A few days ago, Daniel Tosh fucked up. Sort of. Maybe. Depends who you talk to.
One thing we know for sure is when he exploded the Internet this week, it’s because he had an absolutely hilarious response to a heckler.
Or, wait. Maybe Twitter blew up because it wasn’t funny.
But definitely, we can all agree that he’s one of the few comedians who really pushes boundaries.
… Unless we don’t.
OK, I know for sure that that woman overreacted.
I mean, except for the people who think she kind of had a point.
Come on, Internet! Someone out there tell me what to think about Daniel Tosh’s now-famous gang-rape joke and the entirely subjective nature of the comedic art form!!!
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I congratulate you for spending far less time online than I do.
But to get everyone up to speed, let’s review: Last Friday, Daniel Tosh did a set at LA’s Laugh Factory. Accounts of the actual interaction vary and no source seems completely reliable. It's become a huge mess of she said/he said/ everyone on the Internet said, but it’s generally agreed that Tosh said something like “Rape is always funny.” The woman then protested something like, “No! Rape is never funny!” To which Tosh shot back something like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she got raped by five guys, like right now?”
It might or might not be funny, but it'd definitely be irony, which the woman in question did not appreciate. When she got home, she blogged about it. It caught fire, and for the last few days pretty much anyone who pays attention to comedy, pop culture, or Twitter hashtags about the hilarity of jokes about violence against women, has taken to the Internet assert their opinion about it. And those opinions run the gamut, from sharp, false-bravado defenses of Tosh to meandering graduate-school essays about male vs. female gaze and the nature of power, to a really funny, concise Onion article.
I started wondering what our own comics here in Portland were thinking about it—not so much the overplayed question of whether or not some topics should be off-limits, but what this incident can illuminate about the comedian’s process, how people determine what is and isn’t funny to them, and the implied and real relationships between comedian and audience.
I ended up getting pages and pages’ worth of interesting, thoughtful responses from a lot of our local comedians (and a couple of recent locals who are now in LA), and the answers are as diverse as their personal comedic styles. In the interest of time and space, what I include here is just a sample of what each of them said. This post is going to get its own ISBN as it is, but even so I still wasn't able to include everything.
Although every comedian had a slightly different perspective, the one thing they all do agree on, emphatically, is that no topic should be “off-limits” for comedy. That said, the important part of talking about sensitive issues is making sure your joke is actually a joke, and is actually funny.
Belinda Carroll: My personal opinion is that comedy often exists to bring light to dark subjects, so ideally, no—there isn't any subject that is off limits. I think comedy done well can make us laugh at things that would normally make us upset or nervous and can defuse subjects that we wouldn't normally bring up at the dinner table.
Lonnie Bruhn: I strongly believe that comedians should be allowed to talk about whatever we want. It is what we get paid to do. It is our job to break down the challenges of life’s struggles no matter how deep and challenging the topic is. It is has never been about breaking down what we should discuss, it has always been about breaking down what we shouldn’t discuss. This is where the funny is.
Sean Jordan: With stand up you sort of enter into a contract as an audience member to take whatever the entertainer says as a joke. In turn, we as entertainers, enter into a contract to make that particular subject funny. If that's something that a comic can't do with a certain topic then they should stay away from the subject.
Stephanie Purtle: I think it is wrong-headed to say that any topic is off limits. I actually have two jokes about rape, and I am proud of them because I feel they are smart and they make important points. One of the jokes is about the time a guy ran up behind me on a dark street, and when I gasped he said, "It's ok sweetie, I'm not going to hurt you. You're hot, but you're not that hot." My joke is a way for me to process what happened to me, and to critique exactly how messed up it is that he said that. I would never say anything on stage that disempowers women, and if someone were to be offended by my joke I would be confident in defending its merits. However, rape is not always funny.
Shane Torres: In my eyes there are more bad rape jokes than funny ones, but I do think we (audience and comedians) are forced to sit through some real garbage to find something funny about a subject. Almost every single comedian says something that offends another group of people. A comedian is responsible for the funny.
And it’s that “But is it funny?” that many of the local comics agree on. Comedy is subjective, and we all come to it with our own frames of reference. What some of the comics who are bothered by Tosh’s “joke” seem to think is that, well, it wasn’t really that much of a “joke.”
Purtle: There are many, many jokes about rape that not only fail to make a constructive point, they actively work to make rape seem less serious and traumatic than it truly is. He joked that it would be funny if this woman was raped in that very room. The comment makes light of rape as something to laugh at just because, and it completely disregards all the horrible effects rape has on the victim. It fails to make any real point, instead it just laughs at rape for the sake of being "edgy." I fail to see how that is funny.
Joe Hieronymus: Not everybody has the deft touch to be able to handle sensitive topics. Amateurs seem to always start with that stuff, at open mics. Watching, I just think, “Why are you talking about pedophilia and how much you hate women? Why don’t you just be funny?”
Whitney Streed: I want to make it clear that I'm not at all a fan of Daniel Tosh. I find him boring, as I do many of the comics whose goal is to just be offensive and "push the envelope" by saying really outlandish things that they do not believe are true just because they get a rise out of people. It's not that I dislike offensive things. Some of my favorite comics like Doug Stanhope are deeply offensive. I just want offensive jokes that are about real things. I want an emotional investment from the comedian. Pushing boundaries just because they're there is rather shallow, and just deciding to say untrue things because you know it will bother people seems like a damned waste of this amazing art that very few people get to do.
So how do you know if a joke about a challenging topic is funny?
Again, taste is subjective — but many of our comics agree that honesty and the willingness to take a personal risk is a big part of it. If it's an easy laugh, it's probably not worth it.
Kristine Levine: I did a show in Cincinnati with Doug Stanhope a few months ago. A woman and her husband walked out. The woman complained to the staff, "I know edgy humor, I watch Tosh-point-zero, I get it, but this lady is TOO MUCH." Doug got on stage and said, "You know why Kristine's too much? Because Tosh is kidding, and she isn't." That pretty much sums it up. I like what Tosh does but it clearly is all a joke.
Mark Saltveit: I don't know Tosh's act well enough to offer a direct opinion on what he's doing with it. I've watched his show a little and not been interested enough to watch more. But someone like Louis CK offers an interesting comparison. Louis tackles the most sensitive issues (including race, rape, misogyny, etc.) but always in a way that sheds light on the subject and digs into the meat of what makes them hot buttons. From what little I've seen, Tosh is just poking the beehive, slapping hot buttons as a cheap way to maintain interest in his jokes.
Ron Funches: I did not see the actual outburst so I don't want to comment directly on what he said. From what I heard, no — there isn’t actually a joke there to get. There is a definite difference between talking about a uncomfortable truth and just going for shock. I don't think there was any truth in his statement. And I think the bigger issue here is the fact that rape is so prevalent in our society that perhaps it's better to not use a cheap joke at the expense of someone who may have been victimized.
Some of the better comedian and feminist analyses of the situation and the “joke” reflect the idea espoused by some of our comics, that it was also the context that made Tosh’s remark extremely unfunny.
One in five American women will be or have been victims of sexual assault.
In the building I’m sitting in right now to write this, that means at least three of us are members of a not-so-exclusive little club. Strangely, no one seems super excited about wearing the membership pin on their lapel. So does that mean joking about rape should be off limits? Not at all. But many people do think that if you’re going to try to joke about it, and knowing that a comic’s connection to, and earning the trust of, their audience is everything, you might want to work a little bit harder to make that shit work.
Virginia Jones: Why is gang rape the first thing that he goes to, because he's talking to a woman? Would he tell a man it would be funny if he were gang-raped in public? Maybe he says it all the time and it never makes news, but I doubt it.
Jen Allen: The way Tosh decided to shut this woman down was no solid choice. He could have reacted in a multitude of ways. Even saying to the the woman, “Hold on lady, you haven't even heard the joke yet.” But instead he decided to ignite the situation rather than defuse it by personally attacking her. Thus alienating the woman, her friend, and other audience members. Most important was by personally attacking the woman, Tosh validated her initial reaction — that rape jokes are never funny. Is Tosh a bad guy? No. Did he apologize? Yes. We are human and we make mistakes. I'm sure he knows what he did and how he will handle a situation like that in the future. Because that's what comedians do — they learn and move on to make another funny.
Purtle: I noticed that most of the people who dismiss Tosh's behavior are men. I don't think they are horrible people, but I think most men have never felt as vulnerable to attack as women do on a daily basis. One night when I did [one of my rape jokes], a guy in the audience yelled, "Carry a fucking gun!" I honestly think that says something about how guys don't really grasp what it is like to be a woman and having to worry about rape.
Stacey Hallal: At Curious, we've had two sketches that were extremely provocative. One about Black History Month and one about a dance club. We had a great conversation with an African-American teacher from Jefferson who came to the show about the Black History Month sketch, made a few tweaks, and felt it was communicating what we wanted, that white people don't know anything about black history, only pop culture. The dance club sketch was a quick dumb black-out. We were criticized by someone who was drunk and rude throughout the whole show and this sketch just got her going. I tried to tweak it a few times, but eventually we cut it because enough people shared her concern and it wasn't worth it. If a sketch or a joke makes the point I want, I will keep it. If it offends people for no point, then I'll change or cut it.
Even as comics and commentators discuss the appropriateness, or not, of Tosh’s choice, many are also defending his action. Not even so much because of the content but because they adamantly feel that pushing boundaries is a comedian’s job. Learning from mistakes is one of the key ways that comedians improve their acts, so maybe we should all just chill out a little and cut him the same kind of slack we ourselves would want.
Ian Karmel: As stand-up comedians, we come up with an idea that we want to talk about, we think about it, maybe we sit down and write about that idea. If we like the idea, we'll go to an open mic or a show and try to work out that idea on stage, then we take it back to the lab and tinker with it, so we can bring it up on stage and refine it some more. I'm Ian Karmel, I have the privilege of working out jokes in relative anonymity. When you're as famous as Tosh, you don't go to open mics anymore, you go work out new material at The Laugh Factory, The Comedy Store, The Improv or whatever those clubs are in New York City. [He tried out] some new dirty and controversial material, and someone in the crowd had a problem with it. They heckled him, he came over the top and tried to shut the heckler up without departing from his topic, and they got their feelings hurt. Fine, that's a valid emotion to have, but it's fucking ridiculous to try and crucify Tosh because of it. Oh, you didn't like a half-formed joke? Do you also walk into a kitchen and complain that a bowl of raw eggs isn't an omelet yet?
Bri Pruett: Being heckled is fucking scary. Here you are concentrating on your jokes and trying to get your brains synched up with your audience, when some asshole ruins your flow. So you have to find a lot of mental clarity. A lot of comics discourage heckling (or talking or yelling) by playing high status and putting the heckler down, so no one else gets any funny ideas. The best comics use the heckler as a scene partner and get jokes out of their interaction with said asshole. Tosh made an excellent point when he said that it would have been funny if a woman who said "rape jokes are never funny," was then raped, because that's what irony is. I mean, it wouldn't have been funny to anyone there at the club; but if you were reading about it later, or heard it in a monologue of a late night show, yes funny. I repeated the interaction to about ten people, mostly women, who all chuckled a bit.
Xander Deveaux: When he said that he thought it would be funny if that woman was raped, after she voiced her opinion on the subject of rape never being funny, that scenario would be funny. It would be ironic, and irony is what helps create and sustain stand-up comedy. That was his point, everything can be made funny, and you're wrong if you disagree. If you watch a comedian and you agree and enjoy everything they say, then you didn't watch a comedian, you watched a clown, and your enjoyment of that says more about you than it does the performer.
Some comics, here in town and out in the rest of the world, have said, essentially, if you don’t want to be offended, then you shouldn’t go to comedy clubs. And while that’s a little reductive, it’s reasonable to think that anyone who insists on living in a happy bubble without friction is going to be sorely disappointed at the lack of venues that will accommodate them.
But does that mean an audience should just accept whatever it gets?
As the hilarious and astute Lindy West wrote on Jezebel, a comic’s right to tell rape jokes is equal to an audience’s right to expect those jokes to be funny.
“Ninety percent of your rape material is not working, and you can tell it's not working because your audience is telling you that they hate those jokes. This is the feedback you asked for.
If people don't want to be offended, they shouldn't go to comedy clubs? Maybe. But if you don't want people to react to your jokes, you shouldn't get on stage and tell your jokes to people.”
It’s a sentiment shared by some of the comics here, too.
Susan Rice: I believe in freedom of free speech. He had the right to tell a joke with rape in it. He is also free to accept the consequences. So go ahead, guys. Keep writing those rape jokes; eventually you'll figure it out, but not without consequences.
Shawn Fleek: First off, Daniel Tosh is a comedian like "Pop-Up Video" is a Music Theory class. His humor has made me laugh before, but that's because I'm an immature moron who is somewhat easily entertained. When you do stand-up you live by the laugh and you die by the silence. If he'd tried a little harder and not just gone for a cheap laugh or a shock, maybe he'd have kept it together and not be forced to apologize for being an asshole. Honestly you'd think the people who went to see him would have known better, since I'm pretty sure that a ticket to a Tosh live show comes with a free Rohypnol, a Slipknot T-shirt and a roll of duct tape.
Jones: I believe in freedom of speech, and I will fight for your right to say anything. However, having a microphone in your hand does not guarantee that what you say will be accepted. Do what you will, but that doesn't mean there will never be backlash. You don't have special dispensation because you're onstage in a dirty hoody.
Interestingly (to me, at least), many of the comics who defend Tosh generally agree with a lot of the ones who don’t on at least one point: that one of the biggest insults surrounding the incident is that it was just so … hacky. It’s not that he touched on rape that’s the problem, so much as the fact that he just did it so badly. Karmel made a great point about the probability he was trying something new and it tanked. But it's also been argued that perhaps we should hold an internationally famous pro to a different standard than the guy who just came to Suki's for the first time ever.
Jessie McCoy: I've seen similar things happen at countless open mics and when people like Daniel Tosh get so much attention it just adds to the problem.
Saltveit: Daniel Tosh is the top-rated star on Comedy Central, which (along with HBO) is the the single biggest TV outlet for comedy. And your comedy career success is defined precisely by how much you're on TV. So Tosh is a huge power player with the biggest outfit in comedy.
Marcia Belsky: To me, my strongest opinion was that it makes him look like an amateur. Any dumb first-time open mic comic can go tell the drunk lady heckler to go get raped. I usually prefer for the comic to be a bit more clever.
Levine: Saying someone should get raped, to me, is like how comedians would say someone should get ass cancer in the ‘90s. It's hack now. I do have a bit about rape, but I also think we (comedians and civilians alike) throw the word around loosely like it's nothing. "Wow I really got raped on my taxes this year..." Meanwhile, the rape survivor accountant starts having a panic attack.
Regardless of where you fall on the opinion spectrum, the news cycle will probably be burying this issue pretty quickly as (as long as people like me stop trying to write about it). So I’ll leave you with a comment that I, personally, found pretty damn funny.
Streed: I think the funniest thing to come out of this incident is a petition to get Daniel Tosh to devote a whole half an hour special to rape awareness. It's like tobacco-sponsored anti-smoking ads. How absurd.