I have a simple, straight-forward rule when it comes to comedians: You can be offensive, or you can be unfunny, but you are not allowed to be both at the same time. About eighty percent of the Daniel Tosh clips I’ve seen break this rule. The other twenty percent manage to follow it by being merely unfunny. So when I heard something about Tosh, a rape joke, and subsequent outrage I thought, Well, yeah.
For those who aren’t familiar: an anonymous audience member posted the following about a Daniel Tosh show at the Laugh Factory:
So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didn’t appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”
I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.
After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “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…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.
The post made the rounds and eventually led to an apology from Tosh. This incident has inspired some interesting discussions about whether there are lines comics absolutely should not cross. Are some topics so hurtful they cannot possibly be made funny?
I think, for most comedians, “funny” is defined by what makes the particular set of people sitting in front of you laugh. If the only way to get the audience on your side is to stand on your head and light your farts on fire for 7 minutes than you do what you have to do. I suspect it was an understanding of this imperative that led Louis CK to fire off the supportive tweet that so disappointed some of his fans. UPDATE: Louis was not being supportive so much as watching Tosh from an undisclosed location in Vermont with no idea that any of this was happening.
The comedian’s shameless willingness to do whatever it takes to get a laugh out of us means that the person we are watching onstage is a reflection of the people watching back. Are rape jokes funny? Depends on the crowd.
The objection to that kind of moral relativism in comedy is rooted in the idea that jokes like Tosh’s are part of a larger problem, a culture that trivializes women’s experiences, especially rape and domestic abuse. I agree that there is a positive feedback loop in which performers attempt to give the people what they want while simultaneously training them to want more of what they’ve been given.
But expecting a guy trying to get a laugh in a club to take on the burden of breaking that loop is unrealistic and unfair. As long as there exists an audience that will laugh at a rape joke, there will be a performer who will tell it. Shaming Tosh into a disingenuous apology and his peers into silence will not change that. If anything, it fuels the kind of resentment that hardens positions.
That’s not to say that the woman who walked out of Tosh’s show was wrong to feel the way she did, or to walk out. Given my offensive/unfunny rule, I would have done the same (though I would not have demanded that he stop his act because I found it offensive). I’m just arguing that the demand that Tosh stop making those kinds of jokes, or that his fans stop laughing at them, is both futile and unjustified.
Rather than declaring certain topics off limits, I think the best response is to show painfully unfunny comedians like Tosh what a smart, insightful joke on a difficult subject looks like (NSFW):