by: Mariann Devlin
I’m hard to offend. Even when I do draw the line between funny and not-funny, it’s usually on account of the joke being tired and unoriginal, not because it deals with a subject that, in reality, should be treated with the utmost seriousness. Even then, as I draw the line between, say, the hilariousness of Louis C.K. and what I feel is a pretty unfunny show- “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”- it’s difficult for me to explain exactly where the difference lies. The elements of humor can’t be reasoned with.
I found this out about four months ago, when Daniel Tosh made rape jokes at the Laugh Factory causing a whirlwind of outrage from the blogosphere. Disturbed by what she felt was a flippant attitude toward the seriousness of rape, a female audience member shouted at him, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” to which Tosh allegedly remarked, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?”
In the big scheme of things, the “heckler” and I are allies in our stand against sexual violence. We both want to see people take rape seriously enough to give victims the support they deserve, and to cut rape out of our society completely, especially when we have Richard Mourdock saying that God intended some women to get raped and Todd Akin claiming that when women get “legitimately” raped, their bodies have the capacity to “shut down” the biological process of conception. If only such remarks had been jokes.
The heckler and I diverge when it comes to the handling of sensitive subjects by comedians. It makes no sense to me to claim that because real rape isn’t funny, we shouldn’t laugh at it. With that logic, and humor is really beyond logic, most of things we laugh at should be off-limits, from the desire to kill small yippie dogs, to wanting to strangle one’s own children, to kicking the ass of some stupid person. Two weeks ago, I saw Louis C.K. in Milwaukee and he suggested that we murder a heckler. Real murder of a real person isn’t funny either, but we laughed and cheered, all because what we actually wanted was for that guy to just shut up.
And therein lies the discrepancy between my inward fantasies and the outer life I project, which humor takes full advantage of.
I know that doesn’t justify any and all jokes made at the expense of others- and maybe we should live in a world where we never laugh at suffering, under any circumstances. Maybe its the covering up of the horrors of murder, rape, thieving and inequality that allows it to continue. I’m doubtful though. It doesn’t seem to be in our nature, yet, to take most things seriously. For now, dark humor is one of the ways we can reveal the baseness lurking behind our humanity, without wanting to just curl up in a ball and give up on life.
Great comedy, for me, does speak of the incongruity between who we are versus who we like to think we are. Whether its clumsy, slapstick physical humor, straight talk about vaginal discharge, or a take on how disgusting we feel when we eat McDonalds, great comedy seems to expose the things we’d like to keep hidden out of deference to our egos. Jokes about violence, prejudice and other people’s suffering begin with what I feel is a basic principle of humor, and expands it to disclose what’s shameful in our hearts as well.
I’m not familiar with Tosh’s standup, but I’m doubtful he’s a subversive comedian who unveils and challenges the hatefulness and apathy we’re all prone to. (I have no real interest in finding out either, considering the few clips I’ve watched I’ve been unimpressed with.) I doubt there’s a method to his madness, as was the case in Louis C.K.’s verbal rampage against a female heckler, and I also don’t believe his jokes were part of a larger schtick about the crippling shame he feels as a virile heterosexual male (as I’d argue Louis C.K.’s is). Maybe Daniel Tosh really is just a jerk who doesn’t know what’s at stake in the fight against sexual violence. But even if that was true, I can’t side with the heckler. Sometimes rape jokes, along with child abuse jokes, racial jokes, and jokes about murdering someone, are funny with the right delivery and the right audience. And sometimes they just aren’t.
What is always infuriating, however, is the spread of misinformation by powerful people like Mourdock and Akin, politicians with a serious intent to eliminate female reproductive choices, even if it means portraying rape as some hidden blessing from God or an event which won’t lead to pregnancy unless a woman’s body wills it.
Actually, that shit is never funny.
Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.