So much has been written about comedian Daniel Tosh’s ‘rape joke’ controversy lately that I
almost feel like I’m beating a dead horse in throwing in my two cents on the subject. Wow...a
simile and a metaphor in the same previous sentence. Can I be fined for that?
Daniel Tosh, for those of you who don’t know the name, is a fairly young, popular, American comedian who has created a great deal of controversy lately over a comment he recently made to an audience member at Los Angeles’ Laff Factory Comedy Club. During his show, Daniel made reference to the fact that rape jokes are always funny. An audience member who disagreed with him stood up and said that rape jokes were never funny, at which point Tosh turned to the audience and suggested that it would be hilariously funny if 5 men raped that woman at that very moment. At that point, the patron stormed out of the club, complained to the management and proceeded to post her account of the incident on the web. This, in turn, erupted into a veritable firestorm of strongly held opinions within the comedy community and the public at large over what is acceptable behavior onstage and the comedian’s ‘right’ to free, uncensored, and unbridled speech.
Without a video of the incident, it is extremely difficult to understand exactly what transpired in those few minutes, and my goal here is to not judge who was right or wrong, although I do have an opinion on that.
For the ‘civilian’ reader, it might be difficult for you to understand why this incident has raised the hackles of so many comedians, and so I’d like to share with you some of the reasons why (I believe) Tosh’s statements just don’t seem to want to subside.
To begin with, comedians take great pride in what they do. Most of us spend endless hours writing, editing, testing, polishing and performing our words for you. The fact that a professional makes his/her acts seem effortless and impromptu is a testament to that statement. Our acts are our children, our lovers, and our friends. We protect them from harm like mother wolverines would protect their cubs.
Many of us spend the better part of our careers seeking our own voice and our own truth up there. In most cases it takes years to find it, but by the time we’re in the business about ten years or so, we have a pretty good idea of how to write for ourselves. Hopefully, in that development period, we find a way to express ourselves in a unique way that sets us apart from our peers. With talent and luck, we work hard to find those audiences who latch on to what we have to say. Sometimes we become household names, but most of the time we live a life of relative obscurity. True, we can have our own fan base and build a nice career for ourselves, and thanks to the Internet, that reality is much easier to achieve than when I started in 1980.
Comedians don’t always agree on what’s funny, but we tend to respect anyone who gets on stage in the first place, though we don’t always like what we see up there. For us, like you, comedy is a very personal thing, and we are discriminating in our tastes.
But I think the one thing we almost all universally agree on is that the stage in a comedy club may be the last place left in
censorship has not taken hold for the most part. Short of yelling “Fire!” in
the room, it is understood that comedians have the freedom to say and do pretty
much anything they want in the name of getting laughs and their own personal
truth out to the world. And while that is true, it is also a fact that the
comedy club is possibly the purest of the free marketplaces; if you don’t like
what a comedian says, you don’t have to patronize her/his shows, or comedy
clubs in general.
As professionals, we do a lot of self-censoring in both the writing and performance of our acts. We do it for personal reasons (the topic is not one we want to explore), or professional (we want to be on television and ‘nuns giving blowjobs’ jokes will not get us there). Some of us even do it because we don’t want to risk pissing off the audience. Whatever the reason, the majority of comedians, including Tosh, try to stay within their own personal boundaries.
Having said that, we almost all believe that there is no topic in which humor cannot be found. Nothing thrills a comedian more than stepping out on the ledge and making the piece work. The closer you get to the edge, the more skill you need. On the subject of rape for example, George Carlin proved his mastery of the art of comedy in his piece on the subject. But as he so eloquently said,
“It all depends on how you construct the joke, what the exaggeration is. Every joke needs an exaggeration.” Carlin-Rape can be funny.
If Tosh is guilty of anything at this point, it’s for writing a shitty joke perhaps, or not having the skill level to pull off whatever he was trying to pull off. But it was not the topic he chose. Know that my intent here is not to analyze Daniel Tosh’s act. He’s highly successful, so he must be doing something right.
A comic friend pointed out on Facebook that
"A comedy club is not some sacred space. It's a guy with a microphone standing on a stage that's only one foot above the ground. And the flip-side of that awesome microphone power you have—wow, you can seriously say whatever you want!—is that audiences get to react to your words however we want.”
Our power on stage is there because you have trusted us with it. We in the comedy community understand that and take it very seriously. We also understand that you have the choice or not to come to our shows if you feel we have violated that trust. But in the end, it is the comedian who decides what’s going to be discussed up there....even if the subject is one as sensitive as rape. Your trust in our ability to find the humor in it is your gift to us; ours is the laughter we provide in return.
In Tosh’s defense, the offended woman saw him at a showcase club and not at one of his concerts. She probably had never had the ‘full Tosh’ experience, and he was most likely just one of many comics performing there that night. If she had known that he dealt with rape as a regular part of his act, she probably would not have attended.
Why, might you ask is this issue so important to comedians? Couldn’t he just have deleted the joke, or apologized for it? Well if you ask that question in the bar of your local comedy club, you are going to find yourself in the middle of a debate that makes the Republican and Democrat insanity look like a kindergarten schoolyard argument over a game of marbles. The fact is that comedians see themselves as the minutemen and women of free speech. It’s been this way ever since Lenny Bruce was first hounded by the police for his use of onstage language. Since then, comedians have pushed the envelope and challenged those rules, most notably by people like Carlin (the Seven Dirty Words), Kinneson, Hicks and a few others. Where it gets sticky and ugly is when the freedom to say anything goes the way of ‘Toshgate’; someone who believes they have the right to say something but doesn’t have the skill to pull it off finds themselves in a world of controversy. And trust me, Tosh is not going to suffer over this; his concerts will be sold out, perhaps picketed, but still sold out. His TV show will continue to grow in viewership. All things Tosh will be ‘hot’ for a while....until the next comic says something equally offensive to an unsuspecting audience member.
Not much has been made of the way this customer got her message out. She apparently either tweeted or put it on her Facebook page, and it went viral virtually overnight. Why does this matter and how does it affect comedians? Well, in my opinion, it used to be that comedians spoke for those who had no voice—Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Carlin were on the forefront of finding the humor in the pain of pressing social issues. Comedians looked to these guys as role models, and audiences felt simpatico with them. They got on the stages and spoke out in a humorous way about really painful stuff. They were more than just like the comedians of the previous Ed Sullivan generation-they were orators who broke ground and touched on subject matter that had remained taboo until their arrival. And they spawned a couple of generations of comedians who picked up the torch and carried on the message. That was before the internet.
What’s happened, I think, is that with the advent of Facebook and Twitter et al., the voiceless suddenly had their own platform in the town square and a place where they could be heard. They began to understand the power that used to be the sole property of the comedian and they are using it. And so when they feel slighted or insulted as in the case of this woman, they now have a venue to spout off, along with the public support to go with it. They have freedom of speech... and that is very empowering. It is so empowering, in fact, that you are seeing what I believe to be either the beginnings of a revolution in comedy, or its ultimate demise in the traditional sense. Combine that with the endless onslaught of reality TV mentality, with its endless onscreen ‘fights’, whether staged or not, and the result is that we no longer have discourse--we swing first and deal with the consequences later. We’ve already seen incidents where audience members are starting to react in a ‘reality show’ way (violently)-throwing drinks, attacking comedians onstage, etc.
Perhaps the rules are changing for stand up comedy; I don’t really know. But I do know that those who practice the art hold it in high regard, including Daniel Tosh, I’m sure. I don’t believe that there is a topic that is off limits, including rape. But like Carlin said, “It all depends on how you construct the joke”.
That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat. Abbondanza!