In defence of rape jokes

(This piece was also published by the Huffington Post and y India’s We Speak News)

Tragedy/comedy masks, Hadrian’s Villa – but which is which?

A comedian phoned me yesterday evening, angry that another comedian was Tweeting trying to get comedy performers and promoters to sign up for a ‘No Rape Jokes’ pledge.

The idea is to ban comedians who tell rape jokes.

The first promoter to have ‘signed the pledge’ appears to be a club that only allows female comedians to perform, which seems a little ironic. I am thinking of opening a comedy club at which Jewish performers are banned but at which no rape jokes would be allowed. No problem there, then.

Trying to ban rape jokes is like trying to put sticking plaster over a symptom to hide an unsightly abscess, not cure the problem. It is the wrong target. The aim, surely, should be trying to stop audiences laughing at rape jokes.

Unless – in my opinion – they are funny.

Funny is funny.

I have known and worked with three women who were raped as children. All bore psychological scars. Obviously.

When I hear a comedian tell a rape joke, I cringe because of this. But also because the comedian is usually getting an easy laugh. He (seldom she) knows the audience will laugh in shock because the subject is in bad taste. They used to be able to get a laugh by just using the word “fuck”. That word’s shock value disappeared. Then it was the word “cunt”. Now that word on its own no longer gets a laugh.

But now you can get an easy laugh by telling a rape joke or a joke about (presumably) murdered little girl Madeleine McCann or her parents. It is lazy comedy. Knee-jerk comedy.

I do not like rape jokes. By and large. The comedians who tell them are bad comedians. By and large.

But Scottish comedian Jerry Sadowitz has told rape jokes. He is a brilliant comedian. The jokes were funny. I laughed. I enjoyed the jokes as jokes.

Fellow Scottish comedian Janey Godley (who was repeatedly raped as a child) used to tell stories around the subject of child abuse and rape. There is a fascinating clip on YouTube of her starting her act.

Normally, I do not repeat comedians’ routines. But this one is worth repeating because what is being said is in no way funny yet it gets big laughs because, as Frank Carson might have said: “It’s the way she tells ‘em”.

It is a masterclass in how to get laughs from an audience.

Janey says:

“When I was five, I was sexually abused by my uncle… Now, I don’t want you to all rush the stage and give me a hug, cos it’s OK… cos I got him killed for my birthday later on (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)… Yeah (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)… No, I did (BIGGER AUDIENCE LAUGHS)… That’s no a joke (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)… Yeah (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)… Got his cock cut off (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)… So… (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)…”

What is being said here is not funny.

At no point does Janey say she is joking. She says the exact opposite. She tells the audience a man was murdered and – five times – she points out to the audience that this is not a joke. She is joking about murder and sexual mutilation. But the laughter continues and heightens.

If rape jokes are to be banned, why not also ban murder jokes, incest jokes, adultery jokes and jokes about travelling salesmen, mothers in law and rabbits? All were certainly offensive to the ears of pre-War BBC Radio.

It is a short and slippery slope from banning jokes to burning books.

Lewis Schaffer, a Jew, has what I consider to be (currently) the world’s best three-part Holocaust joke, Should he be banned from telling it? He says on-stage that he is allowed to tell that joke. And not for the reason you might think. And that is part of the joke.

Blanket bans on jokes can never be a good idea. Let the audience decide. Or try to change audiences’ attitudes. But don’t try to ban the jokes.

I talked to comedian Bob Slayer about this last night.

“I’m thinking of blogging about The Rape Thing tomorrow,” I told him. “If I did, I could glide into the attack I have not yet launched in my blog on left wing neo-Fascism. That should get me spat at in the bars of Soho and the streets of Edinburgh… Love Bernard Manning. Hate Tony Benn,.. Something along those lines…”

I am old enough to remember the late-1960s and early 1970s when the Vietnam War was being fought. When people were booked at universities to speak in support of the War, demonstrations were organised by well-meaning left wingers who believed strongly in Freedom of Speech… to get the person banned from speaking.

In the real world, left wing irony has never been widespread.

Nowadays, freedom-promoting left wingers sometimes say candidates from the right wing BNP should not be allowed to promote their views in TV programmes or on the streets. But the BNP is not an illegal political party. If their views are so appalling, a law should be passed to ban the party. But, if what the BNP believes is expressed in a perfectly legal way, then trying to ban them from speaking is, in my view, Fascistic.

I personally agree that the BNP is abhorrent, but that is irrelevant.

I blame the French.

We say ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ because of the seating arrangements in the Estates General during and after the French Revolution.

The reality is that political extremism is part of a circle, not a horizontal line.

Hitler’s political party was correctly called a (national) Socialist party… Because extreme right wing views about a strong centralised state overlap into extreme left wing views about ‘the people’ controlling everything via a strong centralised state.

Wanting to ban jokes about rape is indefensible if you do not also want to ban jokes about murder. And, if you ban talking about certain things at live gigs then, logically, you have to ban the same things on television and in print.

It is a short and slippery slope from banning jokes to burning books.

Bob Slayer disagrees with me. He supports attempts to ban rape jokes in comedy clubs.

“Of course,” he says, “all of this will require a comedy police force to ensure that these rules are adhered to. Someone will have to vet every comedian, judge them before they even do their first open mic gig and award them with a provisional licence to perform clean, pre-approved jokes. They can then work towards proving they are capable of a full comedy licence to make up their own jokes.

“A comedian licence would work along similar lines to the one for buskers on the London Underground. It used to be that buskers who were homeless and looked like they were only busking in order to keep in the dry were driven outside to think about their lives while they slowly died of cold.

“Thankfully, they were then replaced by college students and trustafarians who had achieved at least grade 4 on their chosen instrument. These approved buskers were then given a laminated badge and allowed to entertain commuters with officially sanctioned playlists.

“I look forward to comedy being ordered in the same way.”

2 Comments

Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Politics, Rape, Sex

2 responses to “In defence of rape jokes

  1. noel Faulkner

    Tony Law has the best line I ever heard in 30 years Quote
    All the rape joke comedians are millionaires !
    I think that says it all.

  2. I am unaware of the glut of rape jokes in “horrible open mic hate filled rooms.” described by, for example, this odious article
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/17/heard-one-about-rape-funny-now
    I think the only hate crime is the article its self which is clearly sneering at the club circuit and open mike acts in particular.

    Maybe I’m living in a cave but the only rape joke I can think of off the top of my head is one about Somalian pirates by a woman. I dont mean to say there’s no problem with misogyny but I dont actually notice it manifesting its self in rape jokes. I once did a gig where an open spot went on before me distributed pictures of his naked girlfriend to the audience and proceeded to tell everyone she was “a whore”. It was horrific. A bit like the time I did a gig an act went on before me and spent five minutes talking entirely about gas chambers. At the interval the late Norby West sideled up to me and said confidentially… “You’re a bit near the edge, Anthony … is it me or was she a bit racist?”. Classic. I’m not condoning these acts or encouraging anyone to deliberately book people like this but these moments of horrific bad taste are often the things that stick in the memory and in a way do make the tapestry of life less dull … it would be a sad world where everyone was vetted before they were allowed to speak in public.

    Bob Slayer’s idea of a comedy licence sounds like an Orwellian nightmare but it’s always what some people will want. The people who want to keep ordinary people off stage. It’s so annoying in comedy that ordinary people can still get in with no previous experience. So much better if it could be professionalised like acting to keep out the plebs. Of course the downside of giving ordinary people a voice is that it does often turn out to be misogynist, racist or just slightly boring.

    I’m not saying I dont censor anyone I’m all for censorship but I just think some of the people who come out with this nonsense should try booking a club some time and try taking on the realities of having to censor people and then they’d realise that exercising any political control over what anyone else says is nailing-jellies-to-the-ceiling-territory. Even employing the minimum level of censorship to protect one’s self from being attacked by angry punters is an unrewarding and almost entirely fruitless task. And if you ban acts so what? They’ll go down the road to another club and/or start their own… and so it should be.

    Besides which when you think about it all peadophile jokes are essentially rape jokes. Are we now not allowed to make fun of peadophiles? The way I say it rape is evil – and evil needs to be laughed at (although not with). I remember someone telling me in all seriousness I couldn’t do jokes about the over-exposure of the Nazis in TV documentaries … much of it is just snobbery. If you are not funnier than someone else you can always have a pop at their politics to make you feel better.

    So John … give us your pro-Vietnam war speech …

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