The Issue of 'Rape Jokes' in Stand-Up Comedy

I am working towards my Gold Arts Award and simultaneously writing a stand-up comedy show. I also wrote my university dissertation on women in stand up comedy and have been trying to figure out why I like comedy so much. For my Gold Arts Award public debate on an arts issue I have explored and taken a stance on the issue of 'rape jokes' in comedy.

The Issue of 'Rape Jokes' in Stand-Up Comedy

One of the most recurring themes that has come up in my conversations has been the issue of ethics and humor. Comedy, and especially shock humor, gallows humor, and dark, dry, ironic humor blurs the line between appropriate and inappropriate content.

So, can a 'rape joke' be ethical?

I say 'yes'. AND ALSO, I'm very interested in any counter-arguments.

Here's my reasoning:

First of all, why am I spending my time trying to defend rape jokes?

A 'rape joke' is a fairly unpropitious designation for any joke that incorporates rape as subject or theme.

It is not inherently a joke that will make rape its punch line.

Every joke has a victim. For something to be 'laughable' it must be so absurd and irrational that it causes laughter.

It might seem like laughing at a joke that features the word 'rape' automatically implies laughing at rape. However, I disagree with this and I consider it to be a dangerous point of view.

First of all, I think comedy and humor is critical for understanding and maintaining healthy and rational thought. And that any censorship of comedy should exhibit careful consideration and justification, as opposed to sweeping generalizations that oppose a bunch of jokes without considering them individually.

Second of all, I think that rape is a massive cultural issue that is not discussed enough. Comedy that includes rape as a theme can provide an outlet in which rape can be discussed. Perhaps a crude outlet, but an outlet nonetheless and I think that is an improvement from silence.

Rape jokes are classified as 'dark humor' (or humor that makes light of serious, disturbing and/or taboo subject matter). I find the idea of 'making light' of rape, beautiful in a distorted way. Because 'making light' of an enemy, such death, sickness, depression, racism, the Holocaust, a rapist, is cathartic and every comedian does it. Obviously 'making light' of rape victims, is not beautiful because victims are not enemies. However, making light of the way society deals with rape is actually a powerful way of calling us out for being too passive and is a beneficial act in my opinion.

I will use Louis CK's 'rape joke' to exemplify this: "You should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason. Like you want to fuck someone, and they won't let you. In which case what other option do you have. How else are you supposed to have an orgasm in their body if you don't rape them. Like what the fuck? Ah, ok. That's fucked up."

What I find fascinating about this joke is that Louis CK merely paraphrases the definition of rape and structures it as an excuse. What is brilliant about this concept is that the audience can recognize it as an excuse that a rapist might actually use. Louis CK is calling rapists out, not rape victims. And he's calling them out for playing innocent in a situation in which they are entirely guilty. And also, calling society out for letting them.

I do think that some 'rape jokes' are bad jokes. Not necessarily unethical, but definitely not funny. For example, Tosh.0's rape joke: "My sister has a sick sense of humor, it's off the charts. I play practical jokes on her constantly though. I got her so good a few weeks ago. I replaced her pepper spray with silly string…anyway, that night she got raped. And she called me the next day going, you son of a bitch. You got me so good. As soon as I started spraying him in the face I'm like Daniel! This is gonna really hurt."

Tosh.0 is playing off of the incongruence of rape and informality. Which is similar to Louis CK but also different. In Louis CK's example there is a level of distance that seems more abstract and surreal than Tosh.0's more close to home wording 'my sister got raped'. Perhaps his joke is lacking some level of exaggeration or cultural criticism that I can see more clearly in Louis CK's joke. I don't know how humor works, I just know Louis CK's joke is better.

My point is that I don't think the word 'rape' itself ruins a joke. I think a joke's structure can ruin itself if it doesn't work properly. And because an audience can choose whether to laugh or not, comedians should be careful not to alienate. However, audiences should also be careful not to judge a joke by its vocabulary. I would urge audiences to consider who the joke's victim actually is. Which, in the case of many 'rape jokes' can be cultural irresponsibility surrounding rape and not rape itself.

I've attached a link to 2 minutes of 'rape jokes' by Sarah Silverman, which I consider to be funny and ethical comedy, albeit dark.

Counterargument 1: "Every joke has a victim. For something to be 'laughable' it must be so absurd and irrational that it causes laughter."

Perhaps there's a difference between 'rape jokes' and 'jokes about rape'. In terms of the cathartic, Silverman is approaching the situation looking as rape = bad and in this context we're laughing at the surreally realistic context of rape victims being 'traditionally non-complainers' and the rape victim apologising. So the absurd and the irrational causes the humour in Silverman's example.
So what I think we have is a different between a comedian onstage discussing rape culture in a jokey way, and a rape joke which bluntly ignores a context.

Most people would agree that the holocaust was bad. But jokes about the holocaust don't legitimise a holocaust. Everyone agrees murder is bad, but no one went out and killed someone because it was a joke, in the same way no one killed anyone because a single metal or rap song existed. But a culture of violence against women does exist, it's invisible, it's acceptable and it's defended. When I went on a Reclaim The Night march one bloke chanted "more booze more rape" at us. And whereas murder laws exist, it's much greyer when it comes to rape and coming forward.

So, yes, comedians are allowed to make humour about the context and concept of rape, but if it's not handled with a perspective and acknowledged of rape culture then it's beyond problematic into the realms of oppressive.

My Response: I agree that most people think the holocaust is bad. And most people believe racism is bad. But nonetheless people make racist jokes. Geared toward Jews, Travellers, Muslims, and every 'other' group out there. There are still anti-Semitic groups actively trying to wipe out Jewish culture. And that's an issue playing into the crisis/crises in Israel and Palestine today. It's a cultural issue as well. Murder is illegal in certain contexts, but it's become acceptable in other contexts, and that is an issue being dealt with today with police violence in the United States and BlackLivesMatter, with hate crimes against the LGBTQ community that have not been chastised or addressed by political leaders, and using war as an excuse to justify killing civilians. These are all issues that exist although perhaps not as much in popular culture as rape does, they are still ethical grey areas, like you say rape is an ethical grey area, which is problematic. I think that people are afraid to say the word 'rape' because it sounds like such a big accusation against someone. I think the word 'rape' has developed a kind of foreignness and unspoken-ness. The thing about that guy who said 'more booze more rape' is that his comment points out the problem. He is saying what he is thinking. And what culture has been implying for a long time in a less straight-forward manner. Although his comment is disturbing, it also acts as a kind of proof that there is an issue. And I would rather him say it out loud and virtually warn people that he's a sociopath than him pretend there's nothing to be afraid of while he has those thoughts in his head. The thing about rape jokes is that as problematic as they are, they speak to something lying beneath the surface and cause tension. Which is an opportunity to create backlash. It's more difficult to fight against something that is not being spoken aloud than something that is literally being said. So, yes I would rather hear rape jokes geared toward the concept of rape. But I also think jokes geared at rape can call attention to what is going on. Almost in a confessional manner. Not what is going on physically, but what is going on mentally in our culture.

Counterargument 2: Ok, firstly I think the poem "rape joke" by Patricia Lockwood is pertinent to this discussion: https://theawl.com/patricia-lockwood-rape-joke...

I think Lockwood goes a way to addressing how there is an innate unsurdity to the situations surrounding rape, the bizzare normalcy with with it it treated, assimilated. She seems meanwhile to point out how rape jokes can be harrowing for survivors and not funny, but also that they can be a means for a survivor of rape to vocalise their horror to others. One implication seems to be that only those who have experienced sexual violence have the right to joke about it. I think this is a credible perspective, but honestly goes against my view of comedy and art since I feel artists/comedians to some extent have a duty to address the brokenness of societies/cultures and this includes addressing disturbing subject matters. I think the necessity to avoid complicity with rape-culture and I dislike most rape-jokes/rape-humour because they seem to use it simply for a shock factor and consciously or not align their outlooks with that of rapists rather than those affected by rape. But ultimately I think it is possible/credible to perform humour on the subject of rape under certain circumstances.


My Response: I agree that rape is used for shock value. And that for certain comedians to broach the topic of rape is a poor comic decision, because it makes them come across as intimidating, or ignorant, or very odd, if they are not typically a shock comedian and they become one out of the blue. In these instances I couldn't foresee the comedian getting a positive reaction from their audience. Laughter comes from the release of tension. Therefore, the punch line should be reassuring in a sense. Not terrifying. That would be more likely to elicit jeers than laughter. Shock humor is a style of comedy. And people do respond to it. It's a similar kind of buzz to watching a horror film, or a mystery, or a thriller. These are all art forms that have incorporated rape into their storylines and imagery. I agree that there are bad rape jokes and I agree that there are offensive rape jokes. But there are bad songs, offensive songs, bad films, and offensive films. But I would argue that it's not about the subject matter, it's about the artist. And in the case of comedians especially, audiences have comedians they like and comedians they don't like. As well as sub genres and styles of comedy they prefer over others. However, while people who don't like horror films simply don't watch horror films, there is a trend with regard to comedy that people who subjectively dislike a comic style attempt to objectively discredit its value. Instead of appreciating it as someone else's cup of tea. Rape is a touchy topic because it involves victims and assailants. However, comedy that defends the assailants should simply not be received as well as comedy that defends the victims. Comedy comes from human experience and we laugh because we recognize something as true. And if we truly are recognizing 'rape is fine' as the truth, then I don't think that's an issue with comedy. I think that's an issue with society. And if that issue does exist, comedy has the potential to bring it to light. I would argue that comedy does not come from any place that is not there already.

I have already posted my argument on Facebook and received some interesting counter arguments. I will include that conversation below. I would love to receive any additional comments/concerns/questions on this issue from the Arts Award Voice community.

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2 Comments

  • Bhavesh Jadva

    On 3 August 2016, 16:13 Bhavesh Jadva Voice Team commented:

    Wow! What a topic to tackle! It was incredibly refreshing to see what can and cannot be said in good taste broken down. Though it shouldn't have to be, it's incredibly useful to have been. When satire and irony come into it, it can become too difficult to handle because people's radars are much more sensitive when it comes to rape and even moreso when it comes to satire.

    It is incredibly uncomfortable to hear about in comedy. But then, if you have the tact that Silverman has, then you can use it to make it a constructive conversation. It shouldn't be ignored as a theme but, at the same time, might the proliferation of its address within comedy dilute or warp the heinousness of the crime?

  • Edmon Dpogi

    On 5 September 2017, 05:09 Edmon Dpogi commented:

    my two cents on this...

    watch Dave Chappelle's stand up performance regarding rape...

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDdCi5PLln8

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