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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.

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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36 comments

36 thoughts on “Hold the applause: why one topic is not fit for comedy

  1. Nick the Hippy

    I know only of the views of two of the comedians that were going to take part in the debate. One of them was going to talk about how his partner getting raped had affected him. The other was going to talk about his own experience of getting raped. I have no idea what the other six people were going to say but I do know how shattered the one that was going to talk about being raped now feels.
    That is what I find really sad about the whole episode. No one bothered to find out what the participants were going to talk about before they called for the debate to be cancelled. There seemed to be this assumption that as males none of the people involved could be sympathetic to the victims point of view and that rape happens only to females.
    I worked professionally as a comedian for 15 years. As a child I was sexually abused. I have talked about my own abuse on stage and used jokes to attack the power base of organizations such as the Catholic Church. I have been congratulated by survivors and threatened with violence by members of the church. I was proud of both responses. If anyone told me I was not allowed to use those jokes I would have told them where to go.
    It is up to people to deal with their own issues in the way that best suits them. But to ban a discussion before it happens because it may make you feel uncomfortable is wrong. That is censoring ideas and that is way worse than offending someone.
    What happened the following week is a separate issue and would seem to be badly handled by all concerned. I feel for the young woman concerned and I agree that not having women involved in the original debate was stupid. But this does not mean that rape shouldn’t or can’t be discussed by males.

  2. Andrew McMillen

    Great read Courteney, thanks.

  3. Liz45

    As a feminist and a woman who was sexually abused twice before I was 17, I’m often accused of not having a sense of humour because I refuse to laugh at racist, sexist, dumb blonde jokes etc let alone any involving this serious criminal offence. Those who jeer and criticise and not show compassion and respect are the reason/s why we’re about to have a Royal Commission into child r**e – because those are the crimes we’re talking about, not dressing it down with almost ‘sanitized’ titles!

    As we approach White Ribbon Day,(25 November) we need people, particularly men to ‘man up’ and call those bastards what they are – promoters of criminals! That they are part of the destructive problem, not the solution.

    As a mother of sons in their 40’s, I’d be horrified and ashamed of them if they engaged in this sort of stuff! I’d walk out after I’d given them the rebuke they deserved!

    Someone should ask how they’d feel if the women concerned were their wives, mothers, daughters, sisters etc!
    Today there were four news items involving the sexual assault of people from 9 years to a woman in her 80’s, suffering dementia and affects of a stroke where she could neither speak,let alone defend herself! The other two were young teenage women of 14 who were both sexually assaulted. The little boy was held captive for over a day and assaulted. There is nothing funny at all here! Nothing at all! Sometimes human beings disgust me!

  4. Monash.edu

    Such is the new orthodoxy — don’t like something? Get it banned! — and it’s one that receives a worryingly small amount of criticism from the left. We may well be tired of hearing about freedom of speech from shock jocks and conservative columnists, but we must never forget that the principle that they (often disingenuously) cite is still very much a crucial cornerstone of a progressive society. That doesn’t mean we need to take a fundamentalist view — everyone agrees that some mitigation is necessary — but it does mean that we ought to treat any attempt to curb it with caution.

    This ‘rape joke’ thing is one such example. What happened at this event was unfortunate to say the least, but it would be a dreadful overreach to conclude that jokes about rape should not be permitted. On what grounds can we even begin to argue this? Clearly, a substantial proportion of topics in comedy relate to unpleasant phenomena — not just “shark attacks, Michael Jackson and Adelaide murderers”, but ALL murder, ALL warfare, ALL physical assault, injury and death. Rape is not worse or necessarily more traumatising than these, and the potential that an audience member might be upset by references to such topics is no less trivial. Clearly, when framed in this way, we see how problematic this argument is.

    There’s much to be said for the critical approach. We are rational, intelligent creatures; we are able to come to our own conclusions about the communication we digest. Tasteless, vulgar and stupid humour will always exist; we can’t legislate it out of existence, and neither should we. We should use our critical faculties and the feedback avenues available to us and express our disapproval.

    The critical approach may not instantly solve all of the world’s ills, but it’s certainly preferable to the alternative. The censor’s pen rarely, if ever, makes society a better place; more often than not it’s used to enforce taboo, which is essentially what’s happening here. That’s not progressive, it’s puritanism.

    David Heslin

  5. Nick the Hippy

    In my comment I stated that I only know the view points of 2 of the participants. One was raped. One had a partner who was raped. The author and Liz make the assumption that the participants were going to make fun of the victims. How do they know. They don’t. Neither of them have bothered to ask what was going to be said. They have assumed that the humor was going to be directed at the victims. Why do they assume this?
    There are no taboos in comedy. What there is are people who are not skilled enough to do the material they are trying to deliver. As the author found out the audience will not laugh at such comedians. But if she finds a way of doing a joke that ridicules the rapist she will find a different reaction.

  6. Myriam Robin

    Maybe the problem lies in that it the original event was framed as a ‘comedy debate’. The discussion on this piece shows you can have a decent debate about whether or not rape jokes are funny. But not if the winner of such a debate is judged by how many laughs they got.

    From Nick the Hippy’s comment, it seems to me like one side of this debate had intentions to speak from their heart about why such jokes aren’t ok. I hate to think what would have happened if the other side had just treated this as a chance for laughs, and then turned around and gone ‘we won because the audience finds us funny’.

    The all-male lineup is also concerning. Not saying men have nothing to say on the topic. Just that having no women seems, as the author of this piece pointed out, arrogant and hurtful.

  7. Moloch

    I’m with Nick the Hippy.

    What a shame that a bunch of sexist w*nkers decided that since the lineup was all male they couldn’t have any experience of rape.

    The bigots who tried to ban this debate are as wrong as the bigots who heckled the rape survivor.

    And since when does a deeply dodgy statistic (only 9% of men are raped) make to justify the assumption that any given man cannot have any experience of rape?

    If Ms Hocking had the slightest idea of how rape survivors behave she’d know that plenty of survivors internalise the blame and never report the crime. Now if she for a moment removed her blinkers she might begin to have an inkling that in a homophobic world any straight guy who gets raped is not going to be MORE likely than a woman to report it.

    And any gay man who gets raped – like I did – isn’t going to go to a homophobic organisation like the police for exactly the same reason that many women don’t report rape. Fear of belittlement, I was ‘asking for it’ because I met the guy at a club etc etc. So there’s one rape that never got reported for you…

    Women at least get to talk to a female officer – are blokes, straight or gay, going to get a sympathetic hearing from the taser-obsessed homophobes that pass as police in Qld or NSW?

    Expect that 9% to go up a bit if people like the author can drop the unconscious bigotry and help men come forward in the same way we started to help women come forward a decade ago.

    I will continue to joke about the time I was raped, and the time I was abused as a 7 year old – because it helps me to cope with this kind of ill-informed nonsense from both the bigoted blokes AND the bigoted wimmin.

  8. Nick the Hippy

    Miriam, why do assume the 2 people I have mentioned wanted to speak against making jokes about rape. Laughter is a coping method, until we laugh at something we haven’t coped with it.
    Everyone has just made assumptions in this whole matter. The end result is that an event was cancelled, a venue and its staff threatened and two victims of rape left feeling devastated because people thought they knew what was going to be said.
    The event may have been poorly thought out, badly promoted and had a lack of gender balance. But to stop it because someone may have been offended sets a dangerous precedent.
    Anyway, I can’t hang around here all day, I’m off to Bunnings to buy a pitchfork and a burning torch so I am prepared for the next internet outrage.

  9. Monash.edu

    Very well said, Moloch. Perhaps that’s the real story here; after all, the ‘forum’ that Butler hastily put together wouldn’t even have happened if it hadn’t been for this censorship-by-mob in the first place. The problem here is NOT that comedians wanted to do a show about the (highly topical) issue of censorship in comedy, the problem is that the clumsy event that replaced it resulted in the humiliation of a participant. It’s deeply ironic that this will probably only add further ammunition to the neo-puritanist/dinosaur-feminist campaign on this issue.

  10. emma jones

    If you actually read the article, Nick the Hippy, Moloch & Monash.edu, you’d see that it’s not actually saying that all rape jokes should be banned at all. But that doesn’t fit with the “wimmin are oppressing men” narrative, so I suppose it’s better to stick to the script just in case.

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