Toshgate: On comedy and rape culture

Eric Best

This past week the internet has witnessed the fiasco of comedian Daniel Tosh's rape joke at the expense of a female heckler during a performance at a comedy club. Though the club owner has called in to question the details reported, according to the heckler's report via a Tumblr post posted by a friend after the show, the woman had never heard of Tosh before, and the comedian was telling jokes involving rape, akin to Tosh's off-color comedic style.

The woman yelled "Actually, rape jokes are never funny!" during Tosh's performance, which the comedian returned with "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?"

In just days, numerous media outlets, especially popular internet-news sites, were ablaze, with a vast majority citing Tosh's reaction as highly inappropriate, enough to start a petition calling for the comedian's termination, addressed to the CEO of Comedy Central, Tosh's network where his show, Tosh.0, airs. These sources certainly varied in their responses, but many inappropriately made claims about Tosh, rape culture, and censorship.

The most controversial side of the issue has been that Tosh is a male talking about a highly engendered topic.

Rape in the U.S., however, should not be exclusively a female issue. According to the U.S. Justice Department in a January report, in 2008 more males may have been raped than females, citing the prison system as a main contributing factor.

Though domestically women face a greater risk of being a victim of sexual violence and Tosh certainly does not represent the largely minority, low socio-economic class population in our prison system, no one should try to engender a crime which pushes victims, along with the crime itself, in to secrecy and shame.

The other major complaint activists and writers have had is that rape jokes spread a violent, victim-shaming rape culture.

Louis C.K., a Grammy award-winning comedian, said in an interview on the Daily Show about his remarks on the fiasco, "All dialogue is positive… I think you should listen. If someone has the opposite feeling from me, I want to listen so I can add to mine. I don't want to obliterate theirs with mine."

Though one should add C.K. incorrectly attributed the fiasco to the "fight between comedians and feminists, which are natural enemies." Clearly, the controversial nature of rape jokes is a deeper issue than common tropes of feminists and a one-dimensional view of comics; more so, it's a game of tug-of-war between those who push boundaries and those who galvanize them, and it seems that Tosh's team has finally eaten the mud this time.

Comedy is Tosh's job, which is also a performance art; his jokes are only going to make him money if there is demand for them; thus, the situation revealed that the demand for rape jokes exists, albeit in a mixed and dynamic form. This demand is much bigger than this fiasco; as progress is made on the front of rape culture jokes like this will begin to end.

As a performer, especially one who is famous for covering sensitive or uncomfortable topics, one can't assume that Tosh is guilty of condoning the actual rape of an audience member any more than Dark Knight Rises condones real vigilante justice or Romeo and Juliet perpetuates statutory rape or suicide.

Finally, to say that a rape joke is never funny, like many have, is simply untrue and irrelevant. A comedian's goal is to get people to laugh and entertain, which is far different than the kind of 'justifiable' humor media voices have cited. Often enough things that make us uncomfortable are what we laugh at the most, despite political incorrectness, which makes it easy to grasp why Tosh's schoolyard bully style humor has pushed Tosh.0 to the top of its timeslot.

This was an isolated, worst-case scenario with a poorly prepared audience member and a young, unseasoned comedian. Tosh was performing a comedy routine with pre-written material that he has most likely performed in front of numerous audiences or even on his show without as much controversy. Any performer interrupted while performing may experience a "deer in headlights" moment and react poorly.

The "victim"; in this case rudely took it upon herself to go beyond heckling to openly challenge a practiced routine from a comic she knew little to nothing about amongst a room full of people who paid for a show and probably had a better idea of Tosh's content.

Ultimately, Tosh is guilty of a poor joke, which he has apologized for, and purveying juvenile, extremely popular humor. Unlike great, equally controversial acts, such as Chris Rock's Niggas vs. Black People, Tosh isn't out to critique society; he's simply trying to make people laugh by pushing boundaries.

Despite the infraction, one positive thing the media onslaught has done is analyze the rhetoric surrounding rape and amplify dialogue between some of those who have a stage to perform and spread culture – comedians – and those who mainly live within it – the audience. Numerous comedians took to social media while few cogs in the media machine turned down the opportunity to dole out their take on "Toshgate."

This dialogue doesn't happen often enough; many comedians shrug off feedback from their audience, citing the first amendment rights for saying whatever they want, and several activists try to punish comedians for offensive content, citing political correctness; only in a few cases has there been this much two-way communication, or dialogue.

Tosh certainly shouldn't be fired for his actions, unless Comedy Central finds that his error negatively affected ratings, or take the credit for the conversation he helped spark. Despite errors on all sides of Toshgate we should value the dialogue we’ve had as both performers and creators of culture.

–Eric Best

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