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.