Comedy: The boys’ club asserts itself, Feminist Killjoys destroy the vibe

Content Note: discussion of rape jokes

Picture of a pendant enamelled with the words "Feminist KillJoy" in a Tales from the Crypt comic styleYou know that old chestnut. COMEDY SHOULD BE SACROSANCT. YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO JOKE ABOUT ANYTHING. TO ANYONE.

Station 59 is a smalltime comedy venue in Melbourne where beginner comics can come to an Open Mic night to try out their skills. A week ago they advertised a “debate” on the topic There’s Nothing Funny About Rape: A Comedy Debate.

Aleksia’s post will fill you in about what happened then. As she points out, a debate like that isn’t impossible, but in this context, and with as she says “an all-dude lineup”, it was shaping up to be un-promising to say the least. The “debate” was canned after a bunch of, you guessed it, ber-loody feminists got wind of it and suggested that the event was a bit suboptimal.

The event organiser invited one of the women, who is a rape survivor, to speak on Wednesday night (the open mic night) about rape, comedy and her own experience. (One or two others were invited but declined, expecting the kind of evening you’ll see described in a moment.) “Male-only rape comedy debate replaced with… rape comedy panel. Hm….What even.”

Sensing an impending pile-on, some young twentysomething feminists went along to support her. Disclaimer: A couple of them are known to me, in fact, a couple of them are related to me. And I’m so proud of them.

This is the story from one of the people who were there:

So, the MC [Kieran Butler] basically introduced the issue and as soon as he got on stage he accused the feminists there of censorship, assault and breach of privacy. He said someone had threatened him over the phone (which we had no knowledge of and wouldn’t condone). He turned that into a general diatribe against our group which was there to support Gen and Hilary. He made it clear he had not cancelled the event because he recognised it was distressing to victims of sexual assault but because, as he saw it, he had been “censored”. That pretty much set the tone.

All of the patrons felt [Butler] was using the night as a platform to justify the cancelled night as a “debate about controversial humour”. He argued that comedy has been taken over by a “meritocracy” [!] which imposed Political Correctness™ on the comedy community. Therefore, the Station 59 stage needs to be made into a protected space for “free speech”. He went on in this way for some time.
Then a female comedian and RAW judge who has worked in the industry for 2 decades took the stage and asserted that what he was saying was crap, that rape jokes aren’t necessarily edgy or controversial and all have pretty much been done already. She was repeatedly interrupted by [Butler].
They finally allowd Gen [Genevieve Stewart] to speak. Gen took the stage and announced that she was trying to explain why rape jokes normalise rape and harm rape survivors. She set out to talk about the topic of rape jokes generally then describe her own experience, but she was interrupted and heckled so many times during her general discussion she decided to go straight to the story of her own rape at age 15. Again, she was repeatedly interrupted. When she expressed her anger and hurt that comedians could listen to such stories and still heckle, she was heckled further.

When Gen left the stage, we all left with her. [According to another account, being grabbed and called “faggots”.] The MC accused us of being “a mob” (there were about 15 of us). We didn’t see the other acts but we did talk to other comedians outside of the bar. I can’t speak for the others, but one of the female comedians in the club came out and tried to defend the organisers – “nice guys, not pro rape”.
When it was pointed out how many times the MC had inerrupteed Gen they implied that her story of her own rape was “inappropriate” on stage.
Then we left.

So, it looks as though the Station 59 comedy organisers got their wish, that is, they got a debate. With opposing views. Most of us would say that was the definition of a debate, but according to Station 59, it’s CENSORSHIP!

I found it especially interesting that the female supporter of the “debate night” found Gen’s actual rape story too confronting and suggested she shouldn’t have shared it on stage. Isn’t this being a little selective with the “freedom of speech” which is supposed to be the cornerstone of their culture?

Andrew P Street, on Facebook:

“…not only is there no need for Melbourne comedians to have that conversation right this minute, I would argue that – with Jill Meagher’s body barely cold – there’s a really fucking good reason why Melbourne (and, y’know, Australia generally) might not think that right now was an awesome time to start bleating that everyone’s a bit too sensitive about violence against women. I thought timing was everything in comedy?”

Aleksia Barron (author of the blog linked above) also on Facebook:

“The comedy booker from the venue started posting in the comments of my blog post on this topic. He wanted me to come down to the venue, get up on stage and “defend my point of view”. I declined, partly because I think this guy’s a total hack, but also because I knew I’d be playing with the deck stacked against me. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t go now, though, because what happened to the poor girl who did stand up to speak is disgusting.
The booker’s name is Kieran Butler, and it’s him, not the venue management, who chooses the comedians who speak on the open mic comedy nights. I guess it was obvious whose side he was on when he added one of the most aggressive commentators from the FB thread to the bill for this event.

Kieran Butler has made no secret of the fact that Station 59 is a venue for comedians on their training wheels. “”Comedians need to fall [I think he means “fail”] and test out their material and this is a venue for that. It is a comedy night for comedians to try out their material and see whether it will work.” That is pretty much the kind of venue in which rape jokes won’t work. Let me recommend this article by the US comedian Curtis Luciani.

It is accepted, for example, that you probably should not go in front of an audience that contains several black people and start tossing around the n-word unless you have an EXCEPTIONALLY sophisticated and road-tested routine built around it, one that you are confident will overcome the very significant risk you are incurring. If a comedian did this and did NOT overcome the risk, no one would be shocked if the audience shouted her down and stormed her out of the club, nor would anyone be particularly eager to defend her.

… Here’s what YOU need to understand:

1) Rape is way, WAY more prevalent than you seem to think it is. Are there more than five women in your audience? You do the math, and then you run the little fantasy scenario that I just put together in your head, and you tell me how it feels.

2) I ain’t buying any of that “If I can make jokes about genocide, why can’t I make jokes about rape?” Horseshit, unless you made those genocide jokes during a gig at the Srebrenica Funny Bone. You got away with making a joke about genocide because your odds of having a holocaust survivor’s kid in the audience were pretty fucking low.

And if you did happen to have one in the audience, and he heckled you, walked out, and wrote something nasty on the internet… would you be more likely to be a human being and say “Wow. I can understand why that person’s authentic response to what I was doing was so emotional and negative. Maybe my genocide material just isn’t good enough to justify the pain that it inflicts. Maybe I need more skill in order to pull this off.” Or are you gonna be a lousy piece of shit and say, “Yeah, I apologize, I guess, IF YOU WERE OFFENDED.”

I recommend Mr Butler reads the whole thing.

In answer to Andrew Street’s question – why was the whole thing necessary in the first place – it seems to me this constant pushing of “transgressive” comedy (unless, of course, it’s genuinely transgressive and brilliant, the real thing, but sadly that’s rarely the case) is a bit of ordinary male territorial dominance. You reckon I can’t lift my leg and piss on that post over there? Watch me! Nyah!

Good work, Feminist Killjoys!

Categories: arts & entertainment, culture wars, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism

Tags: , , ,

21 replies

  1. Great post, Helen. With regard to the “I can joke about genocide, why not rape?” argument, I have only ever seen truly powerful/challenging Holocaust comedy done by people who belong to families that actually lost a relative to that genocide, or who have had a close personal relationship to a Holocaust survivor. Otherwise, unless it’s a simple anti-Nazi one-liner, Holocaust jokes rarely work. I would expect it to be the same with other genocides, it’s definitely the same with n-word jokes, and it’s my belief that it’s the same with rape.

    Comedians: if you are not a rape survivor yourself, or have never had a detailed conversation with a rape survivor about that experience, or have never even read some of the academic literature around rapist characteristics and rape survivor narratives, then it is most unlikely that your rape joke will be either substantive or subversive enough to be worth making. How can you think it’s transgressive or a display of comedy skill to simply mouth off glib, predictable, dismissive crap about rape? Every other arsehat in the pub can and does do that, every other day of the week.
    I have seen occasional one-liners work so long as they were mocking rapists who were currently in the news, but only one per set please. Being jolted into thinking about rape more than once in your set just for a one-liner ruins any possible fun.
    Most importantly, if your joke in any way implies that the rape victim was not careful enough or somehow deserved to be raped, then you have descended into horrible human being territory, and should climb back up into halfway-decent human being territory ASAP.

  2. Hooray, Feminist Killjoys!

  3. Here’s a thought for some “comedians”: would the joke be funny it was about your daughter/mother/sister? Depressing thing is that still probably wouldn’t discourage all of them.

    • I’d prefer to ask them that about a female friend, Mark N. Asking it about a female relative or gf ties into traditional male-protector tropes that are part of the problem.
      As orlando commented on a previous rape-joke post here:

      What you have to ask is: is this joke designed to make the rape victim laugh and the rapist squirm, or to make the rapist laugh and the victim squirm? I think you’ll find most rape jokes fall into the latter category, and we all need to have a really good think about what that means.

  4. Fantastic post Helen.

  5. Hi Helen,
    Thankyou so much for this post. Immediately after we left and Gen had a panic attack, I regretted going ahead with this. But now? I’m so glad we did. The outpour of support and condemnation of these fifth-rate comedians from all walks of life in Melbourne has just been so wonderful. It was a DISGRACE what they planned to do, what they did, and what they through their actions condone.
    I’m so glad to have an aunt like you. You inspire me, you inspire your daughter, and what can I say? We’re feminist killjoys 4 lyf.

  6. I was reminded of this 2007 Shakesville post about a rape-joke made by Jerry Seinfeld:

    If you’re going to make a joke about rape, it’s got to be funny to rape victims. And yeah, it’s possible. I got more approving emails about my “Soberest Fuckhole” trophy than any other graphic I’ve ever done. That’s some serious gallows humor, wickedly subversive, and it made a hell of a lot of survivors of sexual assault and their advocates laugh and cheer, because it played on all the stupid bullshit surrounding victim-blaming and rape. It’s a rape joke, but it didn’t treat rape like a joke. And that’s what most “rape jokes” do—including Seinfeld’s.

    Up above I spoke about other controversial jokes I’ve heard which “worked” (i.e. made the audience think rather than storm out in disgust), and the crucial point they all share is that in none of them was actual genocidal/racist/sexual oppression treated like a joke – the perpetrators of the oppression were the ones being mocked, not the atrocities themselves nor their victims.
    From the reports above, it appears that Butler et al set up and vigorously defended an event where rapists would be much more likely to be laughing along with the comedians than rape victims would be. If this was done deliberately, this was unethical and inhumane. If this was done unwittingly, this was empathy-deficient and lacking in intellectual rigor. Either way, it seems generally indicative of having their social and entertainment priorites utterly topsy-turvy.

  7. Well done, Feminist Killjoys!!

  8. I heard Margaret Throsby (I think?) interviewing Michael Palin the other day, and she asked him the standard “do you think there are any topics off-limits for comedy?” question, and it really irritated me, because I realised it’s the wrong question. The answer a comedian gives is always going to be “no, because [all these virtues of gallows humour].” Comedians need to be asked “are there any targets who are off-limits?” Then we would get to find out whether they are “kick up/kiss down” types or conscienceless self-cranial-colonoscopers.

  9. Ugh. What on earth inspired Fairfax to open up those articles to online comment?

  10. Thanks for all the good comments – I neglect to mention that I work F/T at a place with a very stern internet policy, which means I can’t read or moderate HAT during the day.
    Special thank you to Hilary for that lovely comment *BLUB*

  11. So glad you are directing some sunlight/a spotlight onto these cockroaches. As always, a sharper focus on the perpetrators’ actions is helpful. This “comedian” and his barrackers seem to have trouble heeding words such as ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘don’t do this’ and ‘you’re hurting people’. Like all abusers, they are adept at rationalising and deflecting, avoiding responsibility and playing the victim. It is very distressing to witness this occurring from afar, I can only imagine what the people up-close are going through.
    Hopefully the public exposure will stop this man, albeit belatedly, from the career trainwreck he seems hell-bent on pursuing. Do the Studio 59 Managers have any regard for the future viability of their business? Making it clear to the world that your nightclub is not a safe space for young women looking for a fun night out is commercial suicide, quite apart from the ethical and moral issues. Although on their current form, they seem not to understand signs that say ‘wrong way, go back’.
    I hope Melburnians will take this opportunity to show Australians and the world once again that they are prepared to stand up for women’s public safety. It may also be just a coincidence, but it makes my skin crawl to think how close this publicly-condoned humiliation and hatred against a rape victim follows on the heels of that much graver crime of a few weeks ago. Do Melburnians in particular have some work to do about the culture in their inner-city? Sorry, easy for me to say from a thousand miles away in a sleepy country town, and we have our own issues here too…

  12. Was the audio up on the linked AGE article before? Because I’ve only found it today. May have been the net-nannied computer I copied the link from, then didn’t open it on my puter at home.
    That MC (I assume it’s Butler) is astoundingly patronising and the counter arguments to Genevieve are particularly mediocre and unconvincing.

  13. Just a quick question; what do you consider actually transgressive comedy?

    • what do you consider actually transgressive comedy?

      Basically, transgressive comedy has to subvert the status quo. If a joke simply reinforces existing marginalisations, then it’s not transgressive, it’s just trivialising uncomfortable truths about how society views certain classes of people as lesser than others.
      What I see in a lot of standup is too many unsophisticated understandings of how various social taboos reinforce the status quo, so that some comics appear to believe that simply making people squirm about something is “edgy” and “making them think”. The whole reason that some things are taboos is that by making them embarassing and awkward subject matter then people compartmentalise them as things they don’t/shouldn’t think about it, so sending one’s audience into squirm mode does exactly the opposite of “making them think”. People can relish being made to squirm because it does tend to generate a small adrenaline rush due to the associated fight/flight reaction, and that squirm-rush can be something an audience will come back for from certain comedians (e.g. Little Britain, Ricky Gervais), but the reason they often come back to the same old squirm-makers is that they know that it’s a safe-squirm, squirm within certain tightly managed gross-out-the-squares boundaries, not anything that’s actually going to change the way that they view the world.
      Basically, if the audience is saying that the comic is “saying what we’re all thinking” or “I nearly died when s/he said that” or “did you see so-and-so’s face? Bwahahaha” then it’s most likely not transgressive. If the audience is saying “I never thought about it like that before” then some transgressive comedy may have just occurred.

      • P.S. I don’t think all comedy should be transgressive, btw. There’s nothing wrong with somebody being good at taboo-based comedy that makes people squirm with laughter, since there will always be audiences who love being propelled into horribly hilariously awkward territory. Just don’t represent playing around with taboos as something more noble than it actually is.
        The best taboo-trampling comedians have a very sophisticated understanding of which taboos can be played around with without trivialising the pain of other human beings, and tread the line delicately because they take great pains with how they frame their material empathically. (e.g. Eddie Izzard, who does cross over into truly transgressive material fairly frequently too)
        The hack taboo-trampling comedians, on the other hand, simply aren’t knowledgeable enough or don’t care enough to avoid trivialising other people’s pain as part of their material, and then get their hackles up about the purity of transgressive comedy when they are challenged for being insensitive to other people’s pain.

  14. That’s not a quick question!
    But with some things, like, for instance, a “debate” advertised on an open mic night with an all-male line up on both sides, one can safely say

    I hope you read Curtis Luciani’s piece.

  15. Basically, if the audience is saying … then it’s most likely not transgressive.
    “It’s funny because it’s true” is usually a bad sign as well.

    • Not necessarily a sign of bad/unfunny comedy, Nick. Just a bad sign for ground-breaking comedy.

      • For example, a staple of comedy festivals is the confessional show about the comic’s history of drug addiction or coming out of the closet etc. These shows do challenge some social taboos regarding shame expectations, but nowadays are not considered especially transgressive (20-30 years ago was a different story). These shows are still somewhat transgressive regarding mainstream entertainment, since they’re rarely the shows that get featured in a TV best of the fest compilation; transgressive because they do show members of marginalised social groups as full human beings.
        Confessional shows are often exceptionally poignant and powerful comedy in the hands of a seasoned performer who has decided to take off their most tenacious masks, and much of their impact comes from the “it’s funny because it’s true” moments they are sharing. Rarely these days is there anything that a festival audience won’t know about in principle regarding what happens to kids growing up same-sex-attracted or to those who become addicted to illegal substances – the skill lies in how the comic structures those stories to elicit humour from shared humanity rather than just shock value.
        I’ve yet to see a confessional “I used to be a homophobe/sexist/racist” show. I’ve seen a very few comics play around with those ideas as part of their routines, or at least the “we’re all kinda homophobic/sexist/racist” idea, but I’ve not seen anybody tackle it as the major theme of a 1-hour show. Now that would be transgressive.

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