Patton Oswalt on Thievery, Heckling, and Rape Jokes

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June 16 2013 3:29 PM

Thievery, Heckling, and Rape Jokes

Reconsidering three arguments about stand-up comedy.

(Continued from Page 3)

I had that same knee-jerk reaction when the whole Daniel Tosh incident went down. Again, only looking at it from my experience. And my experience, as a comedian, made me instantly defend him. I still do, up to a point. Here’s why: He was at an open mic. Trying out a new joke. A joke about rape. A horrible subject but, like with all horrible subjects, the first thing a comedian will subconsciously think is, “Does a funny approach exist with which to approach this topic?” He tried, and it didn’t go well. I’ve done the same thing, with all sorts of topics. Can I examine something that horrifies me and reduce the horror of it with humor? It’s a foolish reflex and all comedians have it. 

And, again, it was at an open mic. Which created another kneejerk reaction in me. Open mics are where, as a comedian, you’re supposed to be allowed to fuck up. Like a flight simulator where you can create the sensation of spiking the nose of the plane into the tarmac without killing anyone (or yourself). Open mics are crucial for any working comedian who wants to keep developing new material, stretching what he or she does, and keeping themselves from burrowing into a creative rut.

Even Daniel admitted, in his apology, that the joke wasn’t going well, that when the girl interrupted him (well, heckled, really) he reacted badly. The same way I reacted badly when an audience member started taping one of my newer, more nebulous bits with her camera phone a few months earlier. Daniel’s bad reaction I don’t defend. His attempting to find humor in the subject of rape—again, a horrifying reality that, like other horrifying realities, can sometimes be attacked with humor? I defend that. Still defend. Will always defend. 

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What it came down to, for me, was this: Let a comedian get to the end of his joke. If it’s not funny then? Fine. Blast away. In person, on the Internet, anywhere. It’s an open mic. Comedians can take it. We bomb all the time. We go too far all the time. It’s in our nature.

And don’t interrupt a comedian during the setup. A lot of times, a setup is deliberately meant to shock, to reverse your normal valences, to kick you a few points off your axis. If you heard the beginning of Lenny Bruce’s joke where he blurts out, “How many niggers do we have here tonight?” and then stood up and motherfucked him into silence and stormed out? You’d be correct—based solely on what you saw and heard—that Lenny was a virulent racist. But if you rode the shockwave, and listened until the end of the bit, you’d see he was attacking something—racism—that he found abhorrent and was, in fact, so horrified by it that he was willing to risk alienating an audience to make his point.

So that’s how I saw the whole “rape joke” controversy. And, again, my view was based on my experience as a comedian. Twenty-five years’ experience, you know? This was about censorship, and the limits of comedy, and the freedom to create and fuck up while you hone what you create. 

But remember what I was talking about, in the first two sections of this? In the “Thievery” section and then the “Heckling” section? About how people only bring their own perceptions and experiences to bear when reacting to something? And, since they’re speaking honestly from their experience, they truly think they’re correct? Dismissive, even? See if any of these sound familiar:

There’s no “evidence” of a “rape culture” in this country. I’ve never wanted to rape anyone, so why am I being lumped in as the enemy? If these bloggers and feminists make “rape jokes” taboo, or “rape” as a subject off-limits no matter what the approach, then it’ll just lead to more censorship.

They sure sound familiar to me because I, at various points, was saying them. Either out loud, or to myself, or to other comedian and non-comedian friends when we would argue about this. I had my viewpoint, and it was based on solid experience, and it … was … fucking … wrong.

Let’s go backward through those bullshit conclusions, shall we? First off: No one is trying to make rape, as a subject, off-limits. No one is talking about censorship. In this past week of rereading the blogs, going through the comment threads, and re-scrolling the Twitter arguments, I haven’t once found a single statement, feminist or otherwise, saying that rape shouldn’t be joked about under any circumstance, regardless of context. Not one example of this.

In fact, every viewpoint I’ve read on this, especially from feminists, is simply asking to kick upward, to think twice about who is the target of the punchline, and make sure it isn’t the victim.

Why, after all of my years of striving to write original material (and, at times, becoming annoyingly self-righteous about it) and struggling find new viewpoints or untried approaches to any subject, did I suddenly balk and protest when an articulate, intelligent and, at times, angry contingent of people were asking me to apply the same principles to the subject of rape? Any edgy or taboo subject can become just as hackneyed as an acceptable or non-controversial one if the exact same approach is made every time. But I wasn’t willing to hear that.

And let’s go back even further. I’ve never wanted to rape anyone. Never had the impulse. So why was I feeling like I was being lumped in with those who were, or who took a cavalier attitude about rape, or even made rape jokes to begin with? Why did I feel some massive, undeserved sense of injustice about my place in this whole controversy?

The answer to that is in the first incorrect assumption. The one that says there’s no a “rape culture” in this country. How can there be? I’ve never wanted to rape anyone.

Do you see the illogic in that leap? I didn’t at first. Missed it completely. So let’s look at some similar examples:

Just because you 100 percent believe that comedians don’t write their own jokes doesn’t make it so. And making the leap from your evidence-free belief to dismissing comedians who complain about joke theft is willful ignorance on your part, invoked for your own comfort. Same way with heckling. Just because you 100 percent feel that a show wherein a heckler disrupted the evening was better than one that didn’t have that disruption does not make it the truth. And to make the leap from your own personal memory to insisting that comedians feel the same way that you do is indefensible horseshit.

And just because I find rape disgusting, and have never had that impulse, doesn’t mean I can make a leap into the minds of women and dismiss how they feel day to day, moment to moment, in ways both blatant and subtle, from other men, and the way the media represents the world they live in, and from what they hear in songs, see in movies, and witness onstage in a comedy club.

There is a collective consciousness that can detect the presence (and approach) of something good or bad, in society or the world, before any hard “evidence” exists. It’s happening now with the concept of “rape culture.” Which, by the way, isn’t a concept. It’s a reality. I’m just not the one who’s going to bring it into focus. But I’ve read enough viewpoints, and spoken to enough of my female friends (comedians and non-comedians) to know it isn’t some vaporous hysteria, some false meme or convenient catchphrase.

I’m a comedian. I value and love what I do. And I value and love the fact that this sort of furious debate is going on about the art form I’ve decided to spend my life pursuing. If it wasn’t, it would mean all of the joke-thief defenders and heckler supporters are right, that stand-up comedy is some low, disposable form of carnival distraction, a party trick anyone can do. It’s obviously not. This debate proves it. And I don’t want to be on the side of the debate that only argues from its own limited experience. And I don’t need the sense memory of an actor, or a degree from Columbia, or a moody, desert god to tell me that.

I’m a man. I get to be wrong. And I get to change.

Patton Oswalt is a stand-up comedian who's appeared in videos by Bruce Hornsby and American Hi-Fi. Check out his MySpace page for tour dates and merchandise.

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