Last Friday, comedian Daniel Tosh was heckled at L.A.’s Laugh Factory after joking about the comic potential of rape. When an audience member shouted that rape was never funny, the star of Comedy Central’s viral clip show Tosh.0 allegedly joked that it would be hilarious if she were gang-raped on the spot. (The owner of the club disputed the exact details of the account that led to the controversy; while Tosh referred to “out of context misquotes” in an apology, he has not disputed the substance of the account.)
The heckler then took to Tumblr to report the incident and, after Tosh Tweeted his lukewarm apology, the blog post went viral. The comedy club skirmish has led to three days of blogged reprisals about how horribly inept and misogynistic Tosh’s attempt at humor was—as well as defenses from comedians claiming that a comic has the right to take on any subject, no matter how horrible. Largely because of his saint-like status in the current comic culture, Louis C.K. took particular grief for sticking up for Tosh.
After his apology, Tosh himself defended the jokes by tweeting: “The point I was making before I was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them #deadbabies.”
As it happens, the Laugh Factory is also where Michael Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld, had his infamous racist meltdown in response to a heckler six years ago—and nearly every story about the Tosh incident has mentioned Richards’s meltdown prominently. Most writers have been using the Richards episode, in which he hurled racial epithets and suggested the heckler should be lynched, to illustrate the level of media furor over the new controversy and to point out where the free speech line for comedians lies. And the two episodes are similar, but not because they illustrate a certain line comics shouldn’t cross, or because they caused a similar uproar. (Thanks to Seinfeld, Michael Richards was a far more familiar figure to the broader public than Daniel Tosh is, and his incident received more scrutiny outside the world of comedy diehards.) Rather, they both illustrate topics that comics should be able to address, but only in a thoughtful way—one that keeps both real-world victims and comedy’s victims in mind.
What Tosh and others have said is true: It is every good comic’s job to make us laugh while at the same time getting us to think about the world—including aspects of our world that are utterly horrific. Even lynching can be addressed in comedy—when done correctly. South Park did a whole episode about how the town’s cherished flag was just a cartoon image of a lynching—and it was hilarious. Matt Stone and Trey Parker were satirizing the controversy about states adopting the Confederate flag, the icon of Jim Crow-era terrorism, for official use. The joke’s “victims,” so to speak, were not those who had been terrorized by lynching, but the perpetrators—and, especially, their modern-day apologists.
A joke that ridicules the victims or potential victims of rape is just as terrible as one that mocks victims of lynching. If you’re going to make a joke about rape—or lynching, or the Holocaust—you should, as Lindy West pointed out in her excellent response to the incident on Jezebel, make damn sure that you are not ridiculing victims. And you should try to make damn sure that your joke has a larger point—that the joke, in other words, is worth it.
Otherwise, you’ll just end up like Michael Richards, creaking around stage to jeers as you rant randomly about “niggers.” And that’s not comedy.
P.S. If you still want to see a well-executed rape joke, check out The Onion’s response to the Tosh incident.
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