UPDATE: After writing this article, the owner of The Laugh Factory made some statements on what they heard the night in question. Read them here. As you will soon read, watching the media run away with a story that’s little more than a second hand account can lead to some inaccuracies. Unlike the Michael Richards incident (coincidentally at the Laugh Factory as well) where there was video proof, this is only hearsay.
Let’s get this out of the way, apparently the media just discovered who Daniel Tosh is and were appalled to find out that his humor is offensive. We can thank Jane Doe speaking through her blogger friend for alerting the media in an act of journalism that could make Fox News blush. While performing at LA’s Laugh Factory recently, Tosh began a joke by saying something to the effect of “rape is always funny.” To which Jane Doe replied (breaking standup rule #1) “rape is never funny.” Tosh fired back with “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by five guys right now?”
Before you could say Michael Richards, Daniel Tosh was vilified and burned at the stake. Never mind that Jane Doe was a heckler, never mind that I’ve actually heard much worse directed at hecklers, and never mind that he was mid-joke. Jane Doe apparently felt compelled to ruin said joke for Tosh and everyone else by yelling back instead of just leaving.
Before I go to much further I want to dispel the belief that I’m defending Tosh as a fan. The truth is I’ve never found him that funny, and were his career to end tomorrow I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. If his career were to end over this issue I would be bothered a great deal. Contrary to the assumption of many, I don’t think that his comments directed at Jane were intended to be “funny” they were intended to shut her up or get her to leave. Finding an effective way to deal with hecklers is as important to a comedian as it is for a doctor to know how to fight an infection. They don’t happen every time but when they do you need to be prepared.
It could be said that what Tosh said directly to Jane was over the line and that in order to scold her for being rude he could have been less harsh. We don’t know Jane Doe or what’s in her past, but I can see how a statement like the one Tosh made could be received in a threatening manner. Since this was made public Daniel Tosh has apologized, which is his choice, it might also be nice to hear an apology from Jane for heckling.
If this whole controversy was concerned with what Tosh said to Jane, the problem could be easily rectifiable, but it seems that there is another problem here, one that is far more complex. Is rape funny? What can and can’t be funny? Are there somethings that just aren’t funny, ever? From the reactions that I seem to be seeing around the internet, some believe that rape is never funny. The truth is, I have heard more than one funny rape joke.
In my senior year of college I was involved in a series of skits, one of which turned out fairly racist. I wasn’t directly involved in the racist sketch but I was in the class and watched their rehearsals and so I like to take responsibility for not having raised concern. The sketch was part of a end of the year showcase for our clown class (yes I went to art school) where we performed three or four separate sketches based on historical events. The sketch in question was a clown reenactment of the Civil Rights Movement by three white clowns. Are you cringing yet? The sketches had a history of being cringe worthy, the year before there was a clown reenactment of the crucifixion of Christ, and before that a clown reenactment of 9-11.
Needless to say the result was a racist catastrophe that came off looking like a trio of Klan members mocking civil rights though the use of clowns, deeply offending a number of audience members and in turn becoming what can only be described as an art school version of a race war. I won’t go into the details of what exactly occurred during the sketch, you can probably guess what took place.
It’s been six years since that event and I’ve replayed it over and over wondering just what could have been done differently. The popular opinion at the time, as is now in the wake of the Daniel Tosh rape jokes, is that some things are never okay to joke about. I believe that not everything is funny but can be made funny, and that this skit could have been funny too.
For the purposes of discussing this skit we’ll forego the reality that a lot of hard work and thought needed to go into the skit, hard work and thought that just wasn’t done. What I’ve essentially boiled the whole thing down two is context and character. There is a hilarious episode of the cult television show Strangers with Candy where the school performs the Lorraine Hansberry play, A Raisin in the Sun. One of the best examples of 20th century African American literature and an all black cast. In the episode the drama teacher Mr. Jellineck (Paul Dinello) casts all the white kids in the cast as the main characters and all the black kids as trees.
On the surface this sounds similar to the clown skit, but it’s very different in its result. The context and character of the show tells us that our main characters are ignorant, self-obsessed idiots. They’re not being malicious, they’re being dumb, and as an audience we laugh at their stupidity. The audience members had no context for who the clowns were, it was never established that they were ignorant idiots. The original intention was for the audience to hate the clowns by the end, to literally boo them off stage and were they to have tomatoes, throw tomatoes at them. When you don’t really know who these people are that you’re watching, you don’t know whether they themselves are ignorant or just flat out racist. The clowns were trying to do a good job but their ignorance caused them to fail. That’s a subtle shift to read and if you miss the mark the ramifications are disastrous.
So often this is exactly what conservative humor and conservative comedians get wrong, they first try and establish themselves as moral arbiters and connect with the audience honestly, then move into the more offensive territory. This would be fine if they didn’t start out as “likable people” only to reinvent themselves mid-set as offensive characters.
Racial humor is one thing, but when it comes to Daniel Tosh the issue is with rape, and Jane Doe’s claim that it is never funny. If that’s true then why have I heard so many funny rape jokes. Sarah Silverman, John Mulaney, Andy Daly, and while writing this article I was listening to Aziz Ansari’s album Dangerously Delicious to discover that he’s made rape jokes too. I’m not going to argue that rape is or isn’t funny, for the purpose of this article we’ll assume that a funny rape joke can be told.
How do they do it? There’s a few different angles to take, the first is pretty simple. You acknowledge how awful rape is and how awful it’s use in the joke they’re telling is. Before Aziz’s rape joke he sets it up by telling us how terrible it is. John Mulaney also operates under the assumption that the audience knows rape is wrong and that he knows it’s wrong too. The famous Louis CK 9-11 joke works because he acknowledges it’s wrong by using self-deprecating humor to tear himself down.
On the other side of the coin you have Rape jokes from people like Andy Daly, Sarah Silverman, and Daniel Tosh all of whom are different on stage, they’re playing a character. Not a character in a sense that they wear a funny hat and pretend to be someone else entirely (Andy Daly is the exception). They’re characters in that they are playing a version of themselves, one who often is ignorant, self-obsessed, and insensitive.
Sarah Silverman is probably the queen of AIDS jokes, but that doesn’t mean that I believe that she thinks that the movie Philadelphia is a comedy, but Sarah Silverman on stage probably would. Andy Daly is blatantly a different person when he makes his rape jokes, and that person we learn is pretty terrible.
From what I’ve read the past few days it seems that most in the media believe that Daniel Tosh is fully himself on stage. In reality he’s a caricature of himself as well, a boorish frat boy who says a slough of awful things and we as an audience we laugh at how ridiculous Tosh is, not because we agree with what he says. This isn’t a new thing for him, just look back to his first Comedy Central special and you’ll find that he’s been consistent in his stage presence. Is it his fault that Jane Doe wasn’t aware of this fact when she saw him at the Laugh Factory? According to the website the story first appeared on Jane has learned her lesson and will now look up a comedian before she goes to their show.
The final problem of this whole debacle is the fear that there may be people in Tosh’s audience who don’t know he’s a character and agree with him thinking he’s genuine. Obviously Jane Doe believed this was the case, that the crowd was laughing because they agreed, when in fact it was the opposite. Unfortunately I just don’t think there’s anything we can do in regards to those people who don’t understand that Tosh is a character and agree with his view points. These are lessons they should have learned long ago and we shouldn’t insist that comedians teach that lesson.
Not everything is funny, but anything can be made funny, but just because others are laughing doesn’t mean that you must find it humorous as well. Should you find yourself in Jane Doe’s shoes, where everyone around you is laughing at something that you don’t find funny just get up and leave, don’t ruin it for everyone else.