Saturday, 18 August 2012

It's not the subject, it's the context.

Tanya Gold's piece on misogyny and rape jokes

Harry Hill once said that it was easy to shock an audience, all you need is a kitten and a chainsaw.

Generally speaking, jokes work because of surprise. The set-up leads you one way raising tension, then the punchline wrong foots you, puts an unexpected idea in your head, releases the tension and makes you laugh.

There is a fine line between the kind of delightful surprise that leads to laughter, and just plain shock that leads to disapproving shakes of the head.  All audiences are different, and what gets laughs from one might get disapproval from another and vice-versa.

As comedians develop, they get a better sense on how to dance along that line for maximum effect.  Some choose, and become known, for stepping over the line.

A lot of newer comedians, as they try and work out this grey area, position themselves on the 'shock' side because to a new act, gasps (or groans, boos...) are at least a response, and often easier to get than genuine laughter. A lot of new comedians are playing to the other comedians in the room, sometimes because they're the only other people there, but mostly to try and impress them.  Other comedians tend to enjoy it when the comic on stage is dying a hideous death or taking risks that they themselves wouldn't have the nerve to. They are not necessarily a nurturing audience. This movie sums it up pretty well.

And so what you get is lots of terrible rape jokes. Rape has become stand-up shorthand for 'I AM EDGY AND YOU CAN'T HANDLE ME YOU SQUARES'.  Which is a shame because some rape jokes are funny. Here's George Carlin and here's Louis CK and here's Sarah Silverman (Tanya Gold quotes a bit of this routine - I would argue - out of context).

Now before you decide to comment that I'm a rape-apologist, I'm really not. I don't even condone most rape jokes, but I will defend a comedian's right to make jokes about anything they like. Audiences can then decide.

But, confession time, I have a joke in my current act that contains the word 'rape', but I say it's not a rape joke.

It's part of a longer bit about Mo-vember (the charity event where men are sponsored to grow moustaches in November). I speculate on rejected similar fundraising activities, namely Cock-tober and Rape-ril.

It's not the cleverest joke I've ever written, but it has a near 100% hit rate with audiences, so it's staying in the set.  Sometimes it gets applause - which I follow by saying 'It's always disturbing when the mention of rape gets applause'. Which in itself gets a laugh, (but I kind of mean it).

Does my 'rape-ril' joke mean I condone rapists? Does it mean I hate women? And who the fuck are you to make such judgements based on, what is essentially, a childish pun?

Of the jokes mentioned by Gold, I reckon the only decent ones are Sarah Silverman's and Paul Revill's. The others aren't particularly good jokes. Interestingly, the Russell Brand joke is given no context or content at all and is just used as an excuse to repeat a showbiz rumour.

"All this normalises and diminishes violence towards women: if it is easy to laugh about, it is hard to take seriously. There is an obvious connection between misogynist discourse and violence because, as Maureen Younger of Laughing Cows says, "Women are always the butt of these jokes. It's never the perpetrator". In these gaudy rooms, the indifference amazes."

Rape jokes no more normalises or diminishes violence towards women than jokes about Hitler normalise or diminish anti-semitism. If there is an 'obvious connection between misogynist discourse and violence' then let her quote the studies that prove it, not just a quote from one person - particularly when the clips linked to above disprove her theory about perpetrators not being the 'butt' of the joke.

" if it is easy to laugh about, it is hard to take seriously"

I don't necessarily think that it's true. Sorry to invoke Hitler again, but because I enjoy, and laugh at, The Producers - does this mean that I don't take the Holocaust seriously?

I think it's much more dangerous to have the attitude where you just hear certain key words or phrases and immediately dismiss whatever's being said as immoral or unfunny, without paying any regard to the context in which the words or phrases were used.

Not doing jokes about rape will not stop rape from happening and no rapist has cited Jimmy Carr's jokes as a reason for his actions.

Comedians exist on the edges of taste and have to be given the freedom to experiment with taboo.

Hopefully, bad rape jokes will begin to be viewed as the hack and lazy comedic tropes that they have become and most good comics will steer clear.

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