Daniel Tosh telling rape “jokes” isn’t funny. (But it is a way to keep women in their place.)

This past week the internet has been ablaze about “comedian” Daniel Tosh’s reaction to having been called out while on stage by a female audience member who was offended by his repeated claims that rape “jokes” are funny.

She called out:

“Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

And what was Daniel Tosh’s response?

After a pause, he said to the crowd: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?”

The woman did not hear the rest of what Tosh said. She and her friend hurriedly left the club, and, on the way out, stopped to complain to the manager, who was extremely apologetic about what had just happened.

I think this woman was incredibly brave. First, she courageously confronted Tosh on his offensive routine, and, second, she hung around long enough to complain to the manager. If it had been me, I would have been afraid that some fools in the audience might take Tosh’s comments to heart and actually try to rape me. I would have wanted to get the hell out of there fast!

But can’t rape jokes ever be funny? Some people claim that they can be. A lot of the commenters on websites discussing this Tosh debacle are continuing to insist that rape “jokes” are indeed funny. Some defenders of this kind of “humor” compare rape “jokes” to dead baby “jokes” -- which are thought by some to be funny because they are so shocking and so outrageous. And you know, when I was a kid I thought dead baby “jokes” were kind of funny too. Because they were just so outrageously horrible. But now I have numerous friends in my life who have in fact lost children. And some of those children were just mere babies when they died. Until I heard of these experiences, I am not sure I really understood what true horror was. There is not much worse in this life than watching your child die. So don’t even begin trying to tell me that dead baby “jokes” are funny. Just thinking about them makes me want to vomit. Truly.

And I have a whole lot of friends who have experienced the horror and betrayal of rape, as well. So “jokes” about rape don’t fly with me, either.

The satirical news website “The Onion” tried to go after the issue of Tosh’s rape “jokes.” They published a piece entitled “Daniel Tosh chuckles through own violent rape.” The article attempted to turn the tables, jokingly suggesting that Tosh had grinned through a teary-eyed and blood-soaked face while being anally gang raped for nearly an hour by several men in a dark alley.

I understand what the folks at The Onion were trying to do. (I think.) But I didn’t find it funny at all. Reading it made me feel ill. If it’s not funny to joke about women being raped, how is it then funny to joke about a man being raped? Even a man like Tosh? Let’s use the “dead baby” parallel again: what The Onion did was basically say: “It’s not my baby who died, it’s your baby who died! HAHAHAHAHA!”

Not. Funny.

(And if the intention was to try to get Tosh to have any kind of empathy, good luck with that one! Trying to get him to gain insight is pretty much a fool’s errand.)

Blowing your chance on the Oprah show. This whole discussion of “what is funny” reminded me of an episode I saw of the Oprah Winfrey show a few years ago. On that show Oprah was promoting “up and coming talent.” One of the guys being featured was a stand-up comic.

Mid-way through his routine, he told a joke about the sexual molestation of children.

Not. Funny.

And what a totally stupid thing to do, too! This guy had the chance of a lifetime by appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show, and he tells a joke that makes light of child sexual abuse. On Oprah! On the very television show owned by the woman who is undoubtedly the world’s most famous self-disclosed survivor of childhood sexual abuse!

It’s hard to imagine someone doing something so stupid!

Of course, it’s pretty hard to imagine someone thinking molestation “jokes” are funny in the first place! If you’re not smart enough to know that most people won’t find “jokes” about child sexual abuse funny, then you probably aren’t smart enough to know not to tell such “jokes” on Oprah’s show, either!

Oprah’s response stopped him dead in his tracks: “I’m sorry,” she interrupted coldly. “I can’t go there with you. I just can’t go there with you.”

I could see an expression of “oh shit” cross his face. Like he knew that he had totally screwed up. That he had just committed career suicide. He had offended Oprah Winfrey on her own show with a stupid quip about a child who wants to be molested. A guy like that doesn’t deserve to have a successful career in comedy.

And Tosh doesn’t either.

What is funny? A lot of the discussion about this Tosh episode has degenerated into rape-joke-defenders responding to the assertion that “rape jokes aren’t funny” with the schoolyard retort: “Yes they are!” Yes they are! YES THEY ARE! YES THEY ARE! YES! THEY! ARE!”

As if when you say it often enough and loud enough, it magically becomes true. (Or maybe they are just being bullies…)

When it comes to discussing the issue of just what is funny, I prefer the work of the scientist Charles Calisher (who normally spends his time researching truly hilarious things like the rabies virus). In an essay entitled “What is funny and what is not,” Calisher writes:

If someone laughs at a joke, then the words themselves constituted the joke, a thought was transmitted. If someone else did not laugh at the same words, then those words did not constitute a joke, at least not to them. How then could the same words be funny to one person and not be funny to another? It is impossible that the words themselves are funny, so it must be the listener who receives the words who finds humor in them, as the proverbial tree falling in the forest makes a sound only if the waves produced are “heard” (received). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2269245/

According to Calisher, whether or not something is funny is entirely defined by the way the listener interprets it. If the listener does not find humor in it, it is by definition not a joke.

So, according to this logic, a totally valid response to someone saying “Rape jokes are funny” would be:

“Not to me, they’re not.”

Of course there’s a good chance that defenders of rape “jokes” will call you names if you say something like that. And they will say that you have no sense of humor. They will attack you on a personal level because there simply is no logical way to argue with your stance of: “Rape jokes are not funny to me.”

As I read Calisher’s essay, I realized that he was really just arguing a somewhat more flowery version of what my mother always told me as I was growing up. Mom often said: “A joke is not funny unless it’s funny for everybody.”

Wise woman, my mother.

And Dr. Calisher goes even further: because the listener’s experience of the humor is the very essence of a joke, if you don’t find it funny – then it simply does not even qualify as a joke!

Many a truth is spoken in jest. There have been a lot of articulate, well thought-out responses to this Tosh situation by other comedians explaining why telling rape “jokes” is just not okay. Most of these pieces focus on the horror of rape, on the need to have empathy for survivors, on the fact that many women live with the psychic scars of having been raped, and that rape -- and the fear of rape -- affect nearly all women.

These are all excellent points.

But I think there is another purpose behind rape “jokes” that needs to be addressed as well. And that purpose is to keep women in their place! And that’s what Tosh attempted to do. When a woman objected that his rape “jokes” weren’t funny, his immediate response was to suggest that men in the audience gang rape her.

His statement: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” is the “comedic” equivalent of “Shut the fuck up, you b----! How dare you challenge me???”

It happens with race, too. Some people have compared Tosh’s outrageous behavior to the outburst a few years ago by comedian Michael Richards (who played Kramer on the t.v. show Seinfeld). During Richards’ live stage performance, there was a group of people of color who were having a good time and making some noise. Richards stopped his routine and said: “Look at the stupid Mexicans and blacks being loud up there.” In response, one of the black men called out that he did not find Richards to be very funny. At that point Richards exploded with a rant that went:

“Shut up! Fifty years ago we’d have had you dangling upside down with a fucking fork shoved up your ass!”

Richards then went on to scream “He’s a n------! He’s a n-----! He’s a n-----!” six times in a row.

People who have made comparisons between Tosh and Richards have wondered why Tosh’s sexism has not faced the same sort public condemnation that greeted Richards’ racist remarks. That is indeed an interesting question. But I think there is another, little-discussed parallel in what these two “comedians” did that also deserves our attention: when challenged by someone who did not happen to be another white male, each of these guys immediately retreated to their places of social power, and used their racist and sexist privilege to punish the uppity interloper. In Richards’ case, his place of power was his whiteness. For Tosh, it lies in being a man.

The message in each case is very clear: any black person who steps out of line -- who fails to be properly subservient by daring to criticize a white person -- needs to be put right back in his place. And Richards did that by threatening a black man with a lynching. He was essentially saying: You can pay good money to come into this fancy comedy club, but if you step out of line, or do anything at all that pisses me off, I will not hesitate to let you know that to me you are nothing more than just another stupid n----- who deserves to be lynched.

Tosh did almost exactly the same thing. When the woman told him he was not funny, he suggested that she should be sexually violated. Essentially, he was saying: To me, you are nothing more than just another stupid c---- who deserves to be gang raped.

Fortunately, the black man Richards confronted was not lynched, and the woman Tosh confronted was not gang raped. But both of those people were starkly reminded about just what can happen if they don’t toe the line in our enduringly racist and misogynist world -- a world that is unfortunately just as offensive in the realm of stand-up “comedy” as it is anywhere else.

And that’s nothing to laugh about.