What's so funny about rape jokes?

Daniel Tosh's rape crack at a comedy club got him in hot water.

Story highlights

  • Rape jokes seem to be more of a presence than ever
  • Writer and comedian Lindy West was ripped for column about rape jokes
  • Some say it's a free-speech issue; others point out consequences
  • West just wants to keep dialogue open, she says, not stifle comics
Did you hear the one about the rape joke?
Like the motivational-style poster of a man cradling an unconscious woman with the caption "How did you lose your virginity??" The answer: "Rohypnol." Or the governor of Maine's quip comparing a political foe's budget plan to anal rape "without Vaseline"? Or the club incident in which comedian Daniel Tosh responded to a woman's criticism by asking, "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?"
Or what about the Filipino comedian who made a gang-rape joke about a local newscaster, or the "just wait, it'll be all over soon" reference at the E3 video-game convention, or the Emma Watson "rapey" debate in "This Is the End"?
Hilarious, right?
Lindy West isn't so sure. In response to a series of columns and an appearance on the FX show "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell," where she debated the issue with comedian Jim Norton, she was besieged by angry commenters who insulted her looks, questioned her comic bona fides and said that, well, she should be raped.
West read some of the most vituperative responses in a much-passed-around video and wrote a follow-up column for Jezebel. "How did (the commenters) try to demonstrate that comedy, in general, doesn't have issues with women? By threatening to rape and kill me," she said.
West has emphasized she's not against rape jokes. In fact, she wrote a column called "How to Make a Rape Joke," which explained that context was everything. As for the angry comments, she described them as "an occupational hazard" in an interview with CNN.
But, she added, she wants to keep prompting readers to think about what they're saying -- or hearing.
"There are a lot of people who don't have a concept of certain things being important," she says. "It's not just a joke. It doesn't just exist on your Twitter and then go away. Things have real-life consequences."
The disrespect is nothing new for female comedians, says Ever Mainard, a Chicago-based comic who was featured in the "How to Make a Rape Joke" column. Standup comedy remains a male-dominated field, and the young bucks going for laughs want to make a quick impact, she says.
"Rape jokes, for a lot of newer comedians, tend to be an easier joke," says Mainard. "You can tell the newer dudes by their talking about rape or homosexuality as a punch line. I think our culture is a little desensitized to it."
Questioning authority
Comedy has always pushed limits. That's often the point -- to question authority, shatter preconceptions, tell truth to power.
In the 1960s, Lenny Bruce was arrested for his use of profanity. A decade later, George Carlin was hauled in for speaking the "Seven Dirty Words." Sam Kinison ranted; Andrew Dice Clay told scatological nursery rhymes; Louis C.K. takes audiences into the darkest corners of his mind, and Anthony Jeselnik sounds calmly psychopathic. Magazines, television, movies and the Internet have followed the blazed trail.
But joking about rape -- an act of violence that overwhelmingly affects women -- means walking a fine line, and too many comedians are unable to balance on the tightrope.
Brett Wheeler, who's seen the issue from many sides -- he's an amateur comedian, a psychology instructor, a humor researcher and a former rape crisis center worker -- believes some of the increase in rape jokes is due to increased aggressive humor on the part of standup comedians.
"There are different kinds of humor, often grouped into affiliative -- you're laughing with someone -- and aggressive. And one of the things that we have seen is more aggressive forms of standup," he says. "It doesn't mean the people themselves are aggressive -- it just means the humor has become more hostile in some ways. People feel like they're bucking authority or bucking social norms."
Aggression can come with the comic territory. Comedians often talk about their performance in life-or-death terms: "I killed out there" for success, "I died" for failure. The atmosphere breeds me-or-them attitudes, says Benjy Susswein, who books comedians and manages Stand Up NY in Manhattan.
"It's terrifying, it's revealing, it's brutal," says Susswein. "(Standup) comedy lives in those two extremes where you either want to kill yourself or you're the king of the world. It's one or the other."
Roseanne Barr was once stopped from working a comedy club because she told rape jokes.
Perhaps for that reason, standup tends to draw more men. (Improv and sketch troupes, which have a group dynamic, attract far more women, says Susswein.) In fact, observes Wheeler, occasionally there will be "some old dinosaur" who'll ask if women are even funny. When he hears that trope expounded by comics, Wheeler immediately asks his friends if they can imagine someone suggesting that men aren't funny.
"And the response is, of course no one can imagine that," he says. "Because that's what privilege looks like."
Gender roles
Which is where the discussion of rape jokes gets into deeper, even more treacherous waters.
There's no question that the world has changed in the decades since Henny Youngman said, "Take my wife -- please." Women now hold positions of power, and some men feel threatened by the changes in society.
"My sense is that one issue is that men are feeling disempowered, and there are probably fewer venues for getting together and talking that way and getting away with it," says David Reiss, a San Diego-based psychiatrist who studies personality dynamics. "A lot of what used to be acceptable isn't, and men are feeling they're being hemmed in."
Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, says that West's posts hit a raw nerve with some men unused to being questioned.
"Whenever we see people pushing back and saying, 'You have to start being accountable to women in your audience, and I'm going to start making you accountable with this piece,' only then is it necessary for people to be defensive," she says. "Anytime someone is in a position of privilege and they have unearned benefits by virtue of that privilege, when you take those unearned benefits away, to them it feels like you're taking something unfairly."
Sound too strong for a discussion about jokes? Comedian and psychology instructor Wheeler has a routine in his act, drawing on his academic studies, that shows just how deeply comedy -- and gender roles -- can cut, while also making a point about rape jokes.
"I do a fair amount of my routine on how bad people are about communicating about sex," he says. "I talk a lot about how men in particular, not through any fault of their own, are just really pretty bad at sex because nobody really teaches them anything, we have this expectation of competence on their part, and they sort of watch porn and figure, 'OK, I know what I'm doing.' And we have lots of data that shows there are a lot of women who are in heterosexual relationships who are pretty sexually unsatisfied," he says.
As he reels off some jokes about the issue, he can see the men in the audience squirm while the women cheer. At which point he will stop and address the men.
"I'll say, 'I'm sorry, is a comedian saying something that's making you uncomfortable? Maybe I should tell some rape jokes so we can all relax,'" he says.
Women appreciate the role reversal, he says.
"I've had multiple female comedians come up to me after my set and shake my hand and say, 'I want to thank you for doing that, because when I do that, it's too easy for them to dismiss as me just being a bitch. But when you do it, there's really nowhere to hide,'" he says. "So it's not that comedy is right or wrong, it's how you're using it."
Still, there are comedians concerned that essays like West's can have a chilling effect on comedy. They worry that they'll have to censor themselves, and that clubs will err on the side of caution.
Roseanne Barr, while defending West's opinion, pointed out that comedians have to be allowed to fail if they're going to learn the trade -- and that includes telling rape jokes.
Patton Oswalt recently wrote that he's reconsidered his position on rape jokes.
"Comedy clubs are a testing ground for comics, and the freedom to be bad and to be offensive are part of the training process itself," she wrote in the Daily Beast. "Free speech can be messy and bloody and offensive; if you aren't prepared for the grossout, stay out of comedy clubs that birth comics like Sam Kinison and Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Bill Hicks."
Barr added that telling rape jokes got her into trouble on at least one occasion.
"I was not allowed to work in a popular comedy club in Denver in 1980 because I told rape jokes," she wrote. "Some women, delicate flowers that they were, took the utmost offense to my presence and my directness."
But comedian Adam Christing, who runs a firm called Clean Comedians ("Laughter you can trust"), points out that to succeed, you have to know your audience. After all, the First Amendment doesn't just give you the right of free speech; it also gives your audience -- or your client -- the right to react to your speech.
"You look at the words 'show business,' and business is the longer word," he says. Clean Comedians supplies a lot of talent for corporate retreats, and some clients have gone over material line-by-line, he points out. "In recent years, (it's been said) that the new prophets are comedians, and I love that. But read the Old Testament -- there are very few prophets and most of them got stoned."
Even the most outrageous comedians know their audience, says Wheeler. After all, without their support, the room is as silent as a tomb when it should be rocking with laughter.
It's an easy lesson to forget, especially these days, when many prospective comedians are trying their hand on the Internet -- which means the entire world is judging. After one of West's attackers was, in turn, flamed on Twitter, he asked if she could intercede. "I was just trying to make Jim Norton laugh," he said.
As with any edgy comedy, context is everything. Even the most offensive material can be hilarious with the right comedian and the right audience. (Just watch "The Aristocrats" for many examples.) As West noted in her column, rape jokes can be funny -- with a certain self-awareness, attitude and intelligence. It's just that too many comedians take shortcuts straight to hostility and parrot "eighth-generation versions of Anthony Jeselnik," she says.
Some comedians are reassessing. Patton Oswalt, who once defended rape jokes on censorship grounds, has now reconsidered. "I've read enough viewpoints, and spoken to enough of my female friends (comedians and noncomedians) to know it isn't some vaporous hysteria, some false meme or convenient catch-phrase," he wrote on his blog. "I'm a man. I get to be wrong. And I get to change."
Which is all that West is asking.
"It's a process and it's an art, and people who love the art want the art to get better, and that's where I'm at," she says. "I just want it to evolve and I want it to feel less exclusionary to people like me. And there are a lot of people like me."