Feminist writer debates Jim Norton: calls comedy clubs ‘dark basements full of angry men,’ makes rape joke (Video)

By | May 31, 2013 at 2:28 pm | 55 comments | News, Opinion | Tags: , , , ,

Last night’s debate between comedian Jim Norton and Jezebel writer Lindy West on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell was moving swimmingly until the latter characterized comedy clubs as “dark basements full of angry men.” It was in response to Bell’s question, “Are comedy clubs inherently hostile environments for women?” to which a reasonable feminist would have immediately exclaimed “no” followed by an explanation of how a comedy club – or any place – could become a hostile environment depending on the makeup of a specific group of people and how singling out comedy clubs as Anti-Women Headquarters is absurd.

“On a fundamental level, it’s not an awesome place to be,” West continued about comedy clubs. “And then there’s a dude on the stage saying, ‘Hey wouldn’t it be hilarious if everyone raped that girl. And everyone laughs.’”

I’m sure West has seen her share of live comedy shows. I bet I’ve seen a few more than her, having covered nothing but comedians for the last eight years. I’ve never seen anything remotely like what she described. I get it. She was referring to that one time Daniel Tosh was heckled for telling a rape joke and then delivered a moronic comeback, wherein he imagined multiple guys raping the heckler. Like I said, moronic.

However, disseminating a generalization about comedy just as moronic does not move the conversation forward. Also, constantly shrugging your shoulders throughout the debate and calling one of Bell’s questions “dumb” (which West does only two minutes into a 16-minute segment) similarly doesn’t do a lot for the cause. But at the 5:05 mark of the uncut interview below (video is queued), something even more damning occurs.

West makes a rape joke.

As West continues to reference the Tosh incident, she explains that his comeback was inappropriate, in part, because sometimes “everyone” does rape that girl. “I don’t mean that the people in the club then rally and say ‘Oh, I’m not doing anything’ (looks at an imagined watch on her wrist)…”

She gets laughs. Lindy nailed it.

“It’s actually really trivializing to say that mocking and exploiting a rape victim’s trauma to her face – because there will be women in that audience and probably men who have been sexually assaulted – is the same as making fun of a thing,” she says.

But didn’t she do just that? Is she excused from making a rape joke because the broader context of her appearance on Totally Biased was to defend would-be victims of rape? Does she get a rape-joke pass because she’s a woman? Did she not tell the joke from the perspective of the rapists (a point of contention for her when comedians do the same) during her quick quip?

To be clear, the joke was not a natural extension of her argument; those words were superfluous. She inserted those words for one reason: to get a laugh. Surely she didn’t mean to trivialize rape, right? Rather, it seems that maybe she was trying to inject levity into an otherwise serious debate in order to maintain the audience’s attention and perhaps draw out the stigma of being a victim of sexual violence.

In the end, her joke might have been the most valuable part of her appearance— because her flip attitude and broad generalizations about comedy certainly didn’t help.

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About the Author

Dylan P. Gadino

Dylan is the founder and editor in chief of Laughspin. He launched Punchline Magazine in 2005 (which became Laughspin in the summer of 2011) with childhood friend Bill Bergmann. Dylan lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and two sons. He hopes the Shire is real.

  • Dara

    First of all, I don’t agree with everything she had to say, but you missed the point of her opinion and “rape joke” entirely. It’s not that no one should ever make a joke about rape ever, her point is that maybe you shouldn’t make the kind of joke that glorifies or minimizes the act of rape.

  • gavbo

    Demolished her.

  • mlandau

    I agree that her attitude on this show was too flippant and did a disservice to some of the important points she was making. I think it’s important to note, though, that she doesn’t take an absolutist stance against rape jokes (see her article, “How to Make a Rape Joke” on jezebel.com) and I think that got lost somewhat in this conversation. Perhaps she could have more clearly articulated that what made Tosh’s humor so offensive was that he directed a rape joke at an audience member, which I think everyone agrees crossed a line. (Also, and this is sort of beside the point, I don’t find Daniel Tosh funny AT ALL. And not because his standup is offensive. He’s just not that good.)

  • GT Patterson

    It is insane to me that people are looking at the two arguments and deciding that Norton had the better one. Even more insane that as a male author, male comic, male audience members you think that women, Lindy in this instance, are just randomly making shit up. News flash, hot shots: Men don’t get to decide what woman define as harassment, hostility and unhealthy environment. Fantastic notion, I realize, but still true.

    What’s the benefit of that by the way why would she create this huge stir and suffer through all the harassment (not just faceless internet doucheturds) but friends, fellow comics and writers? Is there some vast feminist conspiracy that I don’t know about that she’s working in or setting in motion?

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  • mizseadub

    Hey Dylan, next time maybe do some research on your subjects beyond referring to them as feminist writers without names. Lindy knows what the inside of a comedy club looks like because she is a comedian, and a very well-known one in the Pacific Northwest at that. She does stand-up but has become most well-known for her writing, which is also hilarious btw. Not that you would know since you’re clearly not familiar with her article How To Make A Rape Joke / her whole argument about rape jokes general. Figure out what the point is then get back to us.

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  • SWARMtheBANKS

    Seniors are having their home equity stolen from them, but because they don’t attend comedy clubs, they don’t exist and no awareness is raised about their plight, so the reference to the holocaust is stupid. A great comedian would be able to connect situations that their audience DOES NOT experience and create both laughter and empathy.

  • Jason Wayne

    Here’s some advice for the would be offended. YOUTUBE a comedian before you see them! If Seinfeld made a rape joke, you’re well advised to be offended, that’s out of character for him. But if Jesilnik makes a rape joke and you’re surprised, you are an idiot. Tosh says offensive things all the time, he’s hilarious at it and any idiot could discover that about his act before they saw him.

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  • earl

    I still say good comedians are the smartest and most aware people on the planet….because they have to be for the work they do. I certainly wouldn’t want to go into a debate with them unless I was prepared.

    • Denise Quigley

      I saw Jim Norton last weekend (the last of multiple times) and was again reminded of his amazing ability to take news from just days before and put it into brilliant, insightful humor. He also does some really provocative “adult” humor. I consider myself a feminist and wish hysterionic windbags like Lindy West would stop trying to tell me what is funny, what I need to feel, what I need to say. True feminists recognize that we are at a point in society in which we have a great deal of power to choose our paths. Very little in the United States HAPPENS to women anymore – we graduate from college more than men, had lower unemployment in the last recession, and make up I think it was 60% of breadwinners as reported last week. Yes, of course there are sexual predators and that is vile and disgusting and the perpetrators of that must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But we have a freaking lot of power – take it. Stop being such whiny babies. But by always coming off like everything is an issue, like you can’t say anything around a feminist, people stop hearing the truly serious issues.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.fain2 Jeremy Fain

    Norton destroyed her. She is stupid. Trust me, NO ONE is using her vagina for anything, let alone a “crutch”

    • Hysterics

      I disagree with Lindy West on this too, but you are fucking douchebag.

      • Eric Olson

        Funny, a person tries to make a point but looks like they don’t even know the language. Grammar is a bitch

        • GT Patterson

          Are you an amateur comic?

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  • maxzumstein

    I have the utmost respect for Lindy West and I completely understand her perspective on this. Perhaps a case can be made that rape jokes contribute to a culture that already trivializes rape way too much. But ultimately, I think I have to defer to Joan on this one…

    http://www.youtube.com/embed/rAD-ky3TYQk

  • Dontpokethebear

    Jim Norton is the man, Nailed it!

    • feztonio

      Jim really is genius. he can tell dick and fart jokes with the best of them, but he’s also insightful and intelligent and can really speak quite well and make his point very well. Lindy was way out of her league.

  • Google_Is_The_Higgs_Boson

    Jim Norton nailed it, every time he spoke! The chick just seemed like she thought she was speaking to a idiot. she was annoying…

  • McUncool

    It’s not about telling a joke from the perspective of a rapist that makes it bad. It’s making a rape victim the butt of the joke. It’s called thinking critically.

    Or, if you’re actually interested in understanding where Lindy West is coming from instead of screeching FEMINIST like a shitty body snatcher, you could read this article (by Lindy West!) about how jokes about rape can be not only OK, but even funny!: http://jezebel.com/5925186/how-to-make-a-rape-joke

    Also, when you dismiss Daniel Tosh’s rape joke as “moronic” instead of understanding and recognizing that it’s literally dangerous, you don’t get to tell women if they have reason to feel unsafe in comedy clubs.

    • Heather

      I wish you had written this article.

    • Hysterics

      What I want to know is, where is this plague of comedians who are making jokes in which rape victims are the butt of the jokes? Seriously, can you point out some YouTube clips for me? I consume a lot of stand-up comedy both online and live in LA, and I must have a superpower for avoiding all the comics who make fun of rape victims, because I don’t see it happening.

      The only incident anyone seems to be able to mention is the thing Daniel Tosh said, which wasn’t even a joke that was part of his act, but a comment about a heckler who was interrupting his show.

      Really, where is this happening? To hear Lindy West describe it, you can’t see comedy without being bombarded with jokes about how rape is funny and how women deserve to be raped. We’re talking like this is an ongoing issue, but the only specific incident anyone ever cites happened once, a year ago.

      • feztonio

        there’s not. activist folks tend to make sweeping generalizations and not have any examples when they’re spouting off about their personal crusade and cause. it’s as predictable as the Westboro Baptist crew chanting God Hates Fags.

      • Paul Lao

        go to an open mic ugh. rape jokes all day e’ery day.

        • Jorge Garrido

          That because open micers suck. Open micers try to be as shocking as possible, and they’re never funny. When they get funny they stop being open micers and become professionals.

          The issue there is execution and funniness, not subject matter.

      • GT Patterson

        Louis C.K. (older ones are the rank ones, newer ones less,) Tosh, Sam Morrils, Norton (duh), Patrice O’Neal (he’s dead, though) and the list goes on.
        Is it maybe that you don’t really notice them because they don’t really stand out for you?

    • feztonio

      If you’re a rape victim and sensitive to the cringe style of comedy perhaps you should be aware of who you’re going to see. Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, and Bill Cosby are three nationally touring comedians who work clean and who shy away from the cringe comedy off of the top of my head. If you go see a Tosh, or a Jim Norton then you should be aware you’re going to hear some vulgar, dirty comedy and possibly something that you would be offended by. i blame the consumer for not knowing what show they’re going to.

    • steve

      Then you don’t get to compare actual events to words joking about fictional events.

    • Guest

      Louis C.K. (older ones are the rank ones, newer ones less,) Tosh, Sam Morrils, Norton (duh), Patrice O’Neal (he’s dead, though) and the list goes on.

      Is it maybe that you don’t really notice them because they don’t really stand out for you?

  • @laughatbrad

    If you are affected or offended by words… without taking intent into consideration, you are a weak bitch.

    • Paul Lao

      Some people find themselves in dark places and go into comedy clubs with no intention of being offended. I wouldn’t say you are a weak bitch to a person who’s mother literally just died of cancer or child died from suicide or just contracted AIDS.

      I wouldn’t call a person a weak bitch if in their lifetime they had a family member lynched by clansmen. etc etc.

      But I would agree that you can only say that person sucks in the context of the room. Like Norton said. Or just leave the show. You can write a review about Tracy Morgan being homophobic and people reading it also have to take in consideration it might not be accurate. We all have to take responsibility and not trust here say.

  • Author is wrong.
  • Bob

    She Got Demolished.

    She had some timing. Wouldn’t call her a comedian in the least.

    Her body language was someone who had talking points. Norton got the conversation past that – She had nothing for him, so she got extremely dismissive.

    I started cringing because she was out of her league in a televised debate.

    What could she have done? Done her research – realized she was going on TV and did at least 10 minutes of prep instead of acting like a child who realized just how much of a fish out of water they are.

    • feztonio

      Jim Norton demolished her, though in her defense Jim not only is on an amazing international radio show, but has been a stand-up comedian for over 20 years so he is completely comfortable in front of a microphone and an audience. a feminist blogger does not have that background. I loved how Jim crushed at the end about the Jeff Goldblum on her very own facebook page and how he was in Deathwish and how there’s the double standard where an actor can realistically portray a rape and that’s fine because it’s a film performance and a character, but a comedian can’t use a rape joke in the context of a comedy stage performance. she had no response to this.

      • Paul Lao

        She did respond with we don’t have to pick which is respected, both are horrific. I think she really should say, I hate bad comedy that is hurtful and shitty.

        No comic is saying to literally condone or act on raping someone. We used to swear to make an impact with jokes now it’s rape/abortion/racism/homophobia to get a faster response and describe extremes. I don’t condone it when it’s done poorly.

        Tosh is emotionally detached. That’s why he says things. It’s funny.

        She also wrote an article on how to write a rape joke. . .

      • gavbo

        He’s also a fantastic debater.

  • Eric Olson

    Correct me if I’m wrong, if women would stop saying there’s nothing funny about rape, this conversation will end. STOP IT! Men are taking it as a challenge. Years ago my friend committed suicide (self inflicted gunshot wound). I went to an improv show needing some laughs. Well, you guessed it, there was a joke about blowing one’s head off. Did I cause a stink because the joke was emotionally scarring? NO, IT WAS FUNNY AND I LAUGHED ALONG WITH EVERYONE ELSE. College prof once told us, All is Good, if you don’t find the good in something you will be forever stuck in that moment and you will suffer worse for it.

    • GT Patterson

      You’re wrong. Hope this correction has assisted you in forming better opinions about rape, rape jokes, and how people who are victimized by these things act.

      • Eric Olson

        Evidently YDKS. Typing “You’re wrong” is not a correction. What’s the first thing a guy does to a girl when he knows she hates spiders? He tries to freak her out more by showing her one. Women don’t own a monopoly on being a victim of sexual assaults.

        • GT Patterson

          Ding ding ding! You get a cookie for saying something true! Women don’t ‘own a monopoly’ (that sentence makes no sense, fyi) on being victims of sexual assault. Men are victims as well!

          And you’re thinking of douchebag children. That’s the kind of person who taunts people with things they’re scared of. And that comparison would have been apt if by ‘scared of spiders’ you mean had her body penetrated sexually by spiders against her will.

  • KateEliz

    Daniel tosh said exactly what she was quoting. I understand both sides but the author’s take here seems a little off. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do rape material. Amy Schumer even does a great joke on it.

  • Heather

    The only thing she’s defending here is anyone’s right to complain about something they don’t like,and pointing out that, “hey, a lot of people have been raped, and this society is an incredibly fucked up place to be when that happens.” Welcome to the Internet, folks. Not sure how familiar you are with Lindy, but she’s not exactly a super serious journalist who covers things like international women’s rights in a national newspaper. She writes for a blog that specializes in pop culture and front page current affairs, with a humorous and thoughtful bent that happens to be feminist in nature. Lindy’s shit is funny. I don’t think one would be out of line to even refer to her as a comedian. She was invited on a comedy show, one would imagine not so she could behave as she would on CNN or as if her role in society was as a serious journalist or activist who has *never* said silly things on the internet. She was asked defend a perspective for a 15-minute segment, specifically on rape jokes, on a television show meant for comedy fans. Explain to me what she should have done instead. I think she did exactly as she was expected to do, and you can even find more insight into her not-at-all-comedy-hating perspective in this article that she wrote shortly after the Daniel Tosh incident. Incidentally, she explains in the post that rape jokes can absolutely be funny. I think you would find it valuable: http://jezebel.com/5925186/how-to-make-a-rape-joke

    • mxyzptlk

      West’s article does a better job of defending her position than West did on the show. After seeing the debate and re-reading that article, it almost seems like they both actually agree on one fundamental thing, but can’t seem to find the language to enunciate that thing. Here’s the thing: There’s the subject that delivers the material (the comedian), and there’s the subject being embodied by the comedian that says the material. They’re not necessarily the same thing, and depending on the embodied subject, a joke can be either ironic and subversive, or cruel and disempowering.

      Almost no one does this as well as Stephen Colbert. When most people watch him do his The Word, they understand that the embodied subject saying the material is not a serious person, and is being made fun of by the comedian embodying that subject. But not everyone always gets that — see the Ohio State University study on conservatives that think Stephen Colbert the person is actually agreeing with them rather than ironically making fun of their position. The same sort of ironic reading/misreading happens in music all the time, where lyrics are taken on face-value as a celebration of the content rather than a commentary or criticism (hip hop, Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”). It’s also used as a a crutch by people making cruel comments that are meant to be hurtful dog-whistles who then turn around and say it was just a joke — like Ann Coulter calling John Edwards a faggot. No one was confused into thinking the Ann Coulter who delivered the material didn’t actually agree with some stage version of Ann Coulter who said the material; there was no ironic distance there.

      It seemed like that kind of discussion was elephant in the room during the Norton-West debate. Norton got closest to articulating that point, but never drove it home that a comedian is ironically embodying a character on stage, and recognizing that ironic distance is key to getting the joke. That’s why Louis C.K.’s joke — “I’m not condoning rape, obviously—you should never rape anyone. Unless
      you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let
      you.”
      lands, is funny, and is a rape joke Lindy West approves of. And if Stephen Colbert made a similarly crude or unsafe joke, most people (except, apparently, some conservatives) would recognize that the comedian delivering the material is ironically subverting the subject saying the material. You wouldn’t necessarily feel uncomfortable around Stephen Colbert the person (unless you’re wigged out by Tolkien nerds); you might be rightfully uncomfortable around Stephen Colbert the (fake) pundit if he were real.

      Then again, if Norton and West actually got to that point and agreed on the ironic distance between the deliverer/sayer, there might not have been much of a debate. But it might have been more interesting.

      • Heather

        Exactly. Well said.

      • PrintersBuildingBlondie

        Thank you for this. And thank you for taking the time to read her article. Maybe coming from a place of being a regular Lindy West reader, I couldn’t discern how she could come off to someone unfamiliar with her in this instance. Especially since she was characterized as a “feminist blogger” rather than having any sort of comedic background, with very comedic content on this “feminist blog.” I was frustrated with the debate because they really were very close to agreeing but kept missing the rub. She is absolutely not arguing that there is anything wrong with a rape joke that is well constructed, and while people are attacking her pointing out examples when victims *can* be the punchline, it ignores the larger fact that there is a right way and a wrong way to do a joke, which everyone agrees. She is just bringing attention to how rape jokes in particular can really miss the mark because we have really messed up ideas about it in society (i.e. “rape culture”). It’s sad and shocking the backlash she’s received over this. I think there are so many level headed men, and comedians, that actually would be very in line with her if they truly took a moment to understand where she is coming from based off of more than this “debate.” Because honestly, when something is framed as a “debate” no one really wins.

        (Unrelated, sorry for the stupid username, I only created this to comment on a neighborhood blog and wasn’t familiar with other places that used the platform…whoops)

        • mxyzptlk

          I think even Norton acknowledged that in reality they’re probably closer in opinion than what came off in the debate. In the follow-up post here, with the snippet from the Opie & Anthony Show, he mentions she’s done stand-up and knows how jokes work, but the direction the discussion went didn’t allow for some wider discussion. He seemed to think she was more or less playing a role than herself, and was more upset that she characterized the club-goers as dangerous white men than he was about people actively or unintentionally misreading jokes, or actively or unintentionally delivering bad jokes.

  • Fuck You

    Oh, fuck off (please, man, tell us what a “reasonable feminist” should do. Tell women how to be women correctly. Fuck right off).

    • Also

      Also, might I add, my first exposure to Lindy was when I was at Mapping the Heavens (Dave Holmes and Rob Delaney’s show at UCBTLA) when Rob pointed out his “friend Lindy” in the audience and the two had a conversation about how funny she is. So, in conclusion, fuck right off (oh, was that not reasonably feminist for me?)

      • I got you dawg

        Im going to guess you’re a little overweight with Lindy’s haircut and big bug-eye glasses

        • Suck my dick

          Because if I am, it would make my opinion less valid.

          • Christopher Daniel Teo

            First of all, yeah she could have done a lot more. Acting like a child and handing out hypotheticals and generalizations like it was soup at a kitchen for the homeless does nothing for the feminist movement. All it does is make her look like she’s arguing a point for the sake of it, and that she doesn’t really have any substance to back it up. And the fact is she doesn’t. No one said rape was good, but comedians have been making jokes about ‘bad’ things all along. Like what he said. It’s not making the jokes that create the mindset. It’s having the mindset already that makes the joke funny. It’s because they  could say something so outrageous. That’s what makes jokes about subjects like rape funny. 
            Also, if you were a little overweight, and all those things, it might make you a little more partial to her. So yeah. It might make your opinion less valuable cause you might just be a little biased. Also, the fact you’re hiding your identity like a rapist hides his victims in his basement, makes you seem really sketchy as well. Oh, damn. I made a rape joke. Better get ready for the onslaught of flaming.

    • Luke

      Feminist =/= Woman. It’s an ideology and it’s quite common to speak about differing proponents of ideologies in those terms, e.g. “a reasonable anarchist might acknowledge the risks of abandoning government”. If you disagree with the article but you can’t think of a real point, just move on. Abusing context is for idiots, politicians and special interest lobbies.

    • Tom Brady

      I won’t tell anyone how to act correctly as a woman…I’d just say don’t be an asshole as a person, which is what she’s doing. She’s making broad generalizations about comedy clearly based on little information….you know…like stereotyping? She’s an embarassment to the cause. You don’t have a point…you’re just rambling and attacking aimlessly.

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