Some interesting happenings on Twitter today as Kyle Kinane takes the reasonable side of an argument brought by young lady who was rather upset at any comedian who makes or has made a joke about rape. You can see the whole conversation in Kyle Kinane’s twitter feed if you aren’t already a full-blown comedy junkie that follows him. If not, be that guy that follows him. @kylekinane.
She tweeted that her boss had made a statement that she was ‘rapeable’ and that he excused it as a joke. The implication of course being that making a joke about rape on stage is just as repulsive, and thus cannot be funny. Kinane, as a matter of course tweeted back that rape jokes are for lazy/uncreative comics, and that he doesn’t want to court the audience that wants them.
This got me thinking. (Aside from the young lady’s serious misreading of how telling jokes from a stage works, and the ridiculous implication that a person telling a joke about rape makes them an accessory to sexual assault akin to Call of Duty being responsible for a school shooting. Ugh.) I think (as I think Kyle Kinane’s point was) that while rape jokes, as jokes on any subject, CAN be funny and work well, they’re often the bastion and go to stock of the ‘lazy/uncreative’. Probably for good reasons.
I’ve made a point for some time on stage to stay away from a few subjects, at least for the most part. Rape, masturbation, things that are traditionally thought of as hack. I stay away because a) I don’t want to deal with someone hearing me make a rape joke that, in context foregrounds and reinforces the appropriate social taboo against sexually assaulting another human being by making an intentionally ridiculous juxtaposition: I don’t want someone not getting the damn joke. And of course b) I don’t do it very well.
I think these are the reasons certain subjects, especially ones dealing with social taboo and filth get relegated to the realm of ‘hack’. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to do cleverly and well. And of course the latter, it’s rarely done well. Too often, the punch of the joke is simply the shock talking about the subject, that you dared to go there. It’s not 1995. Nobody’s surprised you’re talking about rape.
I want to be clear: I’m not saying a dirty joke is bad, or that filth/racism=autohack. I’m saying that the clever comic finds a good way to take a controversial subject beyond the limitation of the audiences expectation. They aren’t telling a joke that’s filthy to be filthy, it’s a means to another end. Jokes like this are often used well to lead the audience to understand, for example, the inherent absurdity of racism or sexism, etc. as is the case with the infamous criticism Sarah Silverman got for using the word ‘chink‘ on late-night TV. The brilliant letter she wrote in response is contained in The Bedwetter. It’s beautiful.
If you’re going to make a joke about kicking your girlfriend down the stairs for a cheap abortion, and your joke is ‘I kicked my girlfriend down the stairs because we needed a cheap abortion’ I’ll go out on a limb here and tell you you’ve failed at comedy. I’m not trying to act like I’ve read a damn Elder Scroll and have comedy figured out here, but I think it’s important to consider and know the difference in comedy. The audience shouldn’t already know what you’re going to say before you say it.
A cleverly written joke that takes the audience in a different direction is really the goal, right? Because in the end that’s what comedy is regardless of subject matter. A form of intellectual magic you perform on a crowd of people. Verbal misdirection to a prestige nobody expects. It’s a mad shamanic poetry that requires a deceptively practiced delivery to guide the audience out the maze presuppositions you built for them. Nobody wants to watch the magic trick of the woman getting sawed in half then put back together. Doesn’t matter how they do it, they’ve seen it. Rape jokes, jerk-off jokes, and most other dirty subjects they’re the comedy equivalent of sawing a woman in half. They aren’t inherently bad, they’re just predictable. Add all the sparks and naked chicks you want, it’s pretty pointless unless you show me something other than a whole woman at the end, but the problem is that’s kind of what you have to do. Unless you’re REALLY clever.
I know a lot of people who really take these things in new directions though. People like Colin Ryan, Toll McGrane, Don Tjernagel, Billy Short, Patrick Hastie etc. In fact, the latter has a really funny, well-crafted clever joke that’s about possiblerape/notrape but instead a really winding and silly anecdotal travelogue about misadventures with an Austrailian woman he meets abroad. See, misadventures? That’s like describing a Disney movie. A rape joke described like Disney movie. Brilliant! New directions indeed, huh?
Clean, Dirty, Hack, it’s all perspective. Sure, the argument could be made that being a clean comic will never lose you a booking, and sure, that’s probably true. I, for the most part remain pretty clean on stage. Not entirely, but mostly. Not out of a sense of prudish conservatism but rather that my mind usually doesn’t go there. I’m not saying dirty is bad, or that the comics I mentioned are ‘filthy’. I’m saying it’s hard to make something like that fresh. So don’t pressure yourself not to write jokes that come to you, but maybe the best thing to ask, whether it’s clean or dirty either way, ‘ Is this too easy?’
Do you fall into the realm of lazy/uncreative if you write a rape joke? No. Only if you write a lazy/uncreative rape/anything joke.
While it’s rare, I have had people in audiences come up to me and say ‘You know, you went a little too cerebral. People want jokes about BJ’s and weed.’ or something like that. Meh. I’ve got those jokes too, but so does everyone else, right? Those people are outweighed by the ( admittedly also few) people who have said they liked material that I’ve done that is fresh and unusual and not specifically for shock. Again, I’m no Bill Hicks, but I’ve told a good joke or two.
They say write about what you know. How many of us are guys are rapists?
Statistically, one in five.
Quod Erat Demonstratum.