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Please meticulously document the jokes that offend you, bloggers

Lenny Bruce

Another day, another blog by an outraged fan of comedy, who thinks certain topics are off limits when it comes to humour.

Due to a combination of a heckler at a Daniel Tosh gig back in July, and insensitive, moronic comments by politically opportunistic idiots like Todd Akin and George Galloway, my Twitter timeline (and the wider media) has been absolutely jam-packed with discussion about rape jokes, and “rape culture,” for a good six weeks now. Which is fine, obviously – it’s always beneficial to discuss things, although Twitter is seldom the most appropriate place to do so. And that, too, kind of works out – people will try to mash complex thoughts and arguments into 140 characters, fail, offend someone, and then have to go away and write a blog or tumblr to clarify what they originally meant.

I personally found all the discussion highly valuable and thought-provoking. I was originally in the ‘no topic is off limits for comedy, it’s all in how you approach it’ camp, and I’d say I still reside there now. With caveats. What I came to realise, eventually, was that rape jokes are generally written by men, for men, told by men, and subsequently apologised for by men. Generally. I’m aware of women who tell them, and women who laugh at them, but when it comes to contextualising and defending them, you’ll tend to find it’s mostly men, I think. What was brought home to me was the difficulty I had in really, completely empathising with the effect of these jokes on a visceral level – and that was a powerful thing to learn. I resolved to spend less time vocally defending rape jokes, particularly to women, given that there’s a 1 in 4 chance they might have been the victim of such an assault. 1 in 4! You know how you sometimes feel all hard done by, fella’s, when a woman speeds up and keeps looking over her shoulder, just because you’re walking on the same side of the road? 1 in 4!

Frankly, I’ve always found rape jokes to be a fairly boring way to be shocking and provocative, anyway. Just too predictable. They’re not really the focus of this blog, though, no – this is a guide. A guide on how to be properly and conscientiously offended!

Here’s what I’ve noticed about a lot of people who get outraged at comedy shows: they give highly emotive, biased accounts of the gig they’re at. They care nothing of context. They can’t quote any of the jokes – some of them will absolutely refuse to do so in case it risks “triggering” victims, but this is why we have “trigger warnings” and spoiler tags. They will usually appear highly sympathetic because they’ve perhaps heckled the comedian – the big man on stage with the mic – came off worse, naturally, and then meekly shuffled out of the venue to sad Snoopy music, while the rest of the audience merrily laughs at this unelected spokesperson who just tried to ruin their evening’s entertainment. It’s hard not to side with them, especially when we’re told of all these awful, transgressive subjects being joked about (incidentally, when did we stop using laughter as a way of coping with the worst parts of life, and instead see it as something that apparently cannot co-exist with empathy? Is it fine to use something like rape for dramatic purposes, or is that off limits too? I’m unclear as to how it seems that laughing at a topic can now so easily be considered one of the worst emotional responses possible, particularly when we tolerate exploitation of societal problems under the guise of giving a shit, e.g. The Jeremy Kyle Show.)

I really don’t blame people for being offended by things, truly I don’t, and as I said, the resultant debate is always valuable, even if it’s still depressing that comedy doesn’t really get taken seriously by the media unless they can crowbar in their tiresome old “but should we laugh at these things?” questions. I just wish that people would be a little bit more… meticulous when it comes to documenting the nature of their offence.

That sounds ridiculous, right? How is someone going to take notes when they’re outraged, shocked, horrified…? Well, having read a lot of these blogs, and seen a lot of the associated Twitter accounts, I can tell you that people don’t tend to just get up and walk out. A lot of the time they’ll reach for their phone, and start tweeting about how offended they are by the whole scene. All I’m asking is that people go a little further than that, and document the actual jokes! You can easily flip to the in-built Voice Recorder app, and record the rest of the set – for your own use later – to make sure your blog is accurate and fair. Which is what you want it to be, right? You could tweet some of the actual jokes, or save them as drafts if you’re worried about “triggering”, as mentioned before. People pause over hot food to take and share pictures of the next thing to enter their open mouths, so please, try to also accurately capture some of what has outraged you so much. Just be discrete about it.

Why is it important? When Lenny Bruce started getting arrested in the early 60′s, the harassment he suffered was provoked by his mocking of religion, rather than because his material was “obscene” – obscenity was simply the way in which he could be demonised, silenced, and eventually hounded out of making a living. The pursuit of Bruce was, as he put it himself, a comedy of errors. Policemen (peace officers, as Bruce always sarcastically and dismissively referred to them) would be sent into his shows, where they would either take notes, or record audio on fairly primitive mini-reel wire recorders. These recordings were of terrible acoustic quality, and when they were rerecorded to tape and then transcribed, there was, inevitably, an abundance of errors made, leading to something more akin to a faulty translation, rather than an accurate document of the set. This led to a situation where people who weren’t exactly rooting for Bruce to begin with, ended up picking out the most offensive phrases, inventing some new ones where the recording was unclear, and then sending someone not trained in comedy to perform this utterly bastardised routine to the Grand Jury. “…and the irony is I have to go to court and defend his act!”

Something akin to that is happening again now, on the internet, but without even giving this new breed of ‘sick comics’ the courtesy of trying to replicate the problematic material, so they can be judged by their own words. I think we can do better than that, particularly as each of us now carry around high-quality recording devices in our pockets. Please, please don’t get me wrong – don’t think I’m unsympathetic to people being offended, I’m not. I just hope for some accuracy. If you want to present your offence, try to document it – try to do it fairly, try to give us some context. Far too many of these blogs I’ve mentioned are full of (righteous) fury and anger, which then spreads to the commenters, but, as I say, the bloggers rarely ever get round to detailing any of the actual jokes. And jokes are precious, fragile little things anyway – so much can rest upon a single word, a phrasing of a word, a pause. They’re meticulously constructed to confound expectations and, respectfully, an outraged gig patron whose attention may be simultaneously occupied with documenting their anger for their followers on Twitter just isn’t the best source of evidence.

If we have the facts, we can then have a more constructive and fair debate – one that focuses on the intricacies of the way each subject is dealt with, rather than just whether or not it should be at all. And that’s all I’m arguing for: a healthier, more informed debate.

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10 Responses

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  1. culinaryarts says

    Please, please don’t get me wrong – don’t think I’m unsympathetic to people being offended, I’m not.

    Perhaps you should be.

    • Neil says

      Why?

      • culinaryarts says

        Because people can be (and often are, and I suspect rather more frequently purport to be) ‘offended’ by things that are completely legitimate. Some people find my sexual preference ‘offensive’. Some people find criticisms of patriarchy ‘offensive’. Some people are ‘offended’ by my diet. I’m completely unsympathetic to all these people being ‘offended’, and would encourage other people to be equally so. There are certainly compelling reasons for people who tell rape jokes to alter their behaviour, but ‘offence’ is hardly one of them.

  2. Neil says

    Although I’ve mentioned “triggering” a few times in this blog – and it’s one of the major reasons why some bloggers may not want to spread certain types of jokes – I didn’t really say what it was. Truth is, I wasn’t quite sure. I’ve read about it a lot, I certainly knew of, and have seen, trigger warnings, but I didn’t think beyond that.

    I’m grateful, therefore, to @achrismiller on Twitter, who sent me this link http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Post-traumatic-stress-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx. Well worth having a read. Again, try and be sympathetic to people who don’t share your values, or gender experiences. It’s easy to become hardened and cynical, but it tends not to add much to the discourse.

  3. Nagsy says

    That blog you linked at the start is, in places, just as frustratingly biased and egotistical as some of the comedians it berates. “The rapes in my serial killers book are written about matter-of-factly and there is no sensationalism. I certainly don’t make light of rape.” – Well, yes you do. I’d argue that any account of an event you have not personally experienced is sensationalism, to a degree, in an almost “ooh, that sounds terrible!” fashion.

    I find it absolutely fascinating that people can be so reactionary about what they think is wrong from a kneejerk morality stance, but in the same breath can be completely swept up in media hype about something as equally outrageous, simply because they read it in a newspaper. It makes me wonder exactly how much of an objective opinion some people actually hold, and how much they cut and paste from The Sun columnists.

    Incidentally, as far as comedy is concerned, it doesn’t get much funnier than witnessing public outrage at Ian Brady’s inflated egotism on the front pages, as opposed to the fact that they are being baited and sold fear in affordable, digestible nuggets, and are swallowing it down without question. SYSTEMATIC RAPE OF THE HUMAN PSYCHE, THERE. :O

  4. Neil says

    I always fiddle with these entries constantly for a day or so, returning to them periodically to reread and fix little flaws in grammar that jump out. I’m very open to suggestions for improvements for this kind of thing, by the way. Anyway, last night I eventually noticed what I felt was a logical error with the Lenny Bruce argument. It just didn’t seem to connect up the way I wanted. So I just rewrote the last couple of paragraphs, and hope the flow of that particular argument is a lot clearer now.

    The change, really, was just to clarify that in some not insignificant ways what we’re doing nowadays is WORSE than what was done to Lenny. Those people trying to stitch him up did at last do him the courtesy of trying to represent his actual act, verbatim. And because bloggers aren’t doing that, what we’re left with is judgements formed on emotion, rather than evidence.

    Imagine writing a careful piece of comedy about a contentious subject, spending a huge amount of time and effort to strike the right balance, and then seeing it blogged about by someone who just doesn’t like particular topics being the subject of a joke. Some of the things I’ve seen comics blamed for – some of the actual societal ills I’ve seen them credited with basically endorsing and encouraging – are just staggering. These are people who, let’s not forget, want to make us smile, laugh, and forget our troubles. We’ve got to know what they’ve said before we can properly engage with it on a critical level – otherwise, we’re in danger of just sympathising with someone’s hurt feelings, and letting our judgement of art become guided by who has the loudest voice, or the most hurt in their eyes. And what if they’re WRONG, what if they misheard, or misunderstood?

    And also, thank you so much for retweeting this blog so widely, and smashing the one-day visitor record previously set by the Charlie Brooker interview. I appreciate the support and interest so, so much.

  5. Jonathan M says

    Neil –

    I think you are looking at this from entirely the wrong direction. I know, because I used to see trigger warnings and Twitter angerwanking as a narrowing of public discourse too.

    The problem is that you and I are both white men and as white men, we are used to having the entire substrate of culture wrapped around our delicate sensibilities. If you didn’t like it… you shut up (and made someone a sandwich as gamers are so fond of saying). However, times they are a changing and the rules governing public discourse are slowly being peeled away from the white male perspective on the world.

    One side-effect of this process of detachment is that a lot of the stuff that used to be deemed okay is being called into question. For years, rape and sexual assault victims have smiled politely while the likes of Jimmy Carr made gang-rape jokes. Why? because if they didn’t, they’d be labelled killjoys and humourless feminazis. The chief reason why rape jokes are receiving so much pushback and why twitter is now such an angry place is that previously disenfranchised people have decided to start calling people on their shit.

    What is effectively happening is that comedians are getting on stage and making intentionally shocking and provocative remarks and people are responding in a manner consisted with someone who has been shocked: they are angry, they are upset and they want to make it absolutely clear that this type of shit is actually quite upsetting.

    In response to this, many white male comedians have gone “uh… it’s just a joke FREEDOMOFSPEECH FREEDOMOFSPEECH” and are painting themselves as some oppressed minority.

    When someone gets called on their shit, either as a comedian or a denizen of the internet, the correct course of action is not to get angry but to listen. Acknowledge that the other person’s hurt feelings are real, apologise for causing them undue emotional pain, and make it clear that you will think about what it is that you have said. All that people want in that type of situation is a bit of respect.

    The only reason these things ever escalate is that white men generally respond to being called on their shit by painting themselves as victims and talking about their rights. This type of response not only completely ignores the other person’s feelings, it is also a means of reasserting the white man’s historical privilege and their historic control of the discourse. Moaning about freedom of speech when you’ve been called a racist or a rape-apologist is tantamount to saying that the white man can say whatever it is he wants and if you don’t like it then you’re a fucking bitch!

    It is not the outraged who need to grow a thicker skin but the people who provoke that outrage because the real ‘butthurt’ here is not by the people complaining about rape jokes but by the people who set out to say something controversial only to wind up generating controversy.

    If people want to make sexist jokes… that’s fine but they really need to quit moaning whenever people get upset. If you are proud of your material then stand by it regardless of what anyone says!

  6. Neil says

    Jonathan, that is a powerful post, friend. I agree in some ways, but feel I need to clarify where I disagree – and it will mostly probably just be things you implicitly meant.

    I have definitely noticed that ” the times they are a changing” but disagree that it’s because “for years, rape and sexual assault victims have smiled politely…lest they be labelled killjoys.” I think this is inaccurate. The real issue is that the internet has changed significantly in the last five years or so – largely thanks to Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter – and we now have a far wider demographic using it.

    As you know, I’ve run an internet forum for over a decade now, and it’s rather archaic and a bit of an anachronism these days, just as usenet was becoming when I started it. Communication keeps evolving online, and this current wave of evolution has brought in a vastly different group of people to play with us. And, y’know, that’s great – I don’t regret having more differing opinions, how could I ever? But it’s certainly true that the people coming online now have very different sensibilities about things like comedy.

    Another issue is the instant nature of Twitter, which I think is fairly poisonous to debate, most of the time. As I said in the blog, people are getting offended during a show, then tweeting their offence…during that same show. One of my bugbears is people’s inability to exist properly in the moment, now – Fran Lebowitz said “When you are on your phone, you are not where you are.” You can’t “live-tweet” and pay attention properly. Many people think they can – they are kidding themselves.

    So now we have this perfect storm. You can get people becoming offended during a show, tweeting about it – thereby missing the context – then walking out, tweeting about how they’re going to write a blog about all this, and missing the possible denouement as they go. Our emotional responses have become more commodified, we frequently react, document our reaction, THEN think about it and discuss it. A lot of the time, people need to step back, breathe, and have a think, first.

  7. Neil says

    I also believe a comedian should never, ever apologise for humour. Contextualise, by all means, but apologies are inevitably insincere, and just…cowardly.

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