This piece originally appeared on Patton Oswalt’s website.
“Develop a little self-righteousness. A lot of that is an ugly thing, God knows, but a little spread over all your scruples is an absolute necessity!”
—Glen Bateman, in Stephen King’s The Stand
It’s not the thievery. It’s the goddamned theorizing.
When I started doing comedy—back in 1988—I did a joke one night, at an unpaid open mic, that killed. It killed. I wasn’t used to having anything in my set, in those first few months of shows, get any response from an audience other than a hard blink and an impatient sigh.
There’s a dopamine rush, for a comedian, when you cobble a thought out of thin air, when you arrange words not as a sentence but suddenly, as a joke. A for-real, plucked-from-your-skull joke. Something you created which, when you reach the part you want the audience to laugh at? And then … holy shit! They actually laugh? That’s the spike in the vein that sets the compass for your life.
Well, I’d gotten a taste. I wanted more.
The only problem was, it wasn’t my joke.
In those early days, not only did I perform as many sets as I could get, I watched as much comedy as I could find. The same way a writer has to both write, but also read. Huge bites of both, if they want to hone their voice. I’m sure this is the same in any creative field.
There was a lot of comedy to watch in the late ’80s. Too much, really. Endless cable shows, microphones in front of brick walls, geometric backgrounds, bland curtains. But for me, a suburban kid who had limited access to the city and thus limited access to other comedians to watch and learn from? The Basic Cable Jester Parade was boot camp, college, and conservatory, all at the same time.
And, in watching the endless procession of amazing comedians on TV at that time, as well as working a day job and going out at night to do sets, I lived on three hours sleep a day—about 18 hours, total, per week. And you combine that sleep deprivation with my consuming ambition, plus the fact that the few waking hours I had at home were spent chomping down all of the televised stand-up I could hunt down?
Well, I stole a joke. Not consciously. I heard something I found hilarious, misremembered it as an inspiration of my own, and then said it onstage. And got big laughs.
Here it is: “Whenever I’m sitting on a bus, and someone asks me if the seat next to me is free, I have an answer that guarantees no one will want that seat. I look up and smile and say, ‘No one but … The Lord.”
Huge laugh on that one. Pow! Bigger than anything else in my set at the time, that’s for sure.
I came off-stage and Blaine Capatch, a comedian friend of mine who’s a never-miss machine gun in terms of quantity and quality when it comes to jokes, took me aside and said, “That’s a Carol Leifer joke, man.”
It hit me just as soon as he’d said it. He was right. It was a Carol Leifer joke. Pretty much word for word. I’d seen her do it on A&E’s Evening at the Improv one night and then, during a Diet Coke and Cup o’ Noodles lunch at the law firm I was clerking at, I jotted it down in my notebook as if I’d written it. And then went up onstage and killed with it. At 2 in the morning, for probably 17 people and no money. But what the fuck did I care at that point? All I was chasing, as an open miker, was the rush—and, I was hoping, paid work. Regularly killing during my sets would lead to that work, wouldn’t it?
In the exact moment after I’d realized that what Blaine said was true, that I’d cribbed a laugh from someone else’s creativity and inspiration, my ego kicked in. And, I mean, my real ego. Not ego’s sociopathic cousin, hubris, which would have made me defensive, aggressive, and ultimately rationalize the theft. No, the good kind of ego, the kind that wanted success and fame and praise on my own merits, no matter how long it took.
I said, “Oh shit, you’re right. I didn’t even realize I was doing that. Godammit …”
“Eh. You do it all the time when you’re starting out. Everyone does. You can’t avoid it. Just don’t make it a habit,” said Blaine, and headed back into the showroom to watch someone destroy, probably, with a rap song about farting. It was the ’80s.
Now, let’s zoom ahead 15 years later. I was recording my first album at The 40 Watt in Athens, Ga. It was a boozy, swooping, 2½-hour show that I edited down to 89 minutes for the album release. I had a lot of fun doing it. I performed it in front of the kind of dream crowd that’s not only excited for your polished, crafted routines, but also the unexpected blind alleys of thought, the in-the-moment stage notions that die gorgeously from their own heat, and the jokes that are funnier for being audacious and suggestive rather than structured, logical, and clear.
Within that 140 minutes were a couple of jokes I had just started working on, but had no real ending (and, to be honest, no middle, either). One of them was about microwaveable Hot Pockets. All I really had was the idea that the word “Hot Pockets” was phonetically perfect to be said by a fat person. It got a solid laugh and, as I leapt from that premise’s unfinished scaffolding onto the supremely appointed edifice of an actual joke I’d bothered to finish, I made a note in my head to not put the Hot Pockets on the finished album, but to save the concept to develop for the next one.
After the show, at a house party with some friends and the recording crew, someone pointed out to me that Jim Gaffigan had a bit about Hot Pockets, and that it was amazing.
I said, “Yeah, but, uh, I mean, it’s parallel thought on my part. I haven’t heard his take …”
My friend said, “Oh, I know. I’m just saying, it’s something he’s kind of famous for. You should give it a listen. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t know how comedy works who’ll think you maybe lifted it. You know how people are.”
I went online later that night and listened to Jim’s Hot Pockets bit. It’s amazing. One of those perfectly realized, no-meat-left-on-the-bone-of-the-idea jokes that also so perfectly captures the personality and intelligence of the teller that it becomes a part of how you think of them. Martin Scorsese and Rolling Stones songs in films. Salvador Dali and melting watches, desert landscapes. Carson McCullers and that specific kind of insanity that festers in the Southern heat and haze. You can tread into these territories, play with these symbols if you want to. But you’ll just end up being compared to someone else—someone who blazed the trail you’re clumsily walking.
My ego, again. This was my first album. I didn’t want to be compared. To anyone or anything. Not even a comedian as amazing as Jim Gaffigan. Just like the 19-year-old version of me, who’d wielded a joke that wasn’t his at an open mic and crushed with it, I wanted any success or fame I had coming to be my own. To be built on a bedrock of my own creativity and risk.
You can still hear the unfinished Hot Pockets joke, by the way, on the uncut version of that album. It’s probably on YouTube. No need to spend your money on it. It’s a pallid, boneless reminder that not all parallel thought is equal. In fact, it rarely is.
Know what else is rare? Especially in my profession? People outside of my profession who know the difference.
OK, now I have to tell you one more quick story before I bring this back around to my original gripe. About how it’s not the thievery, it’s the theorizing. Ready?
OK, so now it’s a few years after Blaine pointed out to me that the “empty seat on the bus joke” I’d done at the open mic belonged to Carol Leifer. Early ’90s. Blaine and I are working professionals now, emceeing shows around the D.C. and Baltimore area. Whereas I, at this point, had barely enough original material to actually do 15 minutes, Blaine had that amount many times over. In fact, he had enough material to do more than an hour at that point. He just didn’t have the name or draw, yet, to headline.
And another young comedian we both knew—who had started featuring, which meant doing 30-minute sets after the emcee but before the headliner—started stealing Blaine’s material. Not a joke here or a line there. Huge, sprawling chunks of Blaine’s act, which ballooned the material he had from about 10 minutes to more than half an hour. And he used it to feature—to make more money, to have an easier time in front of an audience that had been warmed up by an emcee like me or Blaine, to get even more gigs. He made no attempt to hide what he was doing and, if I remember correctly, even did some of it right in front of Blaine at a show in Baltimore.
Blaine, ever more Zen than me, even at that young age, politely confronted the comedian and asked him to stop. “That’s my stuff, man. Could you not do it, please?”
The other comedian wasn’t angry or defensive. He was, incredibly, confused.
“But I’m starting to get feature sets. I don’t have 30 minutes of material. You’ve got more than 30 minutes. And you’re not getting feature sets.” The young comedian explained this to Blaine like he was explaining the concept of the Tooth Fairy to a 3-year-old.
Blaine said, “But you’re only getting those feature sets because of my material. You wouldn’t have enough to fill a half-hour unless you stole from me.”
“Yeah, I know,” explained the comedian, patiently. “You ain’t out there working to get feature sets. You’re just writing all this material and then just doing emcee sets. You ain’t featuring full-time like me, so I need that material. You’re not using it featuring.”
So there you go. Blaine got to watch his work benefit someone else—someone dumber, and less creative but, fatally, more ambitious and shameless than him. I’d love to tell you that the other club owners stopped hiring the thief but … nope. He made people laugh while the audience bought drinks and mozzarella sticks. Most comedy club owners back then—and a few, still, now—are in the Food and Beverage Industry, not the Creativity and Honor Industry. Most audiences cleave to the former as well. What could Blaine and I do, still at the dawn of our careers? Two emcees struggling to find an audience and get work? We had zero power to stop anyone stealing anything. We just had to write more, work harder, out-create the little fucker.
Don’t worry—this story has a happy ending. Blaine and I eventually moved west. So did the thief. But when it came time for him to make the transition to television, to movies, to big-time fame and success? He had nothing. And, without going into details, he flamed out, rather spectacularly, on national television. Like, spectacularly. It was gorgeous for Blaine and me to watch. By that point we’d built solid careers for ourselves and when Kid Thief’s career hit the killing floor? It drained away through the sluice gate. I’ve never heard from him since. Kelly Oxford wrote something, during this latest joke-thief debacle, about how the stealers and joke thieves can often get themselves through the highest doors only to find, when they’re at the top and people want to hear their ideas … they’ve got nothing. Kill floor. Sluice gate. Oblivion. I don’t need to name names here. We’ve seen it happen. It’ll happen again. It’s always fun when it does.
So why the wordy preamble, all of these seemingly random examples from my past? I didn’t even mention the ones I’ve gone up against recently—the Bland Midwestern Actor who performed huge chunks of my act—plus Dave Attell’s, Louie C.K.’s and Todd Barry’s (and, when confronted, claimed to have written all of those jokes for us) or the Columbia valedictorian who, in his graduation speech, passed off a joke of mine—a verbatim personal anecdote—as if it happened to him. Or, of course, the latest in my Rogue’s Gallery of Lameness, the Sticky-Fingered Youth Pastor of Twitter? The God-loving, Commandment-slinging sky pilot who “just wanted to make people laugh”—and wanted to so badly that he flat-out slapped his name on other people’s tweets and sent them out as his own? He didn’t even steal a joke from me—just from all of my friends, most of them up-and-coming talents writing jokes on Twitter, trying to make a name for themselves and build a career—only without the followers and thus without the juice to initially bring him down. And then, well … the endorphin rush. That feeling, the same one I had when I unwittingly used Carol Leifer’s joke. His rush came from the execution, not the creation. And like the truly talentless, he had to keep it going. Bigger and bigger highs. Deeper, dangerous doses. And so he lifted from Rob Delaney, April Richardson, and, most idiotically of all, Kelly Oxford.
Oh well. He got a book deal out of it. And paid speaking engagements at, ironically, religious conferences that I’m certain hold the 7th or 8th Commandment (depending on which book of the Bible you’re reading) in high regard. The people whose work he lifted, which brought him the followers which led to the book deal and speaking engagements? Too bad, shitbirds. Maybe if you’d accepted Christ.
And so I went after him, right? Just like the Actor and the Valedictorian. I mean, if you’ve read this far, you’ve obviously surmised that the memory of when I chose, against all sensations to the contrary, to not steal material to further my career, has made me hyper-sensitive and mega-revolted and super-judgmental of those who do. Add to that the memory of when I was so powerless, back there in Baltimore, watching that little goblin bum-rush his way to success on my friend’s inspiration and labor, and unable to do anything about it, has metastasized into an abiding resentment, a core-of-the-sun rage that I now indulge to overkill extremes. I mean, it’s so obvious, isn’t it?
And dead wrong.
The Actor, the Valedictorian, and now the Pastor were never my targets. They were never my focus, never my concern, and didn’t merit a single calorie of heat. I agree with Kelly—if any of these grubworms had temporarily crawled out of the darkness of their own uselessness, even on the backs of other people’s work? They’d have been blinded by the expectations that sustained creation puts on the truly talented. Indifference and failure was—and still is—waiting for them. They’re not the problem.
All I care about is the profession I work in. Stand-up comedy. I also care about the continued, false perception the bulk of the general public has about stand-up comedy. And what I care about, most of all, is the maddening false perceptions that other people in the creative arts have about stand-up:
Comedians don’t write their own jokes. They all steal. All great artists steal. You can’t copyright jokes. It doesn’t matter who writes a joke, just who tells it the best. Don’t musicians play other musicians’ songs? There are only so many subjects to make jokes about, anyway. I’ve seen, like, five different comedians do jokes about airplanes—isn’t that stealing, too?
Most people are not funny. Doesn’t mean they’re bad people, or dumb, or unperceptive or even uncreative. Just like most people can’t play violin, or play professional-level basketball, or perform brain surgery, or a million other vocational, technical, aesthetic, or creative pursuits. Everyone is created unequal.
But for some reason, everyone wants to be funny. And feels like they have a right to be funny.
But being funny is like any other talent—some people are born with it, and then, through diligence and hard work and a lot of mistakes, they strengthen that talent.
But some people aren’t born with it. Just like some people (me, for example) aren’t born with the capacity to make music, or the height and reflexes for basketball, or the smarts to map the human mind and repair it. I’m cool knowing all of those limitations about myself.
I’m even cool knowing my limitations within comedy. I think, after nearly 25 years pursuing my craft, that I’ve become very very good at this. But I’ll never be as good as Jim Gaffigan, or Louis C.K. or Paul F. Tompkins or Maria Bamford or Brian Regan. Never reach the plangent brilliance of a Richard Pryor or the surreal mastery of a Steve Martin. I’m OK with that. I still get to be creative—on my own terms, and purely on my own work.
But why is it—and this only seems to apply to comedy—that some people so deeply resent those that can write jokes, can invent new perceptions of the world that actually make people laugh? Resent them so much that they have to denigrate the entire profession, just so they can feel better about themselves? Do they really think they’re less of a person if they can’t make up a joke, or be funny in the moment? Why is it so crucial to them? Is it because all of us, at some point of darkness or confusion or existential despair, were amazed at how absurd a thing as a simple joke suddenly lit the way, or warmed the cold, or made the sheer, horrific insanity that sometimes comes with being alive suddenly, completely, miraculously manageable?
Those people—the public and, sadly, a lot of journalists—those people were my target, in all of my seemingly “unmeasured responses” to thievery. Because I can’t stop joke thieves. They’re always going to be there.
But what I can hopefully stop—or, at least, change for the better—is the public (and media’s) response to joke thieves, by hammering away at this same, exhausting refrain every time I see some thumb-sucking “think piece” by a writer who should fucking know better, cyber-quacking away about “cover songs” and “vaudeville” and a million other euphemisms and deflections away from the simple fact that an uncreative person took a creative person’s work, signed their name to it, and passed it off as their own for their personal glorification, monetary benefit, and career advancement. There’s no wiggle room there. Even the thieves know that, better than the dullards who are rationalizing and defending them.
The Actor knew what he was doing. He wasn’t the problem. It was the commenters under the NYmag.com piece about me calling him out, keeping alive the meme of, “I thought all comedians steal their stuff.”
The Valedictorian knew what he was doing. He also wasn’t the problem. It was the commenters under the New York Times article about his thievery of my work, asserting that he wasn’t deserving of this harsh scrutiny, because he was a Columbia grad and that some silly “joke teller” should be honored to have his work used in a valedictorian speech.
The Pastor, especially, knew what he was doing, because he’d done it for years, and people politely confronted him on Twitter, privately, and he mewled and shrugged his shoulders and deleted the tweets he’d stolen and continued stealing more. Even he wasn’t the problem. It was the endless shit-slog of bloggers, Twitter commenters, Facebook essayists, and probably a thousand other people who smugly shrugged their shoulders and didn’t even bother to add a pixel of ignorance to the whole affair. Those people were my target. Because those are the same kind of assholes who make it possible for thieves and hacks to thrive, sometimes all the way into stadium gigs, sitcom deals, and movie careers, in my profession.
So I want to change as many minds as I can. Educate as many people about where I’m coming from when I flip the berserker switch on hyenas like the Actor, the Valedictorian and the Pastor. I’ll probably have to do it again. And again. And again. I’m OK with it.
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.
I’m a comedian. I get to care about this stuff.
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?
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.
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.