So a few days ago this happened:
A comedian appearing in this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival has come under fire for telling an audience member to “die” after they staged a silent protest in response to a joke about rape.
Ray Badran, who is appearing at the festival for the first time, has been the centre of a social media storm, in which comedians have defended his on-stage behaviour.
It’s kind of interesting that “comedians defend fellow comedian” is seen as news-worthy here. What, should we expect that when the audience turns on a comedian – even for a rape joke – comedians should cut him or her loose? Is the vaguely antagonistic relationship between comedians and their audience (see also: hecklers) really that unusual these days?
To be honest, despite this story running and running in various parts of the internet, we’re struggling a bit to work out why it’s news-worthy (aside from the whole “look, Melbourne has comedy controversies too!” angle). Comedian makes rape joke: audience member(s) react with disapproval; comedian doubles down instead of backing down. Haven’t we heard this all before?
Others, as you might expect, have had more to say. From the guy running the night where it happened, this:
The notion that rape is not funny has been put forth many times in the last few days, and this is absolutely a straw man argument. Of course it isn’t funny. No one is saying that. This joke wasn’t making fun of rape, nor was it even about rape. I have seen thousands of hours of stand-up comedy, and plenty of terrible rape jokes, but not once have I ever seen a comedian making the point that rape itself is funny.
Some comics mention rape and use humour to deal with their own terrible memories. Some comics mention rape in the context of dark or absurd wordplay. Some comics mention rape for shock value.
Ray Badran should feel comfortable knowing that his joke is in no way making fun of rape victims, or makes the point that rape is funny, and the very idea that he would perpetuate rape culture is absurd.
And with a different take focusing more on maybe why Badran reacted how he did:
My point is that stand up is stressful. It’s terrifying. The great people (like Jo Enright, actually) make it look easy. They manage hecklers with aplomb, because they practice and craft and rehearse. Dying on stage is like pooing your pants at an interview. It’s mortifying. If I’d been able to blame my stage death on someone, I’d have gone for them. I’d have been enraged instead of merely shamed.
In rage, we have no control. I have no doubt that the comedian in question is feeling pretty bad about himself right now. I’m almost certain he has experienced at least one moment of ‘I wish I hadn’t said that’ shame. In a public forum, he was brought up short by the realisation that not everyone finds his rape joke funny. I don’t know if it’s funny. I didn’t hear it. What I’m interested in is his response to the woman’s lack of co-operation. Shamed and enraged, he lost control. Rage got the better of him and he told her he wished she would die.
Our reaction to all this is a bit more underwhelming. It doesn’t sound all that offensive a gag, really. Some people hear “rape” and freak out, which is fine, but his reaction to the audience reaction was far from the best. It was a kind of shitty gag, and he was being massively over-sensitive about it. Sure, stand-up is (in part) about being in control of your audience, and a comedian who apologises for a gag on stage – or responds to a heckler with “yeah, good point” – is probably about to have a very bad gig unless they’re really, really good. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn on your audience every time they don’t laugh.
On the flip side, comedians really do need to stop being in denial about why audiences object to rape jokes. It’s because rape is the worst thing ever (well, the worst thing someone in a comedy show audience might have experienced at least). They should expect that when they’re dealing with material that charged and powerful there are going to be people who react strongly and without nuance. In 2015 it’s hardly news that rape gags are going to get a bad reaction and if you’re a comedian going down that path you have no excuse for not having a sensible response to that kind of reaction.
In a wider sense what seems to be going on here is that society’s values are changing (or continuing to change), and there’s more of a feeling out there amongst the kind of people who go to comedy that things that they see as being not acceptable are not to be tolerated. The older “oh well, it takes all kinds, guess this isn’t for me” live and let live view of controversial material is fading; the new style is to think more along the lines of “representation = endorsement”.
It’s a view that runs like this: making jokes about rape normalises rape and fosters rape culture – a world where rape is something to be dismissed and laughed at. This is bad, so therefore all rape jokes are bad. And must be protested against, because staying silent in the face of a crime is to accept that crime. Basically, a lot of people are becoming less tolerant. Which isn’t automatically a bad thing if what we’re less tolerant of is shit rape jokes.
That said, we should also be a bit less tolerant of this kind of “controversy”. Bad jokes aren’t something that need to be protested; not laughing remains a viable and powerful option. And if you’re really not happy, the exits are usually clearly marked. Staying and messing with everyone else’s night because you personally don’t like the show is kind of a dick move.
And speaking of dick moves, did anyone else notice in all the applause for this much-praised “tough” review of Jim Jefferies in the Herald-Sun that the review didn’t appear until after his season was over – thus ensuring it did zero harm to his ticket sales? Guess at least now we know he sucks for the next time he’s here… unless he develops some new material between tours. Like pretty much every comedian working since 1984 does.