dark humor and controversial comedy

I’ve been watching some comedy specials on Netflix, and I’ve seen a few comedians lately complaining about how they can’t joke about dark and complex topics anymore because people are too sensitive and stupid. This pretty much always precedes a rape joke or riff on language/ why we can’t say the n-word but should be allowed to.

It’s kinda starting to get on my nerves, because I’ll be liking the comedian and getting into his bit, and then all of a sudden this white guy is whining about how he can’t make jokes about race and rape, and it’s … dude, it’s just not a good look. It’s just not.

First off, I think all white guys need to stop with trying to reclaim the n-word. I saw that bit referenced in the linked article by Dave Foley on Netflix, and … yeah, no. It just doesn’t work. Yes, we’ve heard the arguments. Yes, you’ve made some interesting points with the, “it’s just a word,” and “we all think the slur when we read n-word anyway, so we should just say it,” arguments. But no.

It’s like the swastika, guys. The swastika is an Eastern religious symbol with a long and proud history meaning unity and peace, but Hitler fucked that shit up ’round our parts, and now in the West we look at it and immediately think, “Okay, racist shitheads.” So it isn’t getting reclaimed in the West any time soon. The Confederate flag isn’t getting reclaimed any time soon. And the n-word isn’t getting reclaimed (especially not by whites!) anytime soon.

Also, I’m kind of baffled as to why these guys are so adamant about trying to reclaim use of a recognized hate slur, anyway? What the fuck is that about? Like, black people said, “Hey. This term has historically been used to address our people in a really hateful, derogatory, vicious and demeaning manner, often tied to violence and humiliation. The history of that word is weighted with blood. Don’t call us that word,” and collectively, most people were like, “Okay. Gotcha. Fair point.”

I don’t think I’m alone in saying the majority of us are okay with it being absent from our vocabulary. So it’s really embarrassing when a few white guys keep insisting on using it, or trying to “reclaim” it. Like, why the fuck are you trying to reclaim a hate slur?! Stop trying to make it happen, you’re embarrassing the rest of us!

By the way, the arguments they always make? That it’s “just a word,” and that we “heard the word in our head when we read/ hear the n-word, anyway, so why not use the correct word”?

  1. It’s not “just a word”. It’s a hate slur. Words mean things. They communicate things, important things about our intentions and our values and our beliefs, and choosing to use a hate slur communicates something about you.
  2. I actually hear and read “n-word” when I see “n-word”. I can’t speak for how everyone else in the world hears and reads, but for me personally, I do not automatically substitute in the hate slur in question. Also, you could try … not using the slur and/ or substitutions for the slur?

There is one case where I think it might be okay for a white person to use the n-word in its original form, and that is when they are obviously quoting the work of a black artist who chose to use those words. I’ve gone back and forth on that stance, but I’ve landed on it being better to preserve the black artist’s voice than erasing it due to white discomfort.

By the way, there are hilarious comics who address issues of race in really funny, thought-provoking ways. Key & Peele’s Negrotown and Slave Auction (hell, all their stuff is worth watching). Hari Kondabolu on white privilege. Trevor Noah’s bit on how his race is perceived in America and Africa. And here is a list of badass female comedians of color.

The next point is the rape thing. So, again, this is a thing a lot of (white male) comics who are otherwise pretty funny seem to be offended they “can’t talk about.” Specifically, I was watching Netflix specials by Jim Jefferies and Pete Johansson, and they were both killing it, and then they both had this moment where they addressed like rape/ women’s rights issues as a whole, and it kind of hit a flat note.

Not because of their jokes, mind you, or because I thought for a moment either of them were actually condoning abuse or rape. They were both very clear about the fact that they did not condone violence against women or rape, and both came across as pretty feminist. Well, Pete Johansson moreso than Jim Jefferies … you did kind of get the sense from Jefferies bit that he could be a low-key misogynist, but the sort that gets a pass in our society.

By that I mean he’s not the disturbing extremist type of misogynist who wants to shoot up a campus full of women, or believes in biblical head of household/ leadership family structures.

I mean he’s the kind of mainstream misogynist–I guess “soft sexist” who kind of generally assumes the average women is less competent than the average man. Like, if a woman has proven she’s more competent than him, by means of acquiring some sort of accreditation or degree, then yeah. He’s fine agreeing she’s probably more knowledgeable or competent in that area. But from his set, I definitely got the vibe that he’s the type of guy who assumes if you take any average woman and any average guy and give them the same task to do, he thinks the guy will perform it better.

However! I also recognize that might’ve just been his bit–maybe he was relying on stereotypical, gendered material because it gets big laughs from his usual audience. He did reference in the special that his audience was different from normal because of his gun bit, which had gotten him new fans after making the rounds on YouTube. So maybe he’s built his career mining gender jokes to appeal to/ build an audience who does believe women are, generally speaking, more incompetent than men, but he himself doesn’t think that way.

Would that be better, or worse? For a comedian who maybe personally believes that men and women are equally competent to mine gendered material for an audience who buys into the stereotypes? Is it still “just a joke” if they’re not laughing at it, but with it? Anyway, I guess it doesn’t matter, because the point is, whether or not Jefferies thinks women are generally slightly more incompetent than men, he’s also clearly against rape, against domestic violence, and okay with female professionals giving him advice.

Anyway, the thing is, both these comics did spent a fair amount of time complaining about not being able to make rape jokes. Like a good bit of their acts were structured around the rise of “p.c. culture” and how sensitive and whiny people were these days and how they couldn’t even say the word rape without people getting outraged and they’re just so stifling and annoying. This is nothing new. Comics, actors, authors, and artists have been complaining about censorship and critics since time immemorable.

I do think the internet has changed things, honestly. People seem to be whining a lot more about “pc culture” these days, and I suspect it has to do with the immediacy of the internet. A decade ago, when a comic did a piece or gave an interview, it could take hours or weeks for the response to filter in through the lens of critics. Now, comics perform a bit, air a show, or tweet something, and the response from their fans is immediate. Pete Johansson recounts a story about a (former) fan getting some geography wrong in a tweet, being teased by his other fans, and in anger calling them all rapists and flouncing out of the interaction.

I appreciate dark humor, I really do. I also get tired of people whining about pc culture, because, to me, pc culture basically comes down to this: A group of people who are, for whatever reason, a minority in our society, joined their voices and in majority said, “Yeah, could you stop with the thing? We’re really not liking it. It is super offensive for reasons x, y, and z.”

And the rest of us should have said, “Oh, what? We were being offensive with the thing? Fuck, sorry, I didn’t know. Man, I feel like a dick. My bad.” And then we stop.

But instead, as a culture, our response has collectively been something more like, what the fuck. We can’t have the Redskins?! What the fuuuuuuuuuck. Whhhhhyyyyyy. What the fuuuuuck. We can’t use diagnosable illnesses as verbs? You’re telling me mentally ill people have feelings now? Well fuck you, who cares about the crazies anyway? What the fuck. What the fuuuucckkkkkk. Ugh. You people are so unreasonable. 


Granted, this reaction is probably exacerbated by people such as the former fan described by Johannson–apparently, she described herself as a progressive and feminist (which means, naturally, that people who dislike or are unfamiliar with feminism will slot her and her behavior in as representative of all of us). So there is, admittedly, a problem because:

  1. Minority communities who have experienced systemic discrimination and cultural appropriation at the hands of a dominating and colonizing culture should be respected when a majority of their community agrees, “That thing? Offensive. Stop it.”
  2. Easily offended people of all political stripes ruin things for everyone by being whiny and oversensitive. 

I think the conservative equivalent of the whiny “you can’t say that,” “trigger warning” reactionaries is probably the evangelical bible literalists who’ve got everyone convinced Christianity suuuuucks.

There’s a subtle nuance on the rape joke thing a lot of the comediens don’t seem to get for some reason, and I’m not really sure why.  

I was thinking about that watching Pete Johansson the other night, doing his hilarious bit where he talked about how he and his wife role-played a sexual fantasy. His wife asked him to “rape” her, which he found repellent, but for his wife’s safe agreed. The punchline was that he was an awful rapist.

After finishing the bit, he confessed that he was worried about telling the joke because people are stupid and have knee-jerk reactions, and he’s a white male, blah blah blah. 

I was rolling my eyes a bit, kinda amused at him insulting his audiences’ intelligence, but mostly irritated that he didn’t seem to realize it’s not some knee-jerk reaction to the word “rape”. 

It’s not like feminists react to the word “rape” like vampires do to garlic and religious artifacts. 

I know there are plenty of stupid people out there, but I think the majority of audiences do grasp “context.”

I know male comediens have been tying to “edgily” joke about rape for ages, but I think a lot of the current kerfluffle over “pc rape jokes” is still reverbrating from the Daniel Tosh comedy club moment a few years back, when he literally pointed at a girl heckling him about a rape joke and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she was raped by like five guys right now?”

He later tried to pass it off as a joke. Said he was trying to show anything can be funny. I suspect he was inspired by George Carlin, who did that bit about how rape jokes can be funny by telling the audience to imagine Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. At the shocked/laughing reaction of the audience, Carlin mimes/vocalizes a moment of the imagined cartoon rape, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly, then drops the character to joke that “you know” Elmer Fudd “wanted it,” and he was “asking for it,” because of the way he dressed. 

It wasn’t particularly funny to me., personally. Not Tosh’s, not Carlins. I like both those comediens, normally. I “got” their rape jokes. 

I understood what they were trying to say–the dark humor of it, the juxtaposition of reality and expectation, what they thought was a subversion of expectations and witty commentary.  

I just didn’t find it funny, in large part because it wasn’t subversive, witty, or even original commentary. 

When Carlin joked about Elmer Fudd “asking for it” because of the way he was dressed, it’s not funny because this mindset is so deeply ingrained in our society that judges actually regularly blame pre-teen victims for being raped because of the way they were dressed. That’s not funny. That’s tragic. Oh, you say. That bit is 20, 30, 40 years old. 

That makes it, if anything, more tragic. That the same justifactions Carlin was using to defend rape jokes in the late 70s and early 80s are still in use. That he–an otherwise transfomative, great comedian who spoke to very complex and difficult issues–perpetuated through his humor a popular culture of victim blaming.

When Tosh stood on stage and looked down at a woman heckling him and said, in a roomful of men who admired him, “Wouldn’t it be funny if five guys raped her right now?” and everyone laughed in agreement, I bet it didn’t sound like a joke to her. I bet that sounded scary. Like a threat. Like predators. Like hyenas, cackling in the dark. 

When I watched the video, I felt ice run through my veins. I imagined being her, sitting in that room as a man on stage asks the men in the room how funny it would be if I was gang-raped and they laughed in response, and I would have been scared.

Btw, I’m not defending heckling for a moment. But a bouncer was the solution there, or hell, some cracks about kitchens and sandwiches. Not a rape threat.

When a man jokes about a woman being so attractive he wants to rape her, it’s not funny or a compliment. Phrases like, “I will rape you,” or, “She’s so hot I could rape her,” or, “Which one of these hotties would you rape tonight?” … those aren’t jokes. Those aren’t funny. Those aren’t “dark humor”. That’s the vein of “rape joke” I’m talking about–and I think most women are talking about–when it comes to rape jokes.

I’d add that prison and military rape jokes aren’t funny, either–these things are real, unaddressed, and happening. The attitudes of victim-blaming and silencing that perpetuate rape culture are deeply ingrained in our society and trying to pretend that “everyone accepts” rape is wrong and “everyone is disgusted by it,” when we live in a culture where people happily anticipate people getting raped in prison as “payback” for crimes? Like what the fuck?

Or where the potential of women being raped by their fellow soldiers was an actual argument used against putting them in combat, ignoring the facts that a) they’re already serving with these men, often in unauthorized combat roles, and b) way more men are raped in the military than women, because there are so many more men than women!

ALL THAT BEING SAID. People tell funny rape jokes all the time! The Nation article linked above gave some great examples. Pete Johansson and Jim Jefferies actually both told hilarious rape jokes in their bites, before they went on their whiny rants about how unfair it is that they can’t say rape.

Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, even Louis C.K., after walking back his initial misstep of defending Tosh, have done some really great jokes about rape. Look at this!

Most rapes and sexual assaults are not violent assaults by strangers, but perpetuated by acquaintances, people known to the victim. Louis C.K. is right– statistically, a woman is far more likely to be hurt by a man she knows and trusts than a stranger. Men are more violent than women. We don’t know why, but they are. Is it nature, nurture, biology, socialization? Who knows? For some fuckin’ reason, we aren’t studying it. Sure, women murder and commit violence, but they do it at a fraction of the rate men do.

In the United States, 98% of those who commit mass shootings are male; 98% of the officers who have shot and killed civilians are male; 90% of those who commit homicide by any means are male; and 80% of those arrested for all violent crimes — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault — are male. — One group is responsible for America’s culture of violence, and it isn’t cops, black Americans, Muslims or rednecks. It’s men (LA Times)

Mind you, I bring this up not because I’m anti-man, or because I think violence is inherent to the gender. I’m one of those who tends to believe the role of biology/ genetics is maybe 45%, 50% of the equation in our personality formation over a lifetime, while things like environment, social location, socialization, nurture/ discipline style, education, and neuroplasticity play the other half. It’s like … eh, basically I don’t really believe in binary sexualities or genders, right? Like, a lot of people seem to think biology is an exact science, like the ingredients mix the same every single time, which is obviously wrong–if that was the case, we wouldn’t have mutations and genetic illnesses and kids with different hair/ skin/ eye color than their parents. We’re not clones.

So sometimes–maybe because of diet or temperature, or stress, or age, or other factors we don’t even know–something happens during conception or pregnancy. Maybe it’s the sperm–maybe it develops a little slow or funny. Or maybe the mom’s body releases a certain hormone a little later or earlier than necessary, or in a higher or lower dose than needed. Whatever the case, something happens and the baby’s genitals form one way–BOY! and the brain another way-GIRL!

I think this is pretty much how it happens for both gender and sexual attraction, to be honest–though for sexual attraction, I tend to think most people are generally kind of capable of being fluid. I think the Kinsey scale has got the sexuality bit pretty well marked, but because humans like categories we tried to divide people into neat sections of “gay” and “straight,” then got really upset and confused when people kept stepping in and out of their boxes, and screaming, “So what are you? Gay? Straight? What? What?”

But people are just people, and sex is fun.

But I really do think it’s a balance. Biology isn’t an exact recipe, it’s a process with all these external factors influencing it, and the end result is influenced heavily by socialization. There was a time when pink and high heels and crying were all seen as manly, but at this particular social moment, they’re coded as effeminate and undesirable traits.

Culture and socialization is weird and complex, I agree, but for some reasons comedians don’t like to focus on those weirdnesses. Instead they want to talk about how weird it is that they can’t say the n-word and misconstrue the ways they’re allowed to talk about rape. I dunno, mang.

I suppose if these comedians really want to joke about rape that badly, they could trying writing their bits solely around male-on-male rape, like joking about how they would handle male rape in prison, or they could watch the video of the Navy guy who was dishonorably discharged for being raped and do a bit about how they would respond if they were the victim in that situation–how they would find the silver lining in being raped out of the military. Or talk about those humiliation rapes done to African men by guerilla troops, some bit about “getting out of the fighting, anyway,” and see how their jokes work then. I would guess they would be less funny to them and more deeply uncomfortable and upsetting, because these are actually happening to other men right now in the world, but maybe I’m wrong. I dunno.

I just feel like there’s a wealth fucked up, and uncomfortable material to mine in gender inequality, even for white men, and a wealth of ways to mine it without relying on tired, sexist stereotypes and victim-blaming, and then defending it as humor and getting angry because the audience didn’t “get the joke.” Maybe the audience got the joke, and it wasn’t very funny.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s