07/13/2012 01:00 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2012

Rape Jokes Are Funny if They're Funny

I've evolved a lot in how I view offensive jokes. Many young, white, male comedians, having little persecution cred to work with, will use charged words hoping to get some milage out of the irony of young, white males using them. I was one of them. You'll never see those bits on YouTube because that's a habit that's either grown out of or failed with.

I wrote about offensive jokes in my first Huffington Post piece. I'm not particularly obsessed with offensive humor but more with how humor works. It just happens that when comedians do offend, as Daniel Tosh's extemporaneous rape jokes did, they provide an interesting challenge to the question.

My philosophy on such humor has always been simple: It's offensive till proven funny. I think most people are of the same mind, which is why feminist writers like Jessica Valenti and Elissa Bassist address the issue not by asking if rape jokes are funny but if that rape joke was funny. Both site examples of successful jokes, all of which have the same thing in common: The target is not the women but rape itself. Louis CK, who has praised Tosh in the past few days, if not expressly come to his defense, has my favorite wherein he describes the only situation in which rape is OK. I dare not type out that situation because so much relies on his incredulous delivery which throws the absurdity of the crime into such satisfying relief. There's something about a good offensive joke that even if it hits close, it takes you out of the horror of it rather than bringing you back into it.

Most of us agree it can be done.

Gary Larson, the cartoonist who brought us The Far Side, described the process of laughter as a short-circuit in the brain when two disparate worlds collide. In fact, he took considerable heat when those worlds collided in ways people didn't find funny. But that's often the effect comedians are going for when using such charged images like rape or the Holocaust or the n-word -- a greater distance between their everyday world and the horrific, and thus, a greater collision.

Tosh's jokes weren't jokes per se, as he was responding to an audience member. They were snide comments, as comments in those situations are meant to be. Bassist saw what he said, asking, "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl [referring to an audience member who 'heckled' him about rape jokes not being funny] got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?" not as jokes but as an invitation. I don't necessarily agree but I understand the reaction. When a joke works, we don't ask its motivation. It lives and dies onstage, in the realm of comedy-making. The two worlds collide head-on and disintegrate. But when a joke fails (or, more fairly, the comic fails) then what's said is out there with all its voltage to be construed, applied, dissected for its origins and hidden meaning when it may or may not have one.

That said, all stand-up comedy has a touch of malice. Let's just accept that. No comedian gets off-stage and says "Boy, I really brought joy to those people's lives!" They talk about how they killed, how they destroyed, and the audience pays to be destroyed. It's a battle to seduce, to short-circuit, to trick people into laughing in spite of themselves. And the stakes are at no greater height than when an audience member interrupts a comic's set. Comedians use the tension of those moments and the results can be uproariously funny. Or they can backfire, as Michael Richards will no doubt attest. Bassist writes "He used humor to cut her down, to remind her of own vulnerability, to emphasize who was in control." Of course he did. That's what all comedians do when they respond to hecklers. The problem is that the position of power comedians have with a microphone combined with the power manipulation involved with rape, an experience that too many women are familiar with, put him in an all-too-powerful position. Either the jokes weren't funny because of this or he was in this position because the jokes weren't funny. Either way, it led to an understandable reaction.

It's not needlepoint. Comedians mine volatile material because it yields greater effect and, when mishandled, it blows up in their faces. They ultimately pay the price, not the audience. But it is right for the comedian, if he choses that path, to take responsibility for the damage. As David Letterman said, the "intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception."

Valenti does ask earnestly why men need to tell rape jokes, and implies that any man who advocates for it needs to "look inward and think about why that is." Well, I know why it is I need to be able to tell a rape joke, and I don't have to look that deeply. It's because his need to tell a rape joke is not necessarily my need to. Each comic's miscalculation is his own. Just as Bassist uses them, as she says, to come to terms with her relationship to the crime, being of a gender who commits this crime, men feel a need to come to terms with their relationship to it. We need to not be told we can't or shouldn't. And as much as we need to tell jokes about cancer, rape, racism, 9/11, our jokes should be critiqued on their comedic merits. It's the only measure needed. Because, in my opinion, if it's funny it's just not offensive.

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