What comedians need to know when they talk about Daniel Tosh

I’m taking a little break from reporting on the road trip for a second. I wasn’t going to weigh in on the Daniel Tosh scandal (just because I’m on vacation, and high blood pressure is a problem in my family), but after watching Louis C.K’s appearance on the Daily Show this morning, I feel I just have to throw my hat into the ring with every other blogger on this one. Because the way these comedians talk about this issue really got me thinking all the way across the state of Louisiana.

So here’s the appearance.
I, for the record, love these guys. They are two of the smartest comedians in America, and run two brilliant and groundbreaking television shows. And I appreciate their desire for dialogue and open-mindedness. And at least for now, I’m going to let Louis CK’s irreverence go for now, just because I don’t have time for it. (But really, Louie you are so above the whole “women have feelings, and that’s weeeeirrd” crap) But I think at the end of the day, these comedians are so desperate to defend one of their own that they have completely missed the point as to why people are so angry with Tosh. So let’s look at this for a second.

  1. First of all, both C.K. and Stewart tiptoe around the real controversy around Tosh’s rape joke. It’s not like Tosh was making a joke that was interrupted by someone in the crowd. The audience suggested rape jokes would be funny, a woman responded that she did not think this would be funny, and Tosh said something along the lines of “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” Now if this version is true (and accounts do vary on what Tosh actually said), then this rises far above telling jokes and represents a potential threat against a member of his audience. The point here? That’s not a joke! That’s not what we’re mad about! And it bothers me that so many comedians have closed ranks around Tosh without grappling with the full reality of what he said.
  2.   Now all that said, I get why a lot of comedians are tempted to take Tosh’s side on this. Comedians operate in a medium that requires a great deal of flexibility in their content, and I get that. I’m going to let Austin-based comedian Curtis Luciani explain, then, what went so wrong in Daniel Tosh’s performance.

People have wounds, and those wounds are painful. That doesn’t have shit to do with the weak concept of “taking offense.” If someone talks about Texas being a shitty state, I might “take offense” at that. Fine, whatever. All of us who like comedy are generally in agreement with the idea that “taking offense” is lame, and a comedian should be willing to “offend” whenever he or she wants to.

But causing pain is quite a different fucking matter. Your job as a comedian is to take us through pain, transcend pain, transform pain. And if you don’t get that, you are a fucking bully, and I’ve got zero time for bullies.”

And that’s just it right there. To use an example, I’m going to a Season 2 episode of 30 Rock called “Somebody to Love” that came to mind when this controversy broke. In this episode, Liz Lemon suspects her Muslim neighbor of being a terrorist and calls Homeland Security on him. The episode makes light humor of her neighbor being tortured by the US government. He comes back to his apartment a bitter, vengeful, broken man.

Playing up someone getting their testicles electroshocked sounds pretty bad, right? Yea, and that’s why Tina Fey makes it clear that this whole plot was purposeful. Watch it, and you get right away that the episode is about the paranoia of Americans and our government. It’s commenting on pain, not just casually mentioning it because the word “testicles” is hilarious.

Now THAT’S smart comedy! Or at least purposeful comedy. Comedians have dealt with painful material for decades, and when they have a sense of purpose and empathy for the powerless, it works! Some people get offended, but the material always maintains an audience. You find a way to make that sort of joke about rape and sexual assault, then you’ll probably get fewer letters. I don’t know how to do that, though.

Which goes to…

3.)    Rape jokes are just harder to pull off and comedians are going to have to deal with that. Again, I’m going to give the floor to Luciani:

Here’s what YOU need to understand:

1) Rape is way, WAY more prevalent than you seem to think it is. Are there more than five women in your audience? You do the math… you tell me how it feels.

[I’ll jump in, and point out that the majority of rapes also go unreported, and it is the only crime in which huge chunks of society will do everything in their power to shame and/or accuse the victim.]

2) I ain’t buying any of that “If I can make jokes about genocide, why can’t I make jokes about rape?” Horseshit, unless you made those genocide jokes during a gig at the Srebrenica Funny Bone. You got away with making a joke about genocide because your odds of having a holocaust survivor’s kid in the audience were pretty fucking low.

And if you did happen to have one in the audience, and he heckled you, walked out, and wrote something nasty on the internet… would you be more likely to be a human being and say “Wow. I can understand why that person’s authentic response to what I was doing was so emotional and negative. Maybe my genocide material just isn’t good enough to justify the pain that it inflicts. Maybe I need more skill in order to pull this off.”

(By the by, if Tosh in this Holocaust victim scenario had reacted the way he did to the offended woman, he would have disappeared immediately to comedy purgatory with Michael Richards. I guess, to hear knock knock jokes for all eternity?)

If there’s a lesson here it’s that comedians need to get smarter and more aware about how they want their material to effect others. I hope that’s the dialogue we will be getting out of this controversy.
Hope you didn’t mind this little detour. I’m in Lafayette, Louisiana and enjoyed some wonderful Cajun food and music today, along with some truly amazing records from NOLA-based bands. I will try to get a fuller road trip post up tomorrow morning before I head west to Austin.

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One thought on “What comedians need to know when they talk about Daniel Tosh

  1. Nice reply. Personally I’ve been trying to think of how Tosh might’ve gotten around this if he had actually made a joke and not just said what seem to be a random assortment of words. to quote George Carlin (paraphrasing) “Imagine Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd.” Now of course Carlin’s bit goes around the hold of pain and emotions by being completely preposterous. I myself have a bit about how Dolphins are the “rapists of the sea” (because they are) but I really think that, like the case of Michael Richards, the joke was not a joke and was just stupid. On a smaller note what I love about Louis CK’s response demonstrates something about his inherent style. Much like his bits form Hilarious about the “n” and “f” words, he tries to demonstrate that despite logic, humans are still just stupid.

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