this to his English teacher, who was so upset she threatened to have him suspended—so he harassed his language teacher instead, and the proof lives on Comedy Central’s website.
Tosh might as well have said he had that heckler in his crosshairs.
SATIRE IS A WEAPON
Molly Ivins, a bawdy Texan feminist journalist with a wicked sense of humor and a take-no-prisoners attitude toward corruption, chose her targets carefully. Satire, she said, is “the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel—it’s vulgar.”
That’s what so galls “Citizen Radio’s” Jamie Kilstein about Tosh. (Kilstein knows a little something about satire: after the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg talked about the need to figuratively or literally beat the stupid out of America’s youth, he publicly challenged him to a fight for charity.) On MSNBC, he was just one Southern accent away from channeling Ivins. “Comedy is a subversive art… Who’s sitting in an audience going ‘You know who’s had it too good for too long? Rape victims. I really wish someone would get on stage and give them a piece of it,’” he asked. “Why aren’t we going after the guy doing the raping? Why aren’t we going after… the governments with their sexist policies and their rape-enabling culture, or the police who just ignore rape case after rape case after rape case? There are so many big targets to go after.”
Tosh’s gang rape threat was a double violation, degrading not only the woman he harassed but the idea of what comedy is for. “Here you’ve got the powerful one, the potential oppressor, joking in a fashion that simply reaffirms his power,” says writer, radio host and comedy Jill-of-all-trades Sara Benincasa. “Also, he just comes off like an asshole when he does this kind of shit.”
And he does it all the time. Bottom-feeder rape jokes have been a foundation of Tosh’s act on and off TV, for years. His targets are virtually always rape victims, nearly never rapists or the conditions that create and shield them. On his show, he told Comedy Central viewers to “book your flights today” because the age of consent is 12 in Mexico; filmed a group of men racing out of the room after hearing that an “Asian schoolgirl! No English! Unconscious!” is nearby; advised a rapist to protect himself from STDs after kidnapping a slut (“Wear a rubber, she gets around, a lot”); and mocked “prison rape, which involves criminals so it doesn’t really count.” In a stand-up act, he joked about getting his sister raped and hearing her say, “This is gonna really hurt!” Ohmigawd, lolz, amiright?
Most disturbing, “Tosh.0” aired what appeared to be—and what he said was—a YouTube video of a teen boy being sexually assaulted with a dildo by a friend, periodically pausing the video to let the host offer smirking commentary including, “And now you know what prison is like,” “I wonder if that’s how he thought he’d lose his virginity?” and “The line between prank and rape is pretty blurry right now,” with an audience laugh track for punctuation. The original assault video has been removed by YouTube, but Tosh’s “your forced anal penetration, now with extra laughs!” version remains on Comedy Central’s website with the title, “Video Breakdown: Dildo Fight.” Perhaps when you mock fictional rape as consistently and as casually as Tosh has throughout his career, seeing a teenager actually being assaulted in real life is just more fodder for your snarky ha-has.
Perhaps the same is true for those of us who watch. I’ve seen a shift in the kind of material comedy audiences respond to in the NY comedy scene over the last thirteen years.
I love comedy the way many people love music or sports. It’s the thing I’ve been drawn to since I was a kid. In the late ‘80s, when other teens were getting fake IDs to sneak into bars, I got mine to get into comedy clubs that didn’t allow minors. I hardly cared about the booze—I just wanted to soak up all the outrageous, filthy, hilarious stand-up I could get. Now, while my friends see their favorite bands in concerts, I see improv marathons at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. When the UCB opened in New York in 1999 and for several years after, I could go to any show, whether I knew the performers or not, and be relatively sure I’d have a good time. Gold star house teams like “The Swarm” guaranteed brilliance; others ranged from side-splitting to “meh” to, on a rare bad night, cringe-worthy. But I always knew I’d laugh, and I never left pissed off. Some time around the middle of the decade that began to change. The rape jokes started happening. And then they started happening more. Ultimately it got to a point where 90% of unknown improv teams would do at least one or two rape or domestic violence jokes, and some of the groups that used to strive for higher-level material started defaulting to it, too. My friends and I had been seeing UCB shows at least a few times a month for years, often walking in without knowing anything about the group—that discovery was part of the fun. Eventually I stopped being able to go to UCB shows by groups I don’t know. It makes it harder to discover new talent, and I’m frustratingly aware that I’m probably missing out on some shows I’d really enjoy. Still, I can’t take a chance on unvetted improv or stand-up anymore, because I’ve been burned by way too many routines like the one that upset Tosh’s heckler.
I go to see live comedy because I enjoy it. I also go because I deal with dark topics in my work as a writer and activist (violence, misogyny, racism, war, poverty) and comedy is my escape valve, a way to decompress and fill my down time with laughter. What I don’t need is to suddenly be jolted out of that laughter by hearing douchey dudes treat the worst physical and psychological pain and trauma women can endure as if it’s an amusing sport. I don’t need internal monologues like this: Bwahahaha, this is so funny! Ha! Ha! H—holy hell, WTF? Ouch. Wait…all these dudes are laughing a little too hard at this gory rape imagery, and they’re drunk on $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon, and I’m one of only a few women in this room. And I have to walk home alone after the show. It’s tedious, maddening, and takes me out of the moment. Now, because of the misogynistic rape jokes, I’m not only not laughing—I’m pissed and, on rare occasions, scared. The exact opposite reaction you want when you seek out live comedy. And I’m not even a sexual assault survivor, for whom this kind of material could trigger painful memories.
“As a society, when we reach a place where the majority is that desensitized to violence and abuse, and utter public disrespect against women, we’re in trouble,” says veteran UCB improviser and actress Christina Gausas. She was referencing Tosh’s gang rape joke, but her sentiment could easily apply to the changes I’ve seen in the NYC comedy scene and, by proxy, late night comedy shows, sketch shows and sitcoms on broadcast and cable networks.
So, how did we get here?
THE “RAPE WAVE”
“There’s always waves of comedy. Right now we’re in a rape comedy wave,” W. Kamau Bell told me. “I certainly wouldn’t go on stage with rape jokes right now because I’d be automatically connected to all these other comics.” Ironically, Bell used to tell one of my favorite jokes about rape culture. Back when President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize just for showing up, he did a bit about others who deserved it more. “Bob Marley never won a Nobel Peace Prize… Who has done more to chill motherfuckers out than Bob Marley? Just for the work he’s done for white frat boys alone, you know what I mean? When you put on Bob Marley’s “Legend” at a frat party, date rape goes down like 12%.”
So, what’s behind the rise of comedy’s “rape wave?” Bell points to a reflexive desire of some comics to feel dangerous, edgy, without much concern for their targets, or for the context or history of the words and concepts they’re using. “There was a point at which comedy was all about ironic racism. There’s these waves of inappropriateness, and people get stuck. Like, ‘Oh, you’re saying ‘nigger’ but you’re using it ironically? Oh, um, haaa. Ha?’ But now rape is the new nigger, to put it bluntly,” Bell says. “I think it’s like the ‘Nigger/Cunt/Hitler/Holocaust/Rape” brand of comedy. There’s a style of comics who use the most painful things that happen in modern society, but mostly you’re just using the words without a larger point. You’re not getting laughs in ways that make the victims of those words feel better.” Bell, like many others, “got into comedy because we like playing with the dangerous toys of language. But the brave thing isn’t just using the buzzwords. I say this as a person who doesn’t want anything to be off limits in comedy—I just want it to be done well.”
According to Bell, the way to do it well it to punch up at the powerful. Tosh isn’t unique in doing racist, sexist and homophobic jokes without a larger purpose, “because a lot of comics love to transgress moral lines, comfort zones. I enjoy doing that too. It’s just that me and Nato, Janine, Hari,” Bell says, referring to “Totally Biased” staff writers Nato Green, Janine Brito and Hari Kondabolu, “we love to transgress the comfort zones of the powerful. We’re trying to codify a new movement of comedy – we call it ‘The New Sincerity.’ Comics who can stand behind the jokes we make. If you say you were offended, no problem. That’s what I meant, and if it offended you? Mission accomplished.”
Which brings me back to George Carlin, whose rape joke was a masterclass in how to use humor in a surgical strike against sexism and abuse:
[People] say, “You can’t joke about rape. Rape’s not funny.” I say, “Fuck you, I think it’s hilarious.” How do you like that? I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. See? Hey, why do you think they call him Porky, eh? I know what’re gonna say, “Elmer was asking for it. Elmer was coming on to Porky. Porky couldn’t help himself, he got a hard-on. He got horny. He lost control. He went out of his mind. A lot of men talk like that. A lot of men think that way. They think it’s the woman’s fault. They like to blame the rape on the woman. Say, “Hey, she had it coming, she was wearing a short skirt.’ These guys think women ought to go to prison for being cock-teasers. Don’t seem fair to me. Don’t seem right. But you can joke about it. I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke. What the exaggeration is. What the exaggeration is.”
This isn’t a “rape joke,” it’s a “rape culture joke.” He lays bare the mechanisms of violence against women. You can’t come away from it without laughing—or without understanding how ludicrous it is to shame and blame victims for the crimes against them. With the misogyny and viciousness of rapists as his target, Carlin dismantles the belief systems that shield them from accountability. And he left comedians everywhere not only a reminder to go for the higher laugh, to construct every joke in a way that leads us to think, to challenge, to grow – he also left a template to follow. Ever the pro, Carlin had Porky raping Elmer, not the other way around. In the cartoons, Elmer had the gun—Elmer had the power. Porky overtaking the hunter? Funny. Fudd fucking the pig? It may still have gotten a laugh, but it wouldn’t have served the same symbolic purpose. And that, as playwright Stephen Gracia says, is the difference between a comic genius and “a hack with a show about watching stupid shit on the Internet.”
As I said in the press release that accompanies our Rape Joke Supercut video, humor can be used to expose injustice, as George Carlin liked to do, or to reinforce it, as Tosh did by abusively targeting a female audience member. All those comedians rushing to defend Tosh’s “hilarious” gang rape comeback, all those “ha ha ha, bitch asked for it” fan tweets, give us a portrait of unexamined privilege colliding with a lack of empathy. I wonder if the “rape wave’s” increasing prevalence in comedy and pop culture in recent years is contributing to our collective empathy deficit, and poisoning the well against victims.
“You can’t laugh at something so underdeveloped no matter what kind of sense of humor you have — unless of course, it’s really how you feel,” comedian Meghan O’Keefe wrote. Unless you “think the act of physically hurting and sexually dominating a woman against her will is funny.”
As Carlin said, “Don’t seem fair to me. Don’t seem right.”
Jennifer L. Pozner is a media critic, public speaker, and the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. She is producer and co-writer of the satirical web series, “Reality Rehab with Dr. Jenn.” Pozner is founder and executive director of Women in Media & News, a media analysis, education, and advocacy group, editor of the group blog WIMN’s Voices, and an adviser for the OWN documentary “Miss Representation.” She’s still single because Stephen Colbert isn’t.