The unpopular position: rape isn’t funny

I opted to not go with a rape-related image for today's post. Although, frankly, this picture may be funnier in that context.

Today's graphic will, you know, not relate to the subject at hand. Although it is probably funnier in that context.

Alert reader/irascible curmudgeon Ben Fowlkes sent me a link to this post over at the feminist blog Shakesville, in which the author lambasts Ricky Gervais. The comedian—whom you probably remember from the original British version of The Office, or from this comedy about a man whose paranoid schizophrenia leads him to become fixated on a woman in his building—recently came under fire in the British press for the following joke:

“I’ve [driven drunk] once and I’m really ashamed of it. It was Christmas—I’d had a couple of drinks and I took the car out. But I learned my lesson. I nearly killed an old lady. In the end I didn’t kill her. In the end, I just raped her.”

First of all, that is not a funny joke. Who can tell when non-John Cleese British people are being funny, though? Bafflingly, the UK press describes it as a “drink-driving joke” and seems to find it objectionable on those grounds—in response to which I refer you to the second sentence of this paragraph. Gervais, in his own defense, says that the turn is “comedically justified” because it addresses the phrase “nearly killed her.” The idea is that rape is less bad than murder, kind of, and the sudden recontextualization of the “nearly killed her”—from hyperbolic expression to literal statement—is funny. Explanations like these are why you shouldn’t talk during comedy or sex, but that’s beside the point. Gervais argues that it’s not a rape joke, which is a difficult position to maintain when you compare the joke with other jokes that do not contain the word “rape.” Shakesville blogger Melissa McEwan argues that the joke is unfunny—in fact, unacceptable—because it’s about rape. I contend that Gervais’s joke isn’t funny, not because it’s about rape, but because it’s not funny. So in fact the subject of today’s blog is that rape isn’t funny, which is why it’s such a good subject for jokes. Gotcha!

In my old age, I have learned to avoid making rape-related jokes. Much like the offhand remark containing the word “retarded,” the rape joke is a good way to irrevocably change your relationship with someone whose sister you haven’t met. The problem is that for most of us, rape or mental retardation or having a wife and wanting the listener to take her, please, is an intellectual construct, whereas for some of us these things are real and horrifying. That’s essentially the tack McEwan takes in her blog post, in which she concedes (for the sake of argument) that Gervais’s joke is not about rape, but points out that it will remind rape victims of their experiences anyway. “Why don’t you give a fuck about the rape survivors in your audiences, Ricky Gervais?” she asks, presumably rhetorically. She argues that jokes involving rape trigger traumatic responses in rape victims, and that it’s irresponsible for Gervais to prioritize a joke over the possibility that it will cause a panic attack in a member of his audience. She then concludes her post with a vivid description of a rape, in a rhetorical decision that seems to undermine her argument. Invoking rape for emotional impact is better, I guess, than invoking it for laughs.

“I was raped by a doctor,” Sarah Silverman says, “which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” Now there’s a funny rape joke. (It’s also one of two by Ms. Silverman that leap immediately to mind. Not safe for work.) The question is, what’s it about? You could argue that it’s about anti-Semitic stereotypes as much as it’s about rape, and you’d probably be right. Those are equivalent elements in the gag, but they’re still not what the joke is about. At the risk of performing the same vivisection Gervais used to kill his already ailing joke, Silverman’s joke is about a grotesquely out-of-scale calculus being employed to compare events in human life. Rape: terrible. Fixation on securing a doctor husband: terrible, but definitely not in the same way. Reasoning that puts these two premises on a par: hilarious.

The premise of the joke is not that rape is okay, but that it is so not okay that to treat it as even mildly acceptable is inherently funny. “Inherently funny” is a dangerous principle, as any number of failed attempts at shock humor will remind us. And before we get too thrilled with the moral exoneration implicit in our argument, let us not forget that other principle, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” I’m guessing that Sarah Silverman has never been raped,* and her and our willingness to joke about it suggests that we view the subject from a distance that other people might not enjoy. So yeah: rape is not funny if you have been raped. September 11th jokes** aren’t funny if you’ve been waiting eight years for your father to come home from work. Louis CK’s joke about the time machine being a much less exciting invention for black people—you basically don’t want to go back to any year before 1985—probably isn’t funny if you’ve actually experienced the permanence of racism. Basically, the more you have personally suffered unforgettable tragedies that reinforce the Camus-ian absurdity of a senseless, merciless universe, the less you are going to laugh.

Unless you’re this lady. Or this guy. Or, for that matter, this guy. Here is what a joke does: it takes a visceral subject and places it at an intellectual remove via syntax, timing, or some other mechanical technique. The sudden transition from the intellectual to the visceral makes you laugh. It stands to reason that the more viscerally affecting the subject, the bigger the laugh. Of course, some subjects are so visceral that they cannot be placed at an intellectual remove; hence McEwan’s theoretical rape victim’s inability to see the humor in Gervais’s crappy joke. But coming up with jokes has been a primary endeavor throughout human history for a reason, and it’s not because there’s so much money in it. We need to take the visceral and put it at an intellectual distance, for reasons of existential survival. To directly consider the problem of homelessness and its impact on individual lives is to fall into a chasm. Better to volunteer at the soup kitchen and then go home and watch this. Our ability to laugh at Sarah Silverman’s rape joke is a testament to the degree to which we have compartmentalized rape as an intellectual construct. It’s the source of the callousness that Melissa McEwan rails against in what she calls our “rape culture,” but it’s also a mode of thinking made possible by a day-to-day life in which rape is so rare as to have become a taboo and then, miraculously, a sometimes laughing matter. Nobody in feudal Japan probably thought it was funny at all.

Rape isn’t funny; jokes are funny. As Gervais demonstrates, a funny joke is sufficiently difficult to construct that its bare existence is a minor miracle. To take an awful subject and make it funny, against our will or what we might articulate as our principles in sober reflection, is to reclaim a part of the world. It is to redeem the senselessness of an England in which women are raped for the complex culture that produced nightclub comedians and satirical TV shows about documentaries about offices. The tragedy of such jokes is that they leave some people out in the cold. We are all out in the cold, though, and we need what little heat we can generate.

* Or taken out to dinner by a man who can keep up with the conversation, but who still really, genuinely listens to her. Oh god, please call me.

** Q: Knock knock. A: Who’s there? Q: September Eleventh. A: September Eleventh who? Q: I though you said you’d never forget.

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  1. If I laugh at it, it’s funny.

    I’m not saying that humor is subjective, rather that it is all intended for me.

  2. One difference between the two jokes that you highlight in this post is that in Gervais’s joke, rape is the punchline, whereas in Silverman’s it’s the starting point. I don’t think that’s the full explanation for why Silverman’s seems more funny to me, but it’s definitely part of it.

  3. Rape isn’t the starting point of the Silverman joke. Her starting point is to tell a version of the Aristocrats joke – a stock joke in which the joke teller showcases her ability to describe a shocking scenario that involves, at the very least, her voluntary involvement in incest performed for the amusement of an audience – which she derails from in order to tell another joke whose ultimate reveal is, in fact, rape. The main comedic tool at work there is how well she plays an extraordinarily naive person who does not realize what an atrocity has been committed against her, remaining ever ignorant as each detail she adds to her story makes it more unmistakably clear what really happened.

  4. Then there’s this Ricky Gervais rape joke:

    Analyzing the relationship of Gervais’ humor to actual laughter would be quite a project in itself. I, like many others, think he’s brilliant. But…his humor always seems intended to make you uncomfortable first…then, you laugh almost as a coping mechanism.

    Anyway, I wonder if there was ever any outcry over the above segment from “The Office.” I don’t recall any. The joke works in the above, as uncomfortable as it is. Actually, of course, the discomfort is the point–the joke is really about how horribly socially and professionally inept David Brent is. So horribly inept that he would mention rape in order to “throw someone off.” Which, I guess, is similar to using it in order to make a bad joke.

  5. In other words, it might have been funny–in classic Gervais cringe-worthy fashion–to see David Brent try to pull off the above joke–and fail utterly, appalling his audience. But, the joke is not funny if it is itself supposed to be the instigator of laughter, instead of signifying what a joke of a human being its teller is. Perhaps Gervais forgot that essential layer to his comedy at some point.

  6. I saw Gervais standup special and let’s bear in mind that in his standup he is playing a character. He is a completely ignorant asshole–not quite David Brent, but not quite Gervais himself either. So I think we’re forgetting that Gervais’ rape joke is in fact told at a certain remove.
    Also, I agree with y’all about Sarah’s being funnier, but don’t think Gervais’ joke was that bad. The joke points out a mental dissonance, and, like most good jokes, works in an area where we’re slightly uncomfortable. Given that statistically, every single one of us has been raped or personally knows rape victims (yes the world is a god-awful place) or lives alone in a cave on Antartica, we’re all going to be uncomfortable, and probably so uncomfortable that we fail to fail laugh. Ricky, Sarah, and, usually, by the way, Dan, all love to needle us where it’s most tender.
    About yesterday: Bachman, really? At times I worry Combat! will run out of beautiful, farcically idiotic, conservative women to lambast, but the American political landscape is fertile ground, isn’t it?

  7. To speak of a united “female” perspective is mostly useless, but in this case I think there’s one additional point to make, a gendered one. The anguish of rape survivors aside (I await the advent of an all-rape-survivor sketch comedy group! bring it!), a rape-referencing joke, especially one told by a man, can’t escape the fact that the autonomy and well-being of women STILL depend on a society-wide consensus among men not to use their (mostly) greater size and strength to evil ends. Rape jokes and their reception in the culture are clues to the health of that consensus; whether the tellers like it or not, these jokes are ALWAYS moral acts. I’ve heard people far less funny/smart than Gervais or Silverman joke about it and betray beliefs that, deep down, it IS funny…schadenfreude-funny…like a pratfall on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Like getting hit in the face with a ball. Or mundane, like being OMG RAPED by the post office/student loan company/tech support/choose-your-institutional-rapist). Knowing that, do comics, especially males, have any responsibility to counteract that?…perhaps with infinitely nested jokes-about-rape-jokes? We’ll see.

    And now, an even MORE brilliant Silverman bullet on moral abdication/fixation on the wrong problem:

    “Is gang rape one word or two? Must know ASAP.”

  8. Back when I was growing up (when the Burlington Glacier was edging toward St. Louis), we told “moron jokes” and “Rastus and Eliza” jokes (like Sven and Ole, but with broader accents). Then we had the one using the visual of a hand, twiddling about the teller’s right ear (What’s this? Helen Keller talking behind your back) and the ones about thalidomide babies, how many jewish princesses it takes to change a lightbulb (two: one to call Daddy; one to get the diet Tab); and “Polacks”. Secretary Butz lost his job telling a joke about loose shoes to John Dean (who, of course, could be told anything in absolute confidence).

    Then there’s that universal knee slapper, “When rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” (Could this be make more humorous by adding, “When anal rape is inevitable, Mister….?”)

    The fact that we’re now talking about this subject is proof of evolution….even in Sedalia.

  9. Humour is totally subjective. Neither joke is better or more funny than the other. IMO I think Gervais Joke is far more funny. Harsh sure..and all the better for it. Silverman’s joke which I completely understand (and will even admit to finding it clever) is not funny in the slightest. But, nothing that woman has ever said is.

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