Due to a combination of a heckler at a Daniel Tosh gig back in July, and insensitive, moronic comments by politically opportunistic idiots like Todd Akin and George Galloway, my Twitter timeline (and the wider media) has been absolutely jam-packed with discussion about rape jokes, and “rape culture,” for a good six weeks now. Which is fine, obviously – it’s always beneficial to discuss things, although Twitter is seldom the most appropriate place to do so. And that, too, kind of works out – people will try to mash complex thoughts and arguments into 140 characters, fail, offend someone, and then have to go away and write a blog or tumblr to clarify what they originally meant.
I personally found all the discussion highly valuable and thought-provoking. I was originally in the ‘no topic is off limits for comedy, it’s all in how you approach it’ camp, and I’d say I still reside there now. With caveats. What I came to realise, eventually, was that rape jokes are generally written by men, for men, told by men, and subsequently apologised for by men. Generally. I’m aware of women who tell them, and women who laugh at them, but when it comes to contextualising and defending them, you’ll tend to find it’s mostly men, I think. What was brought home to me was the difficulty I had in really, completely empathising with the effect of these jokes on a visceral level – and that was a powerful thing to learn. I resolved to spend less time vocally defending rape jokes, particularly to women, given that there’s a 1 in 4 chance they might have been the victim of such an assault. 1 in 4! You know how you sometimes feel all hard done by, fella’s, when a woman speeds up and keeps looking over her shoulder, just because you’re walking on the same side of the road? 1 in 4!
Frankly, I’ve always found rape jokes to be a fairly boring way to be shocking and provocative, anyway. Just too predictable. They’re not really the focus of this blog, though, no – this is a guide. A guide on how to be properly and conscientiously offended!
Here’s what I’ve noticed about a lot of people who get outraged at comedy shows: they give highly emotive, biased accounts of the gig they’re at. They care nothing of context. They can’t quote any of the jokes – some of them will absolutely refuse to do so in case it risks “triggering” victims, but this is why we have “trigger warnings” and spoiler tags. They will usually appear highly sympathetic because they’ve perhaps heckled the comedian – the big man on stage with the mic – came off worse, naturally, and then meekly shuffled out of the venue to sad Snoopy music, while the rest of the audience merrily laughs at this unelected spokesperson who just tried to ruin their evening’s entertainment. It’s hard not to side with them, especially when we’re told of all these awful, transgressive subjects being joked about (incidentally, when did we stop using laughter as a way of coping with the worst parts of life, and instead see it as something that apparently cannot co-exist with empathy? Is it fine to use something like rape for dramatic purposes, or is that off limits too? I’m unclear as to how it seems that laughing at a topic can now so easily be considered one of the worst emotional responses possible, particularly when we tolerate exploitation of societal problems under the guise of giving a shit, e.g. The Jeremy Kyle Show.)
I really don’t blame people for being offended by things, truly I don’t, and as I said, the resultant debate is always valuable, even if it’s still depressing that comedy doesn’t really get taken seriously by the media unless they can crowbar in their tiresome old “but should we laugh at these things?” questions. I just wish that people would be a little bit more… meticulous when it comes to documenting the nature of their offence.
That sounds ridiculous, right? How is someone going to take notes when they’re outraged, shocked, horrified…? Well, having read a lot of these blogs, and seen a lot of the associated Twitter accounts, I can tell you that people don’t tend to just get up and walk out. A lot of the time they’ll reach for their phone, and start tweeting about how offended they are by the whole scene. All I’m asking is that people go a little further than that, and document the actual jokes! You can easily flip to the in-built Voice Recorder app, and record the rest of the set – for your own use later – to make sure your blog is accurate and fair. Which is what you want it to be, right? You could tweet some of the actual jokes, or save them as drafts if you’re worried about “triggering”, as mentioned before. People pause over hot food to take and share pictures of the next thing to enter their open mouths, so please, try to also accurately capture some of what has outraged you so much. Just be discrete about it.
Why is it important? When Lenny Bruce started getting arrested in the early 60′s, the harassment he suffered was provoked by his mocking of religion, rather than because his material was “obscene” – obscenity was simply the way in which he could be demonised, silenced, and eventually hounded out of making a living. The pursuit of Bruce was, as he put it himself, a comedy of errors. Policemen (peace officers, as Bruce always sarcastically and dismissively referred to them) would be sent into his shows, where they would either take notes, or record audio on fairly primitive mini-reel wire recorders. These recordings were of terrible acoustic quality, and when they were rerecorded to tape and then transcribed, there was, inevitably, an abundance of errors made, leading to something more akin to a faulty translation, rather than an accurate document of the set. This led to a situation where people who weren’t exactly rooting for Bruce to begin with, ended up picking out the most offensive phrases, inventing some new ones where the recording was unclear, and then sending someone not trained in comedy to perform this utterly bastardised routine to the Grand Jury. “…and the irony is I have to go to court and defend his act!”
Something akin to that is happening again now, on the internet, but without even giving this new breed of ‘sick comics’ the courtesy of trying to replicate the problematic material, so they can be judged by their own words. I think we can do better than that, particularly as each of us now carry around high-quality recording devices in our pockets. Please, please don’t get me wrong – don’t think I’m unsympathetic to people being offended, I’m not. I just hope for some accuracy. If you want to present your offence, try to document it – try to do it fairly, try to give us some context. Far too many of these blogs I’ve mentioned are full of (righteous) fury and anger, which then spreads to the commenters, but, as I say, the bloggers rarely ever get round to detailing any of the actual jokes. And jokes are precious, fragile little things anyway – so much can rest upon a single word, a phrasing of a word, a pause. They’re meticulously constructed to confound expectations and, respectfully, an outraged gig patron whose attention may be simultaneously occupied with documenting their anger for their followers on Twitter just isn’t the best source of evidence.
If we have the facts, we can then have a more constructive and fair debate – one that focuses on the intricacies of the way each subject is dealt with, rather than just whether or not it should be at all. And that’s all I’m arguing for: a healthier, more informed debate.