Hello. So this week just gone, US comedian Daniel Tosh was embroiled in controversy over some happenings at a gig at the Laugh Factory in LA. Here’s a (basic) news story about it and here’s the initial blog post from the audience member in question.
On Friday, I tweeted a link to that initial blog post, writing that I thought it gave a “horrifying insight into the offense-taking mindset”.
I then engaged in a series of back-and-forth tweets with a range of different people – some of them my friends, some of them stranger twitter friendsies – about the importance of context in which the jokes in question were made, the nature of joking about dark subjects, etc (all still up on my twitter feed if you’re interested).
I was humbled and enlightened and have written the below response. I hope this will also serve to clarify my position and thoughts on this whole whacky fiasco for everyone else that expressed concern at my comments, too.
Firstly, I want to sincerely thank you for writing me this incredibly personal, brave and enlightening letter. I appreciate you taking the time to do so; I’m sure it could not have been easy.
Thank you, also, for listening to my radio show and saying nice things about my comedy. I’m honoured to have you onboard the Ballard Express and I hope that you won’t be leaping off at the next station because of the events of the past couple of days. Just like you, I really want to make my thoughts and feelings clear here, because it’s extremely important to me that you and others don’t think of me as callous or heartless or ignorant or a bad person, because I don’t believe I am any of those things.
(Except, perhaps, the ignorant bit, a little, as I must say I’ve received a damn good education over the past couple of days)
Erin – I abhor rape. I condemn it wholeheartedly. It saddens me that we live in a world where it is a reality. Any form of sexual assault is never the victim’s fault; I’ll take to task anyone who says it is. In 2009 I was involved in the No Means No Show (the brainchild of exceedingly brilliant Melbourne comic Nelly Thomas); a comedy theatre show aimed at high school-age boys, exploring issues surrounding sex and consent. I learnt a lot during that process and was proud to be using my comedy to educate and engage young men, encouraging them to think about how they relate to the opposite sex and their responsibilities as sexually active adults.
I do not think rape is funny. I understand that rape is underreported, women are victims of rape far more frequently than men and our legal system and society at large has a history of insidious victim-blaming. I acknowledge rape culture. I would not sincerely wish rape upon anyone. I love the women in my life – my mother, my cousins, some of my best friends – and I have feared for their safety from time to time, knowing what we know about sexual assault in today’s world.
The actual, serious reality of rape is certainly no joke.
I regret posting my initial tweet on this topic. Its wording implied that I thought the blogger in question had no right to be offended and that she was being silly and was overreacting to Tosh’s onstage comments.
I do not believe that and I sincerely apologize for insinuating that with my lazy writing.
Of course that audience member had a right to be offended by Tosh’s material. Anyone has a right to be offended by anything. That’s important.
The interesting area of conversation for me, as a comedian who has performed jokes involving the words “rape”, “AIDS”, “ANZACs”, “faggot”, “cunt”, “cancer”, “nigger”, “cot death” and many more besides, is the legitimacy of the actions of the offendee and the legitimacy of those who were not at the comedy gig at the time, in the room, unable to appreciate the full context of the show, to pass judgment on exactly what happened.
Now I wish to be clear here: I am not necessarily defending Daniel Tosh’s material, or what he said, or the way he said it, or how he has since reacted to the controversy. I am not saying that a joke involving the word or idea of rape can never be not funny. I am not saying that an audience member is wrong in walking out on a comedy show if they are offended (or, to be honest, simply bored or disappointed or tired).
I guess I just wanted to suggest that, based on my knowledge and experience of performing stand up comedy, occasionally doing dark material and pushing an audience’s buttons and regularly having to deal with hecklers and distractions in a comedy room, I believe the situation could be more complicated, more nuanced, than was being suggested by many commentators.
I certainly know that if you read a straight, black-and-white transcript of some of my dealings with hecklers over the years, you would probably not think I am a very good person. The other week, during an exchange with a drunken chatty father at a gig, I told him that I wished his entire family were killed in a horrific accident in which a forklift ploughed through their home, skewering the entire clan mercilessly.
On paper? I’m a monster.
In the context of the gig? I guarantee you, everyone in the room was laughing, because of the way I said it and the timing and what had gone before and what the man had said and the nature and spirit of the night. Furthermore, I think no reasonable person could legitimately believe that those comments were at all reflective of my actual thoughts on the horrific crime that is cold-blooded murder, or on actual cases of families being killed in such an abhorrent fashion.
The context of a stand-up comedy gig is a very very very complex and unique thing. To be honest, I am often quite surprised that it exists and people respect it. I’m not saying it doesn’t have its limits, but the understanding between a comic and an audience about what jokes are and what they are for is the foundation of almost every routine ever.
One of my favourite comedians in the world is Patton Oswalt, and I think he has some wise words to say about the issue here (in the second video). Another comedian, Doug Stanhope, an infamously stubborn defender of free speech in all circumstances and a comic who certainly gets stuck into any and all subjects, commented (a tad more bluntly) thusly:
(Certainly don’t agree with everything here)
Something that’s been bugging me about reading this larger conversation is the term “rape joke”. I find it unhelpful, because I actually have difficulty defining what a “rape joke” is. I find a statement like “rape jokes are never funny” almost impossible to argue with and when I read something like “Tom Ballard defends rape jokes”, I find it unnecessarily inflammatory and misrepresentative. What is a “rape joke”? Is it a joke that merely involves the word “rape”? Or where the notion of rape is in the set up or the punchline? I don’t set out to write “rape jokes” or “race jokes” or “disability jokes” or “cunt jokes”; I just write jokes and, when performed in front of an audience, they individually live and die on their own merits.
As you mentioned in your letter, comedy holds up a mirror to the world, and as rape is a thing in the world, it is on the table for comedians to talk about. Lindy West has done a brilliantly thought-provoking piece on this kind of thing for Jezabel (thanks to everyone who sent me this link), and Curtis Luciani makes the very valid point in this great response that the darker and more potentially hurtful the subject, the more sophisticated the response has to be (again, thanks for this one, everyone). This is an interesting piece on Scoop by Anne Russell, too: “Comedy is lazy when it kicks people who are already down”.
I love this joke by Sarah Silverman:
I was a raped by a doctor…which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.
I think that’s a dark, dark surprise, summoning up a range of so-wrong-it’s-funny emotions. The audience knows that Silverman doesn’t endorse anti-Semitism or sexism or the trivialization of rape; here there is an element of it’s funny because this awful dark horrific thing that should never be actually, genuinely thought is being said out loud for the sake of humour.
And here she is, on the very same night as Tosh’s gig at the Laugh Factory, discussing the very concept of “rape jokes”, somehow making rape jokes and making a point about the under-reporting of rape:
Another example comes from my good friend Rhys Nicholson, who tells a story onstage of a time when he was booked to perform comedy at what transpired to be a lesbian poetry night. He was to follow a woman who read a poem that she’d written about how, tragically, she was once raped.
Rhys’ subsequent flippancy towards the notion of rape and the victim is a commentary on the inappropriateness of the gig and the extremely awkward situation he found himself in; it’s not bred out of a callousness towards the very serious issue.
Here’s an example of a Tosh joke that references rape (that I don’t particularly like, for comedic reasons):
Does this joke trivializes rape? Does it genuinely reflect how Daniel Tosh feels about this awful atrocity that exists in our world? Or is it a cartoonish depiction of a never-world, that provides such a contrast to everything we know and generally accept about rape and sexual assault and how it should be treated that the audience is shocked into laughing?
(NB: Here “we” is very tricky to define. Clearly, there are Neanderthals in the world who don’t think rape is such a big deal and who laugh in its face and who dismiss it. I hate those people. I do not write jokes with them in mind. I can’t because I don’t know how their brains work. I think there is an assumed public morality that says that rape is undeniably bad. To the average comedy-goer, condoning rape is the exception, not the rule, I think.)
This routine doesn’t make me laugh. But I am, quite genuinely, not much of a Tosh fan. Give me Oswalt or Silverman or Daniel Kitson or Louis CK or Bill Burr any day, because they do interesting things with this stuff. But I can still see (vaguely) where Tosh comes/lumbers from.
Some of my critics on twitter suggested the blogger was “threatened with gang rape”. I find it difficult to agree here. From the evidence we have (which, again, I think is very difficult to determine as reliable and fully enlightening), I think it’s a pretty extraordinary claim that Tosh would literally find it literally funny if the audience member was literally raped by five men, right there and then in the comedy club.
A possible kind of general defence to Tosh’s retort – not one I swear by or necessarily advocate, I just want this out there – is that it came in the context of a back and forth between two people about whether “rape jokes” are ever/always funny. Tosh does a “rape joke”. Tosh (presumably) jokes that “rapes jokes” are always funny. Audience member is offended. Audience member heckles by yelling out that “rapes jokes” are never funny. An immediate, instinctive response is to come back with a graphic, personal “rape joke”. A horrible, immature thing to say to someone criticizing your right to say horrible, immature things in a comedic context.
Again – I don’t endorse what Tosh spat forth. I just think there’s something to be said for the idea that at the forefront of Tosh’s mind was the issue of dealing with a heckler, not a brewing agenda to mock the victims of rape. If his comment had come apropos of nothing, that would completely alter the scenario. But it didn’t, and various reports of the incident, to me, didn’t seem to accurately depict that.
I was also surprised by this sentence in the audience member’s blog post:
I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.
Comedian Stewart Lee tells a story of an audience member coming up to him after a show in which he performed material about the hysteria surrounding Princess Diana’s death. Many people had been offended by the idea of incorporating such a grim topic into a comedy routine, but it turns out that this woman was in tears because her late husband’s memorial fountain had been renamed after Diana following her death.
Lee says this proves it’s nigh on impossible to predict what is going to offend an audience member, what with the complex diversity of human experience. Perhaps the blogger in question sat through a number of Tosh’s other jokes about topics such as cancer or AIDS or race or sexuality and said nothing and took them at face value. Perhaps not, I don’t know, but I think that’s an important part of the conversation.
There’s some very interesting comments on Patton Oswalt’s Facebook page on the issue, including some posts by victims of rape who seemed to defend the notion of jokes that reference rape, too.
Some twitterers suggested that in some circumstances (such as the Tosh case), heckling is justified. I don’t know about that. I have never heckled a comedian. I have walked out on heaps because I was offended by what they were saying or bored or disinterested in their stuff and considered staying in the room whilst they performed a waste of my time. I have never seen an aggressive heckle positively change a gig or seem to change anyone’s mind about things. A walk out is, in my opinion, significantly more powerful than trying to take a comedian to task at their own game.
(Heckling offensive jokes is, perhaps, like trying to have a sophisticated and nuanced conversation about the nature of comedy and offense and rape via twitter.)
HAVING SAID ALL THIS: Erin – please, I want you to know that a lot of my reading over the past couple of days has better informed and changed my perspective on this issue. Your heart wrenching personal story, this heart wrenching personal story, the statistics and the commentary I’ve come across have all made me take stock. I’ve come to better appreciate the importance of words and the responsibilities that come with the comedic license I am lucky enough to occasionally wield. You’re right; the topics comedians cover do have real-world consequences that affect real people, and we are obliged to consider them and how our routines could affect them before we write or perform any joke at all.
Thank you very much for this lesson.
I believe there is much value to be found and important things to be learned on both sides of this debate, and my hope is that the best thing to come out of all this is education and honest conversation. I hope you have found something of an answer to your post in the above. It is, I think, if not a definitive, cohesive argument, then perhaps some wide-ranging food for thought.
Thank you again for taking the time. I would love to think that you’ll be tuning in to my and Alex’s silliness tomorrow morning on the wireless as per usual.
Much love and peace to you too,
If you need help in regards to cases of sexual assault or domestic violence, please call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic & Family Violence Counselling Line