07.18.12

Louis C.K. on Daniel Tosh’s Rape Joke: Are Comedy and Feminism Enemies?

On The Daily Show, Louis C.K. said the controversy over Daniel Tosh’s rape joke boils down to ‘a fight between comedians and feminists, which are natural enemies.’ Media critic Jennifer L. Pozner talks to nine comedians about C.K., Tosh, and whether feminism and comedy are natural combatants.

Is comedy under attack by an army of pink-fatigued feminists?

You might think so if you watched Louis C.K. on The Daily Show Monday night, addressing criticism he has received for supportively tweeting Daniel Tosh, who was under fire for asking a comedy club audience “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now… like right now?” in response to a female heckler. C.K., the star of Louie on FX, explained that he sent the tweet while on vacation and hadn’t heard about the controversy over Tosh’s retort, which many interpreted as a tacit threat of gang rape. After news outlets, entertainment journalists, and bloggers reported on his tweet, he said, “I’ve been called a rape apologist because I said ‘Hi’ to a guy.”

C.K. told Jon Stewart the fierce debate that erupted online and in the press over Tosh’s comment was really just “a fight between comedians and feminists, which are natural enemies. Because stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke” and “comedians can’t take criticism.”

The hypersensitivity of comedians might help explain the many ugly tweets from comics telling Tosh that the heckler asked for it or, like Doug Stanhope, using hashtags like #FuckThatPig. But the idea that comedians and feminists are “natural enemies” is faulty logic, a cliché so tired, it’s beneath the usual creativity of C.K., recently called “The World’s Greatest Comedian” by Entertainment Weekly. (Besides, joke thieves who crib other comics’ material are the real enemies of comedy—them, or owners of brick-walled basement clubs who pay comedians only in beer.)

Video screenshot

Louis C.K. says he didn't mean to defend Tosh's rape joke.

Last week, in response to similar complaints about those Oh-So-Unfunny feminists, I collaborated on a video that clarified the difference between “rape jokes” that target victims and mock their pain, and “rape culture jokes” that dismantle the systems that protect rapists and blame women for sexual assault. “Rape Joke Supercut: I Can’t Believe You Clapped for That,” a 90-second video by remix artist Elisa Kreisinger in collaboration with Women in Media & News (the organization I direct), Women’s Media Center and Fem 2.0, uses clips from Wanda Sykes, Daniel Tosh, Louis C.K., and various other comedians to point out that humor works best when it exposes injustice, not perpetuates it:

Video screenshot

I’m a media critic, and in an amusing bit of comic timing, just seven hours before The Daily Show aired C.K.’s “natural enemies” quip I published an article debunking the “Feminists Versus Comedians” frame that media and comics have used to describe the Tosh controversy. Despite much proof to the contrary, I wrote, feminists are not claiming that “rape jokes are never funny.” Just as George Carlin proved they can be decades ago, so did feminist writers Kate Harding and Lindy West last week, with posts listing numerous comics who’ve gotten it right. (Incidentally, I also quoted this Louis sketch as a case study in how to eviscerate a heckler—without resorting to thinly veiled threats of violence.)

To his credit, C.K. said he learned a lot about the chilling effects of rape culture from his “natural enemies” this week. I’ve read some blogs during this whole thing that have made me enlightened to things I didn’t know. This woman said how rape is something that polices women’s lives. They have a narrow corridor. They can’t go out late, they can’t go to certain neighborhoods, they can’t get a certain way, because they might get—That’s part of me now that wasn’t before,” he told Stewart, “and I can still enjoy a good rape joke.”

Emphasis on “good.” Feminists aren’t against good comedy—they’re just against lazy hacks. As the late bawdy Texan journalist Molly Ivins, a feminist known for her wicked sense of humor, said, “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel—it’s vulgar.” Rape, like every other subject, can be the stuff of brilliant comedy; George Carlin proved as much in this master-class example.

A large and loud percentage of The Daily Show’s audience booed when C.K. said feminists can’t take a joke. A good sign, considering that young men typically fill the majority of seats in Jon Stewart’s studio. Another good sign? Many comedians have rejected the bro code and pushed back against resorting to bottom-feeder rape punchlines for cheap laughs.

Below, nine comedians, comedy writers, and humorists talk C.K., Tosh, and wage war against The Great Feminists V. Comedians Debate of 2012. Perhaps the pink fatigues are real after all. (Quotes have been shortened for space.)

Katie Halper, political comedian and blogger:

The debate could have been between feminists and comedians if the subject of debate were an actual joke. As a feminist who does satire and has a rape joke in my routine, I’m all for subversive and challenging humor, but not unfunny, clichéd, obvious, sexist statements dressed up as jokes. Saying feminists aren’t funny is like saying men aren’t funny. There are funny and unfunny feminists, and there are funny and unfunny men. Why don’t people ever reference funny feminists like Margaret Cho as evidence that feminists are funny? It’s much more convenient to dismiss all feminists as humorless because it protects comedians, and sexist non-comedians, from valid criticism.

Feminists aren’t against good comedy—they’re just against lazy hacks. Rape, like every other subject, can be the stuff of brilliant comedy, asGeorge Carlin proved.

Zahra Noorbakhsh, comedian and solo performer, All Atheists Are Muslim:

When I tell people I’m a comic, I get a lot of ‘Oh! Do you know Carlos Mencia?! He has this hilarious joke about gay guys and then when gay guys get mad he just says: Well if you can suck a dick then you can take a joke! Isn’t that funny?’ And it’s such a crazy coincidence ’cause I also suck dick and I just can’t take that joke. Weird?

Nato Green, comedian and writer for FX’s Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell:

I have not found feminists to have any less a sense of humor than members of any group who really cares about a thing, who don’t enjoy people making fun of their thing who obviously don’t understand or care about their thing. Try making fun of sports fans. Talk about no sense of humor. Also, of course standup is not antithetical to analysis. The world of standup is much like the world, with people that are and are not interested in nuance and analysis.

CeCe Lederer, comedian and former writer for The Colbert Report:

From all I know of C.K. and his work he seems to be a feminist himself. At least he doesn’t seem to think that women (his daughters and ex-wife included) are inherently inferior. So is he his own enemy? Can he himself not take a joke? And if he defines himself as not a feminist, then what is he? Surely he believes in universal human rights. It is a fucking tragedy that intelligent people like C.K. still don’t understand the definition of feminism as no more than someone who believes in equal rights for the sexes. Rape is a human problem, not a female problem. Would he tell his daughters not to believe in equality for the sake of their ability to take a joke? Like it or not, celebrities are role models and he just did a lot of work for the “women aren’t funny” camp whether he meant to or not.

W. Kamau Bell, host of FX’s Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell:

Right now we’re in a rape-comedy wave. There was a point at which comedy was all about ironic racism. There’s these waves of inappropriateness, and people get stuck. Like, ‘Oh, you’re saying ‘nigger’ but you’re using it ironically? Oh, um, haaa. Ha?’ But now rape is the new nigger, to put it bluntly. It’s like the ‘Nigger/Cunt/Hitler/Holocaust/Rape’ brand of comedy…comics who use the most painful things that happen in modern society, but mostly you’re just using the words without a larger point. I say this as a person who doesn’t want anything to be off limits in comedy—I just want it to be done well. Me and [Totally Biased staff writers Nato Green, Janine Brito, and Hari Kondabolu] love to transgress the comfort zones of the powerful. We’re trying to codify a new movement of comedy—we call it “The New Sincerity.” Comics who can stand behind the jokes we make. If you say you were offended, no problem. That’s what I meant, and if it offended you? Mission accomplished.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of Feministing, author of Outdated:

Louis C.K. loves feminists—he just has to—who else is going to laugh at his self-deprecating humor? Feminists love guys that have low self-esteem and are unsure of themselves—how else would we be able to control, manipulate, and emasculate them, and use them as soldiers in our plot to destroy patriarchy? Plus, he needs glasses to jerk off—that’s so hot.

Sara Benincasa, comedian and author:

Anyone who identifies as an ‘ist’ is going to be hypersensitive about some topics. Some feminists are narrow-minded, uptight, and unfamiliar with the concept of laughing at themselves. Louis C.K. hit on something wonderful later in the interview when he talked about how this whole discussion taught him about how the threat of rape feels so omnipresent for many women. This is a guy who regularly agonizes onstage about bringing up two daughters, and does so in a poignant and hilarious fashion. I think he wasn’t specific enough. Regular mainline feminists aren’t the problem. Radical feminists are enemies of comedians, because radicalism of any kind has no sense of humor about itself. Throwing Louis C.K. out in the cold with Daniel Tosh is like tossing a Ming vase out with the old Tupperware.

Journalist Rebecca Traister, who often writes about comedy and feminism:

It’s the job of feminists to feel and think and argue passionately, and comedians to poke holes in passion. So it’s a super-combustible relationship, and it does not shock me when it explodes. But the tensions are changing. Over last five, 10 years, with Tina Fey, Wanda Sykes, Amy Poehler, the feminism of Samantha Bee and Kristin Schaal and Colbert and Stewart—and also because of the comedy of the feminist blogging voice—feminism and comedy are, tentatively, merging in ways that work for both. In some cases, feminist ideology is adopting comedy as one of its most useful communicative tools (see the Daily Show’s coverage of the War on Women), and comedy is adopting a feminist perspective from which to take its assumptions.

Anne Elizabeth Moore, writer and humorist:

I realize that Louis C.K. is going for funny with this inane comment, just as Tosh was going for funny by threatening a female audience member with gang rape. But I’m pretty tired of pretending inanity is funny—or newsworthy. And I’m tired of people being rewarded for making regressive, self-reifying statements that aim to silence others. It’s boring. Humor can be used to shift our presumptions about the world, but the people currently rewarded for makin’ jokes seem to have a pretty faulty set of presumptions about the world to begin with. It would be great to live in a world where gang rape was so unthinkable it was hilarious. Which is why I’m casting my vote for President Cheerful Unicorn in the next World Awesome elections. You should too!