By REBECCA FITZGIBBON
COMEDIAN Daniel Tosh started a joke that started the whole world fighting over where to draw the line on punchlines that leave bruises.
The American Comedy Central host took to the stage at Los Angeles stand-up comedy club Laugh Factory to make his trademark off-colour rape jokes, and talk about how funny rape jokes are. When a female audience member heckled him, asserting that rape jokes are never funny, he suggested it would be laugh-out-loud hilarious if she was raped by “like five guys, right now”. Apparently, to Tosh, if there is anything funnier than rape, it must be gang rape.
The Laugh Factory incident was blogged about by the audience member and rebutted by Tosh, with differing accounts of what was said or not said. But whatever actually happened that night, the scene triggered a significant public debate about what happens when dark comedy crosses the line from humour into something malicious.
Humour is a subjective appreciation. However, there are two polarised camps of opinion on this one. Some people are outraged, arguing that rape jokes are never funny, while others are defensive of stand-up comics and disagree with the “thought police” for censoring them.
Unfortunately, this discussion about censorship is also about violent crime and Tosh — a notoriously misogynistic comedian who often makes inappropriate statements about rape, sexual harassment, and women in general — uttered a verbal comeback to the audience member that was not in fact a joke.
It was a supposition at best, or an invitation at worst, of how hilarious it would be to gang rape the woman in question. And if he was just joking, as he probably was, it was certainly not funny to her.
Before I call the PC brigade in to ruin everyone’s inappropriate fun, I’ll assert that it is important to uphold freedom of speech, even in off-colour comedy. It is also important to respect the stand-up comedy tradition that a comedian will ridicule anyone who dares heckle them, and the person with the microphone is destined to win.
Humour that makes us laugh when we know we shouldn’t can make us uncomfortable and also make us think. By challenging the accepted and imposed boundaries of social acceptability, comedians can inspire social change through self-reflection, as off-colour TV programs American Dad and South Park and films such as Team America: World Police are celebrated for.
The so-wrong-it’s-funny angle of many contemporary stand-up comedians may indeed work to break down taboos and change the way we think about things.
Inappropriate humour can be edgy and transgressive, but there are words, terms and even topics that are persecutory, discriminatory, and cause pain, and therefore are only funny to people who are not the victim.
But while free speech is fundamental in this creative field, there is a distinction between political or cultural criticism and personal, discriminatory insult.
Nobody should be silencing Daniel Tosh or telling him that he can’t joke about sexual violence. But he — and everyone else who jokes about rape — should know that they may be held accountable for the repercussions.
Comedian Ricky Gervais has received much criticism from audiences over his new TV show, Derek, which mocks people with mental disabilities, labels them “mongs”, and causes injury to the most vulnerable in society.
As Seinfeld actor Michael Richards discovered with his racist discourse and 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan found after his hatefully homophobic diatribe, there are some things that we are learning not to joke about because people get hurt.
The online community won’t stand for it either, as Daily Telegraph writer Joe Hildebrand found, when he experienced a Twitter backlash over a joking tweet calling airport staff “retarded”, and implying substandard service.
We all say inappropriate or hurtful things in jest on occasion, but the all-too-easy dismissal of “political correctness gone mad” is a lazy brush-off.
Comedians defending Daniel Tosh’s verbal abuse of his heckler argue that we shouldn’t silence each other over issues such as rape.
This is a fair point we should indeed talk about rape and the cultural attitudes that promote and condone it. We should talk about rape until it no longer affects about one in five women and one in 30 men.
We should talk about rape culture so much that it’s not even funny, just as we have done with racial discrimination, disabilities, the Holocaust, animal abuse, paedophilia and terrorism.
Even so, rape jokes are rife on American TV. They seem to be an episode prerequisite for programs including 2 Broke Girls, Whitney, Family Guy and even Glee.
Date-rape and acquaintance-rape are a sad source of puns and do not resolve the problem that those are the most under-reported sexual violence crimes. In fact, they can do the opposite; perpetuating the myth that if you report a crime, nobody is going to believe you.
Making light of rape perpetuates the cycle of victim-blaming and resulting under-reportage of sexual violence, but comedians and screenwriters still defend their humour around the issue.
“I think not allowing women to joke about rape is like not allowing people to process and let off steam about one of the main fears of our lives,” says screenwriter Jill Soloway (United States of Tara, Six Feet Under).
It is true that comedy can change cultural attitudes for the better, but let’s be realistic about this one: it is part of a wider notion that violence against women is a legitimate source of humour.
Perhaps they are only jokes, but they can do more harm than good, and perpetuate a vicious cycle of not taking sexual violence seriously.
Whether you find rape references amusing or offensive is an entirely subjective debate and dependant on the circumstance. If you don’t like that kind of humour, don’t go to the show. If you do go to the show and don’t like that kind of humour, say something.
“Qui tacet consentire” is Latin for “silence gives consent”, so don’t just sit there in uncomfortable silence while others chuckle.
This woman who heckled Tosh from the audience took a stand for justice and respect and, no matter where you stand on the issues of censorship and comedic approach, she should be applauded.
First published in the Mercury newspaper on Wednesday July 18, 2012