Are any Topics Off Limits in Comedy?

Powers and Carr look at what is, and is not OK to joke about. 

Powers and Carr by Powers and Carr

As you may have guessed this article is prompted by the recent “scandal” involving Daniel Tosh and things he said on stage regarding rape. Let us first make it clear that barring video evidence we will probably never really know what went on that night in the Hollywood Laugh Factory comedy club. There are a lot of stories from that night, from Tosh, the woman in question, and our pal, Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada. We (and you)  shouldn't have to sit through a retelling of the famous samurai tale Rashomonto explain that even the most honest people often have different stories from the same event. Beyond that, our experience with angry patrons and defensive comedians has always been that things get blurry before they get clear.

For the purpose of discussion  let's imagine the that the stories from the first account of what happened have some grasp of the truth of these events. Daniel Tosh told a joke about (or at least alluded to)  rape, and when confronted by a woman from the audience who felt the joke wasn’t appropriate for this or any stage he suggested, as the story goes, that it would be funny of the concerned woman was raped right there by a few of the men in the audience. When the audience laughed at this, the woman become scared for her safety and left. As we have said, account vary, but let’s just assume this happened.

Sidestepping the larger question of taste for a second, we would definitely say that Tosh handled this situation poorly. Comedians get heckled all the time, and “That joke isn't funny” is not an uncommon theme of that heckling (even for us), but it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together that a woman who has issue with a rape joke may be inordinately sensitive to the suggestion she be raped for having that particular issue. We’ll take down a burly drunk guy who wants to steal the show by “helping” with a barrage of insults and suggestions of where and how he can stick it any day, but if someone clearly seems sensitive to an issue, using some tact may be the better play. We don’t think making poor choices in the heat of the moment from stage is any reason to string anyone up, but we don’t want to suggest what he did was ever the right move. Certainly he had as much right to say it, as the woman did to take offense at it, but it takes a special level of callousness to respond in that particular activity with that kind of attack. The line between comedy and advocacy is a very broad one, but comedians must take care to avoid being seen to cross it.Our opinion is this was a bad play for Tosh. Perhaps he can give himself a “web redemption.“


For the big question of IF any jokes should be off limits… click on the break: 

On to the larger issue of if any subject is untouchable for comedians. To put it simply: we think the answer is “no.” Comedy is not something that should be censored or limited, nor should any art form, or form of speech. This does not justify the blowback from comedians who suggest that if anyone takes offense from their words, they are being “oppressed.” Just because you have a right to say anything, doesn’t mean anybody has to like it. We’ve both met a few comedians who favor being edgy to being funny, and then rail against the world for not “finding them funny.” If you want people to find you funny, please be funny, the content is up to you, but make a joke out of it. Your right to free speech is not a guarantee of an audience. We can’t all be George Carlin.

Speaking of Carlin, his 1990 bit “Rape Can Be Funny” proves our point.  Carlin suggests that the unthinkable subject of rape can be funny in context.  The concept of sexual assault is not funny.  Porky Pig doing a “Deliverance” on  Elmer Fudd is hilarious.  Why?  Context. (Click on the "further reading/watching" button on the end of this page to see this clip. 

In a similar vein, we find racism to be a horrible social injustice.  But we find the film “Blazing Saddles” hilarious. Really hilarious. Have you SEEN this movie? Holy hell its good! 

Early in Tim’s career in comedy, people would ask him “Are you one of those 'dirrrrrrrty' comedians?”  This question was based on the ignorant supposition that a comedian would come to the stage, thank the audience for coming to the club and then proceed to list sexual and excretory organs and functions with the expectation that the audience would laugh simply because they heard synonyms for “weiner.” We assure you that no comedian who lasted more than 10 minutes on stage ever did that.  Please stop asking.  It is the CONTEXT and construction of a joke that makes it funny.  That is why you hear people say “I can’t tell a joke.”  They say that because they truly can’t.

Comedians are no different than poets or painters in their ability to blend art and a healthy dose of philosophy along with their entertainment. Comedians have a special ability to blend comedy club and pulpit because of their solo status on the stage. Mel Brooks jokingly called his character in “A brief history of the world, Part 1” a “Stand Up Philosopher” and this is not far from reality for the best comedians. Many of the best comedians of our time were clearly pushing forward a well needed social agenda (Carlin with language, Pryor with race relations, Steve Martin with the establishment), and many of them suffered imprisonment (Carlin & Bruce among others) and censorship (Pryor, Bill Hicks, South Park) for it. Even the most modern of our greats like Louis CK have a strong message behind their jokes, and while they might not claim the title (although Louis CK and the brilliant Jim Norton do)  they too are philosophers. Censorship, yes ANY censorship is a dangerous precedent that inhibits not only the nature of comedy, but also the desired effect.  We, as comedians, not only want you to laugh, but we want you to feel challenged.

Author Alan Dale wrote an amazing book on Vaudeville-Era and Silent Film-Era slapstick (arguably the basis for all American Comedy) called “Comedy is A Man in Trouble.”  And he’s right.  In order to truly be funny, a comedian has to take a lower status than his or her audience.  Even the preposterous arrogance of Steve Martin or John Cleese is played for laughs and that character is always a buffoon.  What do you laugh at more?  The State of the Union Address or two guys moving a piano up a fight of stairs?  (While some may argue that the POTUS’ address is hilarious, the piano concept won an Oscar  for Best Comedy Short of 1933 and remains a classic of American Comedy.)

Tim was working in a comedy club in St. Louis one night when a member of the audience objected to another comedian’s toss-off joke that “New Mexico is way better than Old Mexico.”  Nevermind that the comedian telling the joke was, himself, Mexican, but the fella in the audience who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to become morally indignant that someone would besmirch the good name of our Southern Neighbor that, when confronting the comedian and a female friend after the show, the offendee told the female to “Shut up, you white trash whore.”  

Sometimes people are just a-holes.

And sometimes they have a legitimate beef with a particular joke’s topic.  Rape is horrific.  We both know people who has survived that terrible crime and would never belittle their experience. The rape culture is even worse.   But we would not limit a comedian’s ponderings on the subject.   We would just HOPE that he or she could build something funny out of it.

Rowan Atkinson said, “Every joke has a victim.”  Its true. The comedian has the right to paint someone that victem, and if you’re offended, it’s you.  Wait for the next joke because you will probably laugh at it, and the victim will be someone else. It doesn't make the touchy subjects any less touchy, but for comedy to be funny for anyone is must target everyone. You can't make a comedian choose his targets any more then he can stop you from walking out the door. Speaking of leaving… 

We leave you with the words of one of our heroes, Thomas Jefferson, from the inauguration speech of his first administration in 1801, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.“

Tosh, apologize to the woman for being a jerk (or worse).  But don’t apologize for being a comedian or for exercising your First Amendment Rights.


Interested in more on the issue, we have some videos and articles refrensed after the break: 

Here is a wonderful article by comedian Joe Starr: 

The least important comedian ever and some thoughts about rape jokes!

A great article by the Huffington Post regarding the issue and Patton Oswalds thoughts: 


Patton Oswalt: Daniel Tosh Criticism Can Be 'Dangerous'


Here is the Carlin video we made refrences too: 



Here is an award winning video about two guys and a piano: 



Perhaps some of the best words on the subject from none other then Louis CK: