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People & Ideas

Nov 19, 2012

Hold the applause: why one topic is not fit for comedy

Comedian Courteney Hocking told a rape joke in her early days in stand-up. She regrets it now, explaining why rape jokes should be avoided -- particularly by male comedians.

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Empty stool stand up comedy

When I started stand-up comedy I was 18 and I told a lot of terrible, offensive jokes — about dead celebrities, Auschwitz and one especially bad set about the Paralympics, which was so unfunny that I had to run out of the venue for fear that the audience would actually hurt me. I have also told a r-pe joke.

And I regret it. An incident last week brought that joke to mind — and reminded me why, perhaps, it should never have been made.

Last week, a young s-xual assault victim was heckled when she spoke about her experience at a forum about r-pe jokes. A planned comedy debate titled “There’s Nothing Funny About R-pe” (featuring an all male line-up) at Melbourne pub Station 59 was cancelled after social media criticism. Instead, organiser Kieran Butler hosted a forum where people were invited to discuss the cancellation and r-pe jokes in general.

RMIT student Genevieve Stewart told her own story of being r-ped and explain why she finds such jokes offensive. Stewart was interrupted by hecklers, one even calling out aggressively “get to the jokes!”

The organisers of the debate saw the cancellation as an issue of censorship and political correctness; critics of the event saw the story as one of systemic misogyny and s-xism. But listening to the audio of a 20-year-old being jeered while talking about a man putting a knife to her throat and his fingers inside her is disturbing in a way that should give serious pause for thought.

Open mike comedy nights, such as the one at Station 59, are where new comedians learn (ideally) how to make people laugh. There are no barriers to getting into stand-up comedy, no courses or apprenticeships, no certificate or occupational health and safety and s-xual harassment training required. It’s just a desire to make people laugh and probably some sort of childhood or adolescent unpopularity that makes us want to prove ourselves.

Shock is part of the stock in trade for comedians, but between youthful arrogance and unfortunate delusions of “edginess”, it took me a couple of years to realise that shocking comedy is a lot like Kevin Rudd — fine in small, contextually relevant doses, but draining and tedious when you hear it too much.

Judging from the recording of the evening, Butler and the other comics involved in the debate felt that by banning the event, their freedom of speech was violated. While freedom of speech is obviously an entitlement that most comedians enjoy, in this instance there seemed to be a refusal to realise and admit that jokes about r-pe are different from other “edgy” topics.

Unlike jokes about shark attacks or Michael Jackson or Adelaide murderers, the likelihood of a r-pe victim being in the audience at a comedy gig is very high: one in every four women have been s-xually assaulted.

I think some of fierceness of the backlash was also due to the fact that all the comedians involved in the original debate were men. In the same way that comedy is dominated by men — look at the names on a poster for a comedy gig sometime, there’s usually only one or perhaps two woman to every eight or nine men — the figures on r-pe are almost the exact reverse: 91% of r-pes happen to women while 9% of victims are men.

While the under-representation of women in comedy is a War and Peace tome for another time, the fact that no women were even represented in a “debate” about something which almost exclusively affects them looks not just wilfully ignorant, but arrogant in the extreme.

However, while I’m certain that the fiasco at Station 59 could have been avoided by calling r-pe jokes off-limits all together, the stand up comedy industry is also unregulated, unorganised and mostly unpaid. So while a consensus combined with goodwill approach works for the majority of comedians (and this incident is definitely not representative of 95% of Melbourne’s comedy community), telling a comedian not to joke about something doesn’t generally work.

The subsequent “discussion” held about the debate is a prime example of the fact that it’s not about what the joke or subject is, it’s about how it is dealt with. It is possible to tell a funny r-pe joke — as long as the target of the joke is not the victim. But until comedians like Butler and co understand the importance of kicking up rather than down, it’s probably better than they avoid the subject altogether.

Just because people have the right to say anything, doesn’t mean we should. Just because you can do cartwheels in the middle of Punt Road at peak hour in your underwear doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It’s called living in a society. Stand up comedy will always skirt the line of good taste and challenging ideas: it’s a part of what makes it exciting.

But for all the talking involved in being a stand up comedian, one of the most important skills of all is learning to listen to your audience: what they’re laughing at and what they’re not. It’s all very well to use comedy as a platform for politics, ideals and your own feelings, but the real purpose of being there is to make the audience laugh. That’s your number one job.

And if you find your audience is not laughing, but fighting back tears as they try to tell you the story of getting r-ped at a train station when they were 15, you’d have to agree it’s time for some new material.

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