I’m self- involved.
That is the primary reason for me clicking on or flipping to any article I see that deals with women in comedy. It’s a subject that interests me not only for the obvious reason that I am one. I also feel a certain level of pride and gratitude for that fact that I am doing comedy at this particular moment in history, which has afforded me the luxury of having so many hilarious girls as peers and predecessors.
I was excited when I saw a posting recently of an article in the New York Times entitled, ‘Female Comedians, Breaking the Taste Taboo Ceiling.’
Honestly, I don’t generally view any comic that I respect as being a ‘female comedian.’ If you’re funny, you’re funny. You’re just a comedian. I hoped that the ‘ceiling’ in this article would be in reference to what I see as an increasingly small distinction between male and female comics, and mainstream America’s growing tendency to view funny girls as a norm, and not a mind blowing exception to the rule.
Then, I read the thing.
To synopsize the article, it casually posits that ‘Girls have gotten funnier over the last ten years, because now they can talk about rape.’
(It’s here if you’d like to check it out.)
Call me an asshole, but I find this notion offensive, ignorant, and patronizing. This is also how I feel about rape jokes.
With very little exception, the premise of a rape joke is ‘Rape is the same as sex.’ I think it’s possible to write a ‘rape joke’ that is actually a comment on society’s views on rape in general, but I’ve rarely, if ever, heard such a joke. Sarah Silverman’s famous ‘I was raped by a doctor, which is very bittersweet for a Jewish girl,’ joke is a very smart one liner. It’s well constructed, and it made me laugh the first time I heard it. It’s still equating rape with sex. This is problematic to me for a number of reasons.
The first, and most obvious is that rape is only one thing: an act of violence. It is demoralizing and dehumanizing, and leaves victims feeling powerless. It is an assault on one’s sense of self and autonomy over their own being. When anyone, comedian or otherwise, holds the position that a rape victim was having sex, they imply consent, and thusly blame for the fact that they were assaulted. I have a hard time viewing this stance as anything other than cruel.
I am the last person to suggest that anyone censor themselves in their comedy. In order for comedians to write and continue to find themselves, the stage has to be a place where taboos don’t apply, and where the social filters of day to day life do not exist. That said, I think it’s wise, if not morally responsible, to think about what you are actually saying with a joke, and to decide if that is a thought that you want to broadcast in to crowds of strangers. Needless to say, there is no way to determine this without crossing your own line, and I’m sure even the best comics have jokes that may run counter to their actual beliefs.
I am not angry when I hear someone tell a joke about rape, or race, or the holocaust, that is, at it’s core, racist or misogynistic. I just think that it’s a rookie error. When you first start doing comedy, one of the most attractive things about it is the freedom you feel from social morays you’ve felt for most of your life, and those are our most easily accessible, surface level taboos. Perhaps this is why the highest concentration of rape and Hitler jokes is at open mics. I’m not saying I’m better than that. I definitely had a handful of rape jokes my first couple years.
As I continued to do comedy though, I started to feel like those jokes were working for the wrong reasons. Particularly outside of major cities, it is challenging for a girl comic to garner the attention and respect of an audience. There is still a relatively pervasive notion that girls are not funny. On top of that, you are asking a room full of men and women to shut up for a second, and let you be in charge. Not every group of people in this country is quite ready to do that. Sometimes you have to have to pull a trick out of your sleeve to get them to let you hold court. Unfortunately, one of those tricks is a rape joke. It’s saying, “It’s cool guys. I don’t like girls either.”
I do not think it’s brave to tell a rape joke. I do not think it’s edgy or smart or interesting. I think throwing a group of victimized people under the bus so that you don’t eat shit on stage is a sign of cowardice.
What I do think is brave is allowing yourself to be publically vulnerable, to speak frankly about the yourself and your point of view, regardless of whether you offend people and embarrass yourself. I lot of the comics I love take an ‘offensive’ or morally questionable stance on things, because that is actually how they feel. There is a huge difference between doing that, and adopting false mean spirited stance just for shock value.
The people who are, in my mind, masters of the craft, all know themselves and their voices so well, that when they are on stage, they are offering a view of who they really are, beneath the layers of being polite and agreeable, that we all exist under. This honesty can take so many forms: anecdotes, joke- jokes, absurdity. Dirty, clean, somewhere in the middle. Everyone’s instrument is different, but a great comedian tells an audience things they would never tell their spouse.
There are so many women who do this. By lauding the great proliferation of rape jokes over the past ten years, that Times article is relegating women to that very early phase of depending on mean spirited and false jokes. I completely agree that chicks in comedy are kicking ass and taking names. We are well past that rudimentary phase. I wish they had talked about how well Jackie Kashian or Tig Notaro can tell a story, or how fascinating it is to watch Maria Bamford explore her demons via a series of cartoon-esque voices.
Whatever. At least Bridesmaids did well this year.