First let me say that this isn’t particularly a response to what Daniel Tosh did. He said a brutal thing and he’s getting done in for it and I don’t feel I need to throw more feathers on him because at this point you probably can’t even see tar, and up until that story broke I thought his first name was David, and when commercials initially told me to watch a show where a smug standup comments on YouTube links I more or less said No Thank You, and I didn’t even really have that much else to do that I couldn’t spare the time. It’s not even particularly about the If and How of rape jokes being “okay” because this this this and frankly even this have the ground covered by now and say it in better ways than I probably can.
It’s about something I saw reiterated often in defense of Tosh, and something I see a lot as a person in comedy whenever something like this goes on, which I consider to be the most common instance of blatant half-stepping among comedians: The credo of “They’re just jokes, and there’s free speech, which means you aren’t allowed to be mad at me.” The waving of the flag of Free Speech while you’re speaking, and the immediate dropping it on the floor and kicking it away when somebody doesn’t like what you say. The idea that comedians all get smooched by a magic angel who says “and never shall ye be judged” and then flies away while the comedian grows a foot taller and gets a +3 boner and shouts “WEEEE!” The idea that no words should be off-limits except for “Boo.”
As somebody who was been doing comedy for a very long time (CAVEAT!: I am first and foremost a sketch comedian, with all of the premeditation and non-on-the-fly-ness that that implies, so I might not GET IT because I’m not in the TRENCHES DUDE), I have usually found that the most aggressive champions of Free Speech in comedy are willing to defend it to their very last as it applies to them as comedians, but lack much understanding of it as it applies to their audience’s right to be offended, to disagree. Which is a drag because the math of it really couldn’t be any easier: Take all of your dearly held ideals and replace “ME” with “YOU.”
If you’re a comic who wants to stake their claim by being “edgy” and “offensive” then your most likely patron saint is George Carlin; it may also be Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce depending on how much reading you’ve skimmed. And this is in no way to undercut the importance of those comedians, who are broadly remembered for saying what they believed ought to be said. But there’s a thing: Carlin was an incredibly astute critic of the condition of the modern human, and the lowered standards we live by. Hicks didn’t just fire poison arrows wildly in the air, he aimed for hearts: the government, the marketing machine. Bruce spoke on the “tragedy plus time” formula in a “don’t let anybody tell you when it’s too soon” sort of way, and that’s perhaps one of the easiest footholds to plant yourself on when it comes to purposefully “offensive” comedy. He did also say that a comedian’s job was to make people laugh once every fifteen seconds. If you believe that your job is to make an old opera lady’s monocle fall into her glass because you said rape is super, then at the very least, hey dudes guys at the bare minimum, don’t be all “first they came for the comics” when it doesn’t work out for you. You strode purposefully into the territory of controversy looking an awful lot like you were ready to handle its effects.
So you’re a comic and you get up on stage. You tell that joke you’ve been preciously honing about Retarded Mexican Dead Baby AIDS Rape. No, not the one with the empathy for the targets of it and the disdain for the perpetrators, that dud is safely crossed out in your notebook. The one that’s like “Don’t you love committing Retarded Mexican Dead Baby AIDS Rape.” Some people, god help them, don’t even laugh, and some people even take issue with you. Maybe they tell you you suck after the show, maybe even right in the middle of your set. You feel slighted, persecuted even! You’re a comedian! They’re breaching your sacred circle! Guys, but CARLIN, though!
Well I dunno, are you where Carlin was at about the murder of abortion doctors and systemic negligence of children, when it comes to Retarded Mexican Dead Baby AIDS Rape? Did you feel like Hicks writing his “you get elected and they walk you down the hall and show you a film of JFK’s assassination from an angle you’ve never seen before” bit, were you sitting at your notebook like “finally people are going to know how I feel about Retarded Mexican Dead Baby AIDS Rape”? Did you maybe just decide to talk about it to shock and offend people? And if you did, and people got shocked and offended, AY BUDS: That’s a game you started, and that’s just a great thing to keep in mind as you’re taking your ball and going home.
(“Mexicans,” by the way, is for my money one of the most weaksauce pages in the Edgy Comedy Playbook, particularly in Canada where you’re a bit less likely to be menaced by the numerous supposed catastrophes associated with being located next to Mexico (like knowing a Mexican). I once heard it described as a target for young white comedians who want to do “funny-racism” but want to stick to somehow-less-racist Mexican jokes, as making fun of black people might be perceived as “racist-racism.”)
There is, of course, “the point.” A lot of things are defended as being in service of “the point I was making.” Personally my feeling is if you have to explain the point you were making after the fact, which is when “the point” is almost always explained, yer doin’ it wrong (especially when you’re calling that explanation an apology). But hey, if there actually is a larger point in what you’re doing and you’re really trying to crack something open about the nature of controversy or the empowerment or disempowerment of words or what have you, my devil’s advocate wishes you success in accomplishing that. And if your point is a blearily mumbled “there’s still these words, these words…” because you’re Michael Richards and the red mist is fading and you just realized you’ve been shrieking N-Bombs at an audience member and you want to act like you did it for any reason other than you suck, I hope you have a much better-than-you Seinfeld to go out there and back you up.
THE TL, DR VERSION: If for whatever reason you think it’s a good idea, yes you’re allowed to tell your joke. And people you tell it to are allowed to hate it, and by gum if you get paid money to tell them jokes they’re even allowed to say you shouldn’t, if you can believe it. And you’re allowed to whine about how they didn’t lift you up on their shoulders and declare you the second coming of Carlin and I’m allowed to not stay up late writing protest songs for you.