How Do New Yorkers Respond To Rape Jokes?

Photo: Sara Brown/Courtesy of Adrienne Truscott.
On Monday nights at the People’s Improv Theater on East 24th Street, John Fields hosts an 11 p.m. open-mic session for comedians called The Power Exchange. For three dollars, comics get five minutes to try their material on stage in front of a small crowd. Fields’ rules are few. Come prepared. Wrap it up when he gives you the light. And, no rape jokes.

At Joe’s Public on Lafayette Street, however, Adrienne Truscott has the opposite setup. Her hour-long show, “Asking For It,” is dedicated entirely to rape humor. And, she performs it naked from the waist down.

New York has become a confusing place for comedians. It’s always been a hub for them, and for artists in general. It’s also home to some of the most progressive legislation for women in the country. So, in a city that embraces women’s rights and serves the artist community, how do rape jokes fit in? The answer varies not only from venue to venue, but from person to person.

The conversation around the ethics of rape jokes really hit its stride in 2013 with Daniel Tosh, whom you’ve probably seen on Comedy Central’s Tosh.0. When a woman heckled him during a performance, he responded: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?” That, Truscott says, was the “tipping point” in the conversation.

Over coffee in a downtown café, Truscott discusses how she went about reclaiming rape jokes as an acceptable form of comedy. When creating her show, she wondered if there was a responsible way to joke about it. “I found so much of the culture around it satirically rich. There’s so many what-the-fuck moments in the world when people talk about women’s bodies and assault and rape.”

Just a few blocks away from Joe’s at the famed Comedy Cellar on Macdougal Street — the club that Louis C.K. calls home — comedian Sam Morril has told the same rape joke both times I’ve seen him perform over the past 12 months. (Paraphrased: He’s having sex with a woman, but she won’t stop saying the “n” word: “No.”) He continued to use the joke in his set, even after journalist Sady Doyle openly criticized him for it, sparking a small media headache for him. In a lengthy defense, Morril wrote on Facebook that it was just a joke and he didn’t condone rape in any way. “We don’t disagree about rape...We disagree about comedy,” he wrote. Refinery29 reached out to Morril for further comment, but he declined. We also reached out to the Comedy Cellar, but received no response.

Even Truscott said she’s offended some people in the three years she’s been performing her routine. “I’ve taken a great deal of time and effort and responsibility to deal with this material in a way that I think is progressive and challenging, but ultimately quite responsible, and even I can still upset someone for the exact same reasons Tosh did if they misunderstand it or they don’t see one of the layers of irony,” she said.

Billy Procida, an NYC comedian who runs the sex-positive Manwhore Podcast, notes that it’s important to distinguish what qualifies as a rape joke in the first place. “Just because a bit has the word ‘rape’ in it does not make rape the subject of the joke any more than a knock-knock joke is a joke about doors,” he says. At its heart, he explains, a rape joke serves a larger purpose.

“They can serve as commentary on misogyny and the way our society still views women [or] a coping and processing mechanism for a victim of sexual assault,” he says. But, no matter the comic’s intention, there are always bits that simply don’t work — lackluster attempts that are “uncreative [...] propped up by slutshaming.” Tosh’s joke, then, felt more like an attack on a heckler than a way to constructively talk about rape through comedy. Compare that to Procida’s bit that just scratches the surface. “At most, I explain that, ‘I could never be a frat guy. I have this really weird fetish where I'm into consent.’”
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez.
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For Fields, his no-rape-jokes rule comes from his late-night time slot that “tends to attract newer comics and a couple of crazies,” he says. But, it also comes from a particularly upsetting experience. “When I first started, I had one comic get up there and tell a story where he pretty explicitly raped a girl, so at the beginning of my shows I try to address that sort of thing to let them know that this won't be their type of mic. I do it mostly to establish the tone of the room.” Though, sometimes, people don’t like being told what to do, and Fields finds that censoring their material can make some comics "stubborn and combative.” When that happens, he’s got a fairly solid game plan. “I either get on the God mic and ask them personal questions to make them feel uncomfortable, or just cut their time without telling them.”

At The Comic Strip on the Upper East Side, bookers Thomas Latsch and Jeannie Nardi have never seen one of their comics make a rape joke. The venue disapproves of them, and comics simply aren’t taking that risk in auditions. “Generally, [a rape joke] wouldn’t be funny, so they would never make it onto our stage in the first place,” Nardi says. Ironically, The Comic Strip is where Law & Order: SVU taped the episode “Comic Perversion,” in which a comedian’s rape joke becomes the center of the investigation into an attempted sex crime.

Chris Mazzilli, owner of Gotham Comedy Club on West 23rd Street, says it’s a case-by-case basis with this type of humor. “There’s nothing really funny about rape,” he says. But, he names comedian Ted Alexandro as an example of a comic who’s broached this subject successfully, since he talks about men as rape victims in prison. He names another comic, Lynne, who jokes about letting a rapist come over to her house because she’s given up on the dating world. “A woman’s gonna get more slack doing that,” he says when asked if it’s different if a man tells a rape joke versus a woman.

When Mazzilli’s booking comics, he’s more interested in a fresh face, a different voice, and someone who stands out amongst the others. In general, though, he doesn’t believe in censoring his acts. “If you make a blanket statement [like ‘no rape jokes’] and censor people, how do you know what they were going to say?” Mazzilli says the Internet has created a culture in which everyone is too easily offended. “We’ve become too sensitive,” says. In his opinion, jokes of any nature are about personal taste and preference. “It’s like a restaurant. Some people like one dish that others find disgusting.”

It’s that same Internet mob mentality that tends to villainize comedians. “Most people think they're Wonder Woman or Superman and want to lambast someone on the Internet, thinking they saved the day because they need to feel important,” Procida says. “It gets to the point that people get in trouble for just saying ‘retarded’ or ‘rape’ — just saying a word now becomes a crime in the court of public opinion, a word without context or intent or inflection. It's gross.”

Comedian Phoebe Robinson, who’s a consultant on Broad City, used to include in her set an observation about how rapists in movies are often attractive, which she argued is Hollywood’s way of preventing audiences from hating that character completely. She has since removed it. “There was no particular reason I stopped telling it, other than I get tired of jokes and so I’ll move on to new bits,” she says.

Still, Robinson does wonder about the intentions of comics when they toss out a rape joke. “Some comics are just awful and want to shock and be vile. But, most comics are coming from a good place and really are just trying to talk about difficult subjects,” she says. It can take time and lots of editing to get a joke about any subject matter to work. “People sit in the audience and blog about the jokes immediately, so you don’t have time to develop in private,” she notes. As a result, “people will get unfairly reamed because they’re trying to figure out a joke.”

Perhaps the biggest irony is that this controversy has been brewing at the same time as the feminist wave that’s sweeping comedy right now. It’s almost impossible to imagine a one-woman show like Truscott’s playing at Joe’s Pub a decade ago, let alone in a prime, Saturday-night spot.

“For years, so many women backed off of that type of material, because when there’s one woman in a lineup every night, you wanna hedge your bets. You don’t wanna not be invited back,” Truscott says.

Female comics are now being bolder in their discussions about the dark moments that come with being a woman. “It’s like a gold mine of interesting material that has not been really deeply touched upon until recently,” Truscott says. And, that may very well mean seeing even more rape jokes from the female perspective — and on predominantly male turf that the comedy industry has become.

Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and Wanda Sykes have all told rape jokes, signaling a shift of the material away from seedy basement venues with hack comics and into the more mainstream light. Procida is happy to see what he calls “the outpouring call for diversity” in comedy, “because we are hearing new points of view from people normally kept off-screen or stereotyped.” He lists Hannibal Buress, Amy Schumer, Rebel Wilson, and Tig Notaro as prime examples.

In Truscott’s opinion, rape jokes can work, but they aren’t for the lazy comedian. “I love comedy. It should be edgy,” Truscott said, “but fucking up your game.”


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