When I was in college, I drew a daily comic strip in the school paper. This was a dangerous activity. The developing political worldviews of the campus community, and the realization that you can be offended by things — and even gather similarly-offended people to shut those things down! — mixes poorly with the blunt, tactless jokes of the unpracticed comedian and makes a volatile mixture. It was inevitable that something I drew was going to offend people. Eventually something did.
The target of the offending comic was a campus campaign encouraging people not to commit rape. The method that the student council had come up with for preventing said rape was to print up T-shirts, at the cost of thousands of dollars, with the phrase “consensual sex is hot” written on the front (ironically, right across the chest).
As a libertarian (read: college student) and the spawn of a right-wing Catholic education (read: hung up and generally embarrassed on sexual issues), I thought this was a terrible waste of money and drew a sarcastic cartoon where two men pitched alternate things the T-shirts could say - clever things like “don’t plug her until you hug her” and “don’t whip it out if she starts to shout”. A T-shirt-promoting girl stood in the background of the comic, looking ashamed of her foolishness, to really drive home the important point I was making.
To my surprise, some of the defenders of the T-shirt (and of general rape awareness) did not consider my comic to be the powerful closing argument in the nationwide debate about sexual assault that I thought it was, and I spent a week or two fending off hate mail from those who were offended (and, perhaps worse, fan mail from a few guys who were almost certainly rapists). I got off easy - a few years earlier another cartoonist had been forced to host a candlelight vigil after drawing a comic where an Asian man told someone he had a small penis.
A few people took the opportunity to go beyond simple anger-venting and tried to engage me in a debate over the place that the cartoon may or may not have in the current campus dialogue. And this is where I whipped out the ace in the hole of my argument. The unassailable point that, once made, proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was in the right on this. It may be an argument that is familiar to you. The comic was, you see, a JOKE. I was doing it to be FUNNY. I had to find the HUMOR in things because I was a COMEDIAN and that was my JOB.
Which is, of course, bullshit. Which brings us to today.
A surprisingly unrelenting stream of news stories have come up over the last couple weeks and have led to friends, celebrities, and anonymous Internet trolls trotting out the old tried-and-true “it was a JOKE” line of reasoning. This all was pretty well-worked-over by other people during the Dan Tosh Rape Joke Incident Of Early July 2012, but when it all started coming up again during the Dark Knight Massacre Twitter Joke Incident Of Late July 2012 I figured I’d put this out there.
Let’s take as a given that no comedy topic is actually off-limits forever. Rape can be funny, even to women. 9/11 can be funny, even to New Yorkers (and patriots!). The Holocaust can be funny, even to Jews. Honestly I think this should be self-evident. People laugh at funerals. Soldiers crack jokes as they bleed out on battlefields. It’s a thing people do.
But every joke has a teller, and every joke-teller has an angle. And that angle is very important. It provides the spark of life that makes the words, otherwise pointless dry symbols, funny. The angle is the context of the joke, the thing the teller wants the audience to focus on. It’s an implicit line of thinking that goes something like “I feel that this true thing in the world is strange, so I composed the following thought. It is my hope that you feel the same and can take some comfort in this”.
This is pretty easy to spot in comedians with well-developed personas - be it stoner cynic, embittered woman, self-hating dad, whatever. But any joke is going to have an angle. Even something dumb like “take my wife, please” really means “I am a comedian and you are expecting me to set up a funny anecdote to make you laugh. But really I have a lot of personal problems, just like you.” An angle.
If your angle, then, is to make fun of the victims of a tragedy, or to belittle someone who is suffering, or to generally kick around people who are in a situation significantly shittier than your own, then fuck you. Seriously, what you are doing is a very mean-spirited and dangerous kind of comedy. It’s bullying at best, and rabble-rousing at worst. And it might go over well! It might get the crowd worked up into a positive tizzy. But crowds have been known to get themselves into tizzies during the speeches of evil dictators, anarchist thugs, asshole politicians, and insane cult leaders. The ability to excite a crowd is not the same as being funny.
Oh ho, you say! But what if your angle is just that you are a COMEDY MACHINE? You just crank out the jokes, day in and day out. You can’t stop yourself from making jokes! Your twisted mind just works that way! Blame your parents, I guess!
If that’s the only reason you are writing comedy, then my guess is that you aren’t writing very good comedy. Writing shitty, grade-school-level jokes is easy. Writing dick jokes and racist jokes and generally “offensive” rants is easy to do, and everyone can do it, which is precisely the reason why so many people do it. The hallways of any given junior high school are filled with this tripe. It’s just that most people grow up and cut it out, and those who don’t have fooled themselves (and their fans) into thinking that what they are doing is some form of latent comic genius.
Here are some shitty jokes about the guy who shot people at the Dark Knight Rises that I wrote in about ten seconds. They are shitty. They are easy, thoughtless, and their only angle is “I have challenged myself to write an offensive joke about the guy who shot people at The Dark Knight Rises”.
“Did you see the new Batman movie? The first fifteen minutes are killer.”
“The Dark Knight Rises is gonna be number one with a bullet this weekend!”
“One thing I’ll say about the theaters in Aurora - if you text during the movie there will be serious consequences!”
The fact that I can write these jokes says nothing about me as a comedy writer - because I really didn’t do anything. Back when I was in college, one of the angry critics of my comic asked how my mind could even CONCEIVE of evil rhymes like “don’t plug her until you hug her”. The answer is, “very easily, with the TV on in the background, not really paying attention to what I was doing, and possibly a bit drunk”.
Unfortunately, this is the age of Twitter. And there is a very real temptation to post shitty jokes just like these, because the Internet is a hungry monster, and it demands constant, consistent content. Besides, I do comedy, damn it! FREEDOM OF SPEECH. And so, jokes like these have been all over the Internet today. Thousands of people just crackin’ wise and having a blast about twelve dead people in Colorado, eager to show how edgy they can be. And all they are really proving is that they don’t understand a simple fact about comedy - EVERYBODY CAN BE EDGY.
This is not a tirade against offensive jokes and dark comedy. Dark comedy has a place in the world. I think it’s the most important kind of comedy, and the one that is far and away closest to my own black heart. And it’s exactly BECAUSE I find dark comedy so important that I get so frustrated by the lazy excuses of bullies who would rather say something mean about retarded people than actually try to address the underlying horror of existence and make it palatable to an audience.
Because this is a pretty fucked up world, guys. We work jobs we don’t want that don’t even pay enough to buy the things we don’t need. We hang out with friends we don’t like, follow leaders we don’t trust, and worship gods we don’t understand. We treat animals like people to stave off loneliness and treat people like animals to make ourselves feel important. We eat food that’s killing us and take drugs that are killing us faster. We are all blatant hypocrites and liars and none of us are really happy. We put ourselves in terrible relationships and then do everything in our power to make them even worse. We pretend to be dignified but know that every one of us shits and masturbates, and sometimes we do those things only minutes apart. We look forward to becoming old and decrepit and alone, unless we die violently or succumb to a tragic disease. And at the end of it all, we either just cease to exist or we probably go to Hell.
And if you can look at all that as a comedian, and all you can think to do is mock a victim, then you aren’t thinking very hard, and you are an asshole.
As for the T-shirt comic… I still don’t think “Consensual Sex Is Hot” is a very good slogan. I just wish I hadn’t been such a dick about it.
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