Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Are rape jokes ever funny?

Recently a comedian named Daniel Tosh made a rape joke and caused a huge stir. I don't know what the joke was; I assume it wasn't funny. I didn't pay much attention. I did notice, however, some of the responses from friends in my Twitter feed, many of them along the lines of "Rape jokes are never funny." For example, Roxane Gay (her account is protected, so I hope she won't mind my sharing this) tweeted: "Rape jokes in 2012. Never funny. Bizarre that this keeps needing to be said." To be clear, I consider Roxane a friend and agree with many things she says, especially with regard to race and gender politics. Also, I'm just using this tweet as an example because I remember it; she is certainly not the only person in my world who feels this way. But I thought about this one for a while and I don't think I agree.

I assume people arrive at this conclusion (that rape jokes are never funny) because the act of rape itself is not funny. There seems to be a further idea that if you've never been raped, you can't understand how unfunny it is. This part I don't agree with. I've never been murdered, but I understand that murder is not funny. (Does Harper's understand this? I'm not sure.) I have also never been raped (though I have been sexually assaulted), but I understand that rape is a deadly serious thing.

I also understand that rape -- like murder, or suicide -- is a rich concept and a rich metaphor. I have written poems about rape. If it's not OK to joke about rape, is it OK to write poetry about rape? If jokes about rape are never funny, are poems about rape never beautiful or interesting? (These are serious questions.) I don't think any topic is really taboo -- references to despicable acts (if not those acts themselves, when they really happen in the real world) are often funny. Who hasn't laughed at a joke about 9/11 or the Holocaust? I think jokes are a natural way to process -- a way to think about -- despicable acts, and joking about them doesn't make them less despicable. It can actually help us understand them.

But, as usual, context matters. If you don't actually grasp the seriousness or complexity of rape or murder or terrorism or genocide, it is unlikely that I will find your joke about it funny. If I don't sense that you are aware of the tension between your joke and reality, if there is no tonal register indicating that you have processed that distance and that risk, your joke is probably not funny. In other words, as I tweeted earlier this morning, "Topics aren't the problem, hateful douchebags are."

But I'm open to argument. If you think rape jokes are never funny, tell me why.

UPDATE: Rob Delaney answered this question on Reddit four months ago. I like his answer. Here it is (in response to "Is there any topic that you consider to be taboo"):
Not really. Let's take rape for example. It's not funny. End of discussion. But you can do a funny joke about how people talk about rape, or you can juxtapose it against something else in a way that will evoke laughter and a "new" way of thinking in people who aren't monsters and/or rapists. So it's all about the way the joke is done. Is your motivation/volition to help or shed light in a way that will (if taken to its maximum/mega-extreme) result in LESS rape in the world? Then please, talk and joke about it.
UPDATE 2: Dan Boehl pointed me to this list of "15 Rape Jokes That Work." I'm not moved by all of them (though I'm glad that most of them are delivered and presumably written by women), but I do find #14 pretty profound. This is Sarah Silverman, quoted in the NYT
“I need more rape jokes,” she shouted nasally before letting her fans in on what she called a comedy secret, that such jokes are actually not so “edgy” after all. “Who’s going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims?” she asked. “They barely even report rape.”
I am in awe of this joke. It is sort of objectively funny, though I didn't laugh out loud; I might have if I had seen her deliver it versus reading it online. But it fires off responses in so many parts of my brain at once. It is horrifying and uncomfortable. It's challenging. It would quite obviously have a totally different (and more frightening) effect if it came from a man. It is meta-humor and meta-culture. It doesn't matter if I "like" it or if I'm offended. It's offensive in the right way. I think it's important that jokes like this exist.

70 comments:

  1. To do an objective assessment will require examples.

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    1. What, examples of funny rape jokes? That's hard because you are taking them out of context. And I'm not thinking of something a comedian said or a line from a movie, I just know that I have laughed at jokes about rape in the real world, when talking with people I know aren't hateful douchebags.

      Here's a stupid example that just popped into my mind. Round about 2005, I was eating brunch in Cambridge MA with a group of friends -- three guys I know who were visiting from NY and a woman I know who also lived in Boston. One of the guys was telling some story about a person who had a pet snake that had died somehow, and was about to say what they had done with it, and the woman interrupted and said "They took it out back and raped it?" I know we all laughed. Maybe it was funny because it was shocking and out of nowhere. Maybe it was funny because of the absurd and extreme contrast between the idea of raping a dead snake and the idea of raping a live woman, which in a "rape culture," is so often trivialized/dismissed/ignored. Maybe it was funny because we were hungover and hopped up on coffee. Probably all of those reasons. But I do think the second reason plays a part, and if the joke was funny to me, it's funny for different reasons than it would be (if it would be at all) for some guy who doesn't grasp what rape means. And certainly I don't expect that joke to be funny now, for anyone who wasn't there. Context matters, company matters. What is in "good taste" often depends on context, company, mood, understanding, trust.

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  2. Never funny. This kind of covers the event in question. Tosh is an idiot.

    http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/07/11/rape-jokes-are-not-funny-and-other-things-that-daniel-tosh-is-wrong-about/

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    1. Ugh, his routine sounds unbelievably unfunny, and clearly he's an asshole.

      Would you say that jokes about other terrible things (murder, suicide, etc.) are also never funny? I'm actually curious how we negotiate these things. Rape is different from murder because it's largely a woman's issue, while murder is not, but I do think it's a complex negotiation.

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    2. I find it offensive when people say that rape is a woman's issue. Most often, (but not always, of course) rape is being committed by a man. These women being attacked or molested or raped have fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, and otherwise that care about them. Murder is not simply the victim's issue, robbery is not simply a bank issue, how is rape simply a woman's issue?

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    3. I don't think that's what the term "woman's issue" means.

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  3. This is a great discussion. Tosh sounds horrible. And Roxane's assertion that rape jokes are never funny reminds me a little bit of Adorno's assertion in his essay "Cultural Criticism and Society" that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz:

    "The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation."

    I don't really have an "argument" at this point, but I appreciate your provocation to think about this.

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    1. Thanks Kathy. That Adorno parallel is so obviously there I can't believe I didn't explicitly reference it myself. I do worry that my opinion above will make some people angry, but if so I hope they'll engage and tell me why. I mean obviously we do keep writing poetry after Auschwitz. And people use heinous crimes as metaphors in jokes all the time.

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    2. Yeah, my intuitive reaction, also, is to say Adorno is "wrong" (too broad a term, but hopefully that makes sense) and rape jokes *can* be funny (which feels awful to even type, sort of, but still). Like that to say Adorno's right and/or Roxane is is to get perilously close to saying these things--rape, the Holocaust, etc.--not only can't be laughed at or put into poems, but they can't be talked about at all, which does not seem helpful.

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    3. is to get perilously close to saying these things--rape, the Holocaust, etc.--not only can't be laughed at or put into poems, but they can't be talked about at all -- Yes, where we draw that distinction is troublesome for me too.

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  4. Did you hear the one about the child molester and the kid in the woods at night? "It's so dark and scary here!" says the kid. And the child molester says, "*You're* scared? Think of me--I have to walk out of here alone!"

    I probably told that wrong, but yeah. Comedy is a shield against horrible things. Even if we haven't been raped or murdered *yet*, it could happen in the future. And of course death *will* happen. We all share that fear. The fear of being raped is obviously much more common among women, but that's why it's probably best to leave the rape jokes to women comics (well not necessarily comics, but women anyway). If your friend who joked about raping a dead snake was a guy, it might not be as funny...

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  5. I don't think Delaney's answer quite has it. It makes the value of the creation -- here the joke -- dependent on its consequences in the world (or, anyway, the consequences intended by the teller). If a joke reduces rape, or aims to reduce rape, he says, then it's okay. But does that really tell us anything about whether it's funny? I don't think funniness is in that kind of neat relationship with social value.

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    1. If you read that line carefully, I don't think he's setting up a true dependence relationship: "Is your motivation/volition to help or shed light in a way that will (if taken to its maximum/mega-extreme) result in LESS rape in the world?" I also think he was saying that intentions can make a topic fair territory, but not that intentions will necessarily make anything funny.

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  6. Anybody else remember this off-the-cuff wisecrack from Sofia Vergara a while back? When asked about how she could have a son as old as hers is considering how young and attractive she herself is, she "joked" that she was raped at a young age. The rest of the folks on The View just kind of brisked passed the remark:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aE695AfeOI

    I've watched Tosh's show on a few occasions, and it's fair to say that he gets his laughs by being as much of a jerk as possible. Some argue that he does this to be subversive, or as some kind of scathing cultural commentary, and I think that's true sometimes. But other times I think he's just being a sexist jerk.

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    1. Whoa! That was weird and pretty inappropriate?! The way she says it, it almost sounds true for a second.

      This actually sort of ties into the whole New Sincerity discussion for me. Because, again, meaning is highly dependent on context and intentions.

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    2. That reminds me of the Sarah Silverman joke about the dentist.

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    3. Question resolved; it's in the "15 rape jokes" link above, though I believe it's a doctor.

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  7. In following some of the posts on "New Sincerity" the one question that keeps coming to mind is...what makes this "sincerity" so new?

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    1. The fact that it's not actually sincere?!?!?!

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  8. I'm glad you didn't agree with Roxanne Gay. No subject--not even rape--is off-limits to humor. In fact, if you're a humorist or comedian, you might actually look for a taboo subject--something people DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT--because the more psychic tension a joke arouses and resolves, the bigger the laugh. Think of the jokes about genocide in Dr. Strangelove, about "dead nigger storage" in Pulp Fiction. Both men and women hide and feel guilty about rape fantasies--fantasies of raping or being raped; or a woman may covertly fantasize about being raped so as not to feel guilty over indulging sexual desire. (I hasten to add that doesn't mean she really wants to be raped--not at all. She's in complete control of her fantasy.) So the subject of rape will arouse tension. One way to make a joke out of it would be to look for what some comedy writer called a "wildly inappropriate response." I.e., one's attitude clashes with the circumstances one is in. For example, in Little Shop of Horrors, Jack Nicholson plays a masochist who undergoes painful dental work for the pleasure of it. What would be a wildly inappropriate, hence funny, response to the threat of rape? There's an example in a movie called Welsome to the Doll House. Maybe you've seen it.

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    1. That was Bill Murray, actually! And Steve Martin was the dentist.

      I find the trope of the rape fantasy endlessly fascinating. I think there is lots of truth to this: a woman may covertly fantasize about being raped so as not to feel guilty over indulging sexual desire. It's a very common little-girl idea of sexuality, probably inherited from films and books (very common in romance novels, the beautiful virgin being ravaged by an overpowering man-beast), that makes sex "OK" because you're not (exactly?) a willing participant (a lot of "rape fantasies" are more like forceful seduction fantasies). It's common for women because we're not allowed or enabled to "own" or command our own sexuality. And thanks for your point about control. What people want in a fantasy doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what they want in real life.

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    2. Doh! I totally blanked on Jack Nicholson being in the 1960 version of that movie. (Weird.)

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  9. "Some voices of the buxom middle-aged / Were also heard to wonder in the din / (Widows of forty were these birds long caged) / 'Wherefore the ravaging did not begin!""

    That's a rape joke from Byron. Is it funny? Aside from the idea that we shouldn't find it funny because such jokes NEVER are, can we appreciate the humor there? I was taken aback once by a critic who quoted it as a funny joke without even reflecting on the dilemma, because if you really think about it it might be pretty horrible. Or maybe not.

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    1. I wouldn't call that "funny" as it's essentially mean-spirited. But then Byron was a misogynist, right? I'm reminded of an article, found via Sarang, on the eating habits of romantic poets: "Byron rarely accepted dinner invitations and claimed to be especially repulsed by the sight of women eating."

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  10. "If you don't actually grasp the seriousness or complexity of rape or murder or terrorism or genocide, it is unlikely that I will find your joke about it funny. If I don't sense that you are aware of the tension between your joke and reality, if there is no tonal register indicating that you have processed that distance and that risk, your joke is probably not funny."

    This, I think, is really important and similar to how I feel about this whole thing. A man has to show something pretty profound in order for me to be okay with him making a rape joke, but a woman, not so much, because she is more likely to be the victim than the predator when it comes to rape and sexual assault. I think Louis CK, who was mentioned quite a bit in the comment section of Roxane's essay, is one of those exceptions for me. He seems to have this genuine sense of exploration and inquiry in his comedy and I never feel as if he "takes advantage" of a certain group in order to get a laugh.

    Sort of makes me think of Hipster Racism and how the lack of a "tonal register indicating that you have processed that distance and that risk" may be what defines those comments as racism instead of jokes. More to it than that, I'm sure, but I'm interested in how we draw the line. And what cues in someone's delivery we pick up on and then use to put the comments in one territory or another. I do think it's important to think (talk) about and more helpful than simply putting a topic off limits--that doesn't exactly encourage self-examination/reflection/change.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! The connection to "Hipster Racism" is interesting -- in general I think we're afraid, as a culture, to call people and actions out as racist and sexist, we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, to the point that people start acting like calling someone racist is more of a crime than actually *being* racist. And probably 95-99% of rape jokes ARE sexist and offensive and unnecessary ... but it seems important to leave room for that kind of profound joke that brings a new kind of understanding and even implicates you and your own assumptions.

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    2. I agree that it's important to leave room for the profound joke. I think some of the best comedians are known for their honesty/sincerity and that gives them a great deal of power, puts them in a position where they could actually hold a mirror up to someone and that someone be open to it and/or moved by it. It's disturbing (for me, at least) to think that Louis CK has a better chance of causing people to re-evaluate how they view rape/women than someone like Barack Obama, but I'm inclined to think it's true.

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    3. Y'all convinced me, this sounds about right to me

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    4. Is this the first "you convinced me" comment in the history of blog commenting???

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    5. you mean for me or like for all time ever

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    6. Anybody, ever. It's unprecedented.

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  12. Well, you are a provocative little thing, arent you? I love that, actually. Perhaps the reason rape is a humor land mine is because it's not sexually neutral. Murder, suicide and the other examples you site happen to people regardless of sex. They mirror the human experience and are, therefore, fair game for humor. If both sexes were equally victimized by rape, it would be funnier. As it is, the topic of rape is most funny, in my opinion, when used by women. Then again, humor exists to cross boundaries, piss us off and mock all that is considered sacred. Any joke, if well written and well delivered, will probably make me laugh. Even if Inner Critic is scolding me at the same time.

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    1. Thank you for stopping by. :) Yes, the gender imbalance does make things more delicate, doesn't it? Especially when comedy itself is such a sexist industry, and most of the writers employed at comedy shows are men, and most of the comics at stand-up festivals are men, and so on. You know what I'd like to see? I smart, feminist comic doing a whole riff on the kinds of rape jokes that asshole sexist comics make. I bet that would be something.

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    2. You made me think of another interesting question -- murder and genocide usually aren't race-neutral. The death penalty is overwhelming applied to blacks/non-whites, isn't it? Do we have to consider questions of race when we joke about the death penalty? It's complicated!

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    3. The idea that rape is gender biased is actually gender exploitation. Rape is a common act in prison. So are other forms of violence. A production composed entirely of men.

      Power is power.

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    4. Power is power, that's true. But "bias" doesn't mean all or nothing. It means it slants a certain way. There's an imbalance.

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  13. A great discussion, to which I have only a few points/questions to add.

    When someone attempts a joke, and others laugh, and yet another person says, "That's not funny," what "That's not funny" in effect means is, "I see that (all of) you find that funny, but since what you have said is immoral, it is wrong of you to have found it funny."

    So the question that leads to is, must a joke be moral (according to whatever given set of standards) to be funny? Or can there be immoral jokes that are also funny?

    Whether something is moral, and whether it is funny, are maybe in some cases two different questions.

    How much of humor is immoral, I wonder, and how much of it is consciously immoral? If I think about the neighborhoods where I grew up, I would conclude that a fair amount of humor is immoral and very much knows it. For example, all the dead and mutilated baby jokes that kids around me told growing up.

    I wonder how much of humor involves saying what shouldn't be said, and laughing about it, and feeling relief at laughing at what shouldn't have been said. This reminds me how much humor is also related to disgust; we laugh at disgusting things often to make them less overwhelming.

    I don't say this to defend rape jokes, by any means. I'm sure most of them are not funny (by which I don't mean not moral, but not funny whether they're moral or not), although the Sarah Silverman joke and the first of Matt's jokes seem quite funny to me.

    All I'm saying is; we can talk about humor, and talk about morality, and talk about the relation between humor and morality, but can we say that humor must be moral in order to be funny? We can certainly say that it must be moral in order to be moral, but that's maybe a different issue.

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    1. Thanks, Mark, that's an important distinction that is getting glossed over. I do think that what "Rape jokes are never funny" means, when you unpack it, is "Rape jokes are immoral and immoral jokes are not funny." Of course this can quickly devolve into an argument where people are just arguing over what's funny and what isn't, which is obviously different for everyone. And yes, I have laughed at plenty of immoral jokes in my time. Here I was focusing more on the implicit claim that all rape jokes are immoral -- and I definitely don't agree with that.

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  14. Jokes are psychological pipe bombs, I think. Humor is a very effective form of subversion. It should be employed and defended.

    Rape is about power, a shitty thing to do to someone, but not joking about it accomplishes what?

    I mean, I understand why rape victims feel emotional when the subject is broached. Other people take offense because their illusion of safety suddenly falters, and a feeling of powerlessness floods their mind; a thought process most people in the 21st century spend an entire life avoiding.

    I have a girlfriend who is very attractive and much younger than me. During our first year living in Hollywood she became victim to a sexual assault, albeit a passive one. A man pulled his dick out and rubbed it while trying to get her to come to his car. Her response was to run and cry. She was emotional and afraid for months after.

    Objectively, the act wasn't a big deal. But a deep sense of powerlessness was born from it. So I bought her pepper spray, talked about reactions to possible scenarios, and encouraged/reinforced the idea of individual strength.

    The two years after the assault my girlfriend has pepper sprayed a violent skinhead, prevented 3 males from mugging, and i've personally witnessed her punch 3 different men in response to physical altercations.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is people should address their insecurities. Knowing strength feels a lot better than avoiding threats.

    Back to the topic of humor: it can be used as a filter. An offensive joke is polarizing. A person can be judged by their response.

    I also think people being upset about something, or anything, on television is weak minded.

    Comedians are performers. Television is performance for the primary gain of money instead of passion for art. Feeling anger over what's said is silly.

    If anything, umbrage should be directed at television itself. The thing ia a fucking stereotype factory.

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    1. Interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing them.

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  15. I very much tend towards rape is not a joke--period; but I do love the Boehl point that a joke cld be made from the discourse on rape--tho that wld still be a highwire act. I think a big reason why I am leary is I cant help but feeling that if it is potentially ok out of one sex's mouth and not another, that there is something very off, as the joke is, in essence, a length of syntax which can be carried via mediums other than a live delivery from the larynx, so if it's the vessel of the joke that makes the joke maybe ok, then it still seems one is left with a big mess. This argument/musing is similar to my view of cunt and motherfucker: if someone is cool with having their friend, in person, call their mom or GF that--well then ok I suppose that's a stance; but if offense errupts, then I feel there's a gap like a tripping ankle-breaking crack not an exciting lacuna. I do, tho, very much admire this posting--so calm, cool, collected--an edgy space where dialogue can actually happen regarding a form of terror! Definitely RAD!

    My frequent use of Fag is very problematic which cld relate to this topic: the shat-on subject-position shitting on themselves stance.

    Happy Friday!

    Has anyone noticed how it's not rare--in some circles--for personal adds to state the person wants to be raped?! I hate this because I get that they mean it in a troping way, but it's flatout not accurate: if one requests something, that implies consent! And clearly consentual and rape are not synonyms!

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    1. Thanks Adam! The thing about certain words and who is allowed to say them -- it gets very, very tricky. I think sometimes it comes down to there being multiple definitions of a word. Like "cunt" can just mean "vagina," and it can be used in a way, be either gender I guess, that I don't find offensive. But then it can be used by men in a hateful way, as a slur, to mean something entirely different. What? I don't know "Worthless stupid piece of shit by virtue of having a vagina?" Something like that. Just because it has that meaning, and can be used in that way, does that mean we have to write off the word and it's other uses entirely?

      In general, I'm of the mindset that context and intentions matter, and words out of context are very difficult to interpret.

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  16. I tend to use "fuck" and "cunt" sparingly & literally, which seems to jolt some people. I used to work with a very Catholic guy who liberally cratered his speech with f-bombs, but usually he was using "fucking" as a modifier or a meaningless rhythmic accessory, which I don't do unless I'm slumming--ingratiating by sounding demotic--or dissembling my old-fashioned sappiness. Most of his sentences were like "Where the fuck is the fucking ISBN" or "Fucking give me a break." But if I said something like "Is she fucking Adam or what," he'd stiffen &/or blush. Funny guy.

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    1. That's funny. He only approves of one sense of the word!

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    2. I do the meaningless rhythmic accessory thing-- I blame Mamet

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    3. Remember Dan Baseman? He taught me the comic power of putting "fucking" in an unexpected part of the sentence. For example: Instead of "That was a fucking good movie" or "That was a good fucking movie," "That was fucking a good movie."

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  17. I totally agree that cunt is an interesting word precisely because it doesn't have a tidy signifier equals signified relationship; as you point out, it often means the female topos is a slew of shit, not any literal address to a labia etc. This is I think why I don't like the word: it's both mean and not even direct/clear in its targeting (bomb as evasion) and I just can't get with the woman is gross troping. Now for some awkwardness: aesthetically speaking, I massively prefer it to vagina: not a fan of long I sounds etc.

    I agree language has context, but the context argument still creeps me because it relies to some degree on the millieu all coming to consensus of what amuses or does not (I know you have indeed pointed this dynamic out!), so that the subject who feels freaked may just become laughing-stock. Too, context based arguments suggest that there's re-signifying energies which can be readily tapped into, and I'd argue that it's xxxxxxtremely difficult to resignify these terms and that a joke may not be the best vessel. This is something I love about Melvin Tolson's lines "Black Boy, oh Black boy/Was the port worth the cruise?" (Likely not quoted excactly) Presumably this is alluding to the Middle Passage, and that's heartbreaking, but the effortless one-liner quality of this quotation, through its lightness, doesn't make fun of that history, but instead, via levity, brilliantly unseats expectations and perhaps does refigure devastation but nopt with the aim of lessening, making light of--instead a kind of illumination. Consensus freaks me out; this is hugely why I love this blog--it's very clear that one does not have to agree, and the counterview won't be shat on or if there is disagreement it is beautifully analytic!

    adam strauss

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    1. Thank you! I think I have a tag here called "against consensus" ...

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  18. I've been lurking here the past couple of days, after reading your blogpost and then the comments, trying to sort out what I think about this. I'm all over the map with it.

    I guess I could imagine a joke about rape, told by the right person in the right circumstances, that I might think was funny. I would not be likely to try telling such a joke myself.

    As complicated as the questions about context might be, to my thinking it does, in fact, have something to do with whether I think a joke (about whatever subject) is funny or not, especially about anything sensitive or volatile.

    After I read your post and the first few comments, I Googled "sarah silverman" and "rape" together in the search window, and followed one of the hits to a NY Times article about women comedians who (according to the article) deal with edgy material, including rape now and then. The article included Silverman's joke about the doctor. (I laughed when I read the joke.)

    A joke can be taken apart, if you're inclined to do so. Silverman's doctor joke attempts to probe stereotypes about women, and women's sexuality, and Jewish women, among other things; the joke tries to expose the absurdity and stupidity of the stereotypes by taking them to their most extreme limits.

    This is a trick business and doesn't always work. A lot of what makes a joke funny, or not funny, has to do with the assumptions behind the joke, and the assumptions the joke is questioning or subverting. And it does, sometimes, make a difference, who is telling the joke. I won't say flatly that a rape joke told by a man could never be funny, though I think the chances of it being funny are smaller than if the same joke were told by a woman. Silverman's doctor joke is, I think, a good example here. I have a hard time imagining the joke being funny if it were told by a man.

    All of this is, for me, separate from the question of whether anyone should or should not ever tell a joke about (name any touchy or controversial subject). And this is itself separate (for me) from the question of whether there should be any laws or similar apparatus limiting what anyone can say or in what circumstances. I agree, in principle, with the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" concept. There are times when certain kinds of speech are so volatile, and tend to create such a clear and present danger, that we as a society should not allow it in those circumstances.

    Given the society that we live in right now, and the current statistics about rape, and about under reporting of rape, and the widespread confusion or "disagreement" about what rape is -- these among other things -- under what circumstances does making a joke about rape not create, or contribute to, a clear and present danger?

    I'm not pretending to have an answser to this question, but it's one of the questions that has taken shape for me, reading the discussion here.

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    1. Thanks for your comments/questions. It is definitely a tricky business. And agreed about the doctor joke -- it also wouldn't be funny if it were told by someone who isn't Jewish.

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  19. Indeed I do not mind. Mostly I am just commenting to say that this made me think and that I particularly appreciated the line, " "Topics aren't the problem, hateful douchebags are." For me that's what a lot of this is about. I have a blindspot on this topic for sure but also, it's mostly total douchebags who tell the stupidest rape jokes so reflexively I think yeah, these jokes shouldn't be allowed because they're just so banal or idiotic most of the time. So few comics have the talent to pull off a truly good rape joke. Its frustrating to watch all the bumbling on so sensitive a topic.

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    1. Thank you for commenting Roxane. And yes, it kills me when idiotic, wildly offensive and not-even-funny rape "jokes" get a pass because the comic is just "pushing buttons" or "being edgy." Straight up sexism or racism isn't "edgy," but interrogating those subjects can be, if done intelligently and carefully.

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  20. I agree that there is humour in the darkest subject matter. I was the victim of a violent attempted rape by a stranger when I was a teenager, and I am sure I could find a comedic angle to it if I thought long enough. And yes, I think humour is a way of working through difficult experience, including death. My mother wanted to have her tombstone engraved with the words: "It's so nice to lie down", which always made me chuckle.

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    1. "It's no nice to lie down"! I love that and will never forget it.

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    2. That tombstone is very funny. Come to think of it, tombstones may be a vast untapped goldmine of funny one-liners?!

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    3. Surely someone has written a book of funny tombstones? If not, it should happen.

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    4. how bout we do it on this blog

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    5. An interviewer once asked the comedian Johnny Carson what he wanted his epitaph to be. Carson thought about it for a few seconds, and said "Maybe... I'll Be Right Back."

      I read someplace later (though haven't confirmed it firsthand) that "I'll Be Right Back" is in fact what's carved on Carson's tombstone.

      I think that's hilarious.

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    6. so wait, is it "so nice" or "no nice"? (could be important later)

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  21. This is a great post, and I like that you've separated the issue of "Can rape jokes be funny?" (Sure.) from "Was what Tosh said to that audience member completely inappropriate?" (in my opinion, yes).

    On my 2nd date with my boyfriend, we decided to go to an arcade for his birthday, and I was nervous we'd be spending so much time together, and would run out of things to talk about. "We'll just make Holocaust jokes if we run out of stuff to talk about," he said, and maybe that would have been creepy if I was someone else, but sharing a dark sense of humor is one of the first things we clicked over. His grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and I think making dark jokes is one way of coping with the legacy of that. We also can talk about the Holocaust in a deadly serious way of course. Maybe allowing for the possibility of rape jokes is also allowing for the possibility of more discussion of sexual assault. Can a joke trigger catharsis in a way a more serious, impassioned rant wouldn't?

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    1. I also think what Tosh said was totally inappropriate, and I really like the idea of a joke triggering catharsis, in the same any kind of art might.

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  22. Matt: "so nice," of course. That was my typo.

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  23. http://www.memphisbagpipes.com/bugger.jpg

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  24. If anyone is still reading this thread, I'd just like to second the recommendation someone made (which for some reason I can't seem to find now) of the documentary The Aristocrats, which I just watched. It makes you realize how ridiculous the "rape jokes are never funny" assertion really is. In fact, I'd also like to retract my opinion that jokes involving rape should be left to women. The Aristocrats joke, depending on who's telling it, usually involves the most graphic and horrible descriptions of sexual deviancy you'll ever hear, but if it's told by a talented comedian--and comedians are just as much artists as any literary writer--it can definitely be funny, even if it's a man.

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    1. I believe that recommendation was offered on Twitter, not here.

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