Can I Talk My Shit Again? In Defense of Shock Humor

Can I Talk My Shit Again?

In Defense of Shock Humor

“for in laughter all evil is present, but sanctified and absolved through its own happiness”

-Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

For the past week or so, the internet has been abuzz about Tosh’s epically awful rape joke. For those of you not in the know, a quick summary: Tosh told a rape joke, a female audience member heckled him for it, and he responded by saying how funny it would be if a bunch of guys raped her. That’s a crude exposition, but if you want something more in depth, I would recommend this link right here.

From here, the debate has been polarized between two absolutes: rape jokes are never funny under any circumstance v.s. shock humor is a part of comedy, so get over it. While there is something to be said for both of these positions, I think the more worthwhile interpretations are writers who’ve managed to avoid throwing themselves on either horn, and have found a way through it. The best two articles I’ve read in reaction to the Tosh fall-out have been Lindy West and Meghan O’Keefe.

What I appreciate with both these articles is that they take Comedy seriously as a medium. Moreover, they elucidate how shock can work in Comedy. For this blog, I want to continue down this path and further explore what makes Comedy an artistic medium and how taboo subjects can be explored artfully. More specifically, why are rape jokes funny sometimes but not in other cases.

(stick to stealing jokes from the internet, douchebag)

First, let’s discuss art and what makes things artful.

In his essay “Art as Technique”, Viktor Shklovsky defines are art as “defamiliarization”. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Shklovsky’s point is that we are creatures of habit. Accordingly, as we go about our day, we begin to take things for granted. For example, in the West/North America, we live in the most technologically advanced society the world has ever seen. However, things like iPods, televisions, airplanes, etc. all become mundane. Sure, when something like the iPad comes out, we lose our shit, but eventually it takes its place among the ho hum flotsam and jetsam of life. Shklovsky calls this “algebrization”. And, when you think about it, to get through our day, it’s actually necessary. We can’t go walking around having panic attacks every time we see some advanced piece of technology.

But that’s just a dramatic example. Everything becomes sublimated and subsumed through habit and algebrization. Aspects of society that should otherwise be considered abhorrent we simply ignore and pass by: the state of the homeless, that all our expensive stuff is the product of sweatshop labour, or the way we used to treat racial minorities (or arguably still do).

The role of art, Shkvlosky argues, is to interrupt this process of habit, and force the audience (reader, listener, whatever way you’re experiencing a medium) to reconsider the subject. Pablo Picasso and the cubists are a great example of this. Picasso rearranged a subject on a two-dimensional plane to create an aesthetic effect that forced the audience to reconsider the way in which we process experience (yes, this is a very quick and dirty exposition on cubism, but I think you get my point).

(The most famous example of Picasso’s technique is probably “The Weeping Woman”)

By virtue of its defamiliarization, art is an excellent avenue to explore taboo and controversial subjects. Think of all the great works of art that dealt with complex ethical issues: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath explored what poverty and social inequality can do to families and individuals; Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest examined the deplorable treatment of the mentally ill; Goya’s depictions of war speak for themselves. Many works tackle subjects that society had hitherto tolerated and ignored, shoved them in the audience’s face, and forced everyone to think things over.

Comedy is an interesting medium because it can make us laugh at subjects we would’ve never considered funny. Brilliant comedians can isolate a mundane process of our everyday life and expose its absurdity. Jerry Seinfeld is perhaps best known for this type of observational humor. Look up his classic “I’m Telling you for the Last Time” on Youtube. One example that comes to mind is his bit on examining fruit and vegetables in the grocery store.

Of course, Comedy isn’t limited to observational humor; there are many types of comedians. What I want to consider now is shock humor. If I were to attempt a definition, I would say shock humor takes something that is taboo and frames it in a way that is humorous. George Carlin and Andrew Dice Clay are famous examples, but I think the great pioneers of shock humor are black comedians like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Dave Chappelle. They take their experiences of being black in America, which ought to be considered deplorable or tragic, and rephrase it all in humorous ways, joking about poverty, drugs, violence, and stigmatization.

(A great example of Chappelle making the disadvantages of the black community – lack of quality food – humorous)

Which takes us to our issue du jour: Tosh’s rape joke. As I mentioned earlier, the two horns of the debate can classified as 1) jokes about rape are never acceptable and 2) comedians are allowed to joke about whatever they want. My argument would be this: Rape jokes work when they are dealt artfully, which is to say, when the concept of rape is being defamiliarized for the audience. Now, before I argue why Tosh was out of line, I first want to explore two examples of where rape jokes work.

Meaghan O’Keefe provides a few examples of where rape jokes, in her opinion, work. The best example I think she gives is Sarah Silverman. Silverman jokes, “I was raped by a doctor…which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” Why is this ok? It is defamiliarizing because she has taken an awful experience and reduced it to the mundane. Doing so, she puts into play Jewish culture and its obsession with patriarchal figures, vis a vis, a doctor. What Silverman is doing here is showing the way Jewish culture prioritizes male authority over women’s self-worth. As a Jewish woman she ought to be seeking out the approval and validation of the patriarchy, and when a doctor rapes her it has become a grotesque image of what her discursive milieu has indoctrinated her into accepting.

Lindy West gives the example of Sash Baron Cohen’s persona, Borat. In a clip from his show, Cohen says, “In Kazakhstan the favorite hobbies are disco dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis.” Like Silverman, Cohen is being ironic. The audience realizes Borat is a grotesque depiction of an Eastern, post-Soviet male. Also, Borat is also exposing the West’s cultural relativism and tolerance for bigotry and misogyny. Cohen puts into play not only the ways in which rape is so matter of factly present in certain societies but also the ways in which the West enables this sort of behavior.

So why doesn’t Tosh’s rape joke work? Because he’s not putting any concepts into play. He’s not defamiliarizing the audience. He’s not being artful. Here we see a difference between Comedy and comedy. Comedy is artful, whereas comedy is pleasing. In the case of the former, it works the brain; the latter is just about cheap laughs. That being said, it’s ok for comedy not to be artful. I realize Jim Carrey isn’t being artistic with his low brow physical humor, but I still laugh at it. Not everything has to be cerebral. A cheap belly-laugh has its value.

However, shock humor must be high brow. In order for shock humor to work, you have to be artful, otherwise you’re just being insensitive and thus perpetuating the concepts you’re supposedly satirizing. It’s ok to make jokes about rape in the ways Silverman and Cohen do it because that’s what art does: it explores difficult subjects in ways other means of discourse cannot. This is why I disagree with those who argue rape jokes are never funny; they are misunderstanding Comedy as a medium. But to reduce rape to fart jokes and slapstick is cruel and unacceptable. This is why I disagree with those who say comedians should be able to joke about whatever they want; they’re also misunderstanding Comedy as a medium.

*      *      *

The obvious follow-up question to this blog post is, “What makes Comedy funny? Why do we laugh at Silverman and Cohen?” I think I answered how Comedy can be artful, but I didn’t address how art can be funny. Honestly, I haven’t really thought enough about what humor is precisely. Henri Bergson developed a theory of laughter, which is fairly decent, though I’m not entirely sure about it as I’ve only read the paper in passing and know very little about Bergson.

Basically, Bergson’s point is that Comedy makes apparent various mechanistic behaviours and their absurdity. This could dovetail nicely into my discussion of Shklovsky, defamiliarization, and comedians like Seinfeld. However, because I haven’t read Bergson’s piece closely enough I didn’t feel confident working it into this post. Also, I didn’t want it to get too long. Perhaps this is something I will explore in the future.




~ by braddunne on July 18, 2012.

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