I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit:
Wouldn’t it be funny if Daniel Tosh got castrated? If, like, five or six women jumped on him and just ripped his balls off right there on the stage? Wouldn’t that be funny?
Or how about this one:
Wouldn’t it be funny if some homeless man out in front of the theater where Daniel Tosh was performing got set on fire? Like, if five or six gang members just doused him with lighter fluid and set him on fire? Wouldn’t that be funny?
Or this one:
Wouldn’t it be funny if some random African-American guy in Daniel Tosh’s audience got lynched? Like, if five or six white dudes just jumped on him and started lynching him right there in the theater? Wouldn’t that be funny?
I wouldn’t normally ask questions like these. Are they jokes? Rhetorical questions? Social commentary? I have no idea; I’m working in someone else’s genre here. I assume the honest answer to such questions (from non-sociopaths) would be, “No, it wouldn’t be funny for those things to happen, and it wouldn’t be funny to watch them happen.”
I’m guessing the response Daniel Tosh was looking for, when he extolled the comedic potential of gang rape, wasn’t, “Yes! I would laugh myself sick if a woman got raped in front of me,” but rather something like, “OMG, Daniel Tosh is saying OUT LOUD that the woman sitting right there should get raped! Wow, she looks so shocked and uncomfortable! She doesn’t know how to react, because who would ever say something so inappropriate to a woman? But Daniel Tosh did! He is brilliant! Daniel Tosh is a CRAZY MAN. Daniel Tosh is HILARIOUS!”
And then, I don’t know, an army of thousands of enraptured Daniel Tosh fans would hoist him onto their shoulders and carry him down the street? And people would throw ticker tape? And we’d make him president and a billionaire and everyone would love him forever?
I’ve long believed that comedians are, as a profession, some of the most violently inclined people in the world. This is why I like them. They have no qualms about fighting dirty and they are always up for a couple of rounds of conflict. If there aren’t any worthy targets around for their derision, they’ll shred an innocent bystander just to keep their skills up. That’s artistic dedication, and I appreciate it.
But comedians also have a perverse need to be loved and admired. So it’s kind of interesting to consider that part of Daniel Tosh’s motivation, when he insisted that rape is funny, was that he was seeking approval. He wanted to make people laugh.
Tosh made a joke about the rape of one female audience member because he wanted everyone else in the audience to like him. He wanted them to be on his side. I wasn’t at the show, so I can’t say how well it worked. But given the public outcry, I’d say that the joke was, at best, heavily context-dependent. I’ve never found Tosh funny (my teenage son watches him sometimes), so hearing his comments about rape didn’t change my opinion of him. But I do kind of understand, in a weird way, what he was trying to do.
Let’s go back to that question about castration. It’s an uncomfortable topic for some people, castration. Mostly for men. I know this is true because one of my hobbies is teaching people how to separate a man’s testicles from the rest of his body with their bare hands. Which, yes, is sick, but it’s part of the curriculum in a lot of martial arts systems, and in self-defense instruction.
I’ve noticed that I can go into a lot more detail on this topic in a class where all the students are women than I can in front of a co-ed group. Men tend to turn green pretty quickly when you bring up castration. Which, maybe if I were a comedian wouldn’t bother me, but I’m supposed to be a teacher, and it turns out that people have a hard time retaining information in their long-term memory when they feel like they’re going to pass out.
Still, even in front of an all-female audience, discussions about how to rip off a guy’s balls can get awkward, so I’ve come up with a little joke I sometimes tell in order to loosen people up. When someone asks (they almost always do), “How much force does it take to actually… you know… detach things?” I say reassuringly, “Not that much. The only hard part is that you have to keep pulling after they start screaming.”
I’ve gotta tell you, that joke always gets a laugh. Always.
Is it funny? No. It trivializes genital mutilation, which isn’t funny under any circumstances. But it does make people laugh. Why? For one thing, because we’re talking about genital mutilation, which is a pretty heavy topic, and we’re talking about it in the context of rape, which is also rather fraught subject matter for women (as we have hopefully all learned by now). This trauma-charged atmosphere leaves people primed for some kind of catharsis. The castration joke breaks the tension, and makes an important point about being willing to commit violence in self defense. And, let’s face it, the joke also dehumanizes the hypothetical man we’re separating from his balls.
Since we’re hypothetically de-testicle-izing him because he’s hypothetically trying to rape or murder us, I don’t feel too badly about this. We’re not doing any of this for fun; we’re there to learn how to defend our bodies against assault. We’re reduced to this barbarous activity, my students and I, because there are men in our society who, for some crazy reason, think it’s OK to rape women.
I can’t imagine how that kind of behavior gets normalized, can you? It’s a mystery.
I’m not especially proud of the ball-removal joke. It’s more brutal than funny, and it works mainly through shock value. But I still use it, because when you’re in front of an audience and everyone is miming the gripping, crushing, twisting, and yanking of human testicles, well, you have to say something. So I sort of understand the pressure Daniel Tosh was under when he blurted out something dumb about rape.
But I don’t make a habit of telling the ball-ripping joke in front of men. Because, apart from the hypothetical and real rapists out there, I like to think that men are on my side. And I don’t see the point of brutalizing—in real life or in the land of make believe—one person or group of people just to get a laugh from others. Who needs a laugh that badly?
Daniel Tosh, I guess.
Here’s another joke:
Wouldn’t it be funny if Daniel Tosh got censored? Like, if five or six Comedy Central executives suspended him from his show and then fired him? Wouldn’t that be funny?
Actually, maybe it would. I laughed my ass off when Craig Kilborn got suspended from The Daily Show for insulting Lizz Winstead, the woman who hired him and made him famous. In the current controversy, a lot of people have raised the red herring of Daniel Tosh’s legal right to make rape jokes. This is disingenuous, since 1) No one called the cops to arrest Tosh, and 2) No one but the Department of Homeland Security disputes Americans’ right to say stupid and offensive things. As long as he’s not directly inciting his audience to commit actual rape, Tosh is free to say whatever he wants on the subject.
His employers are likewise free to fire him for doing so, if they wish. In fact, if Daniel Tosh had almost any other kind of job, his employers could probably be sued for permitting sexual harassment and fostering a hostile work environment. But Tosh is a comedian, and offending people is part of his job description. He seems to be really good at it. I’ll bet he gets glowing performance evaluations.
So I’m not sure why people feel a need to leap to his defense, and yet I’ve read many impassioned, heartfelt arguments about how outrageous it is to censor a comedian—or even criticize him in an organized fashion on the Internet. Judging from the comments threads I’ve been subjecting myself to, a lot of people consider criticism of Tosh’s act a betrayal of our nation’s most deeply held values. Because, you know, censoring Daniel Tosh would violate his rights. And there’s nothing worse than violating someone’s rights. Provided we’re talking about a man’s right to open his mouth, say something deliberately hurtful and violent, and suffer no consequences whatever from any sector of society. That would be so unfair.
Look, comedians know better than anyone that the world isn’t fair. That’s why they become comedians. At its best, comedy is a process of shifting the fulcrum beneath the mass of power, seeking the minute change in perspective that can topple vast monoliths like reputation, wealth, and ignorance. It’s a dangerous calling. Comedians work among tectonic forces, searching for the tiniest opening, the least little instability they can exploit to knock the status quo off balance. They’re at risk of being crushed every single moment of their professional lives, and they either enjoy the risk, or they get out of the business.
Tosh went rooting around at the base of our nation’s mountainous gender biases and dislodged a boulder that landed squarely on his own head. You can argue that the boulder should or shouldn’t have been there—that women should or shouldn’t be offended; that audience members should or shouldn’t speak up in response to outrageous jokes. You can argue about whether comedians ought to go poking around beneath that particular mountain. The fact remains that Tosh misjudged the social forces he was trying to manipulate, and he wasn’t nimble enough to get out from under the resulting avalanche. He’s got no one to blame but himself.
Comedy and martial arts are alike in that they require equal parts cooperation and antagonism. I’m not going to waste my time lecturing Daniel Tosh on the responsible use of power. I’ll just point out that when you abuse your power, when you flaunt it, and when you turn all your destructive capacity loose without thinking it through, you’d better be damn sure of your target. Otherwise, you’ll become just another monolith ripe for toppling.
And once you’re down, you’d better hope they don’t go for your balls.