As we continue to talk about the impact of art on our society, I’d like to tackle an issue that I’ve always had mixed opinions on: joking about tragedy. I came across a Discovery News article on ArtsJournal recently that got me thinking. The article posed some almost formulaic reasons on why and how we laugh at tragedy. For example, it works better to joke about a minor event (tripping) right away, but a major event (car crash) after a period of time passes. Also, a smaller-scale event is funnier when it happens to someone close to us (accidentally losing $50), but a larger-scale event (losing $2000) is funnier when it happens to someone we don’t know. So, we usually distance ourselves from the big stuff in order to be able to laugh at it. But we do laugh at it, and sometimes NEED to laugh at it, for catharsis. The expression “laughter is the best medicine” has truth to it because it’s all part of coping with the bad stuff in this world. That’s why there’s so much humor based in tragedy.
This makes me think of the debate surrounding Daniel Tosh’s rape joke incident earlier this summer. For those who don’t remember, the comedian Daniel Tosh was doing stand-up at the Laugh Factory when an indignant woman responded to a rape joke (which claimed that “rape jokes are always funny”) by standing up and saying “Actually, rape is never funny,” to which Daniel Tosh responded “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” (here‘s the original tumblr post describing the incident). Almost overnight, a debate exploded over whether this joke was inappropriate or not. The two camps were essentially A) the people who thought it was just a joke and should be treated as such…
Alex Edelman, a professional stand-up comedian based in New York, told the Guardian: “I find rape to be a really serious topic, but on the other hand I think a comedian should be allowed to say almost whatever he wants and that the audience should be able to manifest their dislike in the form of not laughing at something if they find it offensive.”…Edelman explained how the interuption presented a dilemma for the comedian: “If he actually addresses something you’ve said in a serious way, then a) he’s abandoned his bit and b) he’s actually made rape really come into the room.” (article for camp A – from The Guardian)
…and B) the people who thought the incident was representative of our culture’s misogyny and should be tempered.
When at a stand-up show, the comedian is without-a-doubt the most powerful person in the room. They have the spotlight and the mic in their hand, as well as a receptive audience eager to hear them speak. What he or she says, in that moment, is supremely influential. Tosh used his power to ask his audience if they thought it would be funny if a specific woman – who was standing in the room – were to be raped at that very moment by 5 other men in the room. He repeated, for emphasis, “right now.” So what was actually supposed to be funny here? That idea of watching a woman who complained about rape being raped herself? Put this against the backdrop of a misogynistic society where men are still in power and women are still valued primarily as sexual objects, and the picture gets even darker. The humor comes from the voicelessness of the woman – the absurdity of her saying “rape jokes are never funny.” Because in the context of the culture in which we live, a woman speaking out against rape jokes to a man is literally absurd. Women challenging rape at a comedy club are probably, the joke implies, more likely to be raped themselves than to be heard and respected by the male comedian. That is what Tosh finds funny. What the audience chuckles at. That is the true context of his joke. (article for camp B – from the Miss Representation blog)
My original impulse, before I realized there was an actual controversy, was to side with camp B. I think if I had been in that woman’s place, I would have felt uncomfortable too and unable to laugh at this joke. And maybe that’s just because my own sense of humor is like that; I usually don’t find black humor funny no matter what the joke is. But I also think it’s because I don’t have enough distance from the subject matter. For me, the Miss Representation article nicely articulates how I feel on this particular issue; sexism and misogyny are issues I think about and deal with every day. They are a part of my current experience and they do not end because they are repeated, often in the same way, all the time. So if the Discovery article is correct, it is not funny to me or the woman involved because it’s still too soon and too close to home. But to look at the other side of it, I can see making light of rape as a coping mechanism. Knowing that bad stuff like rape exists in the world can be a giant downer, so to reconcile ourselves with that, we joke about it. We deflect the horror and sadness with humor in order not to get pulled down by it. That’s one explanation, anyway.
So, to link this back to art: We gather to share and hear jokes as a form of catharsis and release. When I listen to a funny story, my hope is to be relieved of my troubles for a while. I know that when I listen to a comedian, I will join with them in a recognition of our shared human experience and have the opportunity to laugh at it, like from a pedestal. When a comedian does a bit about how TSA agents at the airports took away his “dangerous” toenail clippers (a la Rich Vos), I laugh because I think toenail clippers being dangerous is hilarious TOO! And the undercurrent of that bit is that the world itself has become dangerous enough that we have to have tight security at airports, but we are all experiencing that together, and that in itself is such a relief to know that we succumb to laughter. So it follows that if we can joke about airport security, we can also joke about murder and rape and bombings because it can potentially offer that same catharsis and release.
BUT…if live performance has this much power (as we’ve seen and know), we have to think about the impact on the audience. That’s the whole point of live theatre, isn’t it – to affect the audience in some way? I believe that society informs the individual which informs society. When we experience culture that makes light of terrible experiences, those that have not had those experiences might believe that there is enough distance from that issue to make light of it. Sexism is not over. If we keep joking about it, we might be giving the false impression to those who don’t have to face it every day that there isn’t a problem anymore. In that case, the jokes may be actively contributing to the problem rather than easing its burden. And of course this doesn’t just go for sexism. I think, as artists, we always have to examine not only WHAT ideas we put into the world with our work, but HOW we do it, because art has far deeper reaches than we realize.