There are a few subjects that I feel like I've written about so often that when they inevitably come up again, I'm at a loss to say anything about them that I haven't said before. It's one of the occupational hazards of blogging steadily for six years: You just run out of clever twists to put on the subjects you're passionate about and which inspire you to speak up and so you essentially wind up recycling all your previous points and arguments while hoping no one notices how tedious you've become. (This is known as "Greenwalding.") Among my cast of rotating regular topics, there's Nancy Grace doing something despicable, Fox News doing something unethical and not giving a damn what anyone thinks about it, and the subject I've been embroiled in an ongoing online debate over for the past few days: a comedian or entertainer saying something offensive and the whole world losing its fucking mind.
By now you're probably well aware of the person and incident at the center of the latest episode of the long-running pop culture series, "You're Not Allowed To Say That Because It'll Make Me Cry." Last week, stand-up comic, wildly popular TV host and all-around snarky asshole Daniel Tosh made a crack about how "rape jokes are always funny" during a set at the Laugh Factory in L.A. when an apparently offended woman in the audience spoke up and took him to task for it, reportedly saying that "rape jokes are never funny." Supposedly, Tosh's response was something along the lines of, "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her." For the record, that's the most times the word "rape" has appeared in any single paragraph I've ever written. (The previous record was three.)
Now being that this is the 21st century and we've evolved to the point where no one should ever be offended by anything, the aggrieved audience member didn't simply leave the club and tell herself that since Tosh's comedy wasn't her particular brand of vodka and he'd been a dick to her, she'd never watch him again -- she of course went right to a friend with a Tumblr account and related her outrage over being offended by a comic who delights in offending people, at a comedy show she'd paid money to be at and then took it upon herself to heckle. That friend, offended herself by the comment she didn't actually hear and wasn't aware of the comedic context of, immediately banged out a post about what her friend had told her and breathed that fireball right out into the ether, no doubt presuming that others just like her would also be shocked and outraged by the comment they didn't hear at the comedy show they didn't attend delivered by the comic they probably didn't like already. And so it began. And snowballed. Into a fucking ridiculous maelstrom. The way this kind of thing always does.
Welcome to America, circa 2012: the Indignation Nation.
Like Denis Leary, Bill Maher, Tracy Morgan, Gilbert Gottfried and so on before him -- to say nothing of the legion of non-comedic types who've either unintentionally breached the nationally agreed-upon etiquette when it comes to what can and can't be said or have just accidentally blurted out something stupid -- Daniel Tosh now gets to face the wrath of the general public and be subjected to the standard offense/outrage cycle that's become a fact of life in the age of digital media. And that's really what it is -- a cycle, a mechanism. And that's the problem. Because while it may be completely reasonable for someone to face a certain set of consequences for the things he or she says, it's gotten to the point where the reaction to hearing something we don't like has become pretty damn unreasonable. It's one thing to voice a complaint or to turn off the offending content and go on with our lives, but we don't do that -- not anymore. We spread our outrage like virulent wildfire across social media in the hope that our anger can become the anger of others, so that as many random people as possible can hear our roar and ultimately join in our personal pissy-party pile-on. What's more, as the number of aggrieved mounts and the noise intensifies, the cost of satisfying us becomes higher. It no longer becomes about wanting to let the person who said something we don't like know that he or she might have been thoughtless or cruel or uninformed -- it's about silencing that person or simply taking away his or her livelihood.
In Tosh's case, let's start with the original sin in this already overblown controversy -- I mean besides Tosh having made what very well appears to be a harsh crack about rape. The thing about comedy is that it's not only completely subjective, with each person alone determining what he or she thinks is funny, but it also relies more on context than just about any other art form. Hearing a joke, a crack, a bit, even a rude remark repeated outside of the setting it was delivered in and without the precise inflection that was intended for it and so on can change everything about it. When it comes to humor, there's a fine line between inappropriate and unacceptable, and it's easy as hell for a joke to get lost in translation.
A "shock" comic can be made to seem like pure evil if his or her stuff is parroted by some idiot who doesn't like the comedian or the material in the first place; it's like watching Tipper Gore read WASP lyrics, with a stern voice and a look on her face like she just sucked on a lemon, all those years ago. And that's the thing: Almost nobody who's currently having a meltdown over Tosh's "rape joke" has any idea not only what the mood was like or what the full context was in that club on that night -- they don't even know what was actually said. It's not like we're getting this story with accompanying YouTube video, à la Michael Richards; we're getting it third hand, not even from the audience member herself but from a friend of hers relaying it. Again, that's a shitload of room for tiny, very important details to get lost in -- and it should effectively temper the level of outrage.
But just for argument's sake, let's say Daniel Tosh did make a crack to a heckler that wondered what it would be like if she were suddenly gang-raped. So what? He obviously wasn't the least bit serious and was playing the line for a laugh because that's what he does. That's the kind of comic he is, and anyone in the audience that night knew this. Tosh is host of a show that's currently the most popular thing on Comedy Central several times over; his stuff is readily available and it's not like somebody with a reputation like his was just gonna sneak up on you, especially not if you paid to be there that night. What's really interesting is that Tosh says things on his show that I think are quite a bit more demeaning and tasteless than the Laugh Factory line but the people who are now clutching their figurative pearls over this particular joke -- one that again they didn't hear and that wasn't intended for them -- very likely never raised an eyebrow when Tosh was mischievously taking shots in every other direction. I get that kind of selective outrage a lot on my site, the subheading of which is "Making a Mockery of Mockery": People love it and laugh along when I'm offensive -- until I finally offend them.
The late, great Patrice O'Neal made an entire career out of pissing just about everybody off -- even his biggest fans. He had a way of verbally beating the crap out of an audience but then at the very last minute reeling it in and wrapping his big arms around it. It was exhilarating, dangerous comedy -- and it's what made him a kind of genius. Patrice used to say that when it came to comments that people took offense to, you had to look at the intent versus the impact. True, you can be negligent in how you use language, but for the most part it's easy to tell whether someone is serious when he or she says something. That's the intent. The impact is often out of the person doing the talking's hands. People interpret shit the way they interpret it. For a comic, that means that some will think it's funny and some won't, but if that comic offends then you have to look at the intent -- and obviously the intent of a comedian is always to make people laugh. How he or she does it varies: some tell stories, some make simplistic jokes, some become characters -- and some throw bombs. The goal of the comedian who pushes the limits of what we'd normally consider appropriate is to test us, to test our societal constraints and make us question them, to smash taboos and ask us to kill our idols. Because there's a kind of self-imposed oppression in the rules many of us live by and freedom on the other side.
Here's where I repeat something I've said a few times before, but I really can't put it any better way: Comics stand as the vanguard of our right to free speech -- the canary in the coal mine, so to speak. They're the ones we count on to be able to push the envelope, challenge our sensibilities, even offend us occasionally because it's necessary for us as a culture. The world would be a much more tedious place without comedians willing to truly put themselves out there and take risks -- to make fun of the sacrosanct and vilify the revered if necessary -- and their ability to do that should be protected at all costs. Making them grovel before the altar of political correctness, in the end, damages all of us.
I'm not saying that Tosh or anyone else should just blurt out anything and not expect a backlash to it. If there weren't a price to be paid for it, it wouldn't be worth saying in the first place. But there's a difference between expressing disapproval and cranking up the entire concentrated, high-powered outrage industry for every little fucking thing that rattles our fragile cages. The indignation machine quickly takes on a life of its own and barrels out of control, and what you wind up with is what we're seeing now: demands for an apology that was already given and that wasn't owed to 99.9% of the people who now expect it; article after article by people who feel that it's their personal responsibility to educate Daniel Tosh on the right and wrong way to do a rape joke simply because they don't find his jokes funny (as if there's ever a right and wrong way to do comedy); the breathless and heavy-handed elevation of a fucking rude comedy show crack into a "teachable moment" about women's issues; and of course, the inevitable push to get Tosh completely taken off the air at Comedy Central. Because he should lose his job and be forced to wander the earth in sack-cloth eating bugs for 40 years because somebody didn't like what he said to a heckler at a comedy club.
And the intent of all of this is clear: to ensure that the next comic thinks twice before saying something somebody might find offensive and inexcusable. As for the impact if the outrage machine gets its way and the aggrieved receive the satisfaction they feel they're owed: the next comic may do just that. Maybe then we'll have won a victory in the long war to make sure we live in a world where nobody's sensibilities are ever threatened. But it'll be a world that's a hell of a lot less interesting.