In defense of ‘offensive’ jokes (Guest post)

By | August 15, 2012 at 12:03 pm | 10 comments | Opinion | Tags: , , , ,

A couple of years ago, two friends of mine, Garret Dillahunt and Leslie ____, came to a show of mine at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles.  I’ve known both of them for a decade and they’ve done tons of TV and film, much more than I have — and weathered every kind of praise or criticism you could imagine. They are also arguably more attractive and more talented. In short, fuck them both.

At one point, I was riffing with the crowd and said, “I wanna give a shout-out to my friends out in the audience: Garret Dillahunt… from No Country for Old Men, Last House on the Left, Deadwood, and Leslie ____, a black chick I used to bone.”

I’m not using the ____ out of respect for her privacy as much as I am out of fear of her wrathful African-American womenness.  Shit, I saw Waiting to Exhale!

Although I didn’t know it at the time, Leslie was apoplectic with rage and demanded that Garret rush her home.  When I found out, I called Leslie and left a voice mail (remember when people did that?) apologizing profusely.  I did everything I could to placate her, even saying, “Leslie, you’ve had a prolific acting career.  I’m telling dick jokes to strangers for $25 a night.”

Did Leslie have the right to get mad and leave?  Absolutely, she was pissed.  Was my off-the-cuff remark a stroke of comic improvisational genius? Absolutely not.

But then she called me back and told me that I was “offensive!” Wtfuck?!

“Offensive?”  What, pray tell, does that word actually fucking mean?

Therein lies the rub…

AND therein lies the central question facing comic geniuses Daniel Tosh, Dane Cook, and Jeff Ross in their dust-ups with the perpetually offended in the media and the blogosphere:  Tosh with his rape joke at the expense of a heckler, Dane with his “someone fucking shoot me” Aurora/Dark Knight Rises joke , and Jeff Ross with his James Holmes-Seth Green dig at the Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne.

In case you spent the last month in a Chilean mine and managed to miss all the drama, here’s a recap:

A comedian said something at a comedy show that resulted in an audience member feeling an emotion they did not like that resulted in faux outrage that resulted in a blog that resulted in calls for shows to be canceled and contracts to be voided and careers to be ended.  Aaaand scene.

While Dane and Ross’ jokes merit their own discussion, I am going to focus primarily on Tosh because, unlike most of the bloggers Googling rape stats and pontificating bullshit psuedo-intellectual theories about gender politics, I was actually there.

Here’s a pithy paraphrase of what happened:

Tosh:  “If you’ve ever said blank isn’t funny, I hate you to the core of your soul.”

Woman from balcony (shouting): “Rape isn’t funny.”

Tosh: “You proved my point; I hate you to the core of my soul.”

(Laughter.)

Woman from balcony (shouting): “It isn’t funny!”

Tosh: “You know what WOULD be funny?  If five guys got up and gang-raped you right now.  Like right now, five guys gang-raped you.”

At that point, with the audience still intact and in hand, Tosh moved onto more palatable fare (apparently?) like how the fact that we no longer have to park when we drive our girlfriends to the airport is worth at least ONE of the Twin Towers.  Not two, but one.

Before we even address the merit of Tosh’s “rape joke,” I think it’s incredibly important to state that I am writing words on a screen and my brief synopsis of it isn’t indicative AT ALL of how it was delivered (or received) during a live performance. Regardless, let’s agree on some common ground before we get deeper into the context. Whether you’re a woman who braids her Brillo pubes on Venice Beach after a hardcore take-back-the-night yoga sit-in or a guy who spray tans his balls and bids on seasons of Ed Hardy t-shirts on eBay, there is one thing all us literate folk can agree on:

Rape is awful.

It’s retarded that I even feel the need to write that statement.  It’s as self-evident as saying “gay men like penis.”  Unfortunately, without putting such a prosaic statement to paper, Internet trolls and humorless members of the yip-yap community will label me — the way they did Louis C.K. — a “rape defender” or a “rape apologist.” And just to be Swarovski-crystal clear for said humorless trolls, I will reiterate my position:  rape is one of the most atrocious acts a human being can commit.  I’m way cooler with murder.  As a matter of fact, I would want to murder someone who raped a friend or family member.  That, of course, would mean I would go to prison.  And because I’m totes cute, I’d probably get raped.  The circle of life. Hakuna matada!

Now that we all agree that rape is horrible, the next question is this:  Does the fact that the ACT is horrible mean we cannot talk about it or say the word “rape” in anything but the most fretful, horrified terms?  Does it have some magical Beetlejuice-like quality, where the mere utterance of the word three times in succession makes it suddenly manifest itself?  RAPE, RAPE, RAPE…. Nope, butt-hymen still intact.

That brings us to the next important question as it relates to Tosh:  are we, as a society, allowed to make jokes involving the subject of rape? Out of the gate, some people might launch into a ridiculous conceit about “a world where one out of four men get their dicks cut off.” (Can I have pointless metaphors for $400, Alex?)  Or they might rattle off the harrowing statistics regarding rape.  Yes, there is evidence that one out of every four women has been raped and that 2,000 rapes occur every five minutes.  Those stats land like punches to the gut of any non-sociopath.  However, the hard and fast satisfying sugar rush of Googled stats simply misses the point.  Because, when extrapolated to it’s farthest point, here is the underlying message of the offended party:  if a subject is about horrible stuff, we shouldn’t joke about it.

And if we extrapolate the same graph with only slight nuance, it becomes, “we shouldn’t talk about bad stuff.” If anything, the exact opposite is true.  Silence is oxygen for the fire of ignorance and the enemy of catharsis. The more we can have a dialogue about anything — good or bad — the more we can find ways to address and redress it.  It is no coincidence that the therapy for PTSD involves talking about the traumatic incident over and over again until all the emotion is drummed out of it and it becomes rote, simple facts.  Why do you think I tell the same jokes over and over again?  Because I’m dum?

I mean, do people honestly want to ban rape jokes?  Of course not.  No one believes that.  Even the staunchest gorp-eating, humorless, third-wave feminazi (triple-redundant word score, FTW!) and the nerdiest, bearded, man-titted dork trying to impress Olivia Munn KNOWS that categorically banning humor from the subject of rape is defenseless. But still the perpetually offended try to codify it somehow: “Rape jokes are okay sometimes, but not at the expense of the victim!”

Is that the rule, Gloria Steinem?  So every comedy club should now police the precise style of rape joke?  What if you have a great historical joke about the rape of the Sabine women?  Is THAT okay now because it’s shrouded in the haze of a distant millennium?  Who the fuck knows? I never heard a joke about it, because most comics were getting stoned during high school.

Finally, after all their profound, self-congratulatory stats and equivocating, they amend their breathless outrage to some version of the following: “If the subject is something horrible, we shouldn’t joke about it … unless it’s, like, really funny.” Suddenly, the objective, cut-and-dry matrix of acceptable jokes on taboo subjects falls apart. The voice, the look, the likeability, the intent, the body fat, the gender and the sexual orientation of the potentially offending comics all come into play. Why are the ugly girls in a group always the ones afraid of getting raped?…. What? That’s awful! You asshole! You male chauvinist! Maybe. But that’s a joke by Natasha Leggero–  a very funny, petite and cute woman.  Or as Natasha might say, very “rape-able.”  Somehow her talent, gender and style make it palatable to some and hysterical to most.

Leggero tells that joke understanding implicitly, just as you and I know, that you should never rape someone…. Well, unless, of course, you have a really good reason.  Like you want to have sex with someone and they won’t let you.  What the fuck!?  Terrible!  Well, I guess if it’s a woman who says that, it’s okay? Actually, it’s Louis C.K., who’s about as dudey as a dude gets.  Even Hanes T-shirts feel faggy on his sloppy Irish male frame.  How does he get away with it?  Well-crafted and laid-out writing, impeccable delivery, a seemingly logical defense of an absurd concept, and a Louis C.K. X-factor that most of us comics can only dream of having. That’s how.

What about other subjects, other words?  After Michael Richards, the Laugh Factory tried to ban the “n-word.” Comics were deducted money whenever they said it on stage.  That silliness expired when one of the Wayans brothers — I forget which, can you blame me?  They all look alike… CUZ THEY’RE RELATED, you racists! — got onstage and said:  ”So I got $80 in my pocket.  Exactly how many ‘niggers’ does that buy me?”

Which brings up another point: Good luck banning the n-word for black comics.  Go to any urban comedy club and you’ll hear it about 50 times.  And that’s just waiting in line before the show starts., Okay, fine, well white comics can’t say it, then. What about a polished, talented comic like Neal Brennan who uses the word in a joke of his– a joke which kills every time?  I mean, if you categorically want to hate him or not support his career for saying it, fine.  Don’t go to his shows and don’t buy the box set of Chappelle’s Show.  I sure as shit won’t ever eat at Chick-Fil-A again, even though those niggers can make the fuck out of a chicken sandwich!

Then’s their pedophilia and genocide and every other horrible thing humans do that get joked about.  Ban them?  What if you have a great Sandusky joke? Does that count? (I mean, who likes Penn State?  I think it should be open season on Sandusky, the way it will be in his prison shower.) How far down the rabbit hole can we go?  Would Dane’s joke have gotten such a vehement response online — based on how he delivered it live, it ended up with solid applause and laughter — if the massacre happened during a more craptastic movie like The Watch?  Maybe that’s the problem with it; don’t eff with the Batman, bitches!

Being a comedian is one of the only professions where you never land.  You’re always testing yourself, pushing the audience,and discovering what works.  A white comic without the brilliant mind of a Neal Brennan could say, “Fuck it! Don’t censor me!” and go up and do bits on a cornucopia of sphincter-tightening subjects.  If he bombs and people hate him, guess what?  He won’t get booked.  It’s a remarkably self-regulating system.

But when established comics like Dane and Tosh, with almost 40 years experience between them, deliver a couple of jokes on sensitive subjects that don’t really work for you, is the appropriate response really to try to get them fired from Hollywood and the subjects they talked about banned from being spoken onstage?  Particularly as the offended parties all paid to see these guys perform and, I assure you, laughed uproariously at jokes about other equally, and possibly more, touchy subjects (like Mexicans). To those people I politely suggest they pick a number between 1 and Go Fuck Yourself.

If you insist on being offended — or insist on the right to never be offended — then you really should just be offended by everything.  Otherwise, what do you stand for?  A good Holocaust joke is okay, but a mediocre rape joke isn’t?  So women are more worthy of protection than Jews?  Okay, then I say you’re just a skinhead with toxic shock syndrome. Everyone must know it’s a better policy in life to never get “offended” by jokes. Right?

Clearly, it’s a better policy to realize that words aren’t actual weapons, and if you perceive them to be actual threats, your flight-or-fight mechanism is fucking confused and you have shortchanged millions of years of evolution with your abhorrent stupidity. (Oh fuck, do I have to apologize to creationists now?) Finally, back to Tosh and his response to the woman in the balcony…

Was it particularly funny?  Nah, and especially not on paper.  Is it as well-crafted as other Tosh rape jokes?  Nope. Daniel’s ‘replacing-his-sister’s-pepper-spray-with-silly-string-and-that-night-she-got-raped’ joke is friggin’ hilarious.  And if you find that offensive also and you want to write a petition about that, then you’re just searching for attention and need to find a hobby.  Like getting fucked.  But only if you give consent, of course. Maybe Tosh’s response wasn’t that funny, but there he was, acting moment to moment, responding to a shout from a heckler.  His neurons did a quick supersonic ransack of his mental archives and went with the aforementioned response in the blink of an eye.  It wasn’t a Chris Rock closer.  It was aggressive, not clever, and a big bucket of meh.  But somehow this off-the-cuff flippant sentence, which didn’t lose him the crowd or subsequent laughs, became a rallying cry for people around the nation to spout their vehement and quasi-sagacious opinions and start a petition to terminate Tosh.0 because of the “danger” of those inflammatory three seconds.

But if you then add to this equation that the anonymous heckler claimed that she felt she was actually in physical danger suddenly in that crowd… then we have to take a stainless steel opener to a can of crazy and dig into some seriously bat guano by-products. First of all, if this poor woman truly felt unsafe, then I empathize and strongly suggest she is under or over-medicated or that she at least needs some therapy to deal with her social anxiety issues.  Because no matter how irresponsible his rape joke may have been, Daniel Tosh is not Rasputin and his shitty joke isn’t going to create a group of five Manchurian Candidates to do his bidding, damned be the consequences.

And like my skinny jean, alt comic, horn-rimmed glasses counterparts, I have stats to prove it.  Zero out of seven billion people on the planet have been raped because a comic, in a room full of non-sociopathic men, made a joke about rape.  Nope, never happened.  Ever.  Google it.  Microfiche it.  Take a bus to the Library of Congress.  I’ll wait. Since he wasn’t putting anyone in actual danger, what, if anything, should Daniel Tosh be excoriated for?  What is his true offense?  Like Dane and Ross in the weeks after him;  for being a brilliant comic who made a mediocre joke.  That’s it.  And guess what?  We all do it.  Unfortunately, me most of all, and unfortunater, I’m not a brilliant comic.

Which brings us back to our initial question:  what is “offensive?”  Being spit on.  Sure.  But not words.  Words can only be offensive if the person receiving them has the response of being offended. Context is everything.  “Kill the Japs!” sounds awful, but it was in every Marine marching cadence after Pearl Harbor. Words are just fake things that we load our own fucked-up past into for meaning.  Inevitably, these fake things will carry unbelievable amounts of fake weight.  Fag, Gook, Paddy, retard, cunt, n… uh, the n-word.  They are negatively cognitive words, but they are still just words. If they offend you, great, then a comedy club probably isn’t the place to be for you.

So where’s the line?  It’s wherever the fuck you want it to be.  If you don’t know, you are welcome to come to a show and find out. But once you do, here’s the only caveat: Shut the fuck up about it. You’ll be fine.

About the Author

Bill Dawes

Bill Dawes is an actor, comedian and writer currently living in LA, where he is a regular at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood. Sometimes he resides in New York to support his theater addiction, most currently doing a stint on Broadway in the hit play "Lombardi." Check out his website billdawes.com.

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  • Tim B.

    One may feel inclined to point out the numerous flaws with this article/way of thinking, or one may feel like extolling the article for whatever insight it contained, but ultimately it would be unnecessary since this article and all points made within it (however poorly, however uninformed, however insightful, however true) were all made with words. Lots and lots of words, and we all know those don’t actually mean anything.

  • Jack

    “Zero out of seven billion people on the planet have been raped because a comic, in a room full of non-sociopathic men, made a joke about rape.”

    Google rape culture, and try educating yourself. You’re part of the problem.

    • Alex

      That’s one point of view. And it’s a flawed one at that. The idea that otherwise normal people will commit rape due to a perceived “Rape Culture” is asinine.

      • Bea

        Many people who commit rape are normal people. But maybe they’ve got some funny ideas about what consent looks like – these funny ideas are informed by rape culture.

    • Steve

      What a ridiculous concept. “Rape Culture” Get the fuck outta here with that bullshit.

  • Sean

    Great article. Well written and you covered a lot of areas. Thank you for breaking everything down and examining it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joshua-Perry/722581278 Joshua Perry

    Rape is worse than murder? You are the stupid

  • Tom

    I really enjoyed this. Good job. I’m particularly fond of your ending description of the faux power of words.

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