Article Title
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Subjective Authoritarianism

by Mike Anton

Every few years, there is a big kerfuffle about a joke that "goes too far." It's the same dog and pony show each time: a stupid comment gets blown way out of proportion, is taken completely out of context, and is splattered against every sign post in America while the populace shakes their fingers together, feels morally righteous by "taking a stand," and moves right along with their lives. Just like with Opie and Anthony and Don Imus, Daniel Tosh is now being unjustly crucified at the altar of public opinion.

In case you missed the story (or fellow staff writer Casey Berger's piece, also published today) comedian Daniel Tosh, he of the hit Comedy Central show Tosh.0, was performing a set at The Laugh Factory when he started in on material about rape. One member of the audience took offense to the line of jokes, yelling out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” Then, according to her account which she posted on a friend's Tumblr, Tosh shouted her down, saying “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…” Mortified, she got up to leave, fearing for her safety, and demanded her money back (she received two comp'ed tickets instead).

Ordinarily, this is just something that happens at a club. A heckler speaks up, the comedian shoots him or her down, and they continue like this until they eventually “walk” the heckler. Rare is the comedy room where such an event doesn't occur, in some way, shape, or form. What makes this story unique, however, is this comes in the middle of a maelstrom of women bashing unseen since the early 1960s. Now this is no longer an isolated incident between a stand-up and a heckler. This is another in a long line of battles waged against femininity from the dominant sex. And that, friends, is something that cannot stand.

This reasoning is articulated in a much-shared article written by Alyssa Rosenberg for Think Progress. After reading the piece, doing some background on Ms. Rosenberg's previous work, and as a comedy enthusiast, I could not help but take umbrage at what was a reckless hit piece, designed to destroy Mr. Tosh without much knowledge of comedy or a better understanding of the facts and context of the piece, something that, as of press time, no one is sure of. I would be remiss to go after another writer on the internet without using the time-tested Fire Joe Morgan model. Her original piece is in bold; my comments follow.

First, let's start with the title, something I'm sure is provocative, but is surely even-handed and in some ways–

Daniel Tosh Jokes About Seeing a Heckler Get Gang Raped

Or not. Strap in, kids. This is going to be a bumpy one.

I’m not sure I expect better from comedian Daniel Tosh,

What does this sentence even mean? If you're not sure you should, then why would you? Is it because he's a comedian, who was doing a stand-up show in a comedy club? If you're not sure you should expect better from him, then why are you writing this?

...but this story of a woman who saw him on a bill at the Laugh Factory (where, it should be noted, she got through a Dane Cook set just fine, lest anyone want to accuse her of oversensitivity)

Immediately we have a problem. We can't question the oversensitivity of the person, who wrote on her friend's Tumblr, and is, at press time, the only account of this situation, because she sat through a Dane Cook spot. You know, the guy who pushes the culture envelope by discussing his love and making his erect penis into a cashew catapult. Because of this one ridiculous anecdote, she is now beyond reproach. 

and ended up having to hear him talk about how hilarious it would be if she got gang-raped is…dispiriting:

Well of course it is. Especially when you put it like that, with absolutely no context and no attempt at a journalistic effort in figuring out if this report – from a Tumblr page that isn't even the victim's – if this account is true. But whatever. Let's get to the sacrifice right quick. No one comes to a pig roast for the conversation.

So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have.

And is this show all about you? Was it carefully crafted to show all of the things that you, for one, really enjoy? Or did you buy a ticket to a comedy show, at a comedy club, that features many comedians of various styles and material? Why would you expect it to be tailored for you, and, even more galling, why would you feel like you had a right to do so? Especially on a show with Daniel Tosh on it, whose entire act hinges on being edgy.

Here's an analogy. You and your friend go to the bookstore and look to buy a new print. You both have heard excellent stories about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Having no sense to look at the book and see what it's about, you blindly purchase it and, lo and behold, it's chock-full of material containing gruesome sexual assaults. You then write a letter to the estate of Stieg Larsson demanding he apologize for not writing a book that you would have enjoyed more.

And I'm glad you don't find rape jokes funny. I don't find 30 Rock all that funny. We have things in common, anonymous person – we both dislike certain things that other people find funny. Maybe we can find common ground after all!

So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”
I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.

Then why are you there at all? Why are you at a comedy club? Why wouldn't you think for a second, “y'know what, I have very strong moral convictions on a number of social taboos, ones that are routinely brought up in comedy clubs?” You can't walk into the lion's den, past the sign that announces “LION'S DEN,” and then go after the zookeeper when there are lions inside!

Also, no one is telling you how to feel (outside of the original aggrieved party and the article's writer, natch). What, was Tosh surrounded by brown shirts? He was making light of something horrific for shock value, sure, and cheap laughs, but also for a small modicum of catharsis when dealing with large, unruly, terrible acts like rape that are so reprehensible that they need to be laughed about for people to not walk through their days crying their eyes out.

More over, why don't you have the respect to simply walk out? Why do you feel like you're being a hero when you're actually being incredibly rude? At what other performance in any other medium would this be considered even remotely proper? If you're in the audience for “August, Osage County,” do you let people know how appalled you are at the idea sexually abusing children? If you're seeing “Titus Andronicus,” are you going to write a letter to William Shakespeare because no person should see a play where a woman is raped, her tongue is ripped out, and her hands are shorn off so as to not be able to alert anyone to the identity of her rapist? No, because that would be rude. But really, it's because those things are seen as art while stand-up is seen as a jester in the court, not the descendent of the street corner philosopher. But I digress.

Do you know what happened with when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to speak at the UN and said that the Holocaust and 9/11 were lies perpetrated by a Jewish-run media? The aggrieved parties walked out! Imagine that – decorum! And they weren't even seated with other people who paid money to watch a performance. They were just decent humans who showed respect to a fucking tyrant.

Oh, and use an apostrophe. You're an adult. It's embarrassing.

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “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…”

This is where the ice gets thin.

The closest I get to understanding the fear of a woman being sexually assaulted depends on just how close I am to them. You see, I'm a tall lad, standing about 6'4”, and like most women, I have to walk home, late at night, usually behind them. And I cut a terrifying figure, especially in the winter when I'm bundled up. There were times in college where I had to announce myself, my destination, and my goal to walk by this poor girl in between the street lights. As a male, I have no idea how often a woman feels unsafe, and it would be fairly ridiculous to assume such a thing.

Nearly as ridiculous as thinking that you would be gang-raped in the middle of a comedy club.

I just can't wrap my head around this as an actual, real-life possibility that could befall a woman. Ms. Berger called this shout-down line “a threat” which seems to be a dangerously loaded accusation to make. A threat implies that there is a serious possibility of such an event occurring and, man, I just can't see that a comedian in a comedy club shouting down a heckler in this manner would be perceived as a threat. But I'm not a woman and can't vouch for her state of mind. I only hope that we live in a world where this is as ludicrous as I feel it is and not the other way around.

I'll get back to the sure-footed righteous indignation. Look, here's something antithetical and moronic!

Now, I don’t know what jokes Tosh was telling specifically,

Why would you? Why wouldn't you just stand on your pulpit with an egregious lack of information – let alone information from anyone other than the aggrieved party – and condemn someone in a highly-read column on a highly-read website without any context? Such as how the first paragraph of the story she cited shows just how little this woman knew about stand-up? How little we know about her conduct during the show? Was she was talking uproariously, or drinking, or chuckled politely, or was as quiet as a saint? Did the other comedians spot a problem with her? Did they talk about it in the back? Did the audience sit back, stunned, when Tosh unleashed on her? Did the audience applaud as the woman left? Did she say anything on the way out? How many comedians had she seen until this incident? Is this the top of the show or near the end?

Those facts would all be objective. They would be actual accounts of the goings on during the evening that could be verified and backed up. This piece has as much objectivity as Planned Parenthood has funding: not nearly enough. So now we move into the direct subjectivity area, where one person believes they have such a grasp on what makes good comedy that she'll teach us about the axioms of humor. Take it away, Ms. Rosenberg! 

...but judging by, say, this routine, where the joke is that his sister gets raped after he replaces her pepper spray with silly string and her reaction is that he pulled a good one, I’d imagine it wasn’t particularly thoughtful or analytical:

If you watch the video, you'll notice that Ms. Rosenberg is incorrect. Mr. Tosh's sister getting raped because Mr. Tosh switched out her pepper spray with silly string is not the joke. It is the set-up. The joke is her playful reaction to something so terrifying as getting raped. Having her play it off as something innocuous is the joke, because rape isn't funny, it isn't fun or easy or something a girl just slips into. Ms. Rosenberg isn't particularly correct in her thoughtful analysis. Imagine if she knew this little about the Greek economic crisis and wrote an entirely wrong-headed piece without knowing the basic machinations of how the Euro is regulated. She'd be lambasted. But because this is a stand-up? She'll be lauded. 

Ditto with this “Acme Rape Trap” routine:

Okay, this is just an unfunny bit. Have I mentioned yet that I don't even really like Daniel Tosh all that much? I'd like to put that out there, right at this juncture. Funny, though, that there are no mentions about the (albeit hacky) punchline: a driving blow from Ben Roethlisberger before he “rapes” Tosh.

That stands to reason that Ms. Rosenberg wouldn't find something about Roethlisberger and rape funny at all, right? Which is curious, as she's linked to an Onion GOOMF video which features a segment about how Big Ben made it through the offseason without raping anyone. It is at the bottom of this piece, titled wonderfully, “Loving Football as a Progressive.” Indeed. She's such a progressive that she wrote off the importance of many football players with past history sexual assault charges and prosecutions cause, y'know, sports. But let's crucify Tosh, the guy who hasn't had to settle out of court on two separate sexual assault charges. He's just the guy who yelled at someone who interrupted him while he was doing his job trying to entertain the audience members around her.

Heckling is, of course, a legitimate part of something that does happen during* comedy performances

You've got to be fucking kidding me.

How do you even go to print with something as profoundly incorrect as this? And how can you justify it by putting this asterisked addendum:

*Thanks to the comedians who pointed out that heckling is less common than it’s sometimes portrayed to be. I regret the mischaracterization. The point I wanted to make is that is that the writers’ remarks weren’t entirely bizarre and a professional should have been prepared to respond to them.

You see, her mistake is that she made it sound that it was a routine thing. Which, one stands to reason, makes it even more galling since it's not acceptable behavior if it doesn't happen that often, yeah? I love how she throws around the term “professional” while doing such due diligence to the stand-up community by assuming that stand-up is somehow NOT a rhetorical exercise. But she does see fit to criticize the method in which he did this, which seems foolhardy considering she doesn't know shit about comedy, as clearly evidenced by everything she has mentioned about comedy. But that'll surely stop right oh wait no.

...(though more so in clubs like the Laugh Factory than in a major auditorium), and heckling someone on the substance of their jokes is obviously a notch politer than simply telling someone that they’re terrible, or unfunny, or unattractive, or to get lost.

I don't know what “a major auditorium” stands for. I hope she means an arena, a venue that about four stand-ups in American history have performed in. And you know how you know she's not funny? Because she thinks – literally, completely, totally – that someone would actually respond to a comic with, “get lost!” With barbs like that, it's shocking to know Leave It To Beaver can be shown before 8 PM.

Remember how god awful her taste in comedy seems to be. It becomes rather important in a second.

A good comedian is an alchemist who can turn heckling into a transformative extended riff. Here it sounds like Tosh just doubled down on the same points he was making rather than actually responding, or providing an example of a rape joke that his heckler might find funny, undermining her objection.

And here's the real nut of the column (other than using the word “rape” 15 times over 557 total words): she just doesn't find it funny. Just like the victim that she's writing about, this comes down to a topic of taste, which, of course, is preposterous. There is nothing more subjective than a sense of humor. People vacillate wildly within their own sensibilities over what is funny, let alone using your own personal idea of what's funny and what's not to be pushed upon others as some sort of all-knowing template. It's incredibly dangerous – and highly irresponsible – to from an opinion that someone isn't funny and then charge them with being a rape monger.

Furthermore, who are you, Ms. Rosenberg, to tell your audience what constitutes a good comedian? Who gave you that authority? Do you know what it's like to be heckled? To be in your fifteenth year of professional stand up, standing in front of a room full of strangers that you are supposed to make laugh? Do you understand the pressure of the beaming hot light shining through you as throngs of people wait by your feet who more than likely don't care about you at all? Have you been interrupted in the middle of your job, the same profession you've chosen to put food in your belly and puts a roof over your head? Have you had to deal with people mucking up your set from the way beginning, at the thankless open mics, middling at Chinese food joints, working out material that will get you on the road over the din of a jukebox that just won't die, in front of three alcoholics who stick around only because they don't want to see the mess they've become when they take a leak before passing out at home?

You have no agency to make these claims. Want to know who a good comedian is? Ask a comic. Or just write something that undermines everything you've written. Whichever.

As I’ve written before, I think there is a case to be made that rape jokes that make fun of perpetrators can be very funny.

In the linked article, she mentions a Louie CK bit about rape that she finds funny based on her own criteria on what she deems both funny as well as tasteful. Like all people have done forever and ever and will continue to do forever and ever. However, Ms. Rosenberg did not find the opening funny and writes about why that is the case based off of her own taste. Imagine that – stating your opinion on a comedian without having to publicly condemn him. Who knew these things were possible?

Tosh didn’t go there, though. He just took the quickest route to run his heckler out of the club, and in using an image of her getting raped to mock and intimidate her, kind of made her point instead of his own.

Just as any comic would do to any heckler of any gender. You say the worst shit imaginable because this person is ruining your performance and you want to shame them for speaking up. This is one facet to the story that I can't abide by: it's as if this specific woman was targeted unlike any other women or men ever. That this is somehow a special case of aggravated heckler walking heretofore unseen. Bill Burr's impromptu, thorough take down of Philadelphia (NSFW: Language) is brilliant. He jubilantly wishes death upon so many people In so many ways that it makes your head spin. But listen to the audience – listen to how he turns the entire crowd, going from incessant, needless boos to a standing ovation because he devastated the comedy crowd until they couldn't help but laugh. This is what a comedy crowd sounds like. They knew what they were coming to, they acted out, and in the end, they got the most out of it. Imagine that.

If rape was just hilarious and uproarious and trivial, it wouldn’t be a very effective rhetorical or literal weapon. Tosh isn’t just failing at civility here. He’s being a bad comedian.

What topic is actually hilarious and uproarious and trivial that comedians actually talk about? Whoopee cushions? What does that sentence even mean? Of course it wouldn't be a very effective rhetorical weapon. You know why? BECAUSE RAPE IS HORRIBLE. It is in no way hilarious … but joking about rape can be. Bear with me for a second – I'm not quite the expert that Ms. Rosenberg has shown herself to be.

The currency of humor isn't laughter, it's truth. And the truth is, taboo subjects like rape or the Holocaust or September 11th are taboo because they scare us. They are real, genuine, horrific events that take power away from decent people and puts it in the hands of monsters. These events – global or deeply, horribly personal – hold sway over us. When we joke about atrocious things like this, it drives at some bit of catharsis, that while something so devastating can linger in the air, we can at least poke some holes in it. Moreover, it's ludicrous to think that it's real. Does Bill Burr really wish that the denizens of Philly die of heart disease, or cancer, and that he'll laugh as they all die in front of him? Of course not. It's foolish to even put into words.

But I'm not a comedian. I'm not going to sit here and say what makes a comedian “good” or “bad,” pushing my subjective views upon you as if it was a law. I'm going to leave with the late Patrice O'Neal on Fox News, debating with a member of a prominent women's organization about the validity and boundaries of comedy following Opie and Anthony's month-long suspension after a guest made a remark about raping then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And, as was the case with Patrice, he does so brilliantly. (NSFW: Language)

Image courtesy of Comedy Central

 

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Mike Anton is the Editor-In-Chief at The Inclusive. Mike writes movie reviews and interview pieces for The Film Stage as well as screenplays, sketches, and the like. He lives in New York City and though he's an avid beard and flannel enthusiast, he does not consider himself a hipster. Contact him at mike.anton[at]theinclusive.net or @mpants