07.11.12

Why Daniel Tosh’s ‘Rape Joke’ at the Laugh Factory Wasn’t Funny

Rape jokes aren’t always terrible. But when comedian Daniel Tosh laughed about a female audience member being gang-raped, he used humor to humiliate the woman—and assert his power, says Elissa Bassist.

I edit a humor column called Funny Women on TheRumpus.net, and during my first and last radio interview about “funny women,” the host asked me if I thought rape jokes were funny. She said, “Rape jokes are never funny.” I said I thought anything could be funny. I went a step beyond and said jokes about tragedy could take on a fierce power. They could be cathartic and empowering, they could help you reclaim control when you’ve lost something you’ll never get back or have been damaged beyond repair.

Video screenshot

Daniel Tosh's Laugh Factory rape joke isn't his first. Watch another that might make you cringe.

On Friday night, during his set at the Laugh Factory, the hugely popular Comedy Central host Daniel Tosh made a rape joke, stripping the experience of its weight, of its tragedy, of its crime: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl [referring to an audience member who “heckled” him about rape jokes not being funny earlier in his set] got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”

A friend of “that girl” wrote about the exchange on her Tumblr, and bless her for doing so. We must mark these verbal assaults to manage them. Tosh’s poorly capitalized retort, via Twitter: “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.”

There are awful things in the world, and you can still make jokes about them. I have a rape joke myself. When I wrote about my sexual assault for a nonfiction workshop in my MFA program, I called the piece “rape-portage,” as in “reportage” as pronounced by arrogant MFAers as “re-por-taj” or “re-pər-ˈtäzh,” if you want to get fancy. I’d laugh at my own joke, which I said aloud only to myself and a few close friends, feeling as if the worst thing that happened to me was something I could now own and talk about without feeling it was the worst thing that had happened to me. I used humor to distance myself from pain, while never forgetting the pain or diminishing or devaluing it.

But would it be funny if this girl got gang raped right this moment, like right now right now? That’s not a joke. It’s an invitation. It’s a celebration of a violent crime, which is itself another violation. It’s not a way to cope. It’s a “this is something we can do and then laugh about it, no big deal.” When you reiterate these half-truths (there are girls in the world getting raped by like five guys right now), they authenticate themselves, as if by magic. To promote the insidious—“rape is hilarious”—is to join the crime at its own filthy level.

Video screenshot

Tosh says he was joking. Comedians make rape jokes every day, so why is this one getting so much attention? Because Tosh was more than “just kidding.” He was angry. His “joke” was reactive to the so-called heckler who called him out in front of an audience. He used humor to cut her down, to remind her of own vulnerability, to emphasize who was in control. The “joke” ignited a backlash because it was not a joke; it was vastly different from other jokes about rape. The debate over Tosh shouldn’t be “are rape jokes funny?” That’s misdirection: his statement was a wildly inappropriate putdown, reminder, and threat that this woman could be gang-raped, like right now. There’s a distinction between making a joke to cope or to point out the absurdity of a situation and what Tosh did, consciously or not, which was to use humor to humiliate a woman who stood up for something she believed in. His “joke” was a tool to assert his power—the opposite of how my “rape-pər-ˈtäzh” joke was a tool to reclaim mine.