On last Thursday's Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, comedian Jim Norton got in a verbal sparring match with Jezebel writer Lindy West. For the most part, their positions were fixed and predictable -- but rarely have two people in the reactionary careers of standup comic and feminist author achieved this kind of clarity on an issue that most people refuse to discuss. Neither side held back, yet both kept their cool and didn't let their emotions run away with them -- while Kamau Bell pretty much sat back and let things take their course. Yet throughout the excellent sixteen-minute debate, never was the question addressed: Why are rape jokes funny?
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Typically, the culture clash of bro-down Neanderthal comedian facing off against uptight Ms. Lib columnist over the issue of political correctness in comedy goes something like this:
Feminist: "You shouldn't say it because it's wrong to do so."
Comedian: "Go back to 1984, Big Brother. This is America, sweetheart -- maybe you just need to get laid and relax."
While many of Norton and West's initial statements were a more eloquent version of this, their counter-arguments were razor-sharp. When the issue of censorship was raised, West plainly stated that comedians can say whatever they want, but if they're saying something horribly objectionable, "I get to call you a dick. That's the only repercussion."
Similarly, she was on top of her game when the inevitable Hitler card was played, pointing out -- as she does so well in her blog on the subject -- that, statistically speaking, you inevitably have a few victims of sexual assault in most comedy audiences: "So it's not like you know that a third of your audience are Holocaust survivors [when making a Hitler joke], who are being systematically silenced and told, 'You were probably asking for the Holocaust.'"
Conversely, Norton brought up the strong point that a standup comedian exists in a netherworld between actor and sincere human, where his statements should be taken as coming from a constructed character: "If someone on stage says, 'Hey, I'm a rapist!' you can say that's a bad joke, and I might agree, but no reasonable person thinks that guy is telling the truth.... The relief of comedy is that it takes things that aren't funny and it allows us to laugh about them for an hour, and then we have the rest of the day to see them as horrible and sad as they really are."
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Norton's point brings up a vital component that is often missing when debating the ethics of standup comedy. The Grawlix web series addresses this brilliantly in the "Open Mic" episode, where a comic attempts to take the stage dynamic of comedy into the real world, and when he's chastised for using the word "Faggot," he tries to brush this off by saying, "No, that wasn't me saying it, that was the comedian character saying it. I know that word is offensive."
I tried to make a similar argument when dating a bisexual Women's Studies major. This was about ten years ago, during the height of Eminem's boycott by progressive-minded organizations. When this idealistic feminist became enraged at finding a copy of The Slim Shady LP in my CD collection, I attempted to defend Marshall Mathers by saying, "No, he's a hyperreal character using fictitious scenarios of violence and misogyny as a comedic lens that ultimately illuminates our own societal insecurities." (I was 21 and up my own ass with language.)
Her response to my babbling perfectly illustrates what is so dangerous about standup comedy: "Well, I don't think the people who buy his albums see it that way."
Rape jokes are ultimately funny because of their absurdity. Just as things that are said between sexual partners in the bedroom are "naughty" or "wrong," thereby making them all the more arousing (and unrepeatable in any other context), comedians visit the darkest recesses of their imagination and then unload those thoughts upon an audience, and we all laugh at what the bizarre weirdo on stage just said. And the initial attempt at repressing the laughter -- because it's "wrong" to laugh at the mentally ill, minorities or victims of sexual assault -- turns us into giggling children, trying not to laugh when Dad is yelling at us.
The problem comes when, as Lindy West and my bisexual ex-girlfriend point out, a handful of knuckle-dragging losers in the audience don't understand the theater of standup comedy. It's probably true that a very small minority of comedy fans hear Daniel Tosh or Anthony Jeselnik make light of sexual assault and think it excuses the behavior, just as some teenage boys listened to Eminem and felt they were justified in beating up gay people.
The ethics of this dilemma is seen in the double standard comedians have about their craft. As Lindy West points out in Totally Biased, "You don't get to say that comedy is this vital, sacred thing that we have to protect because it's speaking truth to power, and then also say, 'Well, it's just a joke.'"
I'm not saying all comics should begin explaining the context of their jokes; that would be like a musician explaining the emotion of their songs before they play them. In the end, this is just another slice of the age-old American political debate of individualism vs. collectivism. Dangerous art cannot be explained lest it stop being dangerous (and therefore stop being worthwhile), and at the same time, in that context-free environment, you run the risk of starstruck literalists acting out the horrible things that the art describes. Rape jokes will remain funny as long as rape remains a terrible thing to do -- and rape jokes will remain dangerous as long as dangerous people enjoy standup comedy. Both Norton and West are correct -- and their correctness is pretty much useless, because nothing can be done to fix the problem.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.