NPF: THE SUBTLE ART OF NOT BEING AN ASSHOLE

To people who say money can't buy happiness, I don't agree. The price of happiness is whatever it costs to buy a Jet-Ski. Ever seen anyone frown on a Jet-Ski? You haven't, because it's not possible. (*acts out sobbing while Jet-Skiing*)

That, delivered well, is funny. It's a Daniel Tosh joke. I consider it evidence that Daniel Tosh has the ability to be funny. He understands how a joke works. It starts with a universal premise and then takes an amusing twist that the audience is unlikely to see coming. Then it's acted out to emphasize how ridiculous the twisted premise is in reality. Good one, Dan.

Eventually, however, he realized that shock value is one of the cornerstones of humor, and a particularly easy one for a moderately clever person to exploit. Why bother writing good material when you can just say a bunch of "Oh no he di'int!" stuff? So Daniel Tosh got lazy and decided it was easier to do a bunch of shock material rather than write jokes. The problem is that over time it has been more difficult to shock audiences. Sex? Porn? Whackin' it? Dead babies? Racism? Abortion? Audiences are used to all of it at this point. As Jane's Addiction once warned us, nothing's shocking (anymore). You can only say "faggot" so many times and tell so many stories about masturbating. We get it. You're edgy.

So, there's rape. Rape is still offensive because, you know, it's horrible. It still shocks people. And it's OK to make jokes about things that are shocking. The problem is that most comedians are too lazy (or too stupid) to figure out how to tell a joke properly about something terrible. Here's a joke I use as an opener quite often.

It's so hot down here during the summer that I actually walked up to an Atlanta cop and begged him to shoot me.

*pause for tepid chuckle*

…and it would have worked if I was black.

*pause*

I'm kidding, of course. If you're black you don't have to ask an Atlanta cop to shoot at you.

I'm kinda proud of that one. It's not straightforward ("Cops are racists, amirite?") but it uses some misdirection humor to make the audience think about something that is fucked up. Racism: It's a Terrible Thing. So it's possible to tell a joke that makes people remember, "Oh, right…rape is a serious problem and it happens all the time, and it's ridiculous to believe stupid things like 'She was asking for it'." An uncharacteristically strong column on Jezebel includes a lengthy discussion of this point, with examples.

Daniel Tosh leans on rape jokes like Katt Williams leans on the F-word. They're not particularly well thought-out or funny. He just says "rape" a lot to keep things "edgy." And in that context – if the rape or the rape victim are the butt of the joke – it just isn't funny. His Twitter account has a "#rape" hashtag with dozens of jokes and references. His TV show includes at least one in every episode.

The problem with this whole ToshTroversy started here: with Tosh telling yet another stupid, un-clever, and lazy rape joke. People coming to his defense and wailing about censorship – a common response among comedians – miss the point. This is a classic Can vs. Should problem. You CAN say whatever you want. Should you? Should you tell a story in which your "clever" twist is that someone gets gang raped at the end? Sure, I guess…if you suck at comedy.

I have a lot of things to say about heckling, and that is the part of this story on which I originally focused. No matter what the comedian says and no matter how justified you believe you are, yelling at the stage is always an asshole move. Sorry. Try doing comedy sometime and you will understand what I mean. Comedy is not just a person talking, it's a person doing a performance that he or she has practiced hundreds of times and that relies entirely on flow and timing. If you fuck that up, the performer is going to be an asshole to you. He or she is going to do whatever is possible to get you to shut up and stop ruining the act as quickly as possible. The audience paid to see the performance, and it is a dick move to stop it akin to talking loudly on a cellphone in a movie theater.

But the more I think about it, the heckler is not the important issue here. The take home point is that he/she-got-raped jokes are lazy, stupid, and only amusing to dolts. Taking the low road and going for the easy shock laugh does not take talent and does not make one good at comedy. Audiences have to be sentient and willing to think a little bit about what they hear in a comedy club – if you decide that you are offended by any mention of rape in any context on a comedy stage, you're not much brighter than the people who laugh at Tosh. And if the comedian isn't thinking carefully about the substance of the joke – Who's the butt of the joke here? What's funny about this, and why? What am I trying to say? – he's not doing his job.

So this controversy has a relatively simple solution: Comedians, stop being lazy dickbags. Don't tell jokes that have no purpose beyond shocking or offending the audience. Try saying something useful. If you're unwilling or unable to do that, then at least avoid being hateful and offensive. Tell some fart jokes or something. Even if you don't care whether the audience is offended or belittled, self interest should be enough to talk you out of this. Nothing says "I'm a hack" quite like rape jokes. You're not edgy or clever. You're a cliche. Don't you want to be a little better than that?

(PS: Seriously though, stop yelling shit at the stage. Everyone who does it thinks they have a great reason. Most of them are wrong.)

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121 Responses to “NPF: THE SUBTLE ART OF NOT BEING AN ASSHOLE”

  1. piny Says:

    Do you really think that happened? Do you really believe even for a second that Tosh WANTED the woman to be raped by his audience in "retribution." Do you really, honestly and truly believe that an intelligent 37 year old man is going to try to or even WANT to incite an actual rape in front of a public audience? Do you really think that happens at a nightclub on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in 2012?

    No. I don't. I don't even think he wanted, exactly, to terrorize her. I don't think he was operating on that level. But he knew that this would be a horrible thing to say to her, that it would hurt her and drive her away, and he understood why. Not on an empathetic level, but on a level that a 37-year-old man is responsible for.

    Do you believe that you can tell a context-free rape joke? Or share a context free fantasy about how awesome it would be if a woman in your audience got gang-raped right there in front of you?

  2. bb in GA Says:

    @elle

    "Is it okay to heckle you right now, as you're off the clock? Or do you not really try to bring the funny when you're not on the job?"

    I know you're European. Are you familiar w/ Monty Python and are you making a subtle reference to the 'Argument Clinic?'

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkHPCmC_bzg&feature=fvst

    Perhaps he is not 'arguing/being funny in his spare time.'

    //bb

  3. jc Says:

    "But you're honestly insisting that Daniel Tosh was trying to instigate an actual rape, then you are living on the other side of some looking glass world that bears no reality to well, the real world."

    You clearly did not comprehend or retain any of the points I was making above.

    One more time, for the reading-comprension-challenged: Whether he "endorsed" rape or not, whether he was "trying" or not, makes NO FUCKING DIFFERENCE AT ALL.

    If you drive drunk and run someone over, it doesn't matter what the fuck you intended or endorsed. You hurt someone because you were voluntarily being reckless, then you tried to blame the victim without putting ANY effort into understanding their situation.

  4. JTM Says:

    JC – I was responding to Mayya who said that Tosh was trying to instigate an actual rape.

    The "joke" may have been horrendous, hurtful, nasty, and perhaps the most hurtful thing a human can SAY to another human – but, that's a far cry from somehow trying to convince actual members of his audience to actually commit rape. One is the act of someone who's got no sensitivity, the other is the act of a psychotic. I truly hope we can at least agree on that.

  5. The Mad Dreamer Says:

    First, one of my favorite moments in comedy regarding hecklers is a video of Stephen Lynch dealing with a heckler during a performance of his song Superhero. He works the heckler into the routine by coming up with a very short, very simple verse that put the heckler in his place:

    If I could be a superhero,
    I would be a heckling cunt.
    Ruining comedy shows all 'round the world
    By being a heckling cunt!

    To get more to my feelings on this comment thread, though, here are my simple feelings on heckling.

    If you are a comedian and someone in the crowd decides to heckle you, you are within your rights to respond.

    If you are a comedian and your response to a heckler is so godawfully atrocious as to fail to be a joke on any level, you should walk off the stage and refund everybody present their ticket money right out of your own pocket because you bring shame to comedy.

    Tosh was so firmly planted in the second that he should quit now.

  6. Elle Says:

    I know you're European. Are you familiar w/ Monty Python and are you making a subtle reference to the 'Argument Clinic?'

    Yes to the first part, although I wasn't thinking about it at the time. Shame on me, but I was just being mean.

  7. Xynzee Says:

    So which do you think would send a stronger message?

    A heckler who can easily dismissed as a humourless, selfish, hyper sensitive, boorish, whinging, anal pore?

    Or

    If 10+ women had stood up, walked out and demanded their money back? And then caught cabs home, leaving their bfs there on his ownsome? Then told him in no uncertain terms that she won't be in a relationship w someone who thinks that the topic is funny.

    You can't change Tosh, let alone society, but you *can* do something in your sphere.

  8. Xynzee Says:

    Er: …can be easily…

  9. Elle Says:

    You can't change Tosh, let alone society, but you *can* do something in your sphere.

    I know that your explanation of how to do anti-rape activism comes from a place of not really knowing anything at all about it, so thought you might be interested in an incomplete list of the things that women (and some men, but really mostly women) have done and created to challenge rape and rape culture.

    Supranational agencies: UN Women, and its predecessor agencies; nation state and regional branches thereof;
    Supranational levers: Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (and its Optional Protocol), Rome Statute of the ICC, especially the inclusion of sexual violence in the definitions of 'war crimes' and 'crimes against humanity', UN SCR. 1325;
    Criminal justice: all rape statues that have moved away from the characterisation of rape as a property crime, extension of statutes of limitations with regard to child abuse (now under attack from the Catholic Church, inter alia), multi-agency investigatory processes that prioritise mental and physical health of complainants;
    Policy and funding: any national or regional policy that has a gendered analysis of violence against women, including rape and sexual violence, and the national or regional or local funding that may flow from this to provision;
    The Rape Crisis movement, and all of its offshoots, which works to provide women (and men and children) with emotional support, support through legal and medical processes, and advocacy; and
    Prevention: all of those anti-rape campaigns, and work in schools and with young people to encourage a culture of consent and healthy relationships.

    Women's sphere is the whole world, dude.

  10. jc Says:

    JTM, he may not have intended to do so, but if you don't see how his actions could constitute deliberate sexual intimidation, I have to question your sanity.

    And what I was getting at is that is barely matters, because the overall effect of his actions is not all that different– not as clear and dramatic-looking, maybe, but actually more insidious because it's done under a pretext of humor, implying that anyone who responds negatively just can't take a joke. And if you can't understand how that might work, that is clear evidence that neither you nor anyone you're close to has ever had to live with that kind of threat.

  11. jc Says:

    Incidentally, you do know that your response to Mayya was a really lame reductio-ad-absurdum, right? You know perfectly well she didn't say this woman would be raped in a public forum on sunset blvd.

    Look, believe it or not, I can appreciate that you actually listen to what people say and try to respond to it. If nothing else, that's more than I can say for other people I've debated on this blog, who have a habit of putting words in my mouth and either ignoring or distorting everything I say. But this kind of shit? It's just not a good-faith argument.

  12. JTM Says:

    From Mayya: "Tosh ***encouraged members of the audience to rape the woman in retribution.***"

    What part of that am I absurdly ad-reducto-ing? That is a direct accusation that Daniel Tosh was trying to get someone raped. Not intimidate her, not scare her or make her feel bad (both of which we might find some modicum of agreement on). No, Mayya states unequivocally that Daniel Tsoh was actually trying to get a woman raped.

    And if you can say that a comic saying giving a heckler a lame-ass comeback to a heckler is the same as intimidation, then I can say that Mayya accusing him of "encouraging rape" is the same as well, actually accusing him of encouraging rape.

    And my ultimate point being that that kind of rhetoric doesn't help anyone.

  13. The Mad Dreamer Says:

    You know how they say "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it's probably a duck" (or otherwise indistinguishable from a duck)?

    Does not Tosh's comment walk like an encouragement to rape and quack like a rape threat? If the comment is so identical to a rape threat that the only way to make it not seem like a rape threat is to go "I was joking. Also heckler!" then you have not merely allowed your comment to walk and quack like a duck, but to also rape like a duck.

  14. jc Says:

    I am completely not surprised that you can't see the link between sexual intimidation and the enabling of sexual violence. But I do find it really telling.

  15. JTM Says:

    Well, then you've got me. I give up.

  16. Xynzee Says:

    "Women's sphere is the whole world, dude."

    If that's your opinion ok.

    To quote Mayya: "why tdoes [sic] YOUR world view trump mine? Answer: it doesn't."

    So I'll be at the comedy club enjoying Tosh's show, and while I'm doing so kindly keep yourself, your opinions and world view out of my entertainment that I've paid my money for.

    BTW: I may have given Tosh a miss, and dismissed him as something to push out of the culture, but your incessant militarism gives me pause to reconsider.

  17. jc Says:

    Aah, the smell of dialogue! So encouraging to know we can work things out when it comes right down to it.

  18. Elle Says:

    BTW: I may have given Tosh a miss, and dismissed him as something to push out of the culture, but your incessant militarism gives me pause to reconsider.

    Damn it! My epaulettes have driven another man towards sub-par comedy.

  19. The Last Word Says:

    Let's give it up for Louis CK.

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-july-16-2012/louis-c-k-?xrs=synd_facebook

  20. Robert Says:

    True story – back in the late 1980s, I was at Harvey's casino in Reno with my first (late) husband. At some show we were watching, there was a standup who was to comedy what Velveeta is to cheese – probably why he was doing an afternoon gig at a Harvey's side room, but I digress.

    I don't remember much about it, but at one point he started ragging on Bobby McFerrin. When he referred to him as 'this Jamaican' I was strongly tempted to yell 'he's not Jamaican, you gormless choad,' but was dissuaded from doing so by my spouse, who did not enjoy scenes.

    Since becoming a parent ten years ago, comedy clubs have not featured in my recreational scene, but I will remember that heckling is not, in fact, correct behavior.

  21. Archery Program Says:

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