Of Comedy and Comfort (TW: Rape)
(In reference to this, and addressed to the people who defend the “joke” or attack the woman who walked out.)
Comedy often works by making us uncomfortable.
Not always, of course. Humor can distract us from pain. Humor can offer relief or at least release of tension… there is the tradition of so-called “gallows humor” or “graveyard humor”, which relates to the phenomenon of whistling in the dark.
But if you’re not the one up on the scaffold… if it’s not your neck on the line… then you’re not engaging in gallows humor… you’re just being an ass.
Good comedy makes us uncomfortable by shaking us out of our comfort zone, by waking us up to uncomfortable realities we were happy to avoid or ignore. It can also make those who are especially comfortable, those who are too comfortable, nervous.
Bad comedy takes something that is already uncomfortable and smashes it into our faces. It takes those among us who are already uncomfortable and points out their discomfort, for the amusement of those of us who are sitting pretty.
When I say “good”, I mean both in the sense of well done—well crafted, well executed—and in the moral sense. And when I say bad, I mean both cheap and shoddy, and venal and evil. Good comedy can make us better people by making us realize the banality of evil in our midst. Bad comedy turns everyday evil from something mundane and invisible into something hilarious.
As with most things, it’s easier to do comedy badly than it is to do it well. There are more easy targets than there are deserving ones. People are happier about laughing at things that confirm their view of the world and their place in it than things that challenge it.
That’s why comedians like Daniel Tosh will stand up and just repeat a premise like “Isn’t rape funny?” It’s something that sounds transgressive… but it’s not. Everybody who laughed at that joke has laughed at a rape joke before, or made one.
They laugh at it because it confirms that it’s okay to laugh at rape.
It also confirms that rape is something that happens to other people, involves other people, is done by other people. That girl at the party? It wasn’t rape, she didn’t say no. Or she eventually said yes. That horrible night? It was bad sex. That’s all. Not good sex, but not rape.
Otherwise, why would we be sitting here laughing at the idea of rape? Ha ha ha ha ha.
Then there are the people… and statistically, they are there in the crowd… who are really comforted by the joke. They’re laughing because everyone knows you have to say rape is bad, you can’t admit to it… but they also know that everyone does it. They’re sure of that, because they desperately need to believe that it’s true in order to live with themselves.
And the laughter resounding from around the room is the proof they’ve been longing for. So they laugh, long and loud and hard. It’s like meeting Jesus and finding out that not only is he a party animal like you but he drinks the same brand as you. You always worried that you might be a sinner, but now you know you’re in the clear. Hallelujah.
Mostly people are laughing because a comedian’s saying it, so it must be funny.
He’s not supposed to be saying that!
But he said it again.
Laugh. LAUGH. LAUGH!
There’s no craftsmanship there. Defending this kind of comedy as a man doing his job, earning his living… no. That’s someone dodging work. That’s someone sitting back to get out of the heavy lifting. That’s someone slacking off.
That’s someone standing up on stage and saying, “You all paid to see me because I’m supposed to have some special talent for comedy, but I’m just going to blurt things out until I find the laugh button and then I’m going to press it again and again.”
I have a lot of respect for comedians. I have a lot of respect for the work they do the craftsmanship that goes into their writing and the honest-to-goodness hard work of getting up there under the lights and looking out at the crowd and being funny.
It’s a lot easier to be clever on paper. There’s no lights, no sound, no eyes on you, no questions of timing or delivery. There’s no question about it, comedy is a tough job and not everyone can hack it.
I’ve never caught enough of Daniel Tosh’s act to know if he can hack it or not, but I’ll say this: when he stood up in front of a paying audience and said “Rape jokes are always funny.”, he was choosing not to hack it. He tabled the question. He sidestepped it.
He was leaning in to get beaned by the ball so he could walk to first and pretending he hit a home run. He was skipping the low-hanging fruit and going for the ones rotting on the ground.
He wasn’t being a comedian, except on the class clown/anything for a reaction level.
Listen, I think it’s a function of comedy at its best that it afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
You don’t have to believe that comedy has a function beyond laughter, that comedians have a higher purpose in society. You can think that their whole job is to get up and make people laugh and if that happens then they’re doing a good job.
But if there’s no higher meaning to what Daniel Tosh does, then it’s not really such a tragedy that he was momentarily interrupted, is it?
If the price we pay for going to a comedy club is that we might hear rape jokes, surely the price he pays for making them is that he might be held accountable for them in some small, fleeting way. You can’t say “You don’t have the right to go through life hearing nothing that offends you.” and not also believe that no one has the right to go through life saying whatever they want without offending someone. The consequences can’t be flowing in one direction.
You make rape jokes, you run the risk of people acting like you’re an asshole. What would you do if you paid to see a comedian and instead there’s some asshole on stage?