Yes, this is about the Daniel Tosh rape joke. But now that Todd Akin accidentally highlighting the GOP’s redefinition of rape, the obvious important question about our world is: Can we make rape jokes yet? Miles Lothe, known jokist, explains.
Often the funny is the unexpected. Louis C.K. makes us laugh with his surprising honesty; we’ve all had the thought that four year-olds are fucking idiots, but we didn’t expect anyone to say it, and now that someone has, we rather enjoy it. We laugh at slapstick because in order to function from day-to-day, we form the entirely reasonable expectation that people know how to fucking walk, for chrissake. When a grown-ass man kicks a crack in the sidewalk and goes tumbling forward, that shit is hilarious. And so on. As creatures of habit, our expectations and norms come in all sorts of forms about all kinds of topics that can be toyed with or reversed in myriad ways, which is why so much can be funny.
What counts as an expectation is subtle and depends on plenty of factors, but since norms and expectations vary so widely among individuals and even groups of individuals, humor is largely subjective, a matter of personal preference. The difference between ‘funny to me’ (how the word ‘duty’ sounds like ‘doody’ every single time I say it) and just ‘funny’ (Steve Martin, for example) is mostly a function of overlapping preferences and shared expectations; there will always be sticks in the mud who insist that a dog on a telephone isn’t funny, but enough of us agree that they’re wrong to say it’s objectively hilarious.
The problem with joking about the subject of rape is that rape jokes aren’t funny for different reasons than, say, Dane Cook isn’t funny. Dane Cook would be funny if people liked long, animated stories with idiotic and mundane details in all the wrong places, but almost no one does as a matter of taste. On the other hand, rape jokes would be funny if we expected that no one actually thinks rape is ever okay. Unfortunately, as demonstrated this week, lots of people believe genuinely crazy, rapey shit, and it would be irresponsible to expect or pretend otherwise. In this case, our expectations aren’t simply a matter of personal preference or individual quirk; they are informed by startling, unconscionable realities. If you want the joke to be, “What if this thing happened?” your audience has to agree that “yes, that thing is unexpected and not something I usually need to worry about;” if you want the joke to be, “I think this thing is totally okay,” your audience has to agree that “yes, we all know that thing ISN’T okay, which is why it’s ludicrous to even suggest it. You may proceed, funny man.” With respect to rape, we just don’t have grounds to assume those things.
That doesn’t mean that rape can’t be funny. Horrible shit can be all kinds of funny. You know what was funny? When that dude got his face fucking eaten off. I know, it was terrible, but it’s kind of funny. It’s like, “This dude was just eating another dude’s face? I have so many questions!” No one expects that, and no one has grounds to expect that. Maybe you didn’t find that funny, which is fine. But I did! I laughed a little, and no one took that to mean that I endorse face-eating, because no one endorses that. We don’t have a systemic face-eating problem, or a systemic problem of blaming those whose faces were eaten for “acting delicious.”
Horrible shit can be funny when the context is so far away from the real world it plays with completely different expectations. Lots of people found Penny Arcade’s suggestion of a wolf made of phalluses and the idea of being raped to sleep far enough from reality that no one could reasonably take it as an endorsement of actual rape; it’s like, “Rape can’t possibly be used like a lullaby, can it? And surely, it would be impractical to have dicks on your feet.” (Still, there were dissenters.) Importantly, we have much better grounds to believe something like “no one thinks rape is a good sleep aid” than we have to believe “no one thinks rape is okay.” The latter is definitely false; the former seems at least plausible. George Carlin asks that we envision Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd, assuming that no one in his audience actually endorses rape of a harmless, clumsy hunter in a children’s cartoon by an aggravated, previously harmless pig who also is a cartoon with no genitals. He might have grounds for such an assumption, even.
However, when Daniel Tosh suggests offhandedly that it would be funny if someone were raped right in front of everyone, he at best implicitly depends on the expectation that no one in his audience would approve of a rape happening right here, right now. (At worst, he is actually relying on the threat to produce silence. Either way, it doesn’t fly.) Rape really gets used to assert power and enforce silence in really terrible ways. It is genuinely tragic that we can’t all agree that no one in that audience would secretly approve or anything like that, that we can’t just take that for granted, but that just isn’t an assumption you can make about any large enough group of people, to say nothing of Daniel Tosh fans.
We’d really like that, wouldn’t we? We really should be able to take for granted that no one approves of rape, that everyone is on the same page. Rape can be funny in a black comedy sort of way (the Tim Burton kind, not the Tyler Perry kind) when your odds of getting raped are as good as getting your face eaten off in the streets, when everyone is shocked because they just assumed, and rightly so, that this kind of thing never happens anymore. The day when a single rape would be a national headline because of how awful it is and also because of the sheer novelty of it, that is a much brighter day than today.
Until that day, however, we’re left to wonder why your joke is supposed to be funny. Do you really believe that rape is awful and wrong, or is this joke supposed to be funny for some other, entirely wrong-headed reason? Is it supposed to be funny because you think you’re being brave and saying what no one will say? Is it supposed to be funny because you think rape gets made into a bigger deal than it really is? If no one laughs at your joke, it’s because they’re not sure what expectations or norms you’re trying to overturn, and the consequences of overturning the wrong ones are horrific and tragic. Sorry, but this matters too much; on this topic you don’t get the benefit of the doubt. The benefit of the doubt has gone the wrong way for too long. We can’t afford to assume you happen to have the right attitude toward rape, not when that assumption has led to so much silence and hurt and perpetuated such terrible norms about rape.
So maybe it’s true that there isn’t anything that can’t be funny, but we don’t realize how high the price really is. We don’t get to just insist that something is now on the table. If you think jokes about rape should be funny, if you want to be able to laugh at that sort of thing, you should be doing everything in your power to convince the entire world that rape is unquestionably, uncontroversially, obviously and incredibly not acceptable, to undo centuries of the confusion and shame that allowed precisely the wrong social norms and expectations to rule for so long. If that’s too much work just so you can make your stupid rape joke, if you don’t want to make the world a better place with your comedy, then shut up and fuck you anyways.
Photo by AP