Every six months or so, the issue of "can rape jokes ever be funny?" crops up, usually prompted by a blogger or journalist attending a comedy show and taking issue with a comedian's darker material. This unending debate alternates with the preposterous "debate" as to whether women can be funny -- every six months one of them floats back to the surface.
I am both a comedian and a feminist and I feel torn by this rape joke debate. I have a lot of dogs in this race. As a woman raised by a militant Democrat and a die-hard Republican, I can appreciate the validity and passion on both sides of most issues. My thoughts on the rape joke debate can be distilled down to this: Yes, rape jokes can definitely be funny. But they must be written with imagination, thoughtfulness, and awareness of societal systems and privilege. Some rape jokes are great -- they don't re-victimize the already-victimized characters in a rape dynamic. Rather, they play with expectation and expose the absurdity of the social norms and systems in which we live. Good rape jokes, like any good social commentary, use satire to turn the issue on its head and make you think in a different way than you did before.
Before I got into standup and storytelling, I studied long-form improvisational comedy at IO (formerly ImprovOlympic) in Chicago. My fantastic improv instructors (Jeff Griggs and Jason Chin) would often remind us that on the comedy stage, society's normal rules didn't apply. This notion of comedy without rules was so magical to me. You could create a scene in which you and your scene partners could be anywhere at all -- in Russia, in an abandoned shed, on the moon -- and you could do anything at all -- time travel, read people's minds, ride a purple unicorn -- because you were creating this world. You weren't beholden to any notion of truth or reality or what would actually happen in a real world context. Someone who might feel like a loser in his or her normal life can create exciting adventures on the comedy stage and anything goes. Many improv comedians say that performers should aspire to "play at the top of their intelligence" and I couldn't agree with that mantra more. But this shouldn't be a rule for improv comedy exclusively -- it can and should be applied to standup comedy as well.
The beautiful thing about standup is that you are sharing ideas with people and you are completely unencumbered by a scene (as you see in sketch comedy) or a team (found in improv comedy). There is no feeling more powerful than standing alone on a stage completely unencumbered, microphone in hand, sharing your thoughts or experiences, and knowing that maybe you are instigating change in some small way. Sure, sometimes as a comedian you're doing wordplay or silly bits or telling the story about the time you nearly crapped your pants (and hilarity ensued) and that's playful and fun. But in standup, you have the opportunity to be political, if you so choose, and to advance a dialogue about a relevant, topical debate. And you might just be making people think a bit differently or subtly shifting their understanding of an issue.
When I first moved to New York City, rape was my hot button off-limits topic within comedy. I'm a feminist and rape has affected so many wonderful women I know, so I decided that rape was simply an out-of-bounds topic. Deciding to paint with a broad brush, I rejected any and all attempts at comedy that so much as referenced rape.
Then it occurred to me that every person -- comic or not -- must have taboo, trigger issues. For some people it's probably 9/11. They simply can't abide any joke that so much as references 9/11 and therefore, perhaps they think that no one should ever tell them. I'd hate to lose my 9/11 joke ("A lot of people like to go down to Ground Zero but I just can't visit that neighborhood -- it's way too upsetting. My ex-boyfriend lives down there.") But if I'm going to say that references to rape within jokes are unacceptable bar none, then I have to accept that another comedian might say that any mention of 9/11 in a joke is equally as inappropriate. How could I say that rape is off limits because it's my issue without being willing to deem certain other topics also out-of-bounds because of my friends' and fellow comedians' views?
There are myriad traumatic issues out there -- some people are upset by references to rape, others to 9/11, others to mental retardation, others to the Holocaust, and the list goes on and on. If we tallied up a list of all topics that are comedically off limits, it might look like this:
Rape, murder, 9/11, the Holocaust, pedophilia, the Catholic Church, cancer, layoffs, melon (hey -- you never know what people may have been traumatized by), Multiple Schlerosis, drunk driving, divorce, homosexuality, heterosexuality, and much more.
It would leave us with nothing to talk about, joke about, explore further, and unpack. Life would be tragically devoid of the catharsis that comes from reflection on past experiences and trauma. With all of those topics ruled comedically off limits, we'd just have life -- with all its heartbreaking tragedies and inspiring triumphs -- plus reruns of Full House as our comedy outlet.
So then I changed my thinking: nothing should be out of bounds in comedy, topic-wise. Everything is fair game -- 9/11, rape, the Holocaust, and yes, even melon. Chances are, in a given audience, every person will have had some experience with one of those things. So if a comedian chooses to write jokes about contentious issues, he or she had better play at the top of his or her intelligence and craft those jokes with a lot of care and imagination. The problem with a lot of jokes about hot-button issues is that they are sometimes written by comedians who are not especially bright and who don't bother to consider the sophisticated dynamics at play. They fail to properly identify and satirize the person in that dynamic who should be publicly mocked and laughed at, and the person who did nothing wrong and should be the victor of the joke. Jokes that reference rape are not all evil and they should not be across-the-board discounted and outlawed. They can actually be made with care and imagination and serve to advance the discourse about rape culture in our society.
And if a comedian is lazy, hack, or unwilling to analyze controversial topics with such care, then he or she should stick with joke topics that are universally innocuous -- most predictably, bad airplane food.