Off Limits

Doesn't he look nice? That's your first mistake.

I never quite know how to feel when I see a comedian apologizing for offending someone. My immediate reaction is to think of a plumber apologizing to a toilet for removing the thick mass of shit and toilet paper that jammed it up in the first place. ”I’m so sorry from taking your friend away from you, toilet. You two seemed pretty close.”

To a degree, a comedian’s job* is to be offensive – standup comedy gives you a certain carte blanche to say things that most people never say out loud for fear of offending anybody, which is what makes it both a valid form of entertainment and societal critique (unless the comedian in question is Jeff Dunham, in which case it’s neither).

*I occasionally fantasize about doing standup, thus making me the foremost authority on what a standup comedian’s job is.

This line of reasoning covers comedians like Chris Rock and George Carlin, who use rough language and some pretty shocking statements to make some insightful points about society and human nature that people would otherwise be afraid to discuss in polite company. It sort of falls apart when Kramer goes on a tirade that would make Strom Thurmond blush, or when Daniel Tosh does what he did the other night.

Daniel Tosh is a young shock comic whose bread and butter is being aggressively, confrontationally, unapologetically un-PC. And bless him, he’s pretty good at it – my friends and I listened to his first album while driving to the coast, and we laughed our asses off. Unlike Jeff Dunham, whose puppets are racist just for the sake of cheap punchlines, or Carlos Mencia, whose entire routine is, “Mexicans – am I right, folks?”, Daniel Tosh has something to say, and he just happens to be saying it in the most horrifyingly crude way possible.

True to form, earlier in the week he was performing at The Laugh Factory when he launched into an extensive routine about how hilarious rape is. A girl in the audience found this to be in poor taste and interrupted him to call him out on it, and then this, in her own words, happened:

"After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me."

Whether you’re a Tosh fan or not, I think we can agree that there’s really no circumstances under which a statement like that is okay. That isn’t a shocking statement that serves a greater introspective purpose – that’s a debilitating verbal attack.

In Tosh’s defense, he was being heckled. That in no way makes what he said okay or acceptable in any light, but you need to keep in mind where he’s coming from – he’s on stage in front of a large crowd of people, under tremendous pressure to perform, and in character as a guy who has absolutely zero filter and no regard for anybody else’s feelings. When somebody attacks him from the crowd, he’s got about a second to formulate and deliver an in-character retort that gets a laugh and shuts the heckler up.  

That’s dangerous territory. The rest of his act was crafted over a period of months by him and maybe some of the writers from Tosh.0 to walk a very fine line between baseless slander and social commentary, but going off script like that he didn’t have the luxury of time to analyze what he was saying, and his mouth ran away from him. I think that if he'd had 15 seconds to think of a response instead of one, he would've said something different. This doesn't exonerate him by any means; I just believe that what he said was the result of shitty improvisation rather than a calculated desire to destroy this woman.

You’re also entering some pretty dangerous territory when you heckle a comedian, though, especially one like Daniel Tosh. I’m uncomfortable writing this, because I feel a lot like I’m blaming the victim, but the fact remains that she kicked a hornet's nest. It doesn’t in any way justify Tosh invoking personalized gang-rape imagery, and she’s completely owed an apology, but you’ve got to understand going into a comedy show that you’re virtually guaranteed to hear some unpleasant things, and that hecklers, to a comedian, are worse than Osama Bin Laden fucking Hitler while Ted Bundy watches. There's no blameless party here. 

As the girl in question states in the blog post, she’s not normally the sort of person to heckle, but she was of the opinion that the rape jokes Tosh was making were so terrible that she couldn’t in good conscience not speak up.

It’s tough to judge just how over the line Tosh was being in his on-script routine without having seen the full act – you can’t accurately gauge a comedian from one anecdote from early in the show taken out of context, because context is absolutely crucial for a comedy routine.

Louis CK isn’t just my favorite comedian; he’s one of my favorite people. As far as I’m concerned, he should be crowned god-emperor of all Earth. If nothing else, he’s the funniest man alive. This is an excerpt from his special Chewed Up:

You broke my mirror, you faggot cunt nigger deer!

Out of context, you see something like this and you kind of wonder why Louis CK’s daughters haven’t been taken away by social services. But this moment comes half an hour into his act, after he’s done several bits in which explains in detail why he uses words like those and why he thinks we as a people are too obsessed with the words people are saying as opposed to what they’re actually trying to say. Also, this line comes at the end of a rambling story about how much he hates deer, and is directed at a confused deer that ran headlong into the side of his car and broke his rear view mirror – I’d use colorful language too.

Tosh could’ve been working up to an eloquent – or at least as eloquent as Daniel Tosh allows himself to get – point about which subjects are untouchable for comedy. Immediately following his apology on Twitter, he alleges that that was what the act was going to be about before he got interrupted.

So what this really comes down to is, can a joke about rape be funny?

I can’t confidently answer that question, both because I’m not a comedian and because I have a negligible risk of being raped. I’m about as far removed from the situation as it’s possible for a person to be. I will say that I used to make rape jokes in private situations among close (usually male) friends, the same way people secretly make racist jokes behind closed doors without actually being racists.

Awhile ago I read an article which suggested that rape jokes trivialize and whitewash something that ought not to be trivialized and whitewashed, so I stopped, and for some time I restricted myself only to rape jokes about men raping other men, because I felt that when a woman wasn’t being victimized and it was just some Pulp Fiction style man on man shenanigans it was somehow just goofy fun.

Then Penn State happened, and it became clear that men being raped by men is just as damaging and unfortunately quite prevalent – I mean, male rapists even have their own fancy little country in central Rome, along with an enormous, sophisticated, and well funded support system to protect rapists from scrutiny and discredit and silence victims, headed up by a grand rapist master who used to be a Nazi.

So now I don’t make rape jokes anymore, because that’s not the sort of thing I want to make light of. But I’m hesitant to say that it’s a topic that no comedian should touch.

Turning rape into just a cheap punchline is bad because it normalizes a heinous act – that being said, I think treating rape as an off-limits topic that no comedian can ever touch is kind of like pretending it doesn’t exist, and that isn’t a whole lot better.    

Truman Capps apologizes to those of you who came here to read me talking about TV shows and making jokes about porn like usual.