Bubbling Up —
Please Note: “And Now for Something Completely Different” is a new theme that will be dedicated to posts that are not directly related to fat. Until I develop a forum for posts like this, I’m going to use this forum to get things off my chest. These will not replace the fresh daily posts on fat subjects.
Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. Debating comedy is damn-near impossible.
I’ve tackled the subject of fat jokes on this blog many times, from Kathy Griffin to George Takei to Daniel Tosh, but each time I feel a bit uneasy about the entire process of critiquing comedy because it resides in such an awkward zone of free speech. Contemporary comedy (at least the hackneyed, undisciplined kind) seems to thrive on pushing the envelope and making its audience uncomfortable.
We can thank Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and George Carlin (among so many others) for transitioning comedy from “Take my wife, please!” to constructive social commentary. And the best comedic commentary is the kind that simultaneously makes people squirm and think. The late Bill Hicks remains the gold standard, while Louis CK has taken up the mantle.
So when I criticize people for making fat jokes, I try to gauge intent, which is about the worst way to criticize anything since the go-to rejoinder is “that wasn’t my intent!” But I think there are cases (e.g., Griffin, Takei and Tosh) where the intent is so egregious that it’s hard to draw any other conclusion than the fact that the joke in question was of the malicious hack variety — no intelligent subtext, just cruelty and a quick laugh.
Although I would love to convince the world that malicious fat jokes are a net negative on the culture, I generally look at them as a squishy grey area that’s open to interpretation. Fat jokes can be troubling, but aren’t as harmful as some of the other shit we put up with.
I can’t say the same about rape jokes.
The controversy over rape jokes came to a head last year when Tosh made a tasteless rape joke at the expense of woman in the audience who heckled him for telling a rape joke. Depending on who you ask, Tosh either talked about how hilarious it would be if that woman was gang-raped by five guys or, as the club owner tried to put it, that it sounded like she’d been raped by five guys.
Of course, comedians jumped to his defense because comedians don’t like the idea of their comedy being restricted in any way. But some of the responses only made a stronger case against carte blanche comedy. For instance, the mind-bogglingly overrated Dane Cook tweeted, “If you journey through this life easily offended by other peoples words I think it’s best for everyone if you just kill yourself.” Meanwhile, Anthony Jeselnik, whose painfully unfunny Comedy Central debut is all about offensive bullshit, tweeted, “This Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy really has me second guessing some of my rapes.”
Those comments are par for course from Cook and Jeselnik, who have the comedic sensibilities of an 8-year-old who just learned his first swear word. Without the periodic gasps of shocked audience members, they wouldn’t have a career to speak of.
Where I was surprised was in Patton Oswalt’s response: “Wow,
@danieltosh had to apologize to a self-aggrandizing, idiotic blogger. Hope I never have to do that (again).” Oswalt elaborated to Entertainment Weekly, saying “It’s very dangerous to create an atmosphere where people can’t fuck up onstage, and it costs them their life or career.”
I agree with this latter interpretation. People fuck up. People try to tell rape jokes they thought were clever or insightful or precariously provocative, but end up offending everyone in the world. One joke shouldn’t end your career, but you also shouldn’t be surprised if your career evaporates because your go-to material offends too many people. Free speech doesn’t mean zero consequences.
Fast forward to last week, when Molly Knefel wrote a piece for Salon criticizing Patton Oswalt. Knefel took offense at the fact that Oswalt had written a touching and impassioned response to the Boston Marathon bombings, yet essentially defended a comedian’s right to tell rape jokes. Oswalt’s Boston post included this spirit-raising end:
So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”
Oswalt’s words reassured us that even though we had just witnessed an unspeakable horror, it was a blip compared to the reality of a compassionate and selfless humanity. But Knefel drew a direct comparison between Oswalt’s response to Boston and his response to Tosh:
As eloquent as Oswalt’s message about Boston was, it is not particularly challenging to side with the victims of a horrible act of violence committed against civilians. Americans are united in their desire to condemn such atrocities. Many comedians, including Oswalt, also condemned the Aurora theater shooting and made an explicit point not to joke about it. None of this is to compare these different types of violence, but to offer an observation on the types of violence that are universally condemned as opposed to culturally sanctioned. The consensus formed by the majority-male comedy population is that sexual violence is not just OK to joke about, but joke about with extraordinary frequency and viciousness, where the targets of the jokes are the victims, not the perpetrators.
On the heels of Knefel’s post, Lindy West wrote a post for Jezebel that was aimed at the general stand-up comedy culture, but sought to answer the typical justifications for rape jokes that comedians make. She also implored comedians to consider the effect that the tone and trajectory of rape jokes can have on a culture:
You can talk about controversial subjects—in fact, you should talk about controversial subjects, because comedy is an incredibly powerful subversive tool—but if you want people like me to stop bitching at you (a dream we share, I promise!), you need to stop using your comedy to make those things worse. You don’t have to make things better—you are under no obligation to save the world—but if you are actively making things worse for people, especially when you are not a member of the group whose existence you are worsening, don’t be surprised when people complain.
These two pieces covered the anti-rape joke side perfectly and there’s nothing to add to that. Then Oswalt tweeted West to tell her that he appreciated her critique (but not Knefel’s). I’ve Storified their back-and-forth because civil discourse kicks ass. But what bothered me was that West asked Oswalt to expand on his beliefs (rather than simply praising civil discourse) and his response was “Rape is absolutely wrong; speech is absolutely free.”
As defenses go, it’s pretty weak tea. Of course rape is absolutely wrong. Nobody claimed that Patton Oswalt is pro-rape. And speech is not absolutely free. If Daniel Tosh wants to, he can walk through Times Square yelling “I LOVE RAPE!” without being arrested (in theory), but he’s also going to have to deal with observers who choose to confront him and tell him that he’s an asshole. Likewise, Tosh can pack his set with rape jokes, but he still has to deal with fans who think he’s no longer funny.
I find comedians who complain about free speech for rape jokes to be just as laughable as homophobic bigots who complain that they’re labeled homophobic bigots for being homophobic bigots. Comedians and homophobic bigots can say whatever the fuck they want, whenever the fuck they want, but they still have to own the consequences.
Just as Lindy West and Molly Knepfel don’t get to censor the set lists of comedians, comedians don’t get to set the terms of what the public gets offended by. And yet, there’s Patton Oswalt talking about how “dangerous” it would be for comedians to experience actual consequences for saying horrible things, even by accident.
[A]gain, all he did was not use his public forum in a way someone decided for him that he should. Molly Knefel wrote a piece out of the blue and drew Patton Oswalt into a mini-maelstrom over — nothing.
Pazienza goes on to state the obvious:
Here’s where I say something that shouldn’t need to be said because, as with Patton Oswalt, silence shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of human decency, but these days you have to fill in every blank lest you be misconstrued: Rape is wrong, period. It’s a sickening and contemptible act and there’s never any excuse or justification for it. It’s also a difficult subject to even broach and if you’re going to try to use it in a way that’s darkly humorous you’d better know going into it that you’re walking on very thin ice. There’s almost nothing in this world that can’t be mined for comedy in the hands of someone who’s truly talented, but a joke involving sexual assault of any kind is the sort of thing that’s just about guaranteed to offend somebody. That said, no one gets to decide for me or anyone else what is and isn’t funny and what I or anyone else can and can’t laugh at. That’s the nature of comedy. Likewise, laughing at a well-done crack involving even a sensitive subject like rape doesn’t make somebody a troglodyte or a despicable monster out to oppress women.
The problem is that the “truly talented” is a relatively small pool of comedians and the number of “well-done cracks” is vastly outnumbered by the number of hateful, despicable, flippant jokes made by hack comics who troll for gasps at how funny it is get sexually assaulted. As West wrote previously, funny rape jokes can be done, but it’s not easy.
The difference, Pazienza asserts, is whether the comedian in question exhibits proper deference to feminists, as he claims Louis CK does:
It’s well-established that Louie is beloved by the people who traditionally raise hell over the use of rape jokes; he’s both the go-to defense for those who make audacious jokes that fall flat and the example used by the perpetually offended of how to do a joke “right,” because, yes, he’s just that good. It’s fair to say that not everyone can walk the kind of comedic tightrope Louie does, but it’s also obvious that Louie’s given a hell of a lot of leeway by the Molly Knefels and Lindy Wests of the world because a lot of his jokes defer to the feminist model embraced by them. While he’s hilarious, Louie does openly genuflect before the god of indignant feminism by doing bits like the one in which he says that men are the biggest threat on Earth to women; that’s music to the ears of the Jezebel staff, proof of him “getting it” simply by seeing things their way.
Really, Chad? When Tosh laughed about how funny it would be if five men raped that woman, the real problem was those darned feminists? Who’s your mentor, Rush Limbaugh?
This isn’t about a “feminist model” for comedy, it’s about basic human decency. And the perspective you should consider is not that of the feminist, but of the victims of rape.
Here’s what I want to ask Patton Oswalt, Chad Pazienza, or any other comedian concerned about their First Amendment rights: you wouldn’t go to Boston and make hilarious bombing jokes, would you? You wouldn’t try out your new “pressure cooker” jokes if you knew one of the bombing victims was in the audience, would you? Of course not, that would be cruel. You would restrict yourself voluntarily (I would hope) because you know the subject would do harm to the victim.
And yet, in any given comedy audience, the victims of rape are there. One in five women have been sexually assaulted. Rape is frighteningly common and rape jokes are a sharp stick in the eye to those who came to your show for a good time.
Comedians love to say “Don’t like rape jokes, don’t listen,” but do comedians post warnings outside the club that they’re going to make rape jokes? No? Oh, so, then are we saying that rape victims have to avoid comedy clubs from now on because there’s an ever-present risk of being mocked and dismissed and debased by some oblivious douchebag who thinks controversy = comedy?
I would like to reframe this debate for Oswalt in a way that I think he’ll understand: through Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In Eegah, Joel reflects upon the slick gas station where Arch Hall, Jr. works:
There existed a time when our nation took pride in its service stations. They gleamed like a beacon of hope from coast to coast. Then, one day, KaBlooey! You know, Sky Chief Super Service turned into the Tank and Tummy. I don’t mind telling you guys – The day this country went self-service was the day that Hell began to bubble up and flood the earth.
Crow responds skeptically. “Well, I hate to burst your bubble, Joel, but, um, what about the bubonic plague? World war? Stalin?”
“Well, come on, those are all big things,” Joel says. “You know, Hell works better when it’s a lot more subtle. Here, I’ll give you an example. Okay…. Crow, um, what do you think of Adolf Hitler?”
“Well, I hate him, naturally,” Crow says.
“Right. Now, um, what do you think of the band Styx?”
“Well, you know, they had one or two decent…” Crow begins, then gasps. “Oh my God, you’re right!”
For those unfamiliar, it’s a classic segment:
Patton, when I saw you respond to Lindy by saying that rape is always wrong and speech is absolutely free, I heard the following dialogue in my head:
Lindy: Patton, um, what do you think of the Tsarnaev brothers?
Patton: Well, I hate them, naturally.
Lindy: Right. Now, um, what do you think of rape jokes?
Patton: Well, you know, free speech is absolutely free…
Yeah, free speech is free, but when widely-admired, widely-respected, and widely-emulated comedians make tactless rape jokes that diminish the physical and psychological damage suffered by rape victims who are most likely in their audience, then they are contributing to that subtler form of Hell that we all tend to ignore.
I don’t believe that Patton Oswalt is under any obligation to use his platform to fight the scourge of sexual assault, but he has shown how he can use his platform to encourage and uplift society to embrace their better nature. When he uses that platform to pluck the low-hanging fruit of shaming terrorists, he gets praised for saying what many of us needed to hear. But when he has the opportunity to examine the cultural implications of defending unlimited freedom for trivializing rape, he states the obvious and nothing more.
Personally, I hold Patton Oswalt to a higher standard, for better or worse. His insights can be razor sharp and his influence on fans and comedians alike can be wide-spread. While under no obligation to say anything about rape, he does has to accept that people are going to be disappointed when he deflects a golden opportunity to dissect and discuss how our culture enables the prevalence of sexual assault.
Oswalt has a daughter, and by that simple fact alone (ignoring his status as a “good guy”) I’m willing to guess that he does not want rape culture to flourish any more than Lindy West or Molly Knefel do. The problem is that when engaging on the issue, Oswalt has chosen silence and the status quo for comedians over taking a stand against the cultural tide that Tosh, Cook and Jeselnik benefit from. I hope that he will reconsider.