Trigger warning: This article discusses rape jokes in comedy
It was a Thursday night, and it was improv, but even so, St. Laurent’s The Wiggle Room was really quiet. There might have been 20 people in the room, and about half were professionally involved in one way or another. A shame, certainly, given how cool the venue is, and how passable-to-quite-good the show was. The twist was ostensibly that the night had a wrestling theme to it, hence the event’s name “Rumble in the Wiggle Room,” but in practice it was an improv night like any other. Two teams were given different scenarios and had to wing it. The audience voted for their favourite with either a cow’s ‘moo’ or a chicken’s ‘cockaa.’ Badda bing, badda boom. Done and dusted in an hour and a half.
There were a couple of memorable moments, like when two guys were asked to act out a scene in the style of “contemporary circus.” If such a thing exists, no one in the room knew what it was, and what ensued was a bizarre burlesque mime ending in a thoroughly shoddy upper thigh massage. Another gem was a musical courtroom scene, sung in almost flawless rhyme. The MC had a few good lines too, including “nothing says film noir like keeping a respectful distance.”
The audience voted for their favourite with either a cow’s ‘moo’ or a chicken’s ‘cockaa.’
Otherwise, it was an unremarkable evening, suffering badly from the absence of a crowd for the performers – and other audience members – to feed off. The show also exhibited many of the weaknesses that dog the comedy world nowadays; of the seven performers, only one was a woman, and the obligatory dick jokes abounded. The improvisers even ticked the ‘rape joke’ box; when this was delivered, the MC quickly stepped in, not to nip it in the bud or dilute it, but to applaud and, with an air of wisdom, advise comedians to “always go out on a rape joke.”
While it is a little petty to attack these individual performances, whether these kind of jokes are acceptable or even funny has been an increasingly important issue in the world of comedy, and beyond. There may be something harmless, if cheap, in jokes about dicks and farts, but surely rape jokes are more problematic. The ubiquity of rape jokes in comedy (think Daniel Tosh), as well as defences of these jokes by other comedians (think Anthony Jeselnik) is undoubtedly a factor in deterring potential female comedians. The casual approach to rape as a source of comedic material creates a hostile environment where many comedians – like the MC, apparently – believe a problematic joke is just harmless fun. The ‘politically correct fun police’ is ruining comedy with their willful desire to be offended.
There may be something harmless, if cheap, in jokes about dicks and farts, but surely rape jokes are more problematic.
Somehow, the concept of ‘political correctness’ has become a scapegoat; in comedy, a byword for ‘tame’ or ‘wimpy.’ This is plainly not the truth, and in many ways walking the well-trod paths of dick and rape jokes could hardly be more tame, or more blunt. What is termed ‘political correctness’ is no bad thing, as Stewart Lee, the pre-eminent alternative U.K. comedian, points out: “political correctness is an often clumsy negotiation towards a formally inclusive language; there are problems with it, but it’s better than what we had before.”
To think that comedy cannot be simultaneously edgy and inclusive is also a common misconception. Tackling big issues, such as rape, is in the job description of many good comedians, and to tackle such issues with subtlety and tact (and humour) is a task more fraught with controversy than just recycling bigoted and misogynistic material that has been told, in one form or another, for millennia. Some say that a good joke about rape is a joke about rape culture. The aforementioned rape joke apologist Jeselnik, funnily enough, provides a perfect example: “Two teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio were sentenced to just three years after being found guilty of raping a girl while she was passed out drunk. They actually could have gotten six years in prison, but they weren’t pirating music.” The joke punchline is the broken system, not the victim.
To think that comedy cannot be simultaneously edgy and inclusive is also a common misconception.
So how did all this translate to a simple night of improv? Well, the venue was especially cool, with an awesome cocktail menu and cheap-ish beer – although it is usually a burlesque club, so maybe I wouldn’t wander in. By and large, the improv was not as bad as it perhaps sounds. It wasn’t a barrage of offensive material, but, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a fountain of thoughtful observations. The world of comedy still has a long way to go.