Lindy West’s piece on Gawker is the best thing I read about Daniel Tosh’s insensitive rape joke at the Laugh Factory two Fridays ago. (Tosh either responded to a heckler by joking she should be raped, or said to a woman in the audience who asked him not to talk about rape, “You sound like you got raped by, like, five guys or something.” For purposes of the ensuing internet discussion, it doesn’t matter which account is accurate.)
West’s sharp piece made an excellent point that rose above the categorical thinking that had been dominating the discussion, namely that it is possible to joke about rape, you just have to be really smart and really responsible about it. To put it another way, you have to be artful.
West tagged an easy shortcut to her piece (“Do not make rape victims the butt of the joke!”), but she got at something more interesting when she said this: “Comedians are just people telling stories about the world, and it is okay to laugh at horror and talk candidly about ugliness.”
The best comedy, I think, explores the way that life, the world, and language seem incomprehensible, or at least ineffable. A good joke doesn’t have to explain the mystery, it just has to bring it into sharp relief.
But the fundamental point is that the art of comedy lies beyond our ability to capture it in rules. As soon as you try to make up a rule about how comedy should operate, someone will break it. That’s the beauty of comedy, or any other form of art.
Louis C.K. is a comedy genius, so it’s not surprising that, when it comes to rape jokes, he has two of the best examples. One is the joke Lindy cited in her piece. C.K. jokes:
“I’m not condoning rape, obviously—you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” He then goes on to make the point explicit. The joke works because, as West points out, it gets to the heart of the psychopathic quality of rape. The only instance in which rape would be acceptable demonstrates that rape is never acceptable.
But there’s an even better — in fact, an amazing — illustration of how to tell a funny rape joke in the July 6 episode of “Louie,” C.K.’s weekly show on FX. C.K. posted a video of the scene on YouTube. Here’s the scene, although be warned, it contains graphic language:
It’s hard to describe the brilliance of this scene, but I think it has something to do with the way it illustrates the mystery of who we are and how we understand ourselves. The scene basically shows us a situation in which it turns out to be OK to bully someone with deeply personal insults and then physically force him to have sex. It may be the only situation imaginable in which these things become OK — and maybe this scene can only exist in the constructed reality of a television show — but still, it makes you think.
Chelsea Peretti said it better on Twitter than I have here: