Are rape jokes ever funny?

Comedian Daniel Tosh.

Comedian Daniel Tosh. Photo: Getty Images

Trigger warning: discussion of rape and rape imagery.

I love stand-up comedy. I love stand-up comedy so much in fact that last night I drove to Wollongong and back just to see Flight of the Conchords, having missed out on tickets to their Sydney shows. And it was totally worth the petrol money. So as both a lover of stand-up comedy and a person who gets paid to write jokes for a living, I am a strong, often loud advocate of artistic freedom and the right to make jokes about anything and everything provided those jokes come from a place of goodwill and not from a place of hatred. I will laugh at racist jokes, sexist jokes, blonde jokes – and I did laugh at many of them last night -- as long as they are delivered with kindness and a huge lashing of irony. As Ricky Gervais said in response to criticism of his controversial and extremely divisive Golden Globes hosting gig, “No one has the right not to be offended.”

And it’s true. I am a naturally blonde, Jewish woman and have thus been the butt of jokes about my physical and racial characteristics my entire life. Between the blonde jokes, the Jewish jokes and the sexist jokes I could probably be offended by something I hear, read or see every day. But I have built up a “sticks and stones” tolerance – even appreciation – of such humour and a subsequent belief that comedy can be a great social arbiter and instigator of change. 

But last week comedian and television host Daniel Tosh crossed a line. Several lines in fact. He made it personal and he made it mean, and in doing so he sucked the comedy right out of his stand-up. If you haven’t heard the story, the short version is thus: Last Friday night, Daniel Tosh was doing a gig at LA stand-up comedy institution, the Laugh Factory -- a gig in which he made several jokes about rape. Allegedly, his central theme was that rape jokes are inherently hilarious, and can never not be funny (excuse the double negative, I’m paraphrasing). And as is par for the course in stand-up comedy, somebody took offense and spoke up, or rather heckled, to use the appropriate cultural term.

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Actually, rape is never funny,” said the female heckler.

And here’s where things took a turn, as Tosh allegedly responded:

“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?”

Dear Daniel Tosh,

No. Just no.

Regards,

Nadine von Cohen

While I firmly uphold a comedian’s freedom of speech and their right to lay the metaphorical smack down on hecklers, I can’t help but to put myself in that woman’s shoes and imagine how I would handle such a situation. Sure, I probably wouldn’t have heckled in the first place, but if I did, how I would have felt if someone suggested to a room full of strangers that I be gang-raped for funnies?

Not great.

In a blog post written by the heckler, she describes feeling stunned and humiliated, and immediately fleeing the room following Tosh’s tirade against her:

“I should probably add that having to basically flee while Tosh was enthusing about how hilarious it would be if I was gang raped in that small, claustrophobic room was pretty viscerally terrifying and threatening all the same, even if the actual scenario was unlikely to take place. The suggestion of it is violent enough and was meant to put me in my place.”

And after reading that I was totally Team Heckler.

Now before you get all “lighten up, von Cohen” and “Can’t you take a joke?” on me, let me reiterate that I can certainly take a joke and that I am indeed extremely light. I support Tosh’s right to stand up to hecklers, but in suggesting that the heckler in question be gang-raped THERE and THEN, even in jest, Daniel Tosh went too far. He implied that the act of rape is funny in and of itself, rather than something to be generally ridiculed as a coping and diffusion mechanism. 

Since Friday the incident – which has drawn comparisons to Michael Richards’ racist invective and Tracy Morgan’s homophobic diatribe -- has become a major talking point throughout the world, especially amongst comedians and Twitter users. While many celebrities (Martha Plimpton, Sophia Bush) have slammed Tosh for his actions, others – including Louis CK and Jim Norton, have made statements in defence of their comic comrade. Fellow comedian Dane Cook, who also performed at the Laugh Factory that night even went so far as to claim that “easily offended people should kill themselves.”

Clearly feeling the fallout, Tosh has since taken to Twitter to (somewhat half-heartedly) say sorry, stating: “All the out-of-context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologise”. And further: “The point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies”. 

My feeling is that simply using the word “sincerely” does not a believable apology make. But hey, after all, I’m just a dumb blonde, frugal Jewish, weak woman so I’ll just shut up and let the WASPy men folk take it from here.