Blame it on Daniel Tosh. Because of the dudebro comic’s outburst at the Laugh Factory over the summer, we’ve been talking about rape jokes all year. Are they ever funny? Who can tell them? Who can’t? And if they aren’t funny, are you an awful person for laughing at them?
Tosh’s comment to an audience member was the instigator for a discussion about rape jokes, the First Amendment, comedy, and feminism that is still roiling.
To recap: in July, the comedian was mid-set at the Laugh Factory during a joke about rape jokes when he heckled a female audience member who shouted out “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” Tosh’s response was to encourage people to rape her. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”
Actually, Tosh found out, it wouldn’t be funny. A mass Twitter campaign against the comedian ended with a Tosh apology tour on Twitter: “all the out of context misquotes aside, i’d like to sincerely apologize.”
While Tosh’s rape joke wasn’t the first of 2012, said comedian Anthony Jeselnik, it was the one that triggered the pervasive cultural conversation. “It’s one of those things that bubbles under the surface, but there’s no real lightning rod for it,” he told The Daily Beast. “The Tosh thing … became a big deal, because it was made personal. He said it to a girl.” He added, “It’s weird to me because that wasn’t Tosh’s first rape joke.”
Beyond Tosh, the year was chock full of rape jokes, many of them baffling. From the puzzling Belvedere vodka ad, which depicted a clearly scared woman running away from a man lurching and grabbing at her with the text “Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly” underneath it, to the ill-advised series of Rainn Wilson rape tweets, rape jokes seemed to hit a new high. Or low, depending on how you’re looking at it.
Perhaps part of the seeming omnipresence of rape jokes had to do with the influx of female-centric comedies now on television. From Whitney (created by and starring comic Whitney Cummings) to Two Broke Girls (ditto), to Girls and New Girl (won’t anyone create a lady-centric comedy with the word “woman” in it?), jokes about hot rapists abounded.
Two Broke Girls, in particular, was particularly called to the carpet for its stream of offensive, and not very creative, jokes. Vulture put together a helpful video clip of “The Sitcom Season in Rape Jokes,” which featured Max (Kat Dennings) saying things like, “Stop fighting, just give in to it— I don’t know why I’m quoting a rapist,” and “Somebody date raped me but I didn’t think I would live through it and now I’m stronger and still needy.”
Rape jokes might seem more prevalent this year, but Amy Schumer, a New York-based comedian, said that they’ve always been around, but we just haven’t been keeping such close tabs on them. “I know it’s been happening since I started standup,” said Schumer, who is currently filming her debut series, Inside Amy Schumer, for Comedy Central, which airs in April. “I’ve been doing this for eight and a half years.”
The reason we are so attuned to them, she thinks, is because of the pervasiveness of social media. “Everyone has so much access to every performance everyone ever does,” she said. “The world is bugged now.”
Or maybe, because the discussion of rape culture and politics had also come to a head this election cycle—the frustration peaking at the Todd Akins, the Steve Kings, the Paul Ryans of the world—talking about what was real rape and what wasn’t and what they would do to govern over women’s bodies. Or perhaps the conversation reached a breaking point, said feminist scribe Naomi Wolf, because people are simply fed up. “If they were a bigger ‘issue,’ it may be because women and men who hate violence against women finally felt confident enough to first feel and then express their aversion,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
But add it all up—rape culture, bone-headed politicians inserting themselves into women’s health issues, off-putting comments by comedians, rage-filled feminist bloggers—and well, one can start to feel a little … rapey.
Female comedians like Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, and Tig Notaro were held up by the media on How to Tell a Rape Joke. (Silverman’s was particularly bitingly funny: “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”)
In the midst of the Tosh brouhaha, America’s favorite comedian, Louis C.K., found himself at the center of the rape-joke controversy. Blissfully unaware, C.K. had tweeted praise for Tosh’s show while he was on vacation. When he arrived home, he told Jon Stewart that he found out he had been branded a “defender of rape” and was being called “a rape apologist.”
Though, he said, “stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke,” he added, “I’ve read some blogs 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 at night, they can’t go to certain neighborhoods. That’s part of me now, but I can still enjoy a good rape joke.”
The comic had previously been hailed as an example of how to do a proper rape joke. One of them involves him going back in time and raping Hitler in hopes that Der Fuehrer would have been forever altered as a person and the Holocaust would never have happened; the other involves the comedian’s disgust with a woman who apparently wanted him to act out a rape scenario on a first date, but didn’t want to tell him. (The comic also has a more subversive and potentially problematic rape joke. In the bit that follows his Hitler-rape joke, he says: “I’m not condoning rape, obviously you should never rape anyone … unless you have a reason, like you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.”)
The rape joke is not going to go away anytime soon, and judging from recent incidents, neither is the debate over them. In the Vanity Fair comedy issue, the magazine printed a poll that showed that men were more upset than women over rape jokes. And surprisingly, when contacted for comment for this article, several female comics turned down interview requests because the subject matter was too touchy.
A few weeks ago, controversial cartoonist Matthew Inman, who draws under the nom de plume of The Oatmeal, joined the rape-joke fracas. In a cartoon titled “The delicate relationship I have with my keyboard,” the ending panel featured the character pounding away at the F5 key, dubbed a “rape victim,” with the caption: “I MUST VIOLATE YOU OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN!”
Faster than you could say “angry feminists,” a hoard of angry feminists jumped on the artist, who at first issued a defensive post, then wrote a more humble apology in place of the panel. When contacted by email, Inman once again apologized but declined to be interviewed. “I made a bad joke, people got upset, I apologized, and now I’m moving on to (hopefully) bigger and better jokes,” he wrote. “I made the assumption that if you made a joke using the word ‘rape’ but it was attached to an inanimate object, such as a keyboard, it would neutralize the offensiveness of the word. I thought I’d made a keyboard joke, not a rape joke. I was wrong.”
Jeselnik is no stranger to rape-joke controversy, either. He’d made the news last year for having three rape jokes cut from his act—at Comedy Central’s Charlie Sheen roast—about convicted rapist Mike Tyson who was also there. “It was basically calling him out as a rapist,” he said. “They were like, ‘No no, you can’t do that.’ Otherwise Mike wouldn’t have shown up.’ I thought, ‘This is the place, certainly.’ People wouldn’t have gotten offended by that because we were basically making fun of an actual rapist and calling it out.”
And when Jeselnik’s Comedy Central standup special, Caligula, airs on Jan. 13, viewers will hear a bunch of rape jokes, but he doesn’t think they’ll get upset. “At the time I recorded the special it was before the Tosh thing happened, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to cause a stir,’ and now I think people are kind of over it. Enough people have yelled and had their say.”
Perhaps. But even if they do get upset, don’t expect rape jokes to disappear. “The attractive thing about rape to comedians is that it’s untouchable,” said Jeselnik. “It’s very high fruit on the tree. A lot of people think you shouldn’t talk about it, and that’s always going to be attractive to comics,” he added. “And that’s why rape jokes will never stop.”