I realise the title alone has already got people furious with me, but please hear me out on this. I will not accuse anyone of lacking a sense of humour, nor will I say all rape jokes are defensible. Like all jokes about painful subjects, they need to be treated with great care and intelligence. With the current fashion in stand-up, that care seems to be sorely lacking. This is the real problem.
They say Comedy = Tragedy + Time, but in the case of rape victims even a million years would not be enough. I am aware of that and, yes, I do know at least a couple of victims of rape. Nobody is genuinely suggesting victims laugh at these jokes. Hopefully, a well-crafted joke should be understandable, though, the same way Holocaust sketches (or even entire films) can be things of beauty.
The problem we are facing in comedy clubs and on television now is the proliferation of mainly male comics using ‘rape’ as a go-to punchline when they can’t think of anything genuinely funny to say (looking at you, Mr Boyle). In the 1960s merely swearing was edgy and breaking boundaries. Once everyone swore in their sets, they had to go beyond that to press buttons and prove their rebellious comedic chops. Now what hacks consider to be short-cuts to edgy chic have become in reality the safest subjects of all. How many comics have we seen in a show start a sentence with: “So, I’m an atheist” and wait for the response? They act all high and mighty as if anyone in a comedy club is really going to complain about that stance. It’s the easiest round of applause/whoop they’ll get all night, yet they think it’s what stands them out for their bravery. Bollocks.
The same goes for rape jokes. What ought to be treated with kid gloves is now thrown into the audience like a stinkbomb. Worse still, as this is ‘fashionable,’ it means going to one of those Best of the Fest type nights will see the young, male comics in their jeans and t-shirts (The Russells, as Stewart Lee puts it) lining up to throw the stinkbombs again and again and again, each without context, or time to build up a persona. It also makes it very difficult for a woman to go to a comedy club and avoid hearing this subject discussed in the most flippant and insulting of manners.
Persona is crucial in comedy and more than ever in rape jokes. I have written before about how Boyle and Gervais personas on stage make their routines seem more like bullying, as they always punch down on to the weaker elements. The best rape jokes are performed by those who are clearly comic monsters, who always end up being ‘the bad guy’ – like Sadowitz, Stanhope or Roy Chubby Brown. Where it becomes a huge problem is when the t-shirt and jeans brigade decide to throw in the odd rape joke along with a generally likeable persona who talks about visiting IKEA and other such ground-breaking comedy subjects. This is where it loses all sense of context and may contribute to what many claim is the ‘normalising’ of rape.
I am told there are studies showing that jokes about rape normalise the subject among men, but I find that rather strange. Nobody would say the same about dead baby or Holocaust jokes, would they? The thing that really irks me about the debate on these jokes is the underlying assumption that all men are potential rapists and have to almost prove themselves different from the rest. It fundamentally changes the way you view jokes. Comedy works on absurdity and incongruity. The audience and comic have to start from the shared knowledge that rape is horrific and nobody in their right mind would actually do that to someone. If we cannot agree on that, then we may as well never leave the house or speak to anyone ever again.
I conclude with the magnificent Louis C.K, who gets to the heart of comedy like nobody else: “I’ve read some blogs during this whole thing that have made me enlightened to things I didn’t know. This woman said how rape is something that polices women’s lives. They have a narrow corridor. They can’t go out late, they can’t go to certain neighborhoods, they can’t get a certain way, because they might get—That’s part of me now that wasn’t before – and I can still enjoy a good rape joke.”