De gustibus

I was flicking idly through the channels yesterday evening and I hit the Comedy Channel just as Tosh.0 was starting. I’d never seen it, never had a thought about it before the other day, but given the other day, I decided to have a look, see what he’s like overall, when not raging at a woman who interrupted his act. I think I managed less than two minutes. It was shitty sneery let’s hate everyone stuff, and then he asked, “when is it ok to make fun of the handicapped?” and a bit of video played while he shouted “Now! Now!” and everybody laughed, and bang I changed the channel.

That was quick. He makes it way obvious what he’s like, and what he’s like is disgusting. It’s shit. It’s nasty little boy in a bad mood stuff, turned into a whole performance, to an audience. It’s designed to make everything horrible. It’s loathing and contempt elevated to a principle.


  1. callistacat says

    It’s Edgy, too. Some Tosh fans and I guess rape fans started a #morewomenshouldberaped hastag on Twitter.

  2. Gnumann, quisling of the MRA nation says

    It’s YouTube turned into TV…

    That’s all you need to say about it really. I prefer intellectual and wholesome trash tv. Like Americas funnies home videos. (At least it is compared to the utter Tosh…)

  3. says

    Now you know how “De gustibus …” ends, and you disagree with it — rightly. There can be dispute about tastes, and apparently those cheering for Tosh.o — I’m so glad I don’t have TV anymore — are on the wrong side of the argument.

  4. says

    And especially, there can be disputes that aren’t solely about taste. My objections to Tosh aren’t really about taste at all, or rather (because I certainly did feel visceral distaste, which turned to loathing at the item that made me change the channel) aren’t primarily about taste. They’re fundamentally ethical. They’re about the kind of world I want to live in, which is not one where hipster contempt is normal.

  5. says

    Would it be in bad taste to mention that the word “tosh”, as in “a load of old tosh”, was used in Victorian England to mean items scavenged from the sewers?

  6. says

    Nope! That was all the name meant to me before the other day – I didn’t even know it was a guy’s name, I thought it just meant “tosh” – rubbish, bollocks, nonsense, a load of old cobblers.

  7. says


    Where is the line between sexism and gender-matching language?

    e.g. “Ayn Rand is a selfish bitch”

    Is that sexist or just a gender-matching negative?

  8. mythbri says


    Gender slurs aren’t cool to use because they cause collateral damage. They hurt people who belong to the group identified by the slur, not just the person targeted by the slur.

    When you say “Ayn Rand is a selfish bitch”, you’re saying that she is a bad woman, not a bad person. You’re specifically bringing her gender into play, and that has an effect on people who share that characteristic, and that characteristic has nothing to do with why Ayn Rand is a bad person.

    When you say “Ayn Rand is a selfish asshole”, you’re saying that Ayn Rand is a selfish person who is also an asshole. It’s not a gendered insult – everyone has an asshole. So there’s no additional harm being done by saying it.

  9. carlie says

    If rumors are to be believed, he has a cartoon coming out next week that had to be hastily retrofitted because “most of the pilot is about rape”. source

  10. says

    @9 mythbri

    …you’re saying that she is a bad woman, not a bad person.

    But she is a woman (uncontroversial), and she is bad (the selfishness hypothesis). There is no intention to say she is bad simply because she is a woman, those are coincidental (in this case).

    However, the remark does imply that Rand is selfish in a stereotypical fashion, which probably is intended. So when does using a stereotype for objective meaning become reinforcing a stereotype (or being stereotype-ist)?

    And “asshole” just doesn’t capture the connotations required, albeit gender neutral; it’s not the same concept.

    [I do accept it’s sexist. I’m searching for an explanatory theory.]

  11. Godless Heathen says

    From the link carlie posted:

    “‘Everyone is freaking out, because most of the pilot is about rape,’ our source says.”

    What the flying fuck? Who thinks that’s a good idea?! Don’t answer.

    I know that having women in positions of power doesn’t necessarily mean things will change for the better, but in this case, I think it would be much less likely that this episode would have ever been written if a woman had final say.


  12. mythbri says


    Intent isn’t magic. Just because there is not the intention to cause harm to other people who belong to the group targeted by the slur doesn’t mean that harm wasn’t done. The problem with stereotypes is that they simplify and reduce groups of people into a collection of qualities, usually bad qualities. It’s impossible to use a stereotype against one person and not have collateral damage done to other people in that group.

    Look at this through the lens of race: if you were to call someone a “nigger” because they happened to be a bad person AND they happened to be black, you are causing harm. Their bad qualities have nothing to do with the color of their skin, and you are reinforcing negative stereotypes by doing so.

  13. rcs says

    I’ve never seen his act, but from the description of his persona of being sneering and disparaging towards everyone, it totally sounds as modern and edgy as Don Rickles.

  14. says

    @Ophelia – That link @14 is what I needed, thanks.

    @mythbri – Yes, unintended consequences are still consequences.

    I have always liked comedy, and believe the court jester poking a stick at the status quo makes an important contribution to our evolving society.

    However, with misogyny and sexism so deeply embedded in our language and culture, it does make the crafting of humour challenging. Stereotypes are particularly handy comedic devices as they are short phases, easily understood, and identify an out-group. Of course, if one is part of that out-group, then the joke is at your expense. And when art is reflecting society, it’s not always a pretty sight.

    I feel the b-word is close to an edge case (which is why I chose it for my example), where context can make all the difference. For example, when Rebecca Watson introduces herself as “feminist bitch” (youtube pzamyers FtB conversation) is she inadvertently reinforcing the stereotype?

    [I think Ophelia’s definition of tosh applies to the “entertainer” at issue, and I’m sadly disappointed by what his popularity implies.]

  15. says

    But she is a woman (uncontroversial), and she is bad (the selfishness hypothesis). There is no intention to say she is bad simply because she is a woman, those are coincidental (in this case).

    No one suggested that the problem is that you’d be saying she is bad “simply because she is a woman.” The question you’re not asking, the question you need to be asking, is this:

    Why is it relevant that she’s a woman?

    By saying she’s a “selfish bitch,” you’re putting the fact that she’s a woman (one of the bad kinds of women) on the same level of importance as that she’s selfish. You’re reinforcing stereotypes about women, implying that the fact that she’s female has something to do with her selfishness. This harms women generally.

    If you really think it’s just two unrelated true statements about Rand, ask yourself why no one ever comments about what a selfish brunette Rand was.

  16. says

    @Yessina – That is an interesting insight, as of course it’s not relevant that she’s a woman.

    Superficially, selfish as an adjective is not sexist on it’s own (as in your brunette example).

    Would it be fair to say that adding a negative adjective amplifies the sexism?

    For comparison, what word(s) might convey the sense of the original example (retaining selfish) without a sexist spin? I rejected “asshole” (as it only implies irritating or contemptible / detestable), but I’m now uncomfortable trying to figure out what I thought “bitch” meant apart from being sexist. [ouch]

  17. julian says

    If you really think it’s just two unrelated true statements about Rand, ask yourself why no one ever comments about what a selfish brunette Rand was.

    Or why we’re so ready to say ‘dumb blond.’

  18. Godless Heathen says

    Would it be fair to say that adding a negative adjective amplifies the sexism?

    No. Not adding a negative adjective. Adding the word “bitch” specifically. And it doesn’t amplify the sexism – it is the sexism.

  19. says

    And “asshole” just doesn’t capture the connotations required,

    What connotations might those be, and why are they “required”?

    I feel the b-word is close to an edge case

    Oh, you feel that, do you?

    (which is why I chose it for my example), where context can make all the difference.

    Context always makes a difference. Not every attempt to reclaim or subvert a slur’s meaning on the part of a member of the subordinate category to which it’s applied will be wise or worthwhile or effective – though some are – but that scenario is fundamentally different from one in which members of the dominant group use it. Someone would have to be quite dense not to appreciate this.

    but I’m now uncomfortable trying to figure out what I thought “bitch” meant apart from being sexist.

    I imagine so.

  20. mythbri says


    As Godless Heathen said, the word “bitch” is the sexist part, being a gendered slur. Adding a “positive” descriptor wouldn’t magically make it less sexist.

    “Lovely bitch” is just as sexist as “Selfish bitch.”

  21. says

    I feel humbly schooled, and also enlightened.

    So, to summarize, a sexist term within a joke (no matter how funny) is hurtful? And this is what accounts for the uncomfortable laugh I often observe from women?

    @mythbri – Sure, I was trying to say that any elaboration (a negative or even positive adjective) of a sexist term amplifies the harmful sexism.

    re: “connotations required”

    Something like:

    Ayn Rand’s ideas are selfish, arrogant, and compassionless.

    With the above reformulation, Rand’s gender (or even personhood) isn’t operative, and as such the sexism has vanished (Right?).

    However, comedians are going to have trouble finding jokes at this level of abstraction (that a general audience can easily grasp), as personalized narrative is more affective in communication generally.

    re: “edge case”
    Ophelia, from the “The Nuanced Discussion” (linked #14):

    On the other hand, I think that has not happened socially with “bitch” despite years of trying to “reclaim” it; it seems to be more harsh than it was, not less.

    Popular Rap lyrics have probably set back any progress, so maybe today it’s not edgy.

  22. mythbri says


    No need to blame rap alone – its usage is present in many different areas of society, from entertainment like music, video games, movies, etc. to day-to-day communication. Some people like to argue that it has lost any gendered meaning at all, but that’s just not the case.

    As far as humor goes, you might be interested in reading some of the discussions had about Daniel Tosh’s recent rape joke, and the resulting fall-out. There’s a very long thread over at Pharyngula that discusses it in detail, and much of the points made there can be applied to sexist language as well.

    Now, Pharyngula is a rude blog, so try not to let the type of language used blind you to the merits of the arguments behind it, and there are plenty of valid points made without it.

  23. says

    @mythbri – In fact I have looked at that thread (link in #26).

    Pharyngula is my favourite blog, and I occasionally venture into the comments, and have left a few myself over the years. However, I find B&W far more intimidating, possibly due to the intellectual complexity in combination with the emotional intricacy.

    I find the prospect of presenting a stand-up routine to a feminist audience daunting. Whereas, atheists are easy, as the religious provide perfect targets for ridicule.

    Also, I find rape such an ugly feature of human nature, I struggle to laugh along with even my favourite comedian (Carlin) on this topic.

  24. Paul W., OM says

    Is a recording of the comedy club incident available somewhere?

    I gotta say I think that heckler blew it when she yelled “actually, rape jokes are never funny.”

    She may think that, and a lot of reasonable people may think that, but I don’t think that, and most comedy club-goers don’t think that. I don’t think it’s obviously unreasonable to think that the statement is just false, and therefore a really bad heckle worthy of a smackdown.

    If you yell a statement that most of the audience will disagree with, as a heckle, that will immmediately put most of the audience on the comic’s side, and give them license to go overboard squelching your heckles. It’s understood in comedy clubs that if you are heckling badly, the comic is supposed to be vicious to you and shut you the fuck up, and get back to his/her routine. It’s part of the job, and a form of crowd control.

    So when Tosh responded that rape jokes are “always” funny, I would assume that of course he didn’t mean that literally—it’s obviously a dumb statement—and he was just pushing back, countering an extremely stupidly simplistic and one-sided viewpoint with an equal-and-opposite stupid viewpoint.

    And in the process maybe making several points: 1) the heckler doesn’t get to tell the comic what’s funny; 2) more importantly, the heckler doesn’t get to tell the other people in the audience what’s funny, and 3) the comic does get to say stupid shit that the heckler can’t get away with. It’s his show, and his audience, and it’s part of his job to never let the hecklers win and to maintain control of the show, so that hecklers don’t derail it and annoy everyone.

    (Especially comics like Tosh, who play the edge where they often say stupid shit and you’re supposed to know they know it’s stupid, and they’re more or less making fun of themselves, or their snarky asshole persona. That’s part of the joke. Unfortunately, with some edgy comics it really is hard to tell when they cross the line into self-parody extremes, and when they mostly mean what they say. And for some, that’s part of the edgy joke—to keep you wondering how much of an asshole they really are.)

    Live comedy is really hard, and it’s important for comics to shut hecklers up and get the show back on track as soon as possible, unless they’re really exceptionally good at handling hecklers and making extended exchanges funny, off the cuff. Most comics aren’t—their routines are funnier than their heckler-squelching, after the first canned putdown or two.

    In general, it’s not fair to force a comic to improvise like that, in the middle of a planned routine. Most regular comedy clubgoers know that—they want the comic to succeed in amusing them, not get thrown off and flail around, so if you interrupt the show, you’d better have very good reason and be very good on your feet.

    If you don’t understand those kinds of issues, or think that rape jokes in particular are never funny, you shouldn’t go to comedy clubs, and you really shouldn’t ever heckle the comic. You will get squelched and squelched hard, and if the comic is doing a decent job of amusing the audience up to that point, most of them will rightly or wrongly side with the comic and think you just got what you deserved, even if they don’t agree with what the comic actually said to you. (You might have an excellent argument that people who are being amused shouldn’t be amused, but you won’t get much of a chance to make the argument.)

    I don’t know if I’d have felt that way in that instance, without hearing the particular jokes that triggered the heckle. I might have thought they sucked and were sincerely assholish, and sided with the heckler even though I think she overstated her point. Or I might have thought Tosh was justified in being an asshole to a rude buzzkill, and that’s all.

    I do think Tosh clearly blew it when he said that it would be hilarious if she got raped, but I suspect it wasn’t meant to be as mean and assholish as it may have sounded to her, or to some people in the audience, and to lots of people who weren’t there. I strongly guess that of course he didn’t really mean that it would really be funny if she were raped—it was just more being an asshole to an asshole.

    (Yes, I do think a joke about it being funny if someone gets raped can be funny, under some circumstances, if and only if it’s understood in context that it’s really really just a joke. I vaguely recall a couple of jokes like that that I have found funny, including one about the Pope bending over and his bony little ass being mistaken for an altar boy’s. And I think it “would be funny” if Bill Donohue’s daughter was raped by a heterosexual priest, except that of course it wouldn’t be funny if it really happened—it would be horribly tragic, but with one humorous “poetic justice” aspect w.r.t. Donohue, not his daughter. The joke about Donohue might be funny—your mileage may vary—but the reality about his daughter would just be horrible. Of course I wouldn’t expect anybody who doesn’t know me and the subject and my values to understand such a joke and know that I’m not a total asshole.)

    I do think that Tosh should definitely have known better than to say it would be hilarious if she got raped, even if he only meant in that of-course-not-really way, being an over-the-top asshole to an asshole buzzkill heckler, and even if everyone else in the audience understood that.

    When it got to that point, he should have realized that the heckler was unlikely to understand it that way, and that some others in the audience would be likely to misunderstand it as well—especially women who have actually been raped, for whom rape is a trigger that precludes any sophisticated understanding of a “just a joke” about rape, in real time.

    At that point, if not earlier, he should have stopped the show and politely asked the woman to leave, making it clear he bore her no ill will, but his show was not for her and he couldn’t stop the show to argue theory of comedy with her right then and there. And if she wouldn’t leave, he should have had security take her out, with his apologies about the show having to go on.

    Or maybe Tosh is a complete asshole, and hates hecklers so much he’d really think it was funny if they were really raped. I don’t know; I don’t watch him enough to make a good guess, but I suspect not.

  25. Paul W., OM says


    No need to blame rap alone – its usage is present in many different areas of society, from entertainment like music, video games, movies, etc. to day-to-day communication. Some people like to argue that it has lost any gendered meaning at all, but that’s just not the case.

    I think there’s a reasonable case that “bitch” was on its way to just being the gender-specific version of “bastard,” and otherwise a synonym, with both having essentially lost their original meaning. (People generally don’t think you’re dissing people whose parents weren’t married when you call a guy a “bastard,” and some people use “bitch” the same way, basically to just mean “asshole who happens to be female.”)

    Hip hop culture in particular did undermine that trend a whole lot, making it popular to use “bitch” as a synonym for “woman” and also as a synonym for someone subject to one’s dominance. (As in “you’re my bitch,” and “suck it, bitches!”)

    The sexism there is just inescapable. To be weak is to be like a woman. To dominate someone is to treat them as you’d treat a woman.


    That’s what convinced me to stop saying “bitch.” Macho ghetto talk is horrendously and pretty overtly sexist and has dragged the word “bitch” back into the clearly-shouldn’t-go-there zone. It’s not just sexist, but sexualized, tending to conflate sex and dominance as well as conflating sex roles with dominance and submission.

    Ew ew ew.

    Which kinda bugs me, because the word “bitch” has punch and bite, and I miss it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have an appropriate focus, especially now.

    (Not that it ever really did. I have to suspect that the cuttingness of “bitch” as opposed to “bastard” was partly based on sexist schemas, even before rap made it worse. I should have given up the word, even in private, sooner than I did. Bleah.)

  26. Paul W., OM says

    And “asshole” just doesn’t capture the connotations required

    What connotations might those be, and why are they “required”?

    That’s a question I’ve pondered, sincerely, without being able to put my finger on it.

    Just now, it occurs to me that “bitch” and “bitchy” are different from “asshole” or “assholish” in that the former pair have a stronger flavor of spitefulness or vindictiveness.

    Compare with the difference between being rude or mean and being catty.

    Unfortunately “catty” is also sexist; it’s usually applied to women and to me it suggests a specifically “woman-like” form of spiteful snark, even when applied to a man. I guess a cat is small and weak, like a cat, but it has sharp claws, and “catty bitch” is a natural fit in a very sexist way.

    Damn. I’d like a to have a nonsexist version of “bitch” that gets across that (maybe weak but) spiteful and vindictive flavor, but I don’t think there is one—maybe because our language is so sexist that such terms will inevitably be associated with femaleness, and in particular with femaleness-without-the-“appropriate”-feminine-traits, like niceness and submissiveness.

  27. says

    601 @ 27 –

    However, I find B&W far more intimidating, possibly due to the intellectual complexity in combination with the emotional intricacy.

    Really?! I have to say, that’s a very flattering description of B&W. (Perhaps you didn’t mean it that way…)

    Don’t be intimidated though. My reputation for bullying is a tiny bit exaggerated in some quarters.

  28. says

    Paul @ 28 –

    It’s his show, and his audience, and it’s part of his job to never let the hecklers win

    I never like that “it’s their job” argument, at least not when the job isn’t something like medicine or rescue or agriculture. Standup isn’t a job, it’s a venture, and there’s no law that says people get to do Whatever in pursuit of a particular venture just because it’s their “job.”

    Lobbyists say “it’s my job.” PR people say that. Advertisers say it. CEOs say it. It’s a lousy justification for doing bad things.

  29. says

    @Ophelia #31

    re: B&W intimidating

    I very much enjoy the dry caustic wit on display at B&W. It is precisely because I respect how well you wield this style of prose that I don’t want to find myself at the business end of it.

    To quote the heroic Pamela Gay

    When you see a problem that pisses you off, find out who is already fighting the fight, and support them.

    That’s why I’m here; to learn, be supportive, and help out when I can.

    And although I wouldn’t call it bullying (exc. #FTBullies with sarcastic pride), I do believe you have earned your reputation on the merits.

    However, as I lack an established standing in this forum, I can’t trust that my attempts at humour will be understood as intended, so I plan to be cautious. Not to mention, I’d have to think of something funny.

  30. mythbri says


    I’m not going to say unequivocally that rape-related humor is absolutely, positively never funny – however (to me) it can only be funny in the following ways:

    1. It targets people who prioritize their desire to get off over the person who is objecting to it (i.e., rapists).

    2. It targets the tired old victim-blaming tropes that are trotted out to minimize rape as a trivial thing that victims “should just get over already”.

    3. It targets the complacency that society has with sexual violence, as long as the victim “deserved” it in some way.

    To me, jokes about rape victims will never be funny. Joking about rape as a punishment for bad people will never be funny. Punching down the power gradient of society is not funny – it’s cruel, and reinforces the status quo.

    Punching up the power gradient of society IS funny, because sometimes it’s a means of speaking truth to power, and tears down the status quo.

    One of these options is the brave, edgy thing to do. One of these options is the cowardly, safe thing to do. Which one do you think is which?

  31. Paul W., OM says


    I generally like progessive humor much better than regressive humor, too, but I don’t think that what makes something simply funny (not to say very funny) is usually a matter of its political or moral message.

    [After writing most of the following, I realized it sounds like I’m lumping you with Tosh’s heckler as thinking rape jokes are never funny—I don’t think that, and am largely addressing the Tosh’s heckler, not you. Please bear with me…]

    I think rape, like death, is actually an emotionally loaded subject, and emotionally loaded subjects are generally what makes jokes work.

    A normal joke is generally funny only if there are two very different interpretations of the setup, both of which are emotionally loaded, in different ways, and one of which is the “apparent” meaning. The punchline disambiguates the ambiguous setup, instantly making it obvious that the initial interpretation and its emotional loading were wrong, and making the “revealed” interpretation obvious, with its different emotional loading.

    So for an old example:

    I have the body of a twenty year old.
    It’s in a freezer in the garage.

    That’s a basic funny joke. Maybe old and tired now, or not very funny, but it’s your basic funny joke. It’s funny because of the “aha,” and in particular because of the change in the way you feel about the speaker, and the situation being described. When you hear the setup, it sounds like the speaker is bragging that they’re very fit, maybe implying sexual attractiveness or something. But when you hear the punchline, you not only think something different, but are dragged into feeling something very different—oh shit! the speaker is a psycho killer! (Even if you only feel it at a remove, because it’s just a joke after all.)

    What makes most jokes funny in themselves isn’t particularly about a political or moral message that the listener is left with. (Although such messages can enhance or distract from the humor.) It’s just that surprise jerk from one interpretation to another, with a sudden emotional switch.

    To somebody who’s very sensitive to issues of bragging about physiques, sexualized swaggering, or violence and death, the body joke could be Not Funny. Maybe it’s not funny to joke about physical superiority or sexual prowess, or about murdering people.

    But it is clearly funny, to most people, anyway. (And again, that’s partly because few people will suspect that you mean it at all seriously, i.e., actually think it’s funny when actual psychos kill actual people.) They won’t think you’re a sicko for telling such a joke.

    It’s funny not despite being about emotionally fraught topics, but because of it.

    Jokes that just surprise, in a merely conceptual way, without that shift of emotional loadings, are just not as funny. (Like a lot of superficial puns, where the new interpretation of an utterance doesn’t say anything you care about one way or another. It may be cute, and a little funny, but it’s not solidly funny like a properly constructed joke.)

    A huge fraction of jokes are “about” sex and/or major misfortune, often violent, in either the initial setup or the revealed interpretation, or both.

    There’s a good reason for that. To make a solid joke, you have to have emotional loadings to switch between, preferably clear and strong ones. Sex and Very Bad Things like murder have various emotional significance that everybody get.

    Here’s a famously funny joke, the winner of an international joke contest, the so-called “funniest joke in the world”:

    A guy calls 911, very distraught, and says he accidentally shot his hunting buddy, and he’s dead.

    The 911 operator says “Are you sure he’s dead? I need you to make sure he’s dead.”

    There’s a moment of silence, and then a loud BANG, and the guy says “Okay, now what?”

    That is a demonstrably funny joke. People all over the world fairly consistently find it at least moderately funny.

    It’s “about” a horrible subject that is of course Not Funny At All—if you actually accidentally kill your buddy, that hugely sucks. And if you only think you killed him, and actually proceed to kill him, due to stupidity, that’s about as horrible as can be. Actually being tragically stupid isn’t funny at all.

    But it’s still a funny joke, because it’s obviously just a joke. If you tell that joke, most people will recognize that it’s just a joke, and not particularly suspect that you actually want people to shoot their friends dead, so you can laugh about it.

    Likewise, with the joke about the body of a 20 year old, the subjects in question aren’t themselves funny—physical prowess, sexual bravado, or murderous psychos—but they’re very good material for making jokes, just because they’re emotionally loaded in stereotyped ways that can be used for constructing a proper joke that people will get.

    Anything that’s strongly emotionally loaded is generally a good topic for comedy, in basic joke construction terms, especially if there are several different emotional loadings of different aspects of the subject. That enables various funny shifts.

    That’s why sex, violence, death, pain, families, personal finances, politics, racism, and religion are all great subjects for comedy. Everybody knows a bunch of things with a bunch of emotions attached about all those subjects. (It’s important that pretty much everybody understands those things in the same stereotyped ways, so that everybody gets the joke. Common knowledge is important. People may not actually feel the same ways about the same things, but they generally understand the feelings that are stereotypically attached to those things, even when they don’t personally share them. E.g., you can be pretty asexual and still “get” a joke based on strong sexual desire, and even if your in-laws are wonderful fun people, you can understand the idea of nosy, controlling in-laws.)

    Given the most basic principles of joke construction, the idea that rape in particular “isn’t a funny subject” seems ridiculous. It’s a basic category mistake, because subjects aren’t funny. Jokes are funny.

    Why rape, as opposed to murder, say, or chronic pain, or lifelong grinding poverty, or religion? If rape is somehow intrinsically unfunny, it would seem that death and pain and squalor would be intrinsically unfunny too. Maybe piety too.

    That’s why I think Tosh’s heckler completely blew it when she shouted that “actually, rape jokes are never funny,” as though she had any idea what she was talking about.

    To people who understand and appreciate comedy, its’ a truism that any subject can be made funny, especially if it’s a loaded subject.

    If you tell everyone in a club that jokes about X are never funny—whether X is rape, or the Holocaust, or religious crap, or whatever—the comic and many people in the audience are going to think you’ve got a ludicrous case of Dunning-Kruger Syndrome. You’re cluelessly telling a professional comic and seasoned comedy consumers Ur Doin it Rong.

    Worse, if the subject is rape, you’re going to seem like the stereotypical “humorless feminist” who really doesn’t get the joke, and likely doesn’t understand jokes in generaland bossily wants to spoil everybody else’s harmless fun.

    There really is such a thing as an overtly horrible joke being just a joke, and there really are some people who don’t get that, and other people are right to think they’re ignorantly and maybe foolishly wrong, and moralistic and bossy about it to boot.

    And that, too, is fodder for comedy, because there are various emotionally loaded schemas involved that most people intuitively understand—bossy blowhard, humorless feminist, etc.

    And that really sucks. It makes us–I consider myself a feminist—look bad.

    Now to address your (mythbri’s) points about when rape jokes can be funny, (to you)…

    When jokes have a social “message,” I too certainly prefer the ones that speak truth to power over the ones that make fun of victims and just reinforce fucked up schemas. Of course.

    But many jokes do neither, and are worthwhile just because they’re funny.

    Consider the two jokes above. Neither is trying to send much of a message, and I don’t think either sends much of a message inadvertently, either.

    So long as everybody assumes they’re just jokes, there’s no big social benefit there, but no significant harm either.

    Consider the body joke. Maybe joking about physical attractiveness and murder reinforces schemas about physical appearnance being important, and desensitizes us to violence.

    Maybe, a teeny weeny bit, but I’m not going to worry about jokes like that. The joke doesn’t approve of the degree to which people value physical appearance, it just acknowledges it. It certainly doesn’t approve of the kind of sick shit implied by the punchline.

    Likewise, the shooting joke seems basically harmless, though less obviously. It does seem to be making light of accidental death, and maybe making fun of stupid people whose mistakes lead to tragedy, and that’s hilarious.

    But I seriously doubt that many people who find that “tragedy” funny really take it that way. It’s just a joke, and everybody knows it, and it’s just funny because of the sudden shift in feel.

    (I do think there are truly meanspirited jokes about stupid people, e.g., “retards,” that are regressive and should be avoided. Actually making fun of the disabled is uncool. I don’t think the shooting joke is one of them—it’s just ridiculous slapstick, and pretty harmless.)

    It seems to me that rape jokes should be the same way—you should be able to make a harmless rape joke, with no particular message, just an amusing shift. It might be a bit of dark humor or a kiddingly “sick” joke—like both the body joke and the shooting joke—but still just a joke in the same sense.

    Why not?

    I can only think of one reason. The acceptability of such dark jokes depends on people knowing with a fair degree of certainty that it’s really just a joke, and not serious at all—very probably, neither the teller nor the listener sincerely approves of the events or attitudes displayed in the joke. It’s just pretend, and just in fun.

    Why isn’t rape the same kind of subject?

    I think that for some people who object to rape jokes fairly broadly, it’s because they’re not at all sure that the jokers do disapprove of rape strongly enough—the way almost everybody is assumed to disapprove of murder, without needing to say so—and suspicion that talking about rape too much without condemning it enough reveals an insufficient degree of disapproval of rape.

    That can be very unfair to somebody making a messageless rape joke, in exactly the same way they’d make a messageless murder joke or a messageless joke about getting fired or dumped or whatever. They don’t mean anything in particular by it, and it’s unfair to assume that they do.

    It’s also, unfortunately, not an unfounded concern. There a really are more or less sexist pigs out there, who do objectify women too much, who aren’t entirely kidding about the subject when they make a “just a joke” without a clear message. And there are some comics who don’t seem to give a shit about anything but cheap gags, or who even glorify not giving a shit about big picture issues, and make fun of anybody with a conscience.

    That sucks too.

    Sometimes, though, that’s just a self-parodying stance and you’re supposed to realize that’s a joke; the comic is portraying an asshole, and you’re supposed to disapprove of the “message,” not agree with it.

    That makes social criticism of comedy hard to do right, especially if you don’t know the comic’s general tendencies/views/values, and very especially if you didn’t see the routine performed.

    Did you see The Aristocrats?, and in particular Sarah Silverman’s bit about her agent, Joe Franklin?

    I’m curious whether you’d think that’s unfunny, and especially whether you think it’s unfunny specifically because it’s about rape.

    You can see it in this clip:

    (TRIGGER WARNING: if rape, child abuse, retardation, or physical abuse is a trigger for you, DO NOT WATCH any part of that movie!)

    Her Aristocrats routine starts around 2:25 and the Franklin bit starts around 2:55.

    Very dark, weird, and without a clear message.

    Like a lot of that movie, I found it funny—not the riot some people thought it was, but successfully funny—but your mileage may vary a whole lot.

    That seems to me an example of a case where there’s no clear message, and how you interpret the ambiguities hinges crucially on what you think the comic’s actual beliefs and attitudes are.

    I know that Silverman is liberal and progressive in a number of ways, so I give her the benefit of the doubt that she’s not just “making light” of horrible things, and more or less assume that she disapproves of actual child abuse as much as I do. If I wasn’t familiar with her, it would be harder to give her the benefit of the doubt and not be suspicious and distracted from what she’s actually doing. I can see why a lot of people might not “get it” and would see it as Not Funny At All.

  32. mythbri says


    I think that for some people who object to rape jokes fairly broadly, it’s because they’re not at all sure that the jokers do disapprove of rape strongly enough—the way almost everybody is assumed to disapprove of murder, without needing to say so—and suspicion that talking about rape too much without condemning it enough reveals an insufficient degree of disapproval of rape.

    That can be very unfair to somebody making a messageless rape joke, in exactly the same way they’d make a messageless murder joke or a messageless joke about getting fired or dumped or whatever. They don’t mean anything in particular by it, and it’s unfair to assume that they do.

    The trouble is that these jokes don’t exist in a vacuum – by definition they have societal context. There has to be a frame of reference, or no one would understand the joke. Unfortunately, society itself doesn’t take rape seriously. This is borne out by the number of people who are sexually assaulted – not just women – and the number of self-reporting rapists who have gotten away with their crimes.

    The insidious thing about rape culture is that if you were to start asking random people you encounter “Hey, do you think rape is a bad thing?” I think most people would give you a funny look and say something like “Um, yeah. Duh.” Just as if you were to ask them whether committing murder was a bad thing.

    They will say this. They’ll even think it. But if you look at what actually happens in many rape cases, you’ll start to see the rationalizations. Everyone has an idea in their head about what rape looks like, and if they’re confronted with a situation that doesn’t match up to their expectation, it’s not a “real” rape. She was wearing revealing clothing. She was flirting. She was drinking. She wasn’t paying attention to her drink. She was alone. She let him into her house. She kissed him. She accepted a ride from him. She went jogging by herself. She was lying. She slept with him and now regrets it. She wants to ruin his life. She should just let it go.

    This is said by the public. It’s said by law enforcement. It’s said by friends and family. It is everywhere.

    All of these things are pulled up and examined in an attempt to mitigate the awfulness of the situation, in a way that is practically never done with victims of murder. It is much easier to believe in a mythical set of rules that everyone should follow – somehow that will protect them from rape. It’s easier to look at the faults of the victim and think they brought something horrible upon themselves instead of acknowledge that someone who is admired did a horrible thing to someone else.

    The thing is that the series of events that leads up to a successful date, a relationship, a marriage, a day at work, a day at school, a fun night with a friend, a visit, a night out – these series of events are indistinguishable from the series of events leading up to a rape. The only difference is the presence of a rapist.

    Now, in this societal context, is it any wonder that there is doubt regarding comedians’ ability to take this seriously? To treat it responsibly, in a way that would contribute more to the solution instead of being part of the problem?

    I don’t really care for Sarah Silverman, but Wanda Sykes does a funny bit about having a detachable vagina (I’m at work, so can’t link). And here are some links to some pieces from The Onion that I think are hilarious:,26724/,817/

  33. says

    @Paul W.

    The problem is that there is no such thing as “just a joke.” Same problem with free will; free of what? If a joke is really funny, I am willing to deal with inappropriate topics, but it has to be very funny and safely sequestered.

    And that’s why “just kidding” is always disingenuous. It’s an attempt to transfer responsibility for the hurtfulness to the injured party.

  34. Paul W., OM says


    I’m not sure what you’re trying to tell me that I haven’t already acknowledged.

    I do think there is an important sense in which a rape joke can be just a joke—as I explained by analogy to murder jokes and whatnot.

    In terms of the joker’s intent, there may be no intention of condoning rape, any more than a simple joke involving psycho killers condones serial killing or torture.

    Beyond that, the comic can do a pretty good job of making it clear enough to most of the audience that of course, no condoning of evil shit can reasonbly be inferred by people who understand the context. (But how good is good enough? And when can the comic legitimately rely on fans knowing them well enough to know what they’re likely to really mean? What is an acceptable failure rate of such a gamble?)

    And sure, the ambiguity of such a joke may have the effect of condoning rape, if the messagelessness w.r.t. rape is not clear. It may seem like the comic just thinks that “rape can be fun,” and it’s not so horrible that they need to say anything bad about it.

    But a lot of the time, it’s sufficiently clear to people who “get” the comic that of course they’re anti-rape, and of course it’s just a joke, i.e., not condoning rape as it might seem to somebody who doesn’t understand that the comic is playing a role of somebody that you’re supposed to disagree with.

    Comics, especially edgy comics, often use the literary technique of playing an “unreliable narrator”—somebody who recounts events and misinterprets or misjudges them in a way that you’re supposed to see through, disagree with, and even condemn.

    If you don’t understand that the comic really is being ironic, and you’re supposed to know that she’s being ironic, you can draw the opposite conclusion from what’s intended.

    It’s hairier than that, though, especially in truly edgy comedy, because the comic is using the unreliable narrator to tell “both sides” of some very loaded story, and draw a line in a particular place—that’s the “edge” they’re playing.

    So for example, you might tell a joke about murdering your sexist asshole boss, with the intent that people actually empathize with your desire to murder your sexist asshole boss, because his sexism and assholery are very painful to the people whose lives and careers he fucks up. But then you cross the line, going over the edge, and say something about how it’d actually be a great thing if you did that, and people should do it more often, and start talking like a complete psycho who doesn’t have any perspective or understand the bad consequences of his actions.

    Hyperbolically, in what for most people is a self-undermining “crazy angry paranoid person” way. (A common persona for edgy comics.)

    Done right, the audience generally knows where the edge is—that yes, it’s understandable to fantasize about murdering your boss, because asshole bosses really are a terrible thing and really do terrible damage, but no, it’s really not okay to actually go on a spree murdering them, for a variety of ethical and practical reasons.

    And done right, you draw the line in exactly the right place, and get most or all of the audience to understand that, and understand that it is the right place to draw the line—e.g., that people should empathize with people who sometimes have murderous feelings toward their asshole bosses, but of course should absolutely not condone actual murder, or even lesser forms of mere vengeance.

    That’s very risky, which is part of the thrill of watching a good edgy comic, like Bill Hicks on a good night. A big part of his shtik was too push things too far over the edge, starting to lose the audience’s sympathy, then dig himself out of the hole, over and over, rather like falling over the edge of a cliff, but grabbing it with his fingernails and scrabbling back over it. Whee!

    There are people who simply don’t like and disapprove of edgy comedy, period. They may find it personally too intense or disturbing, or think you just shouldn’t take risks like that, because inevitably, some people will take away the wrong message—they won’t know where the line is meant to be, and will wrongly take what the comic is doing as an actual endorsement of something stupid and wrong—or they may just not get why you’d wallow in such dark shit, and assume you just love pain and want to spread it around.

    A lot of edgy comedy does more or less suck, because most comics are either

    (1) not good enough at it to make clear where the line is supposed to be (without explicitly saying so, which would be a lot less funny, because it’s a “show them, don’t tell them” thing like in any other fiction), or that that’s the right place for it to be, or

    (2) they do draw the line in the wrong place, sometimes very much the wrong place. They go too far, or not far enough, at what the audience infers is the bottom line.

    (I think Sam Kinison could be very funny, sometimes even when he was being a horrible sexist pig, but he often failed in the second way, though often I wasn’t sure it wasn’t the first—it just wasn’t clear where his real sexism left off and his “look what a reprehensible sexist pig I’m playing” irony took up. There was clearly some self-parody there, but IMO not enough, or at best not clearly enough. And I’m pretty sure that was his fault, one way or another. He clearly didn’t care enough about the difference to subtly distance himself from his character’s excesses, and that was cheap and crappy and sexist IMO.)

    I have a love-hate relationship with edgy comedy, as I do with science fiction. It’s 90 percent crap, or really 40 percent crap, 40 percent very mixed bags, and 9 percent pretty good, and 1 percent awesome.

    It’s half-empty, or half crap and half full of win.

    When I hear simplistic criticisms of edgy comedy, like the heckler’s account of the weirdness with Daniel Tosh, that puts me in a position similar to, say, Ophelia hearing criticism of some novel about child rape.

    Yeah, maybe it’s prurient crap. Or maybe it’s Nabokov’s Lolita, and the heckler doesn’t understand the difference. (Or maybe Lolita is prurient crap, sorta, but it’s not just prurient crap.) Or maybe it’s a failed attempt at something other than mere prurient crap, and the heckler doesn’t have any idea what was being attempted, however unsuccessfully.

    As somebody who (IMO) understands comedy and particularly edgy comedy better than average, I have to discount the heckler’s interpretation of what happened almost completely. She seems not to understand comedy, especially edgy comedy.

    To me, saying that “rape jokes are never funny” is like saying that “child molestation is not a fit subject for fiction.” It’s not just wrong, but seems to indicate serious case of Dunning-Kruger about comedy. She’s in no position to tell anyone what is or isn’t funny.

    That’s not the only clue that she has no idea what she’s talking about, and is an unfit literary critic, whose opinion should be taken with a pillar of salt.

    For example, she said that she didn’t know Daniel Tosh from a hole in the ground, and thought his awkward demeanor meant he was some nobody who just happened to come on after Dane Cook, who she’d gone to see.

    That was remarkably clueless, and a good indicator that she has little idea how the live comedy business works. Typically, the guy who comes last is the top of the bill, the “headliner”, i.e., the more famous one, that most of the audience is coming to see. If the middle act is famous, like Cook, then it may be a equal billing situation, where Tosh just happened to come last, but generally the last act is no less famous, and no less of a draw, than the middle act. (And if there are three acts, the first one is almost certainly less of a draw than the other two—it’s the “warmup” act for the later acts. If anybody’s a nobody, it’s the first act, not the last.)

    If you understand comedy shows, and anybody on the bill is famous, you know that the last act is likely to be constructed on the assumption that most people in the audience (1) are there to see that show, and (2) are expected to already understand and like that comic’s style.

    That has major consequences for issues of edginess and what counts as playing the edge well or successfully. It shifts the odds about about what the comic can expect the bulk of the audience to understand as ironic or hyperbolic, and part of an unreliable narrator shtik.

    To understand what that means, imagine a literary reading multiple bill, with Vladimir Nabokov at the top of the bill, and Nabokov reading a crucial chapter from Lolita.

    He doesn’t actually read the opening chapter, which gives the strongest hints to his being an unreliable narrator, but a middle chapter that’s more interesting to his expected audience—many of whom have read the book, or at least heard what kind of book it is, and almost all of whom know he’s a serious writer and assume he isn’t just a prurient hack, even if what he’s reading might sound that way without that crucial bit of context.

    (And imagine that Nabokov isn’t literally reading his chosen chapter; he’s memorized it, and practiced it to death, and is giving an enthralling performance, with a very subtle, nuanced, and seemingly spontaneous first-person storytelling delivery, in which he is Humbert Humbert.)

    Imagine somebody the audience who’s never even heard of Nabokov or Humbert Humbert stands up in the middle of his unreliable first-person narrator storytelling, all aghast, and shouts “child rape is never a fit subject for literature!”

    Almost everybody there is going to think she’s way, way out of line, and doesn’t belong at a reading from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, because she simply has no idea what he’s likely to actually be up to, as they do.

    They’re also going to think she’s being shockingly rude and ridiculously confused to interrupt an enthralling scripted and practiced literary performance to tell Vladimir Nabokov and his fans that what he’s saying sucks.

    They’re likely to find it funny, even, in a very cringeworthy way. Maybe she’s entirely well-meaning and to be applauded for her commitment to her high moral principles, but she’s nonetheless made herself completely ridiculous, which is a big shiny nugget of comedy gold.

    At such a moment, I would find it forgivable if Nabokov made light of the situation by joking, mock-gravely, for everyone else’s benefit, that “Madame, child rape is the only fit subject for literature.”

    He shouldn’t say that, but if he did, I’d certainly understand why. It’d be very, very funny—in an extraordinarily cringeworthy way—if he chose to (1) stay in his Humbert-like character while handling the heckle, and, even better, to (2) mock all of his ignorant illiterate critics in a way that his audience will recognize and find absolutely hilarious live, by pretending to reveal himself as actually being the kind of utterly twisted freak many say he is. (Much like P.Z. or Ophelia talking facetiously about their terrible bullying as though it were true. That kind of joke can be very funny in person, with an added zing of “yep, here’s the monster you’ve all heard about on the intertoobz, standing right in front of you and admitting it. Now you know for sure.”)

    That would be intense, and intensely funny IMO, though I have serious moral qualms about it. I wouldn’t want to be in a position of having choose whether to go for it.

    If I thought of it, in that kind of moment, it might well come right out of my mouth before I had a chance to think better of it. I can be that much of an asshole in real time, under pressure, and regret it later. I might just find it irresistable, because I know I’m not usually that funny in real time, and it would certainly be witty, and almost Wilde, and here’s my chance, right now!. That might very easily overwhelm my ability to see just how cruel it would be, too, because you generally shouldn’t just beat up on well-meaning clueless people who are Just Not Getting It, even if they are being bossy and controlling and it is funny as hell to cut them down to size.

    Now consider how heckling standup is different from a heckling a literary reading.

    Like it or not, it is an important part of the comic’s job to (1) handle hecklers and shut them down quickly, and (2) try desperately to keep the show continuously funny for the rest of the audience while doing it, or (3) draw out the interaction with the heckler in a way that is very funny.

    The audince came for comedy, not to be lectured to, and they paid good money not to be disappointed. And given the way professional comedy works, turning potentially show-ruining disruptive heckles into unexpected comedy gold is very much part of the job. It has become a completely standard convention that danger equals opportunity, and somebody who’s a danger to your performance is also an opportunity to cleverly display your virtuosity in handling them—usually very much at their expense.

    Pace Ophelia, that is definitely the comic’s job, as any comic or booker in the world will tell you, and that does matter whether you particularly value that particular job or not. It’s what the comic is being paid to do, it’s an understood part of what the audience is there to see, and it’s his/her livelihood in a much stronger sense than, say, a novelist dealing with promotional readings being interrupted.

    It may not look like it, because comics put a huge amount of work into making it seem easy, casual and spontaneous, but comedy shows are generally intensely scripted, memorized, and practiced performances, and unsquelched hecklers will ruin the show.

    Like it or not, it is the comic’s obligation to value amusing the bulk of the audience over respecting a heckler’s tender feelings, no matter how well-meaning the heckler actually is, or even how correct the heckler’s objections may turn out to actually be, if you stop and think about it.

    You just can’t stop and think about that. You have to respond to the heckler, and you have to make a joke, and you have to do both right now, without breaking stride, to maintain your practiced rhythm, timing, and the all-important Laffs Per Minute. (Yes, that’s a term of art in the biz.)

    Comics try to respond to hecklers as soon as they’ve said something, without even two seconds’ time to think about how to respond.

    If it takes you just a couple of seconds to frame a response, you have fucked up. You’ve lost the pace and rhythm, and don’t seem as casually, spontaneously funny as you did just a few seconds before.


    That means that as soon as a heckler begins speaking, the comic is trying to guess what their point is, and think of a funny response that shuts them down, before the heckler even finishes the uttering the heckle, so that they can make a retort immediately. Failing that, the comic will use some delaying tactic that gains them maybe a few seconds, like saying “Really?” and repeating the heckle back to them, with a delivery that’s vauguely funny in some way that has to be cashed out with a funny comeback. Then they have to respond, and be funny, or they’ve failed to deliver on the promise implicit in their funny delaying tactic, and fucked up at their job.

    Meanwhile, while doing all that, they have to remember exactly where they were in their delivery of their intensely scripted and practiced routine, and try to improvise a good segue from their comeback back to the right point in their routine, preferably one that is noticeably clever in how they connect up their response to the heckle with the resumption of their routine, and restores the proper tone and rhythm. (And with bonus points for being particularly funny, because unfakeably spontaneously funny is extra funny.)

    Oh, and you’re supposed to appear unruffled the whole time, and make it look effortless.

    Try it sometime.

    It’s at least as hard as it sounds. There are various tricks you can do in a variety of special cases, to make it easier, but it’s either a whole lot of mostly wasted work on the front end anticipating possible heckles and memorizing canned responses to them, or a lot of stress and risk in real time, dealing with the unexpected, and usually a lot of both.

    Your livelihood (or serious wannabe livelihood) depends on it, but you’d better not let them see you sweat.

    If you’ve never seriously studied standup, you probably have no idea how crucial or how hard that is, even for people who are “naturally very funny,” or how important that part of the job is—it is the hardest part of the job, and it very often makes or breaks a comic.

    Now imagine standing up at a Broadway musical and objecting to the message of the lyrics of a song in mid-performance. That would be incredibly rude. Your objections may in fact be sound, but the performers and ushers have to assume that either they’re not, or it’s just too fucking bad, and the show must go on, right now, even if you are humiliated by being shut down and thrown out.

    Comedy is more like that than almost anybody but comics can understand, with the added difficulty that what the comic ad libs in the moment, when unexpectedly interrupted, they’re expected to Be Funny Or Die.

    Think about the recent discussion here at B&W about harassing speakers at conferences—that they’re in a “professional” or substantially similar role, doing a job, and deserve to be treated as such, respectfully, and not harassed, whether they’re literally making a living from it or even being paid, or not.

    The same goes double for comics in clubs, doesn’t it? Most are literally making a meager living from it, and the ones who aren’t are usually sacrificing a lot just for a hoped-for chance at making a very probably meager living from it.

    If you harass them—and that’s clearly what heckling is—you’d better be entirely justified, and you’d better be entirely right, and entirely in the right, and you’d better go to the trouble of being good at it or you’re a flaming asshole for harassing somebody and preventing them from doing the very job they’ve been paid to do.

    That’s incredibly hard, so in general, don’t heckle comics.

    Just fucking don’t.

    That’s not just harassing a speaker, it’s actively preventing her from doing the very job they’re paid to do, and/or making squelching you decisively a part of that job.

    For good reasons, you will probably end up regretting it, even if you had a valid piont to make, and even if they, too, regret it later.

    Don’t expect them to take it at all well. Do expect them to take it very, very badly, and to show that by “casually” and “calmly” ripping you a new and extremely embarrassing asshole, in the most effective way they can think of in under three seconds.

    That’s the task you’ve set them to, and you should not be surprised if they do their job, maybe in a way that you and they regret later.

    If you’re not faster on your feet than the comic, or better prepared, you are almost certainly going to lose in the exchange, even if they lose, too.

    So fucking don’t set yourself up for that. Don’t heckle comics.

    Comedy is deadly serious business to most comics, or they wouldn’t make the huge sacrifices necessary to do it.

    Respect that, or expect to lose, right or wrong, when you fuck with them in the performance of their duties.

    The upshot of all that is that Tosh’s heckler’s interpretation of what happened, especially his first reply to her, conveys approximately zero information to me about Tosh—and significantly more information about her.

    She clearly doesn’t understand how comedy clubs work, or why they work the way they do, and apparently does not understand edgy comedy well, if at all. She apparently was not in a good position to judge Tosh in a way that should affect my opinion of him much at all, either way. (She clearly did misjudge him in some ways; she clearly didn’t understand the context in some ways I do.)

    She may or may not have ultimately been justified heckling Tosh—I can’t know, and don’t trust her judgment at all, so I have no idea. I can’t tell if Tosh was out of line at all in his initial reply to her, or what he did or didn’t mean by his followup. Her opinion on those things means nothing to me, because she’s a pretty “unreliable narrator” herself.

    For the record, my limited familiarity with Tosh makes it seem reasonably likely he was doing edgy comedy somewhat badly and/or somewhat irresponsibly, but also quite likely that she simply misunderstood his shtik on the particular points she objected to, or misunderstood the degree to which he was being an asshole, and how much most people assumed he was being hyperbolic and/or ironic.

    I don’t have the impression that he’s a great comic, but he’s not a completely talentless hack, either; I do think he’s a bit of a snarky asshole, but maybe more sincerely ironic and well-meaning than a lot of people can tell without context, and his heckler could well be one of those people who just “doesn’t get it” to some degree or other.

  35. says

    @Paul W.

    Firstly, thanks for contributing so much, I am enjoying this discussion. And I think we agree on most of this stuff.

    Re: Hecklers, I disagree with Ophelia. It is a professional comedian’s duty to suppress heckling quickly and harshly. It must be excessive to ensure that it shuts down the heckler immediately.

    e.g. If a heckler shouts “there is no god” during the elementary school xmas play, they have earned a deterring punishment.

    And I don’t think intentions are relevant. Intentions are like assholes, they’re often full of shit.

    Re: There is no such thing as “just a joke.”

    I meant to emphasize that the choice of material is independent from everything else. Topics are not chosen randomly (unless you’re using my free iOS App – search 601 on iTunes). So however else you might justify using off colour [is that racist?] subject matter, being funny is insufficient.

  36. Paul W., OM says

    Topics are not chosen randomly (unless you’re using my free iOS App – search 601 on iTunes). So however else you might justify using off colour [is that racist?] subject matter, being funny is insufficient.

    So you’ve written a socially irresponsible mobile app?

    Tsk, tsk. 🙂

    And no, “off color” isn’t racist. It’s by analogy to inferior gems, which aren’t quite. (At least according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which dates it back to at least 1860.)

    In current usage, that’s probably irrelevant, but I wouldn’t expect people think it was about skin color or race—more likely whether a joke is “blue,” or maybe like me, guessing that it might have something to do with unripe or (especially) rotten fruit, or maybe unhealthy plants, or something.

  37. Paul W., OM says

    Re: It is a professional comedian’s duty to suppress heckling quickly and harshly. It must be excessive to ensure that it shuts down the heckler immediately.

    Another less obvious but really important reason to do that is to deter other potential hecklers, even “benign” ones who aren’t critical but just want to chime in with their own attempt at a joke they think will enhance the show.

    Comics will often hit the first heckler pretty hard, whether or not they think that hecker particularly deserves it, to make it clear that if you heckle, you’d better be damned good at it, or you will regret not letting let the comic do her thing uninterrupted.

    That’s necessary because few hecklers—even if they’re “helpful” and actually funny—understand pacing or “routining,” e.g., that the next joke the comic was going to tell is a “tag” that depends on being the very next joke after the one just told. Even if you shout a good joke, you may stomp on a joke you didn’t see coming, and slow the show down a little bit so that the routine doesn’t build as it should, and the joke after that doesn’t quite work, either.

    Nobody who hasn’t written standup routines is likely to have any understanding of how much damage they’re doing, even if they shout an actually very funny heckle with the very best of intentions.

    There’s an amazing amount of careful planning and delicate tradeoffs in writing a good comedy bit, as opposed to individual jokes, which the audience isn’t supposed to know about, because it’s supposed to look easy.

    The audience shouldn’t have to know all the reasons why not to heckle, just that they really mustn’t do it, even if that makes the comic look like a bit of a draconian asshole.

    And keep in mind that the comic is grossly outnumbered. It’s important to immediately make an example of a heckler so that the comic doesn’t have to deal with multiple hecklers chiming in, which is often a complete disaster, even for a comic who’s very good at playing off hecklers in a seemingly spontaneous funny way. (One persistent heckler is usually much easier to deal with than unrelated heckles from multiple people.)

  38. Paul W., OM says

    Another tip for comedy club newbies:

    Don’t sit near the stage, especially if you are in any way interesting-looking, and pay careful attention to what happens to people who do.

    Most comics play the crowd, interacting with people in the audience—at points of their choosing—and mostly people they can see well and hear, and it’s all way more planned than it looks.

    They often scan the front rows for individuals, couples, or groups with features that they may have a variety of more or less written and practiced bits about—e.g., beautiful women, couples dressed to the nines, interracial couples, gay couples, groups of foreigners, businessmen, fat slobs, tomboys, jocks, nerds, Goths, hippies, college kids, people who’ve been drinking a lot, visibly unhappy or tense people, people who talk or whisper to each other during the act, people who laugh loudly, people who don’t laugh at all, etc., etc. Pretty much anything noticeable about you might be fodder for a riff.

    If the comic singles you out, you are likely to be ridiculed in some way, and you should try to take it with good grace, even if the comic seems mean and/or mistaken about you. The rest of the audience probably thinks it’s “all in fun,” but it may not seem that way when you’re the one being needled. (And maybe it is mean, but you’re unlikely to win if you make an issue of it.)

    If you’re asked a question, you probably shouldn’t try to be funny—it’s not going to be funny enough and the comic may make you look like a dope. Give the comic a fairly straight answer, and let them do their bit that they probably have planned for the general kind of answer that you give, with a little bit of on-the-fly tailoring to your specifics.

    Also, if you sit up front, you’re more likely to forget that the show isn’t really informal, intimate, and interactive, and that you mustn’t speak unless spoken to. If you are drunk, you’re likely to exhibit some form of bad judgment that the comic may riff off of—e.g., you may feel the need to object to some controversial point or attitude, which you’d think better of if you were sober.

    I like sitting up front, but it’s really not for everybody.

  39. says

    @Paul W. #40

    So you’ve written a socially irresponsible mobile app?

    Tsk, tsk. 🙂

    Not at all. It’s for writer’s block ( It generates short random phrases to stimulate creativity. The Princeton WordNet database does contain some off colour words, so you might get something edgy, but it wouldn’t be intentional!

    And thanks for that “gem,” I had thought the etymology was only from blue/black humour (and was attempting a joke).

    You might enjoy Marc Maron’s podcast (WTF), as he talks shop and reveals what goes on behind the microphone (more so in the older episodes).

  40. says

    I saw Robin Williams perform in a small club (circa 1980), and puked in the middle of his show.
    [caused by youthful substance misuse, I missed the “doesn’t go well with alcohol” label]

    I stumbled outside as quickly as I could, mumbling apologies. But the real tragedy was that I missed hearing a 10 minute long personal attack from a comedy icon! A few exiting audience members thanked me later, saying it was the best part of the show.

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