From Amy Schumer to Margaret Cho to Sarah Silverman: How Comedians Are Confronting Rape with Jokes

by Katrina Majkut


Ask any comedian what the formula for comedy is and they will tell you that it’s “Time + Tragedy.” Comedy has always tapped into dark personal matters, but does that mean any topic, no matter how horrible, can eventually be funny? If someone is a sexual assault survivor, finding humor in rape may seem difficult. However, it’s a tactic used by more and more comedians to tackle this prevalent topic both as a way to push their comedic skills but also as a way to fight against the heinous crime. Not everyone is capable of landing laughs, though.

The most notorious failure is Daniel Tosh’s 2012 Laugh Factory bit. After an audience member heckled him for a sister-rape joke she found inappropriate, his reply to the heckle, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl [referring to the heckler] got raped by, like five guys right now? Like right now?”

While there’s nothing worse than a joke that needs explaining, the problem was that Tosh targeted multiple victims who he implied were ‘asking for it’ (victim blaming) because he didn’t like their response (male privilege).

Some comedians believe nothing should be off limits and the job allows for failure. Patton Oswald drew a comedic line on Tosh though, “Daniel’s bad reaction  I don’t defend. His attempting to find humor in the subject of rape – again, a horrifying reality…can sometimes be attacked with humor? I defend that.” 

Horrified at the amount of obtuse rape jokes delivered by male comedians for the sake of edginess, Heather Jordon Ross and Emma Cooper formed a 2016 Canadian comedy tour titled, “Rape is real & everywhere.” Cooper explained, “…the other night a guy told a joke…‘Is it okay to date rape a girl if she was going to drunk drive home?’ He thinks it’s a joke, but…if you don’t have to see what people go through, [then] you just live in this magical world where it doesn’t fucking happen to people.” Similarly fed up, comedian Adrienne Truscott started the show, Asking for It. To make a point that rape is never justifiable or that women are never ‘asking for it,’ she performs bottomless.

When it comes to sensitive topics and comedy, though, there’s always the question of “Too soon?” Hanging around comedy spots in New York City today, I hear plenty of 9-11 jokes. Regardless of whether the joke lands well, even fifteen years later, there’s always an air of cringe-worthiness in the audience. Who’s to say whether survivors are ready to embrace the idea of “Time + Tragedy” or if it’s still all too fresh? Out of respect should comedians then avoid it?

Feminist Sarah Silverman’s rape joke pushed the boundaries of this idea and Oswald’s belief in comedic freedom, “…But the truth is [rape is] like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Cause who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape. I mean, they’re traditionally not complainers.” (Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles, 2013). Whether or not you think her joke is funny for its “truthiness,” it still makes fun of an unfortunate survivor side effect and doesn’t necessarily encourage them to come forward and report their attacker.

Regardless of people’s sensitivities, though, what if one of the benefits of dark comedy is effective subculture justice? For example, Hannibal Buress was the first to joke America’s beloved TV dad Bill Cosby was a rapist. Who can say that comedians’ and the entertainment world’s unwillingness to drop the Bill Cosby rape accusations didn’t help bring an alleged predator to trial? Then again, it’s an imperfect system considering as few are making Woody Allen jokes.

What about the 2016 viral rape story of Brock Turner, a 20-year old, Stanford University swimmer, who raped an unconscious 23-year old woman? With no regard to what the survivor endured, the rapist’s father wrote that the real tragedy of the light sentencing of six months in jail and three years of probation for three felony charges has, for example, made his son incapable of enjoying rib eye steak. This obtuse observation inspired massive amounts of witty Internet shaming. Though is this type of subculture justice enough to effectively call out the hypocrisy of our justice system, white-male privilege and a common disregard for survivors? Will it inspire enough change next time?

Writers’ rooms are also tackling this tough topic. Some of the most successful rape jokes (in my opinion) appear to be well-developed sketches that target biased and abusive systems and the misperceptions of the general public. Amy Schumer’s Football Town Night perfectly parodies the absurd rape culture prevalent in sports and managed to humorously address the reality of how misunderstood consent is. College Humor used the sketch “What If Bears Killed One in Five People?” to metaphorically break down the defenses of those who’d rather not believe survivors and, instead, brush off the violent reality. While acknowledging that rape is no laughing matter, Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee successfully tackled U.S. government leadership and policy hypocrisy regarding untested rape kits with a solid chuckle.

The sketches are proof that survivors are not the only ones who can use this dark subject to powerful effects. However, these sketches miss a crucial element – supporting and understanding the direct needs and feelings of survivors. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that even the shared experiences and thoughts coming directly from survivors are sometimes not enough to earn the audience’s attention and empathy.

At a New Jersey comedy club in March 2016, comedian and sexual assault survivor Margaret Cho opened her act with rape jokes. Audience members stormed out with one yelling, “Are you guys enjoying this? Really? This is comedy before Easter? Rape, rape, rape?” Cho responded to the walkout with comments about white privilege – perhaps not the most astute retort when trying to help an audience understand that, like Oswald insists, comedy has no limits and that, contrary to Silverman’s joke, as Cho tweeted, “I just think that survivors of abuse should speak their truth & I do!”

Aside from Cho’s unfortunate bit in New Jersey (which she blamed on jet lag), she does take the time to adequately develop how she approaches rape, bringing to light an equally important benefit of comedy, which is catharsis. Her highly produced music video, (I Want to) Kill My Rapist,” while arguably a concern of violence begetting violence, was made to help survivors feel empowered and in control. Cho gives the disclaimer, “I do not condone violence but cathartic rage has its place in art. I believe if you have been sexually abused, you must ‘murder’ your rapist in your mind. Abuse leads to self-abuse, drug addiction, depression, eating disorders, and suicide. I want to kill it before it kills me.”

Personal catharsis leads many comedians to the stage, but more and more of them are willing to step into the spotlight to talk how intensely personal, violating, silencing and misunderstood rape is. They do this in the name of coping, empowerment and raising awareness that 19.3% of women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime (men: 1.7%).

Comedian Beth Stelling recently went public with her status as a rape survivor on Instagram in December of 2015 with photos of her bruises from her ex-boyfriend, “…my stand-up is pulled directly from my life. It’s how I make my living. My personal is my professional. That is how I’ve always been; I make dark, funny. So now I’m allowing this to be part of my story. …You’ve already started to hear my jokes about this and I ask you to have the courage to listen and accept it because I’m trying. Already since talking about this onstage, many women have come to me after shows asking me to keep doing it. Men have shown their solidarity.” 

So is Oswald right? Can humor be used to tackle the topic of rape? After much consideration, I think yes, absolutely, but it’s not easy. The rape joke is difficult to master because it falls under dark and smart comedy. Unfortunately, not everyone has the chops for both. A comedian jumping into the topic haphazardly for the sake of edgy experimentation is more likely to bomb.

More respect towards what survivors experience is required, more understanding of this crime’s nature is needed and more comprehension of how communities and authorizes mishandled it is also necessary. How can a comedian expect to successfully joke about this tragedy if they don’t understand the very basics of it? In comedy’s formula, the passage of “Time’ is also irrelevant, comedians just needed a certain amount of time to curate the right message about it. Maybe, the equation for comedy is a lot more complicated than originally thought, something like “Tragedy (Knowledge + Empathy) + Time.” If dark jokes on subjects like rape can’t be cathartic, empowering or an educational outlet, then what’s the point of them?

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