Even in our “modern” and “progressive” (though both of those terms are debatably applicable) culture, there are certain subjects that are simply taboo. You are taught not to bring up religion or politics over dinner or in company, but there are other topics we intrinsically fear to bring up. Suicide, illness, addiction, rape… these are all things that are not discussed, as though we’ve all signed some social contract. There’s a reason for this, though, and a very good one. Those subjects are painful and all too prevalent. You never know when someone you’re with has a devastating personal experience with something you’re making light of.
A friend of mine posted the following article from CultureMap.com on Facebook and while the reference point may be specific to stand up comedy, it also applies to writing of all kinds. Sensitive subjects must and should be tackled by fiction and non-fiction authors, but for the love of god if you can’t handle rape with the strength and grace of Laurie Halse Anderson in Speak or suicide with the quiet beauty of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, then stay the hell away from those subjects. For the love of all humanity, please. Just stay away.
Edited to Add: I just found this post by comedian Lindy West called How To Make A Rape Joke. It’s basically another in-depth look at why some treatments of sensitive subjects work and others don’t. She even includes examples! Check this out after you read the below.
Editor’s note: By now, you’ve probably heard about the terrible (because it’s all too common) incident that happened recently at the Hollywood Laugh Factory between comedian Daniel Tosh and a female audience member who was vocal about her displeasure with Tosh defending rape jokes in his stand-up act.
Tosh, who is known for his over-the-line comedy, both live and on-air, apologized over Twitter to the offended individual, providing some legitimacy to the claim that he went way over the line in this instance.
The he-said/she-said details of this particular instance, however, are far less important than the emerging discussion by comedians, feminists and media experts who have either expressed their support of Tosh or stand-up in general or commented upon the persistence of “off-limits” joke territories.
Lovers of the art form generally seem to agree that comedy is one of the few sacred spaces where commentary can be made on difficult, taboo topics in order to invite dialog. But most would also agree it takes a keenly honed sense of awareness and subtlety to execute these types of jokes successfully.
Of all the blog posts and news articles written about this recent flare-up of the age old comedy question so far, it’s been Austin area comedian Curtis Luciani who offered up the most deceptively eloquent statement on the larger matter that we’ve seen yet. As a member of sketch comedy groups Your Terrific Neighbors and The Hustle Show, he’s no stranger to flirting with that razor-thin line between hysterical and ostracizing. But he’s also, clearly, a really smart dude who gets the meaning and use of satire.
Published with his permission, here’s his response in its full, unapologetic glory (be advised: it contains dirty language) as it appeared on Facebook Wednesday.
Let’s imagine a world in which women cut men’s dicks off. Like, frequently. To the extent that one in five men has had his dick cut off by a woman or had a woman attempt to cut his dick off.
(I apologize immediately if it sounds like I’m being flip. I am not being flip. Imagine the pain and shame and humiliation of someone cutting your dick off. Imagine it in earnest.)
Sometimes it’s a clear-cut case where a woman attacks you in the street, out of nowhere, and cuts your dick off. But more often it’s a situation where you actually know the woman, maybe you trust her, maybe you think everything’s okay, and then one day she cuts your dick off.
Still with me? This is going to take a while. I’ll tell you when I’m done. (And if you think I’m being insufferably self-righteous: Good news, you don’t have to read this!)
Okay, now let’s also say that the shame and guilt around having your dick cut off is so strong that many dick-cuttings go completely unreported. After all, someone is likely to raise the question of whether or not you were “asking for it” in one way or another. And if you do accuse a woman of cutting your dick off, you can expect to see people (quite naturally) rally to her defense and slander your character in response.
You can expect to see her friends… who are maybe also friends or yours… shrug their shoulders and say “Well, I don’t know, it’s complicated… it sounds like something was just happening between the two of them and maybe it got out of hand. I dunno. But I know that Sarah’s not a bad gal. I know she would never, like, MALICIOUSLY cut a dude’s dick off.”
So, a shitty state of affairs for the men-folk of our imaginary world, yes?
Now imagine that in this world, something like 90 percent of professional performing comedians are women. And they’ve accepted that there are certain codes of behavior when it comes to comedy. Most people who “like comedy” generally accept the premise that there are no subject areas that cannot be somehow given a comic treatment, but it is also accepted, as a practical rule, that as the subject gets more troubling, more intense, more painful, a more skilled approach is necessary to find the humor in it.
However, it is also accepted that people are people and they are going to have authentic responses to things. It is accepted, for example, that you probably should not go in front of an audience that contains several black people and start tossing around the n-word unless you have an EXCEPTIONALLY sophisticated and road-tested routine built around it, one that you are confident will overcome the very significant risk you are incurring. If a comedian did this and did NOT overcome the risk, no one would be shocked if the audience shouted her down and stormed her out of the club, nor would anyone be particularly eager to defend her.
HOWEVER, there’s this ONE thing. Many of the comediennes of this world have this ONE little sticking point. One little thing. It just IRKS the hell out of them that they can’t seem to make jokes about cutting dicks off without some whiny pussy male in the audience throwing a shit fit about it!
Now, sure, there’s a few comediennes at the top of their game who can pull it off. Their approach is skillful, and they somehow make the joke without minimalizing or trivializing the actual pain involved. But then the rest of them think, “Well, geez, if they can do it, why can’t I? It’s not fair, darn it! I should be able to work with the same material as someone much better than me and get the same result and not make anyone hate me or say mean things about me on the Internet! Waaaaahhh!
“I mean, after all, do that many men REALLY get their dicks cut off? I’ve heard the statistic, but that’s probably overblown. And I bet a lot of them were asking for it. I mean, in any case, there’s a lot of grey area. I know one thing for sure: none of the men I KNOW has ever had his dick cut off. If they had, they would tell me, right? I mean, right? And besides, there’s a principle at stake here. I AM AN ARTIST. I should be able to say whatever shitty thing I want, and people should be able to suppress their authentic response to it!
“And if they DON’T suppress their authentic response to it: why, that’s censorship or something! Besides, I know this and that example of a time where a comedienne I know made a joke that wasn’t even ABOUT dick-cutting, and some whiny pussy dude got upset about it anyway! It’s just these humorless masculinists! They can’t take a joke about anything anyway. So, since I can think of examples where a comedienne was unfairly criticized by someone without a sense of humor, this must be what happens in all cases.”
Okay, I think we see what I’m getting at here.
Fine, yes, WHAT-THE-FUCK-EVER. I will concede the following points that every comedian wants us all so badly to concede:
1) Theoretically, there is no subject that should be considered off-limits for humor.
2) There will always be some example where a performer of extremely high skill can take something very painful and make it work.
Here’s what YOU need to understand:
1) Rape is way, WAY more prevalent than you seem to think it is. Are there more than five women in your audience? You do the math, and then you run the little fantasy scenario that I just put together in your head, and you tell me how it feels.
2) I ain’t buying any of that “If I can make jokes about genocide, why can’t I make jokes about rape?” Horseshit, unless you made those genocide jokes during a gig at the Srebrenica Funny Bone. You got away with making a joke about genocide because your odds of having a holocaust survivor’s kid in the audience were pretty fucking low.
And if you did happen to have one in the audience, and he heckled you, walked out, and wrote something nasty on the internet… would you be more likely to be a human being and say “Wow. I can understand why that person’s authentic response to what I was doing was so emotional and negative. Maybe my genocide material just isn’t good enough to justify the pain that it inflicts. Maybe I need more skill in order to pull this off.” Or are you gonna be a lousy piece of shit and say, “Yeah, I apologize, I guess, IF YOU WERE OFFENDED.”
Offended hasn’t got anything to do with it, moron.
People have wounds, and those wounds are painful. That doesn’t have shit to do with the weak concept of “taking offense.” If someone talks about Texas being a shitty state, I might “take offense” at that. Fine, whatever. All of us who like comedy are generally in agreement with the idea that “taking offense” is lame, and a comedian should be willing to “offend” whenever he or she wants to.
But causing pain is quite a different fucking matter. Your job as a comedian is to take us through pain, transcend pain, transform pain. And if you don’t get that, you are a fucking bully, and I’ve got zero time for bullies.