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Kelly Nakashima: Analysis of Daniel Tosh’s ‘Rape’ Joke No Laughing Matter

NYT's Jason Zinoman misses the point with overgeneralizations of the controversy

In reading Jason Zinoman’s analysis of the Daniel Tosh controversy titled “Toe-to-Toe at the Edge of the Comedy Club Stage” in The New York Times, I couldn’t help feeling surprised and disappointed at the amount of assumptive and overgeneralizing arguments it contained.

From the start, Zinoman implies that the woman who rebuked Tosh was a heckler, as in someone who interrupts a standup comic with derisive, aggressive or abusive comments. 

First, let us review the alleged heckler’s statement: “Rape is never funny.”

On the one hand, you could say that this statement was meant to embarrass Tosh and degrade his routine. On the other hand, it could simply convey the belief that rape is, in fact, never funny and should not be made light of — even for comedic purposes.

Heckling implies a personal attack. With the second connotation of her response in mind, we can assume that this woman probably would have made a similar statement had another comedian said what Tosh did: “Rape is always funny.” As a result, her response was not a personal attack, but an objection to the subject matter for his standup routine. It is Tosh’s job to defend that comically, not redirect it into something that is hateful, violent and potentially dangerous.

Now let us examine Zinoman’s comparison of the Tosh incident to another recent debacle — one of physical violence, no less — in which standup comedienne http://www.pescatelli.com/” title=“Tammy Pescatelli”>Tammy Pescatelli sustained a scratched cornea as the result of a wine glass being thrown at her. 

While this incident was obviously unacceptable, there is little reason to compare it to the Tosh situation. Expressing objection — especially on moral grounds — is fully warranted at a comedy club, as it is in real life, provided that it is not hate speech and that it doesn’t endanger its target. Tosh is guilty of this, not his alleged heckler.

On the other hand, physical objection with the intention to harm, i.e. the wine glass incident, is unacceptable pretty much everywhere. You can’t play by different rules just because you’re in a comedy club.

In a joke, there’s a difference between poor delivery and a poor subject matter. Delivery is what impacts the joke — i.e. it may not be funny, but how do you make it funny? In this instance, Tosh had a highly sensitive subject matter coupled with very poor delivery. Basically, a recipe for disaster.

And how exactly do standup comics think the “lines of decency” shift for them in a performance setting? Are they not human beings addressing other human beings? People have feelings, experiences and points of view. Every comic must reconcile with that unchangeable fact. You can’t walk into any room saying, “I think rape is funny” and expect that no one will react — positively or negatively. Isn’t a reaction the purpose of these types of shock jokes? Isn’t it Tosh’s natural responsibility, as a shock comic, to expect and handle reactions? If that is the case, he did so irresponsibly. 

Zinoman then refers to the words of stand-up comedienne Elayne Boosler: “The rule about heckling is this: You fire at a cop, get ready to die.”

Whether or not you agree that the woman’s statement qualifies as heckling, the woman fired at the crime scene, not at the cop. The crime scene is that rape is a subject matter that can be hurtful and needs to be handled sensitively. Plenty of standup comics do just that. After all, wouldn’t more incidents such as this have occurred before now if such jokes couldn’t be well-executed? 

Although I am averse to Tosh’s style of comedy, I understand his right to make those kinds of jokes, but he handled the subject matter crudely and insensitively, with no comedic nuance. In other words, he was being lazy.

Case in point: “Rape is always funny.” Please. I think we can all agree that a 37-year-old man — no less an experienced comedian — needs to handle the subject of rape with more nuance and maturity than a seventh-grader joking about it with his friends (which, if you’ve ever walked the halls of a middle school, happens quite commonly).  

But that Tosh made a poorly executed rape joke is only part of the problem. The problem is his response to an audience member’s objection to his joke. The problem is that Tosh did not merely provide an offensive, off-the-cuff rebuttal to a “heckler.” He directed a humiliating, psychologically violent remark that caused pain to an individual. That is far from merely offending someone.

Finally, in Zinoman’s discussion of response in the comedy world, he mentions only the first part of Louis C.K.‘s statement on The Daily Show, which, from all sides, makes him look like a pretty “neutral” guy. In truth, the second half of his statement that “men should listen” was that women should “shut the f*** up.”

Sure, C.K.‘s routines too often resemble a rant by Rush Limbaugh (they both love calling women the “c” word, for starters), so this remark seems comparatively mild. But calling C.K. neutral? Give me a break. The man is a walking controversy. If you don’t believe me, check out his tweets about Sarah Palin, aka possibly the worst clash of misogynistic cruelty with conservative politics.

Look, if Tosh has the right to free speech, so does the audience member, especially if her statement reflected her personal beliefs and morals, not an empty hate for Tosh. Nobody deserves abusive speech or a threat to their personal safety — especially for that.

Noozhawk intern Kelly Nakashima can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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