“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…" - Comedian Daniel Tosh
The above statement, reported by a blogger and spread through the internet over the past week, was in response to the audience member's objection to the repeated suggestion that rape jokes are funny by the comedian during a night of stand-up. The offense was magnified by the number of people who heard it and understandably so. Rape is one of the worst things that human beings do to each other, one of the few crimes that do not result in death that many would be very comfortable carrying the death penalty.
In the title to this article, I ask if rape is ever funny. The answer, I must state from the beginning, is no. Never. There is no context in which the act of rape is hilarious. Not date rape. Not "rape-rape". Not prison rape. Nothing that ends in rape is in any way humorous.
So why do we make jokes about it? Why do we use, as a punchline, an act that undermines one of the most basic levels of trust between the sexes, between individuals? Why would we take one of the most demoralizing crimes in the vocabulary of human interaction, one that has been used to subjugate women in both war and peace, and use it to get a laugh?
The following is a joke that appeared on an episode of Family Guy:
Joe (the wheelchair bound police officer): You could contribute to the Policeman's Ball...
Peter: Joe, we're really more of a Fireman's Ball family.
Joe: Oh yeah, are the firemen gonna come and put out the RAPE!
I laughed at this. I asked myself if or why this was different than laughing at Tosh's casual suggestion that a woman in the crowd be violated. Why is rape being the punchline here different than in that offensively in-bad-taste reply?
I do think it's different, but not because rape is or ever can be funny. I think it's about why we laugh.
Comedy can serve a number of purposes. It's entertainment, to be sure. But it also can be used to disarm. We joke about things we are scared about to banish the fear. We make fun of things we find offensive to rob them of their power over us. To be able to ridicule is to be able to weaken a thing, as kings and presidents have known in the face of satirists.
But comedy also allows us to dismiss; to ignore. Taken to it's extremes, comedy allows us to act as if something no longer matters, even if it does. It can be taken too far.
Making something funny can eve normalize it, make it something we can keep in a box or in our pocket. It is no longer anything to worry about. It is, as we say, just a joke. Only something to make fun of. It exists as an amusement, nothing more.
Consider that in 2004, Howard Dean, a man who was seeking the presidency, went from a serious contender to a laughing stock overnight because of a single media gaffe. He became less a part of the headlines and more a part of the punchlines with one scream.
The essence of comedy is error. Something is amiss, we pick up on it and we chuckle. Schadenfreude is an aspect sure; as Mel Brooks said, tragedy is when I get a paper cut on my thumb, comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die. But when one looks at the comedic nature of The Emperor's New Clothes or a guy walking into a bar with a duck on his head, the humor lies in that people are acting in a way we not only expect, but that they don't seem to notice their mistake or incongruity with normalcy.
A little of that allows us to get a hold on very scary concepts, to relegate them to something that can be discussed and dealt with. A lot of that allows to ignore something, which is dangerous when the subject is nothing to ignore.
When Tosh, without a hint of irony, says it would be funny if a woman got raped, he wasn't being edgy; he was being flippant. He was dismissing rape as a concern. It was being presented as a mentally scarring act. It was not a debasement of the most guarded and intimate physical exchange between two people in our social vocabulary. It was nothing. Just a joke.
When Seth McFarland and his writers wrote the joke above and put it in the mouths of their animated characters, what they were playing on was our fear of rape. The humor comes from the idea that someone would, to sell tickets to an event, toss out rape as a motivation. It's shocking, but we laugh at it because it allows us to dismiss that fear.
The second joke is still pretty tasteless, but where it differs is in it's focus.
I think we laugh at rape because it scares us. Take any person who guffawed in the club at Tosh's joke and ask them if they thought it would be okay if someone raped their sister, daughter, brother, mother or any other loved one and I'm willing to bet you'd get punched. But put people in a place where laughter is expected, where they are together to diminish and dismiss the errors the man on stage is pointing out, and suddenly that fear and anger seems reasonable to express with a chuckle. I'm willing to bet more than a few looked back and asked themselves, after they saw the aftermath of his little jest, why on earth they were laughing about something so horrible?
The danger is not that we laugh when rape is mentioned in a joke, but why we're laughing at it, that we could come to dismiss it. To normalize it. Let it become something that's no big deal.
We're scared of rape for a reason and it's a good one. It needs to remain a big deal. It needs to remain something that you don't joke about. It needs to be a big enough concern that if it shows up in a joke, it should shock us and make us feel uncomfortable. I want to say that we should only laugh about it to get a handle on it, to keep it from being a monster from which we have to hide, but I'm not sure we're mature enough to handle that kind of humor as a culture, even though we do it all the time.
Still, I don't think that the writers of Family Guy went over the line. They kept it a big deal. They laughed about us, not the act. And human beings, as a whole, could often do to laugh at themselves more often.
Tosh has apologized for his statement, though this will undoubtedly not be the end of it; you can't toss a pail on a forest fire and hope to put it out, even if all it took to strike it was a careless match.
It will also not be the last time we have to ask what is funny and what is over the line.