Patton Oswalt on Thievery, Heckling, and Rape Jokes

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 16 2013 3:29 PM

Thievery, Heckling, and Rape Jokes

Reconsidering three arguments about stand-up comedy.

(Continued from Page 2)

And I’m OK with something else I’ve come to terms with, and I only did so during this last incident. You ready for my big epiphany?

I’m never going to win this fight. There’s always going to be a portion of the population—maybe a majority, even—who think that the Actor, the Valedictorian and the Pastor did nothing wrong. That comedians really do get their jokes out of books. That anyone can be funny.

And that’s OK. There are almost 7 billion people on this soggy marble. I don’t need all of them on my side. The fans who unfollowed me on Twitter after I shut down the Pastor—just like the ones who unfollow me when I rage against the NRA and gay marriage opponents and Fox News? I don’t want them as fans. As carefully as I’ve curated and cultivated my career, I’m now doing the same with my audience. Universality was never my goal as a comedian. Longevity and creativity are.

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I’m a comedian. I get to care about this stuff.

2. Heckling

Hecklers are not critics. Critics have to submit their work to editors, have to sign their name to their opinions, often have to face those they criticize. Sometimes, if they live long enough, they have to cringe when their opinions don’t stand the test of time better than the work they initially critiqued. Even Roger Ebert admitted, in his superlative Great Movies essays, to being wrong in his initial assessment of some of the movies he was writing about. Of not seeing the neo-realist miracle of Killer of Sheep because it didn’t have enough story for him. And, ironically enough, not recognizing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as the masterpiece it was because it was too entertaining. Is there anything more mature—more manly—than flat-out saying, “Wow, I was wrong”? Gavin McInnes pointed that out to me, and despite agreeing with him on, essentially, nothing, I agree with that sentiment. Keep it in mind, by the way. It’s going to come up later.

Heckling, like joke stealing, is wildly misunderstood. Both by the general public and, as I discovered to my disgust when two writers in the Chicago Tribune wrote an asinine, pro-heckling space-filler article in January of this year, to creative professionals who should know better. The ignorance about hecklers is pungent and simple, and goes like this: 

Comedians love hecklers. They make a show memorable. A lot of comedians get their best material from hecklers.

No. No and no and no and no and no. Hecklers don’t make a show memorable. They prevent a show from being a fucking show. Comedians do not love hecklers. They love doing the original material they wrote and connecting with an entire audience, not verbally sparring with one cretin while the rest of the audience whoops and screams, disconnecting from the comedian and rewiring itself as a hate-fueled crowd-beast. And most comedians, including me, can barely remember a heckler. We go into automatic pilot shutting them down—not because we’re so brilliant and quick, it’s because we’ve dealt with hecklers so many fucking times that we can do it in our sleep. And why do we have to deal with hecklers so many times? Because of all the stupid, misinformed rationalizations I’ve listed above.

Heckling and joke stealing do have a common ancestor, and it’s the creative resentment I talked about earlier. 

I was in San Francisco earlier this year, doing one of Doug Benson’s Movie Interruption shows at the Castro Theatre. Doug screened the first Twilight movie, and I, along with Doug, Michael Ian Black, Greg Behrendt, and Zach Galifianakis, sat in the front row with microphones, commenting on the movie. Heckled it, technically, but not in a way that stopped the movie or pissed off anyone who came, since they knew that was the show to begin with, and had already seen Twilight, or didn’t care either way. (I just had a slight shudder, thinking of the commenters who are going to point out, “But isn’t this also heckling?” but you know what? Fuck ’em. Just like with joke thievery, I don’t need to convince or enlighten the majority.)

Anyway, there we all were, firing jokes at the screen, in the ample silences during the “stare porn” passages of Twilight. All of those guys have fast-twitch idea-to-joke nerves, and the whole show was going great guns.

Someone over my right shoulder, a few rows back, began leaning toward us and shouting things. I couldn’t make out what he was saying—I almost immediately tuned him out, to be honest—but I was dimly aware that someone wanted to be a part of the show, wanted to scream his way into the spectacle, wanted attention. People around him began shushing him, which made him louder, which brought down an usher who, amazingly, got the guy to be quiet.

The movie ended and the audience applauded and we all got up and started walking out, up the aisle with the crowd. We shook hands and said hello and everyone was very nice. 

Except for the kid who’d been screaming at us. The Shouter. He got in my face and blocked my way up the aisle.

“Didn’t you hear the stuff I was yelling? You ignored me the whole time!”

I said, “I didn’t hear it.”

“Yes you did.”

His friend pulled him away. “Dude, let’s go. Be cool.”

He and his friend started walking up the aisle away from me. His friend gave me a “sorry about that” look over his shoulder. I shrugged. 

Then the friend leaned into the Shouter, said, “Man, why’d you keep screaming at those guys?”

The Shouter said, “There’s no way they were just making jokes up that fast. I had to say something.”

I’ve never heard a more poignant rationalizing of heckling in my life, and I doubt I ever will. 

I’m a comedian. I get to be fascinated with this stuff.

3. Rape Jokes

In 1992 I was in the San Francisco International Comedy Competition. Out of a field of 40 competitors, I think I came in 38. Maybe.

One of the comedians I competed against was named Vince Champ. Handsome, friendly, 100 percent clean material. He would gently—but not in a shrill or scolding way—chide some of the other comedians about their “blue” language, or “angry” subject material, or general, dark demeanor. But nice to hang out with. Polite.

Later that same year Vince won Star Search. $100,000 grand prize. A career launched. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

He’s now sitting in prison in Nebraska, serving a 55-to-70-year sentence for a string of rapes he committed at college campuses where he toured as a comedian. College bookers loved him because his material was squeaky-clean and noncontroversial. I guess the Star Search producers agreed.

Vince is one example—there are others, believe me—where some of the friendliest, most harmless-seeming, and non-offensive comedians carry around some pretty horrific mental plumbing. The comedians I’ve known who joke about rape—and genocide, racism, serial killers, drug addiction, and everything else in the Dark Subjects Suitcase—tend to be, internally and in action, anti-violence, anti-bigotry, and decidedly anti-rape. It’s their way—at least, it’s definitely my way—of dealing with the fact that all of this shittiness exists in the world. It’s one of the ways I try to reduce the power and horror those subjects hold for me. And since I’ve been a comedian longer than any of the people who blogged or wrote essays or argued about this, I was secure in thinking my point of view was right. That “rape culture” was an illusion, that the examples of comedians telling “rape jokes” in which the victim was the punchline were exceptions that proved the rule. I’ve never wanted to rape anyone. No one I know has ever expressed a desire to rape anyone. My viewpoint must be right. Right?

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