No Laughing Matter

Comedy is currently ablaze with arguments about offensive humour, especially jokes about rape. Will Setchell offers the opinion of one up-and-coming comedian on this controversy

Feature by Will Setchell | 30 Oct 2012
  • No laughing matter

I'd like to start out by making a controversial statement if I may: I fucking hate rape jokes.

Now there's probably a few of you wondering where the controversy in that statement lies; but in a comedy scene populated by young men clad in checked shirts and detached irony, that sentiment can be seen as contentious. Which is why, right now, before we go any further, I'm going to make a clarification of sorts; I am against rape jokes, not jokes about rape. A joke about rape can be something told from experience, providing a release for a comic – male or female – should they wish to explore it through humour, from a dark and troubling experience. Or it can be a clever piece of satire; for example, Louis CK has a great bit about wanting to travel back in time to rape Hitler, which I don't really have a problem with at all because, and this is important, the power structure is balanced in the right direction. The victim of the joke is Hitler who, I think we can all agree, was not a very nice fellow and he's also dead rendering the joke largely victimless.

The power structure in jokes is something that is all too often ignored by many comedians, preferring, in a post-Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr world, to clumsily go for the 'dark' the 'edgy' and the 'ironic' rather than the 'good' or 'funny.' Which brings me on to the main reason why I don't like rape jokes; they're crushingly unimaginative.

I wish it was more than that. I wish it were personal experiences that drove me to hate rape jokes but the truth is I've disliked them for a long time, even before finding out how many people close to me have been affected by rape. By clumsily flailing your comedic arm around and grasping for the first thing to come to hand you show a distinct lack of originality, a two-dimensional and derivative view of the world that does nothing to showcase your inner self and personality.

You can be dark in comedy, but you can do so in so much more of a creative way than just plumping for rape. I honestly believe that all of that darkness and misused irony is unnecessary and in a way can hold you back. There's plenty of comics whose names I'll never remember who have banged on with the 'ironic' rape material but the comics who stick in my head are the ones who don't bother with that stuff – they stand out because their view on the world is fresh and unique, not just a trudge through the well-worn paths of shock and edginess.

Steering clear of the darkness doesn't mean dumbing down either, in fact once you remove rape, paedophilia and ironic sexism from your toolkit you find you have to work all the harder, the jokes are more delightful, your mind trips gaily down new lanes finding ideas and juxtapositions that, I believe, will make you a better writer and comedian. I know because I used to make the odd rape joke and since I foreswore it I think my writing has vastly improved. I'm not saying I'm better than any comic reading this, I'm saying that now I am better than I used to be.

While these clumsy jokes are still being made, imagination is still being squandered and countless people affected by rape are turned off comedy. Let's just admit that most of us don't know enough about the dynamics of comedy, foreswear the rape joke and leave it to the people who understand it enough to make it really funny.