Abortion was still illegal in 1970. At the time, as both an underground abortion referral service and a stand-up satirist, I faced an undefined paradox. Irreverence was my only sacred cow, yet I wouldn’t allow victims to become the target of my humor. There was one particular routine I did that called for a “rape-in” of legislators’ wives in order to impregnate them so that they would then convince their husbands to decriminalize abortion.
But my feminist friends objected. I resisted at first, because it was such a well-intentioned joke. And then I reconsidered. Even in a joke, why should women be assaulted because men made the laws? Legislators' wives were the victims in that joke, but the legislators themselves were the oppressors, and their hypocrisy was really my target. But for me to stop doing that bit of comedy wasn't self-censorship. Rather, it was, I rationalized, a matter of conscious evolution.
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Now, in July 2012, more than four decades later, rape-joking triggered a widespread controversy when a woman who prefers to remain anonymous went to a comedy club, expecting to be entertained. She chose the Laugh Factory in Hollywood because Dane Cook was on the bill, but he was followed by Daniel Tosh, and she had never heard of him.
In an email to her Tumblr blogger friend, she accused Tosh of saying that “rape jokes are always funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape jokes are hilarious.” She was so offended that she felt morally compelled to shout, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” Tosh paused and then seized the opportunity, responding, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like five guys? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?”
The audience laughed raucously. After all, isn’t anyone who yells at a comedian practically asking to become an immediate target? But this woman was stunned and humiliated, and she left. In the lobby, she demanded to see the manager, who apologized profusely and gave her free tickets for another night—admitting, however, that she understood if this woman never wanted to return.
In her email, she concluded that, “having to basically flee while Tosh was enthusing about how hilarious it would be if I was gang-raped in that small, claustrophobic room was pretty viscerally terrifying and threatening all the same, even if the actual scenario was unlikely to take place. The suggestion of it is violent enough and was meant to put me in my place.”
She added, “Please reblog and spread the word.” And indeed, it went viral.
Coincidentally, on the same night that Tosh, in his signature sarcastic approach to reality, provoked the woman, Sarah Silverman was performing at Foxwords Casino and she touched upon the same taboo subject:
“We need more rape jokes. We really do. Needless to say, rape, the most heinous crime imaginable, seems it’s a comic’s dream, though. It’s because it seems when you do rape jokes, that the material is so dangerous and edgy, and the truth is, it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy, ’cause who’s gonna complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape. They’re just traditionally not complainers.”
Ironically, in The Aristocrats, a documentary entirely about a classic joke of the same name, Silverman complained that she was once raped by show-biz legend Joe Franklin.
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In the fall of 1981, I booked myself for a cross-country tour, from New York to Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
While I was in New York, a nun was raped. When I got to Chicago, the rapist was also there. He had given himself up to the police. On stage I explained the true reason why: “He heard that the Mafia, in a rush of Christian compassion, put a $25,000 contract out on his life.” That part was true. “So now I'm asking the Mafia to use their clout to end the war in El Salvador since four nuns were raped and killed there.” They must’ve heard my request. By the time I got to Los Angeles, the Herald-Examiner was reporting that the Mafia was “probably the largest source of arms for the rebels in El Salvador.”
In the spring of 1982, there was a Radical Humor Festival at New York University. That weekend, the festival sponsored an evening of radical comedy. The next day, my performance was analyzed by an unofficial women's caucus. Robin Tyler (“I am not a lesbian comic—I am a comic who is a lesbian”) served as the spokesperson for their conclusions. What had caused a stir was my reference to the use of turkey basters by single mothers-to-be who were attempting to impregnate themselves by artificial insemination.