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.

38 comments

  • Wow I'm so torn on this one.

    I am similarly to you a supporter of all types of jokes about everything. I think there is a certain level of power that comes with being able to take a joke at your expense.

    I am gay and the first one to make jokes about farting glitter or vomiting up designer handbags.

    Yet I read this article and I was horrified.

    There is nothing funny about rape... maybe... hmm... nope... can't think of anything funny about it.

    I imagine if someone in the audience had ever actually been sexually abused they would have been horrified.

    I'm sorry but there are and always will be certain topics which remain taboo when it comes to making jokes... some of those topics can be deliciously humerous in the right circumstances and conversely others can be horrifyingly awkward and un-funny.

    p.s.

    Why wouldn't the lobster share his toys?

    Because he was shellfish!!!

    Commenter
    Adrian
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    July 13, 2012, 9:24AM
    • I totally agree with you Nadine, all the way. His apology is embarrassing, he'll continue to make those jokes as there will always be people who find them funny, unfortunately. He just made himself seem completely ignorant and unfunny both in the jokes and his response to the heckling. He embarrassed himself.

      Commenter
      MGT
      Location
      Melb CBD
      Date and time
      July 13, 2012, 9:27AM
      • Wow. Tosh may wanna run a few things past his mum first. It appears that his err will brush over though.....Hey, imagine if Kyle Sandilands had of used that as a joke.

        Commenter
        Terrence
        Location
        Moe
        Date and time
        July 13, 2012, 9:34AM
        • It would be better if you posted a transcript or a link to the video so we could understand his statements within the context it occured.

          Commenter
          Anthony
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          July 13, 2012, 9:34AM
          • There was no video. Did you read the article? In what context is that kind of thing acceptable?

            Commenter
            umm
            Date and time
            July 13, 2012, 12:28PM
          • I did read the article. I'm sure there's no "official" video. Why would there be. However, its possible there are multiple phone vids similar to when Kramer wenr on his racist tangent.

            By reading the article I personally don't find his joke acceptable. I wouldn't even say it was a joke. It was a threat of violence. By viewing a video it would assist in our understanding of how it was delivered, what kind of tone etc and how the audience responded. I never said there was a context that would make it acceptable. Did you not read my comment?

            Commenter
            Anthony
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            July 13, 2012, 1:07PM
        • Dear Nadine, I am a mature but funny guy that loves to party and tell lots of jokes. I can see something funny in almost anything and I'd like to add my very strong support to your comments on this topic.

          There is NOTHING funny about rape. NOTHING.

          I was married to a beautiful woman for over 25 years that had been raped by someone she had trusted at 16 years old. To say that it had an impact on our now dead marriage is a massive understatement.
          Anyone that thinks rape in any form is funny needs to experience the extreme fear and powerlessness and the ongoing pain and anguish that follows. If they had even an insight they would shut their very stupid mouths.
          I thank you for your article.

          Commenter
          Funny Guy
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          July 13, 2012, 9:42AM
          • Your Honour, Mr Tosh's attempt at humour (assuming such an attempt was made) failed miserably.
            The 'it was a joke' defence is therefore not available to him.
            As a repeat offender, he should be sentenced to solitary confinement.

            Commenter
            L Hutz
            Location
            Springfield
            Date and time
            July 13, 2012, 9:42AM
            • Sometimes TOSH can be a little confused about the message he is trying to make, I hope this is the situation in this case.

              Generally I like his humour and TV Show, it is sometimes border line, but thats the way I like some of my comedy.

              I guess I am trying to make excuses for him, but that comes from watching his TV show for a few years :) of which I will never miss an EP.

              Commenter
              Jasp
              Location
              Melb
              Date and time
              July 13, 2012, 9:51AM
              • Yep, agree. His show is great and is his standup. This guy is clearly intelligent and doesn't believe in half the stuff he says. He is a comedian trying to entertain by running a fine line. Misogyny and racism, etc can be funny for two reasons. 1. There are actually people who think like that and their beliefs are so absurd that you are more laughing at them than the inappropriate joke because no reasonable person would think like that and 2. Political correctness to do with things like race is funny because people are different and there is a massive white elephant in the room and someone needs to acknowledge it.

                However, there is no escaping the fact he missed the mark here by a long way and there is nothing funny about it and the way he delivered it. He evidently doesn't have the wit to deviate from a script and i doubt he will do so in the future. Nonetheless, he doesn't believe half the crap that comes out of his mouth, comedy is a very hit and miss thing and there is no reason to say his apology isn't sincere just because you don't like him. He simply missed the mark like a singer misses a note or a sportsman a catch and in his genre that leads to these results.

                I highly recommend that anyone that is offended to stay home.

                Commenter
                Trav
                Date and time
                July 13, 2012, 12:47PM

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