Daniel Tosh and the Anatomy of One Particularly Tasteless Joke

Let’s begin with a big old trigger warning, as the topic at hand is a rape joke.

So, Daniel Tosh was doing standup last Friday. Depending on who you ask, he either did a bit about how “there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them,” or about “rape jokes always being funny.” Depending on who you ask, a woman in the audience either “heckled” Daniel Tosh during that bit, or simply yelled out that “actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

As far as I know, it is not in dispute that Daniel Tosh then said something along these lines: “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?” Neither does it seem to be in dispute that the a fair portion of the audience laughed at that suggestion, or that the woman in question then quickly left the comedy club.

It seems to me that the important question is why is that supposed to be funny? Let’s put aside for the moment whether the joke worked—a tasteless joke that lands always seems less tasteless than a tasteless joke that doesn’t—and let’s take a look at how the humor is supposed to be operating. You’re supposed to laugh at the idea of this woman being suddenly raped by a group of men (1) because it’s supposed to be an ironic and precise punishment for a self-serious killjoy, like dropping a piano on the head of someone preaching against cartoon violence, and (2) because the image is supposed to be over-the-top; it is unlikely that five men would spontaneously rape a woman in the audience of a comedy show, and the idea is clearly intended to be absurd.

OK, now let’s talk about why the joke may or may not actually be funny. The first part (a killjoy getting her comeuppance) only works if you think that those who object to rape jokes are killjoys. If you don’t, then the element of retribution just comes of as unwarranted meanness at best, a misogynistic power-play at worst.

The second part (the absurd extremity of the image) only works if you believe that it is utterly impossible for a group of men at a Daniel Tosh show to rape a woman. So it’s worth mentioning that the “heckler” herself found the idea “pretty viscerally terrifying and threatening all the same, even if the actual scenario was unlikely to take place. The suggestion of it is violent enough and was meant to put me in my place,” she says.

The really sinister undercurrent in the suggestion that this woman might be gang-raped is that it’s not particularly implausible. The only element in the joke that strains credulity—the only thing that makes it a joke rather than an actual, immediate threat, in other words—is the suggestion that the rape might take place right then and there, in the middle of Daniel Tosh doing his set.

But after the show? What in fact is absurd or implausible about that? In point of horrific-but-undeniable fact, that kind of shit happens all the time.

So it’s important to note that Daniel Tosh’s rape joke is not problematic because it’s “offensive.” I’m sure that some people are simply offended, and that they just want Daniel Tosh to apologize or do a public service announcement or whatever, but those reactions completely miss the point. The point is that this particular joke operates on deeply fucked up assumptions about gender politics—the feminists want to take away our toys!— and a gross underestimation of the real danger that real sexual assault poses to real women on a daily basis.

I literally could not care less whether you personally think the joke is funny, but whether you do or not, the mechanics of it matter. Because this particular joke is prodding at some extremely important aspects of gender, and is doing so in just about the stupidest way imaginable. That’s why it’s problematic. And also dumb.

One comment

  1. Oh my God, THIS. I have been trying to explain this exact point to people ever since this ridiculous argument blew up, and you’ve articulated it perfectly. I don’t care if people make a joke about rape and sometimes they work, but only if you can either safely assume that none of those you intend to amuse is a potential rapist (almost impossible unless you actively seek to offend them) or if your joke manages not to target actual potential victims of rape as the butt of the joke (perfectly doable if you, you know, identify with women as fellow human beings). This joke, like most of what Daniel Tosh farts out of his mouth, got it wrong on every level.

    The Last Leg, a UK comedy show accompanying the Paralympics have a segment called #isitok where people tweet in questions about what sort of humour is okay as it pertains to disability. Maybe someone should do the same for women.

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