Monthly Archives: July 2012

What Everyone Missed About the Daniel Tosh Rape Joke Controversy

I never expected Daniel Tosh, of all people, to be the impetus for my first blog post in a month. And since I find him to be one of the most aggravating personalities in entertainment, I didn’t expect to find myself defending him during his ongoing public pillorying over a poorly-interpreted rape joke, of all things.

But here we are.

This Is a Long Post, So You Should Probably Get Some Coffee First

As with all things in life, I want to preface what I’m about to say with three standard disclaimers:

* We never really know what anyone else is thinking.

* We never really know why anyone else does anything they do.

* We never really know why we react to things the way we do.

But unknown unknowns are the lifeblood of the Internet, which has been aflame over this issue for a week now, to the extent that you probably can’t think of anything else that could be said about this admittedly contentious situation.  However, the reasons I’m even writing about it at all are twofold:

* I’ve long held a silent suspicion about Daniel Tosh’s true intentions

* I think everyone who’s talked about this particular incident has missed the point

Ready?  Here we go.

The Setup

As well-documented on sites like MamaPop:

In case you missed it, Rape.0 went a little something like this.  Tosh, known for being as inappropriate and equal-opportunity-irritating, was doing a bit about how there are horrific things in the world and that being horrific doesn’t mean there aren’t jokes to be made.

The woman blogged:

I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

And then, after the blogosphere picked up the story and took Tosh to task, he apologized on Twitter:

The Problem

To me, the real problem isn’t that Daniel Tosh made a joke about rape.

To me, the problem is that nobody seems to understand what Daniel Tosh actually does for a living.

Let me qualify the following argument with one caveat: I’ve never actually seen Daniel Tosh live.  I’ve watched dozens of episodes of his TV show, Tosh.0.  I’ve read a little about him.  I’ve watched some of his stand-up routines on Comedy Central.  But I’ve never actually paid to see him live, unedited, and physically delivering his routines, so my impression of him is limited to the same reduced context that everyone has access to.

That said, I think Daniel Tosh is probably the most misunderstood comedian on the planet.

Yes, his routines are almost always designed to offend someone. He’s often accused of being misogynist, racist, homophobic, or any other designation you can assign to a person who denigrates others for a living.  And yes, he’s clearly doing it all on purpose, to push his audience’s buttons and provoke them into a specific reaction.

I just don’t think we give him enough credit for the reaction he’s actually pursuing.

What do I think he’s actually trying to do?

I think Daniel Tosh is trying to make you angry enough to stop paying attention to Daniel Tosh.

Let me explain.

Comedy is all about unexpected reactions.  You think you know where a joke, a story, or a scene is going, and then it veers into unexpected territory, and you find yourself grappling with your subconscious reaction to something that your brain hasn’t quite processed yet.  From stand-ups to sitcoms to performance art to film, the goal of comedy is the same: to generate a reaction from the audience that surprises them.

This is actually the exact same goal as horror and suspense, but while the twists of horror and suspense usually result in some kind of primal catharsis on the part of the audience, the twists of comedy usually make someone uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s the target of a joke that feels uncomfortable. But when a controversial joke is skillfully delivered, sometimes it’s the audience itself that feels uncomfortable.  (See: Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK)

Because when a controversial joke is skillfully delivered, you can find yourself laughing at a statement or insinuation which, on paper, you would decry as racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise hate-filled. Often, those jokes are intended as a commentary on society’s unspoken biases and hypocrisy; they’re a commentary on the audience itself. Thus, by involuntarily acknowledging the humor inherent in even the most grotesque situation, we’re then free to voluntarily ask ourselves why that situation exists in the first place, and why we may be culpable within it.

And that’s what I think Daniel Tosh is really up to.

Yes, it’s pretty clear that he rejoices in making other people feel uncomfortable. He’s almost giddy in his skill at knocking you out of your comfort zone. And even his biggest haters will admit that he leaves absolutely no stereotype unscorched. In Tosh’s world, no one is safe from humiliation for their masks and presumptions. And while Tosh.0 cashes its checks on the backs of fame-seeking idiots who post their own stupidity to the Internet, it also does something else: it rounds up a legion of — literally — millions of schadenfreude-addicted couch potatoes and challenges them to look away.

You Can’t Train a Monkey to Care

Tosh uses his fame to incite his followers to ape him. One recent challenge urged people to videotape themselves “lightly touching a woman’s stomach while she’s sitting down,” with the clear intention of making a complete stranger feel uncomfortable, if not vulnerable, or even violated.

Needless to say, people did it.

Maybe they did it because they thought it was funny. Or because they hope to get their clip shown on Tosh.0. Or possibly just because Daniel Tosh said they could, and since he — and, by association, his parent company Comedy Central — said it was okay, then it must be okay, right?

Which means scores of women had their days ruined, all because Daniel Tosh has a TV show.

Except that’s not why they had their days ruined (and videotaped).

They had their days ruined because people are assholes.  And that’s Daniel Tosh’s whole point.

Just like the girl who walked out of the Laugh Factory had her day ruined. It wasn’t because Daniel Tosh is an asshole; it’s because people are assholes.

The Machine Is Largely Unaware of Itself

Say what you will about Tosh’s sense of humor, or his delivery, or taste in cardigans, but he clearly understands people. He couldn’t possibly aggravate as many people as he does on a daily basis without understanding what buttons to press, and why, how, and how often.

I’d also wager that he’s just as incensed as you are about all the shitty things that people say and do to each other on a daily basis. (Heaven knows he sees enough of it.) In fact, I’d say he’s even more upset about it than you are. Because while you’re sitting here condemning his words, he’s on stages and TV screens every night, throwing those same dangerous words in people’s faces, over and over, and witnessing how they react.

And you know how those people are reacting?

They’re laughing.

And I bet that pisses Daniel Tosh off.

See, while I’ve never met Daniel Tosh, and I have no other reason to say this than my own instincts, I’d say that their laughter at his words is what angers Daniel Tosh more than anything else in the world.

Because he knows the things he’s saying are horrible. Hell, he’s spent his entire career perfecting the art of offense. And when people laugh at the horrible things he says, he realizes something that the rest of us — in our furur over propriety — miss:

Empathy is dead.

An Obituary for the Concept of Giving a Shit

It’s impossible to watch Tosh.0 and not fear for the future of our species.  Not just because people will videotape themselves doing the stupidest, most dangerous, most humiliating things imaginable. But because they will then put those videos on YouTube, with the explicit purpose of sharing them with complete strangers. Or, because other people will videotape the misery of others, and then share it without their consent.

And because, through it all, people will laugh at it.

Not only will they laugh, but they’ll pay money to sit in a studio and have a comedian point out other tragic or appalling things about these videos — and the people in them — that they might have missed if they’d just watched them at home.

Not only will the audience pay money, but global corporations will pay even more money to advertise on this ghoulish entertainment when it’s televised.  Why?  Because, at last count, more than 3 million people tune in to watch new episodes of Tosh.0.

What kinds of people?  People who will videotape themselves touching women’s stomachs if you ask them to, and millions more who will queue up to watch complete strangers be humiliated.

Now, after doing that for years, tell me that Daniel Tosh could truly enjoy it.

Well, anything’s possible, but here’s what I think is more probable.

I think Daniel Tosh enjoys his job. He likes making people laugh. And he likes pushing the envelope, not just because he likes to make people uncomfortable, but because he also likes to give them the opportunity to think.

He also knows when he’s pushing the envelope past the point of social acceptability, or when he’s about to push that envelope right off a cliff. And every time Daniel Tosh pushes the envelope, I truly believe he’s hoping that someone else pushes back.

But not like this, though.  Not like the national firestorm of “Denial Tosh hates women” accusations he’s heard before (and which, frankly, miss the point entirely by assigning the blame exclusively to Tosh himself).

I think he’s waiting for you to push back by not listening.

In fact, I’d go out on a limb and guess that nothing would make Daniel Tosh happier than if no one showed up at his comedy shows ever again.  Not out of some misplaced sense of moral outrage, as though they’re making an example of him by silencing him. But out of a sense of newfound empathy and humanity, and a refusal to laugh at the depths of mankind’s depravity.

Seriously.

For example, you recall Tosh’s apology on Twitter?  Here are some of the responses to that tweet:

Apart from Plimpton, a well-known actor and feminist who’s obliged to take these things seriously, what I find most telling is the banality of these responses.

Maybe they hate women. Maybe they hate themselves. Or maybe they think they’re being as funny as people think Daniel Tosh is trying to be. But the one thing none of them seem to be doing is “getting it.”

Tell me you could perform, night after night, to an audience like this and not snap.

Tell me you could be the poster boy for the basest instincts in the American psyche and not wonder if you were singlehandedly empowering the downfall of America on a daily basis.

Now tell me how long you could keep doing that, and seeing your audience become ever more oblivious to their own nobler instincts by the day, before you’d quit to pursue a less emotionally debilitating career.

Daniel Tosh knows what he’s doing. He’s just appalled that the rest of us are missing the point.

All of which brings me back to the actual rape joke itself.

The Mathematics of Comedy Is Nothing to Laugh About

See, the part of this story that’s been widely reprinted, as above, is only the middle of the story. If you read the whole thing, you’ll also read the beginning, which provides some context that’s missing from the part everyone is outraged over. To wit:

This is something that happened to a friend of mine in her own words.

“So, on Friday night my friend and I were at her house and wanted to get out and do something for the evening. We brainstormed ideas and she brought up the idea of seeing a show at the Laugh Factory. I’d never been, I thought it sounded fun, so we went. We saw that Dane Cook, along some other names we didn’t recognize we’re playing, and while we both agree that Cook’s style is not really our taste we were opened-minded about what the others had to offer. And we figured even good ol’ Dane can be funny sometimes, even if it’s not really our thing. Anyhoo, his act was actually fine, but then when his was done, some other guy I didn’t recognize took the stage. Of course, I would find out later this was Daniel Tosh, but at the time I thought he was just some yahoo who somehow got a gig going on after Cook. I honestly thought he was an amateur because he didn’t seem that comfortable on stage and seemed to have a really awkward presence.
So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

You know the rest.

But what you didn’t know, if you only read the popularized and context-free account of this story, was:

* These people are not regular comedy club patrons.

* They did not know who Daniel Tosh was.

* They did not understand that his “awkwardness” is part of his schtick.

* They did not understand that his endless repetition of offensive themes is, literally, the whole point of his act.

The way the story has been reported around the web, you’d think Tosh made a statement about offensive comedy in general, and a sensitive audience member lobbed the rape topic back at him as a challenge, hoping he would admit, “Well, you’re right; that’s never funny.”

But that’s not how comedy works.  For better or worse, comedians like Daniel Tosh exist to point out that, yes, everything in life can be funny, depending on the context.  (And, in Tosh’s specific case, he’s simultaneously implying that this could be seen as a flaw in humanity that we should address before we lose our ability to process it.)

And that’s especially not how live comedy works.  Because anyone who interrupts a live comedian immediately becomes a threat to the act, and will be either silenced, escorted out, or incorporated into the act so that the comedian doesn’t lose a) control, b) his train of thought, or c) his authorial voice. It would have been impossible for Tosh to have a bit ready to go, stop it, validate the interrupter’s caveat, and then continue as though nothing had happened. To do so would be to admit that the entire act is a performance, and that it doesn’t matter.

And that’s absolutely not how Tosh’s comedy works. Because when he’s at his most venomous, it matters more than anything.

In this instance, Tosh wasn’t even making the point about rape as an action.  His retort was actually a deft observation about the nature of comedy itself.  Crusading against rape, and then immediately getting raped, would, as a human act, be unconscionable and deplorable.  But as a comic act, the timing would have been perfect, because it would be the epitome of an unexpected reaction to where you thought this story was heading.

And that’s the problem with comedy: it works best when it feels worst.

The intention isn’t just to say, “Hey, these horrible things are funny.” It’s for someone else to say, “Yes, but, they’re still horrible.”

When we all stop making that distinction between concept and action, or between comedy and humanity, we lose our ability to empathize.

And then we become the very ghouls who let poor Daniel Tosh cry all the way to the bank.

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