I like comedians that tell stories. Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby spoke about things we all understood, bringing irony and humor to our own lives. They parodied everything; they were light-hearted and not mean-spirited – though not without edge. Eddie Murphy occasionally delved into taboo, and masterfully slung vulgarities – but he was never purely thoughtless.* No different from a screenwriter, novelist, actor, or filmmaker, there is craft to being a stand-up comic. One of the cardinal rules is to know your audience.
Recently, stand-up comic Daniel Tosh has been lambasted by the public, and defended by comedians, for making a rape joke about a female audience member. Granted, she heckled him a little – but we aren’t talking about booing and hissing. Tosh declared, "Rape jokes are always funny." The girl shouted back, "Actually they're never funny." Did he not think a woman would ever refute this? I wonder how many times he used this bit before that night.
Then Tosh said this to the audience:
“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”
I don’t think Daniel Tosh was suggesting that the girl actually get raped. I know it was meant to be funny, but how? Did he not see how this could bother the woman? Maybe shock was his intention, but it doesn’t matter – it was thoughtless. Not merely in terms of subject matter, but in terms of craft.
But, is it his fault?
We live in a world of tongue-in-cheek stupidity, intentional grammar mistakes, fake words, and a lack of respect for almost everything. We salute and glorify thoughtlessness and spectacle over cleverness and talent. We have grown complacent of poor quality and allow ourselves to believe we are being entertained when we are merely being smiled at. Tosh's joke is par for the course.
Maybe it was misguided observational humor, or some new style of comedy that allows comics to simply dictate to an audience what to laugh at. Barring that, I would have to chalk his rape bit up to poor craftsmanship – not just his reaction to the heckling, but the bit itself. It wasn't clever, insightful, or ironic. It seems to appeal only to other comedians – who merely defend the right to have said it. Those that defend the humor of it, I like to believe, only do so out of respect for someone else in their field. I would imagine it is hard to get on stage and make people laugh with nothing but your voice and a microphone. If I was a comic I’d probably defend his right to have said it, too. Though, I’d probably also suggest he get some new material, because normal people don’t see shock and humor as the same thing. Know your audience, half of whom are women.
His point, for whatever reason, was that rape jokes are always funny. I don't agree. But can they sometimes be funny?
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To rape Daniel Tosh.
This might be funny – mostly because it is topical. But, also because it involves a chicken raping a human male, the likeliness of which is improbable. It creates a very silly and laughable image.
Now consider the image of a woman getting gang-raped by five men in an auditorium where presumably no one is helping her.
Did it make you laugh?
Didn't think so. Context goes a long way.
* Eddie Murphy once made a joke about homosexual men giving AIDS to their straight female friends via a little goodnight kiss. At the time most people knew nothing of AIDS and had the wrong idea about homosexuality. Eventually we learned the seriousness of AIDS and the truth of homosexuality. Now the joke itself is laughable because of how naïve we were to have once laughed at it. By contrast, I can’t think of a single time in our culture when rape was misunderstood to be something laughable.