I Heard The News Today, Oh Boy pt. 82

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.


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  • Billy C says:

    Jefferies was doing two shows in Melbourne. Pretty hard to review one night and get the review published the next day. Impossible if you’re trying to make the actual print edition.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Which makes our point: why review a show that no-one reading can see? And if the reason is “because we’re the paper of record”, then what kind of record are you leaving when your reviewer does a smash-&-grab review they know they can get away with because it’ll have no effect? The reason why so many MICF reviews are soft and cuddly is because the reviewers and editors know bad ones will have an effect on sales (and more importantly, on getting advertising); against that warm and fuzzy backdrop, this looks (for the record) much harsher than it should.

  • Billy C says:

    Well most major concerts are reviewed when they are frequently one or two night stands. Sure it’s more useful to review things that are still running but big acts are of interest to readers.

    I don’t know what you mean by “get away with”. There’s no consequences for the reviewer, they can write what they want when they want.

    I know some people who have worked at major publications and this idea that the advertising dollar has any effect critically is just not true when it comes to the arts. You only have to read some of the reviews of acts produced by comedy festival or some of the major producers to know that’s the case.

    It’s also I’m told been about 5 or 6 years since a review did anything significant for sales when it comes to comedy. The Herald-Sun ones online do nothing either way.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    While we’re sure your media sources are impeccable, they’re also wrong. Reviewers at even moderately high-profile publications can’t write anything close to “what they want when they want” – not without losing their job extremely rapidly. That’s not to say harsh reviews don’t get published (editors are still occasionally keen on the idea of a really tough review going viral), but there is a very firm idea out there that a reviewer should be “fair”, which usually means giving a lot of dull shows ok reviews.

    (most reviewers now are freelancers too, which makes it a lot easier to show them the door if an editor doesn’t like what they’re saying)

    And while advertising isn’t the force it was, it’s still a very big factor in setting attitudes as to how things can and can’t be reviewed. Small one-off shows can get harsh reviews because no-one cares; major theatre reviews can get harsh reviews because enough people will see the show to make it clear if the reviewer is full of shit. MICF shows fall between those stools.

    No doubt you’re better plugged into the live scene than we are, but the handful of comedy acts we know that are performing at MICF this year seem to be very keen to use their reviews to boost sales (or are violently cursing reviewers for giving them bland reviews they can’t use for pull quotes). Maybe someone should tell them to stop bothering?

  • Billy C says:

    What I meant by “write what they want” is that they aren’t being told to give someone a good review because the act advertises in the publication. There are plenty of luke warm reviews for acts with producers who are buying a lot of space. Yes of course there is integrity with the majors. Regardless of their ability to review comedy they are journalists for the most part. And yes all editors edit.

    As for using pull quotes of course acts want to promote good reviews and reviews can be useful. However I would suggest it’s the act sharing the review and promoting it that does more for them than the readership of the herald sun online review section, the audience of which is I suspect made up predominately of performers.

    I’m not overly plugged in, I’ve got some mates who are comics and journos and I take a passionate interest but all my information is obviously second or third hand.

    What I’ve been told is that in the past a good review in the Age would sell you a lot of tickets. A great review in the Herald Sun just doesn’t give you a sales jump. I’ve been told it’s a tough year. I’ve been in some pretty big houses and some tiny ones so I don’t know if that’s true or not.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Yeah, that sounds closer to what we’ve heard. Though it also used to be (& no doubt still is) the case that media outlets would give glowing reviews so they’d be quoted on the poster – publicity flows both ways it seems. So the scales are tipped a little towards the positive, as there are simply more benefits all around (except for the public) in talking shows up.

    Basically, it’s about ethics in comedy reviewing.

  • Billy C says:

    Well interestingly Chortle is now saying that if you buy ads they will review your show in Edinburgh. As for giving good reviews to get quoted on a poster maybe small online sites but I don’t think The Age or The Herald Sun care if Adam Hills uses their quotes or The Guardians.