Serious Attempt to Dissect a Miscarried Joke

Have you heard about the recent uproar in response to Daniel Tosh, whose act on stage at the Laugh Factory, according to this blog, was incredibly insensitive and even abusive toward two female audience members? Okay, we all know that Daniel Tosh is wrong on so many levels. He is the only reason I know anything about the movie Human Centipede, so just for that I will always hate him. However, I feel we need to take account of the fact that Tosh has got scary talent, often unrecognizable to the stale, routine world of the comedic community. I have to wonder, up front, just how much of this furor amounts to thinly veiled jealousy over this young comedic upstart’s unusual success, and how much of it is about a genuine concern for these women, or women generally.

Speaking of women generally, there is a lot to be concerned about in the real world of raping women, without needing to take it to the level of what’s okay to say on stage at a [non-televised] comedy show. First of all, there are statistics. We don’t see much of a furor over these. I’ll use just one example to illustrate the point: rape in the US military. According to a new documentary called Invisible War, the US Department of Defense reported that there were roughly 22,000 rapes last year. Of these, only 3000 were reported. Of those reported, only 200 resulted in convictions for the accused. So there is a major rape problem in the military. And it’s not even the fact that a female soldier is more likely to be raped under “friendly fire” than killed under enemy fire, either. It’s the conviction rate. That should spark outrage. There should be a huge internet discussion going on right now about that.

But the fact is that there’s NOT an outrage over what, truly, constitutes an unadulterated outrage. Is that fact enough to ‘acquit’ Tosh? I will go into his comments momentarily. For now, I would say no. It’s a separate question; the [lack of] public discourse on rape forms the context, but it alone cannot dictate the judgement of the comedic material. Rape is not being adequately addressed at the national and global level, and maybe that was the female audience member’s real quibble with Tosh making light of the topic. In fact I bet it was. I am sure we all believe it was. And we want to believe that about her, maybe because we all want to believe that there is still a conscience about this and so many disgraceful national discussions, without any of us having to actually do the hard work. Like, say, watch Invisible War. But I don’t know, frankly. I wasn’t there, at the Laugh Factory, so I can’t say whether she was simply drunk off her ass and yelling incoherently, whether he brought it up in a (dis)tasteful way, or any number of other variables. And I have to add that I consider any attempts to analyze what Tosh might have said based on his “persona” to be slippery slopes to censorship.

What I can do is take the blogger’s word about it at face value, with the minimal assumption that she at least didn’t remember him in a more favorable light than he deserves, and ask myself, is there anything funny about what he said? First of all, Tosh was supposed to have  “[made] some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny” (and what is ‘declarative’ supposed to mean in this context? Of course he was declaring something, specifically that all rape jokes are funny). Anyone with any experience in comedy knows absurdism when they hear it. One of the most typical ways comics achieve this effect is to exaggerate. New York comic Sean Donnelly has a joke where he describes New York bodegas to a non-New York audience as follows: “pretty much take everything in a Wall Mart, and just CRAM it to 1/14th the space.” Was Donnelly “declaring” that Bodegas have everything that Wall Mart has in 1/14th the space? No. He was exaggerating, for comedic effect, to make his premise more entertaining (the premise being that bodegas have everything).

Moreover, what about the subtext? The subtext was that even rape, the most horrible thing we can imagine, can be made funny. As Tosh hinted in his twitter apology, these girls may or may not have had a problem with the topic of dead babies being switched in, but for him the point was that rape is one of the worst things imagineable. But this was the Tosh premise that elicited the heckle, so already, I have reason to doubt the comedic instincts of the blogger and her friend, when they say, for example, that Tosh “didn’t seem that comfortable on stage and seemed to have a really awkward presence” (spoken like a true Dane Cook fan, btw). They never got to hear the punchline to that rape joke, assuming there was one (and knowing Tosh I guarantee it). Why? Because they were heckling. Heckling ruins punchlines. Laughs are carefully concocted things, especially with topics as controversial as rape. I’m sure they wouldn’t have liked it anyway, but that’s the point of what’s so wrong about heckling: assuming that it’s all about your enjoyment. It’s not. You ruin jokes for others when you heckle, every time you heckle, and the better the comedian (and Tosh is very talented) the worse you fuck it up for everyone else.

From there we get an account of Tosh responding to the heckler, saying something about how it would be really funny if 5 guys raped her right there in the Laugh Factory. Now on the one hand, that is mean to the fucking bone. On the other, assuming it’s what he said, it worked, in the sense that it got them to leave. We have already established that these were bad hecklers. They had cut off a joke at a premise and mistaken exaggeration for ‘declaration.’ They probably would have done it again. Tosh has a notoriously low threshold of tolerance for heckling. He often has people removed from his specials for it, and posts the video in the deleted scenes section of the DVD. Perhaps this was his way of having the hecklers removed? In that sense, I can see the humor in it. I forgive the other audience members for laughing.

But, was it right to say? Who’s to decide? I can empathize with both parties. I know that universal “right” is a conceit of this country that is more reflective of how far our heads are admiringly shoved up our own anusii’ than any indication of any collective moral compass. Again, witness the actual state of rape in the US military, where the crime is officially treated as an “occupational hazard” and over 99% of aggressors get off scott free. Maybe if we shifted the focus off of a comedian and an audience member doing things in a club in LA that were never supposed to be in the national spotlight in the first place, and onto things that are clearly never going to get resolved unless we can find a way to redirect our golden moral compasses away from our own nether regions, then on the one hand, Tosh and the audience would have had to work these things out amongst themselves (the horror), while on the other, we’d be a long way closer to cutting down the 22,000 rapes that the DoD lowball figures admit occur each year on you and my dime, or any other number of horrible rape statistics that are under-discussed and under-addressed in the United states and Globally. But pinning all our hopes, as well as all our disappointments, on the clown, is the American way, and each day we get further and further from making any progress on real issues. But hey, in general, any publicity is good publicity, and this means good news for comedians everywhere, and, yes, even good news for Daniel Tosh. So, here’s to you, Tosh.

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4 thoughts on “Serious Attempt to Dissect a Miscarried Joke”

  1. We “pin in all on the clown.” That sums up so much of the crocodile tears that are shed in pop culture these days. Well said, Totes.

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