Razer: how the 'offence debate' misses the point of comedy

The nation’s foremost Comedy Festival is begun and with it nights of sanguine dreams, days of awful hangovers and status updates full of indignation. Sure as April in Melbourne brings us an overture to ‘flu season, it will give us cause for complaint about “offensive” comedy and the virus of outrage claims our citizens who, it seems, are losing their immunity to the healthy challenge and creation of the joke.

And, no. This would not be a reproach solely to those who take offence. It is a warning to those who so clumsily provoke it. All of you. You are all idiots and you are all killing comedy. Why must you ruin my festival?

In recent years, it was US comedian Tracy Morgan whose standup show incited, as the Herald Sun had it, “debate” after an interlude of sexism. This year, it is the work of a more obscure comedian shot to dubious celebrity with a joke with rape as its subject.

Last week, Ray Badran was just another comic of modest talent and repute. This week, he finds himself, and probably not without pleasure or intent, at the centre of what some journalists identify as “debate” but could be more accurately characterised as “a fucking painful bore”. A brawl that has to one side a crude defence of freedom of expression and to another a naïve urge to protect vulnerable citizens from the memory of trauma is not new and it is not interesting and, even if it new and interesting to some, will never be productive. It’s just a stoush whose participants, whatever their view, miss the point of comedy.

At a low-cost showcase night that occurred, as some do, within the timeframe of the comedy festival but without its endorsement, Badran told an unremarkable and, by many accounts, not particularly extreme (or funny) joke about rape. Audience member, Cecelia Devlin, having heard other routines which referenced domestic violence that night, had a gutful and decided to slide to the floor in what she called a “silent protest” but what would, more conventionally, be known as a heckle. Badran responded with the implication that Devlin was likely a previous victim of rape and conveying the hope that she “die”. No, it’s not nice. But nor is it, in my view as a frequent patron of comedy and an occasional heckler of sexist unfunny dicks, worthy of report.

Comedians often tell jokes that fall flat and audience members sometimes give them what-for. I have myself offered “You can’t rape with a Tic Tac, mate” and the more traditional “Get off” in a variety of venues. I was no more proud of my gaucherie than Badran should be of his but such interactions, for all their crassness, between comic and audience is part of the deal in the dark.

To illuminate this exchange and to take to news media with an account is not to meaningfully fight sexism but to shine a profoundly artificial light on it. What happened here is what, I hope, will happen dozens of times a night at Festival: a comedian told a bad joke, a patron responded negatively. This is not to say, of course, that comedy is an art form that magically exists beyond the parameters of the sexist real. It is to say, however, that art cannot unfold in the “safe space” increasingly expected by some of its newer patrons.

One can, of course, organise or attend a “safe” comedic event in which certain topics or phrases have their absence guaranteed. I would not, personally, expect to laugh within such parameters any more than I would at one of the “clean comedy” bills that have in recent years arisen. I hope, like most comedy fans do, to laugh by taking a risk and locking myself in a small dark room with a stranger for an hour. I cannot expect to be “supported” or “safe” in this environment any more than the performer can expect my uncritical applause.

But, this “debate” seems, in both its brutally simple iterations, to demand such a deadening contract. Comedians, in the case of the Badran conversation, expect no challenge from orthodox feminism and orthodox feminism expects no challenge from comedians. They both want “safe spaces” and to wipe the challenge of comedy out. Effectively, both parties object to a critical or performance culture where contest from either side is possible. In the Badran case, many feminists are not content with their right to heckle and many comedians are not content to be heckled. One wonders why such people are attending or creating comedy.

Just as some young and naïve women demand that sexist comics be protested as agents of “hate speech”, some young and naïve men demand that these critics be “called out” as advocates for censorship. In 2012, a “comedy” “debate” was planned in a Melbourne pub where all-male teams would argue the proposition “There’s Nothing Funny About Rape”. This response to an online complaint by an audience member at a show by the notoriously average Daniel Tosh set the tone for local conversation. Shitty little white male brats of limited skill and Facebook followers said the feminists should shut up. The feminists said that they should shut up. If both had been victorious, frankly, this would have been a better comedy festival.

Objections, as they now routinely unfold, to a sexist man of limited talent do not “spark debate” so much as they douse it in the stench of century-old cold sick. One on hand, we have the urges of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union to clean up a culture of violence. On the other, we have bawdy Vaudevillians who see the production of filth as essential. While both groups have noble ambitions and both groups are quite right in the fight against particular damaging orthodoxies — patriarchy and censorship — they both fail to get the purpose of a joke. Which is, whatever its subject, to go beyond everyday conventions of discourse — even the good ones like the desire to smash the patriarchy — and make us laugh at our illogic.

To state the evident, rape jokes can be funny. Even when told by men. Doug Stanhope tells a monumentally offensive cracker here; it comes with bonus reference to homosexuality, race and cancer. Despite Sarah Silverman’s (pictured above) marvellous, and feminist-endorsed, routine on the faux-edginess of rape jokes, she has made a few rippers herself. In her special Jesus is Magic, she delivered the mighty line, “I was raped by a doctor … which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” In The Aristocrats she is foul, and funny, on the topic of sexual abuse almost beyond belief.

Such material, which is among the best western comedy can provide, does not emerge in a “safe space” and it is this implausible site beyond offence and reproach that both sides on this debate are imagining. Such material cannot be encouraged by an audience that confuses its active right to heckle with the “right” not to be offended. Likewise, it is effectively opposed by those deluded champions of “anti-censorship” who confuse a heckle for state-endorsed sanctions.

The comedian and the audience must allow themselves freedom from the orthodoxies of the everyday. If we are to have Stanhopes or Silvermans and the thrilling laughter such people provide, we must all be prepared to take a risk. This goes for the tedious Badrans as much as it does tedious young feminists. If we all insist on sticking within the limits of real life, we can never inhabit the limitless possibilities of art.

45 responses to “Razer: how the 'offence debate' misses the point of comedy

  1. While this is an interesting article and I do agree with some of the points raised… I still cannot see any kind of utility for rape jokes in any kind of entertainment realm. Jokes made about raping, torturing or violence towards animals, indigenous australians, asylum seekers, disabled people, other marginalised and vulnerable groups, are not considered appropriate and receive (rightfully so) massive backlash in countries like Australia and yet somehow people still think that there can be something gained from taking the piss out of men who beat and destroy women and take their livelihoods away. Unfortunately a lack of debate, controversy and public outcry to disgusting comments made about women “in the name of comedy” only reinforces that this behaviour is still acceptable. With one woman in Australia dying every week at the hands of domestic violence, it is very difficult for me to see how comedians making jokes about that very statistic is in any way productive, in fact I argue that it is counter productive and contributes to the subtle patriarchy that underlies society when men still think it’s ok to control and subjugate women. The only way to stop comedians condoning this patriarchy is to scrutinise the shit out of them.

  2. How is it O.k to joke about Rape?? We have a huge problem in Australia at the moment with domestic violence and rape and your saying that it’s okay to stand on a stage as a public figure and joke about this issue. There’s probably rapists and wife abusers in the crowd who will walk out of that show and think, hey my actions aren’t that bad because people were laughing in there.
    Your views on this subject and responses to comments made no sense. Can not believed Crikey published this!!

    1. If you genuinely believe that acts of violence, which precede television and stand up comedy and the printing press, are prompted by moments in the culture and not centuries of organisation, then you have a very neat way of understanding social control.
      I can assure you that my article made great sense and was produced after much thought, discussion and reading on the matter of objection to cultural offence over many years. What you are saying, perhaps, is that you didn’t agree with it.
      Perhaps it is up to you to examine your idea that bad things happen as the direct result of bad comedians. Perhaps you need to think a little more rigorously about the idea that culture reflects a society and does not form it. Perhaps you need to think about my repeated statement that I rarely find jokes about abuse funny or artistically justifiable.
      Frankly, you have applied almost no thought in either forming your ideas nor in understanding mine.
      Think. Please.

  3. Helen’s pieces normally really resonate with me. Not this one, I find it patronizing and I think she misses the point. I am sick of rape jokes. I am not one of these “newer patrons” who “miss the point of comedy” and doesn’t understand the special “deal in the dark”. Helen you deliberately polarize the debate and characterize any woman who objects and speak up at a show as a radical feminist who wants safe comedy – comparing them to the temperance union. This is bullshit, I am none of these things but I am fucking sick of lame, ugly, misogynist rape jokes. If you want to play it this way, then this puts you in the camp, with people like Jim Jeffries, who say that women who object to misogyny are just uptight. I don’t know the whole story of the woman at Ray Badram’s show, but as you say “having heard other routines which referenced domestic violence that night” she had had enough – And this is the point. I am sorry to break comedy rules but if I hear one more time I will be making a scene too.

    1. If having objections from both sides of the ‘debate’ is success, then I have really made it. Your comments are almost the opposite of what has been said previously about my ‘unfair’ and overtly feminist treatment of the silly little twits who tell bad jokes about rape and then come across like wounded soldiers.
      The fact is, there are idiot feminists. Lots of them. And I think to agree to a press interview to talk about Your Traumatic Experience at a comedy gig was if not the act of a silly person, then just a very silly act.
      I can totally understand having an objection to such jokes and I totally understand feeling the need to heckle. I have, both in the room and as a reviewer.
      I would also say, and as someone who sees much much more comedy than the average punter, that rape jokes are not that common. I understand that you personally may be sick of them and find them offensive. I appreciate the expression of your disdain. I could wish rape jokes, for the most part, further and if they have increased in recent years, it is precisely because little dick comedians know that their crap show isn’t going to generate good pr for its quality so it might as well shoot for bad pr for its obvious offence. In some cases.
      Not all.
      The thing is, I am talking specifically about an idiotic and very searchable debate. And I am not saying that all women who object to rape jokes are radical feminists (not that I take issue with all of radical feminism) any more than I am saying that all men who tell rape jokes are unfunny.
      I am asking, I guess: what do you want? On both sides. The young band of angry little dudes want a “safe space” and so do the feminists, feminist allies and women who have engaged most prominently in this debate.
      What I am saying is: comedy is not for either of you.
      You can find these things offensive, sure. I said that many many many times in the piece. I also said that I find them offensive. But, what of it? What am I going to do with my offence? Demand that certain jokes be controlled and rated? This is as effing stupid as legislation that would stop hecklers.
      Again. I am not defending jokes and I am not saying that all women who object to rape jokes are themselves objectionable. I am just asking: what do you want? Have you thought that through?

  4. Hope poor old Ray Badran sees this article and checks out Doug Stanhope. Then he can tell a modified one about netball?

  5. I agree HR. As a former comedy writer I get sick to death of all the politically correct BS that goes on everywhere, including comedy.

    Good comedy is on the edge. It probes around the periphery that is dark and charged. Comedy is dangerous! For both the comedian and the audience.

    I don’t like gratuitousness in comedy. Blue is not particularly funny for it’s own sake though idiots find it uproariously funny for some inexplicable reason. But watch Carlin working blue and Carlin NOT working blue and I know which I’ll take every day of the week. That doesn’t mean that the well-vented expletive ridden tirade doesn’t go down a treat when it MEANS something.

    If you want to see safe go see safe. It’s not like you don’t have a choice. If you don’t like the act, walk!

    Comedians tell jokes because they’re FUNNY. Are they funny to everyone? No. Do they have to be? No. So, please, stop imposing your own imaginary standards on the rest of the audience. The comedian isn’t!

  6. If it’s OK for a man to make rape jokes in a room with women in it must be OK for a white person to make racist jokes about black people in a room with black people in it.
    Think about it.

    If a joke is going to hurt people why would you say it unless you intend to hurt and shame those people.

    1. I don’t think the expression of racist or sexist views or anything that poops on the socially powerless is funny, personally. But to say these are “not OK”, as you have, is quite different from saying they’re lazy and appeal not, as I believe good comedy does, to our sense of the absurd but to our need to have our most everyday views ratified.
      I very clearly identified myself as an active heckler of rape jokes. I have written about comedy for more than a decade and have produced hundreds of published reviews and many of these chide sexist and racist comedians in particular. I very clearly have a discomfort with such jokes. So why are you asking me why I think they’re “OK”?
      I think they’re bad. But I also think quashing the expression of any disagreeable speech is a mistake on several counts. I don’t want to live in a world where people think these things, of course. But you don’t stop people from thinking these things by preventing them from saying them. And having read my article and still asking me why I think it’s “OK”, I can only suppose that you share the view of many who would actively seek to have these jokes stopped by some mechanism; legal or otherwise.
      Please understand one can disapprove of something without seeking to end it.

      1. You don’t stop people from thinking a thing by preventing them from saying a thing. This is the point precisely. How exactly people who want some kind of mechanism to stop “all the bad things” from being said expect to have their freedom and their safety at the same time is a mystery to me. There is indeed no right to not be offended.
        People should be at liberty to say any damn thing they like, it us up to those who disagree to heckle and point out the unreasonableness of their position. I would like the tellers of “offensive” jokes with no redeeming discussion value to find themselves unable to profit from their misogyny / racism / etc- not because they are being gagged, but because no-one is listening.

          1. Yes I did. What did I miss? Sorry I probably should have said “I really like the way you put it: ‘You don’t stop people from thinking…’ etc.”

          2. Sorry, David. I thought you were responding directly to me by pointing out, as others have here, that “censorship is bad”. As though I didn’t know it.
            Apologies.

  7. The joke is misrepresented, media like to do this to incite either sides of an ideology, like calling a refugee an ‘illegal immigrant’. Ray did a joke about a stereotype, that was framed as a ‘rape joke’ combined with his reaction makes him an evil person instead of a human in the press. What are his options now? If a prospective employer googled his name how would that look? If he wants to succeed in comedy who is his audience now? People who like rape jokes? A guy who has been defended by reputable ppl who made a mistake, instead of having a joke about stereotypes that says the word ‘rape’, will he have to actually become a ‘rape comedian’ to survive? because you know those guys are actually quite successful. The Twitter storm aimed to stop someone who was actually misrepresented. What if he feels he needs to turn into something he doesn’t want to be because no one else will go to his show. What if he feels unemployable now and will have to go with the tide that was imposed upon him. He probably doesn’t want to but he has to eat and pay rent. Jim Jeffries is across town making millions for doing wilful misogynistic material. Might look attractive to a good guy who now has a persona imposed upon him. That’s why this ideology driven storm didn’t work, because it has created a villain whether he wants to be or not. If he said sorry for his reaction would the tweets disappear? Would The Age article disappear? No. An apology just confirms him as a villain. The narrative should be he is a good guy who made a mistake but that will be in the small print. They wanted the culture to stop but they just created another hero for irrational men to hold up. I also hope Cecelia (girl under the table) isn’t seen as a media attention seeker by Law firms who think if she is confronted with real evil in the courtroom after she graduates she may just get under the desk. Good luck to both of them in the future, they are just people that opportunistic media has taken for a ride.

    1. Are you railing at the wrong post, perhaps? Maybe take this to Facebook. You seem to be cross with things that didn’t actually happen in this article.

      1. Were you not inspired to write this by the Ray incident? Are you not taking the opportunity that has been created by the misrepresentation of the joke to start talking about the general concept of rape jokes. Have you unfairly added to the media framing of Ray as a rape comic? Not only that you’ve back handed him by saying he is not funny, your subjective view is obviously the one that counts since you used your platform to take swings without ever seeing the performer. Just like every myopic writer you started with your point of view and applied it to the embellished narrative. I am yet to see anyone with a media profile actually write anything that maybe the whole situation has been taken out of proportion. But no one cares about the people at the centre of it, just their ideology. Ideology is SO important.

  8. Ms Razer.
    Agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion. For every comedian that finds a new edge to jokes about rape, child abuse, or any other topic of discomfort there will be [insert hypebolic ratio to taste here] number of comedians that try to piggy back on the shock value as opposed to innovating themselves and fall flat on their arses. Unfortunately audiences must run the gauntlet of cliche riddled acts in order to find the next Silverman, C.K. or Jefferies. (I read the comments and disagree with your opinion on his act) As for heckling, Jimmy Carr point blank invites it at times.

    Caveat emptor should play a role in this. If the “People who bought tickets to this show also bought…” cross sell banner has Hillsong or Teaghan and Sarah concert tickets, chances are that comedian is not going to be to my tastes. Likewise, any comic I was opting to see probably wouldn’t be suitable to MC a church function or the Brunswick Free-Bleeding Collective AGM.

    I like offensive material. It can push boundaries, it can challenge and invite discussion. Unfortunately, it can also drag out unoriginal copy cats and the fun police. :-(

  9. For what it’s worth, I’ve tried sitting on the fence looking at both sides of this argument but increasingly find it harder to err on the side of comedy. Anyone can call themselves a comedian – Trevor Noah for example – and spread about such old and naff two liners about Jewish boys and girls that surely must command sniggers from generations of Gentiles that have not heard them told before. But does the telling deserve to be called either joke-telling or comedy? And exactly who, or what, deserves the mantle of ‘comedian?’ Would you allow yourself to be locked up in a small room with a stranger who delights in telling you jokes about the Holocaust, or the lynchings of the southern states of the US, and all in the name of ‘comedy?’

    1. Not sure that an urging for a free critical exchange is the same as saying one “delights ” in all comedy material. But thanks for adding to the collection of logical fallacy on this page. And, some Godwin.

    2. And Noah is a great comedian. Sure, he may have made a few missteps on Twitter. But that does not mitigate his skill.

  10. I have watched thousands of live comedy performances over the years, including some of the best in the world. (Bill Burr, Sarah Silverman, Reggie Watts, Doug Stanhope, Hannibal Buress, Felicity Ward, Trevor Noah). They are all creating comedy but I am yet to see a performer who has been ‘content’ to be heckled . Perhaps they should all stop creating?

    1. Not the point and not what I said. The fact that audience members are at liberty to heckle is not to say that performers necessarily/are obliged to enjoy it.
      Although, some really do.

  11. Isn’t the issue less about the audience member’s objection at said rape “joke” and more at his reaction – that he told her to die?

  12. An exemplary rape apologist piece presented stealthily, as always, under the guise of balance. This is what the patriarchal socialisation of self-loathing, Stockholm Syndrome, and the pathological need to please looks like, kids.

    1. Thanks for detecting my true motivation. And it’s not at all sexist to see a woman writer’s work less as the result of rational thought and more a by-product of her terrified denialisn. Well done.

    2. Who are you talking to? Are your kids reading this article right now? You know, you can just speak to them in person

    3. A) No-one cares
      B) The phrase ‘rape apologist’ is so overused by juvenile minds to signify ‘someone I disagree with’ that it is starting to lose its original and slightly useful meaning.

    4. OOh yes parent – the inference being that you’re imparting knowledge to the ignorant? Funny that the ability to weigh up an argument and present a rational and personal perspective should be treated with such casual disregard. Assumptions made about HR’s inherent conditioning (and inability to make intelligent, informed decisions) are much more offensive than a badly told joke referencing rape culture. As is taking the name ART. Read Lord of the Flies – and get off the island!

  13. Ugh, the “offence industry.” Rodney Rude was performing at my local pub last year. So wandered down out of curiosity. His material was so dated… it seemed fresh again.

  14. Excellently written and argued. Cool and dispassionate, a pleasure to read. But..yes there is a but…why dont you write like this more often? Your pieces in Crikey, for instance, too often tremble on the brink of chaos and even fall in on occasion.

    1. I write exactly like this nearly always and find that there is *always* a comment in every Crikey piece, including the ones that you loathe that says exactly what yours has.
      I think you’re just agreeing with me and mistaking this for a new lucid style.

  15. I was seated between two females at Jim Jefferies’ Melbourne show the other night. They looked to be having a great night, “havin’ a laff and all.”

    Considering he started his set in defence of rape jokes that naturally segued into Bill Cosby drug rape material, it wasn’t such a bad night.

    He still managed to go down hill from there; as if trying to exhume the ghosts of Rodney Rude, Kevin Wilson & Col Elliott with his closing material at sets end. A shocker.

    But still enough laughs & decent material throughout – i.e. IVF, vaccination & slavery. Jim likes to cover some varied topics.

        1. What I mean is that a story that begins with “I was seated between two females” does not necessarily end with a legitimate conclusion. That two women were laughing (perhaps out of sheer terror?) is no universal defence. The argument has a bad premise.
          I could be cheeky and say that no story that has bought a ticket to the sub-par Jefferies should be considered valid. But, not the point.

          1. perhaps out of sheer terror??? oh wow…i went to a JJ show last year..7 people..4 women 3 men..all knew what he was about, all loved it…Not all women are liberalisists who cant have a laugh at the old stereotypes of yesteryear… goodness me your life must be fun ;)

          2. furthermore..lol…to call a joke not funny…hmm well thats a personal view..JJ seems to be making more people laugh..and certainly making more people pay attention then your blogs…maybe you should take a step back and realise your in the extreme minority….oh, and my wife, a school teacher, very intelligent, great social and family network…does work for charity each and every week..she actually loves JJ…..so sometimes its ok to laugh, but still be a strong empowering women.

          3. Matt. Yes. I am very clearly a No Fun Nanna who just wants everyone to be nice. This is what the article says over and again.
            Saying that some people might find rape jokes terrifying (and I stated this in the comments as a possibility, not as a fact) is not the same thing as saying that they should not be told.
            As a reviewer and a fan of comedy, I find JJ weak. That is my opinion. This is not one premised on his use of rape jokes.
            Reading comprehension is a wonderful skill to have and you might find it has other applications even beyond making useful comments on the internet. Try it.

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