It was once my guilty pleasure to become friends with a man who said he’d like to wipe my fake tan off with his spunk.
This man was a comedian called Jim Jefferies, and I deserved it. I had just heckled him (I don’t remember what with, probably just a polite hello as he came on) and he decided on that particular occasion to respond by telling me that he’d like to take my make-up off with something less socially acceptable than Johnson’s Baby Lotion. I suppressed my inner grammar-school feminist, stomped on the part of my imagination that hoped his cock would burst next time he went for a wee, and I…roared with laughter. I roared because it was unexpected, it was gratuitous and vibrant and evocative, it conjured a surreal image, and because Jim Jefferies is very funny. I deserved it because I had piped up during a comedy performance in an environment that is famous for its celebration of freedom of expression by people who, frankly, are a bit mad to get up on stage to try and engender laughter from strangers using only the contents of their brains in the first place. Despite my laughter, some part of my cerebral reflex wanted to respond with a haughty “Actually, JIM, I am not wearing fake tan. If you look more closely you will see I am actually alarmingly pale, and feel no need to conform to cosmetic obligations thrust upon women by a uniformly cynical image-led media.” Why didn’t I? Because I’m not a complete douchebag, that’s why. And he was being funny. I even, shock horror, sort of fancied him. Even though he wanted to wipe his boy-fluid on my face to shut me up. Maybe even because. That’s weird, but what can you do.
Jim & I became friends soon after – we bumped into each other occasionally on the circuit and he made me laugh. He’s actually a bit of a puppy dog despite the jizz-smearing; we had nice chats. It was a couple of years later when I went to see one of his shows in Melbourne that he blew my socks off with a routine about a paedophile scout-master. It was vile, it was graphic, it was seemingly disrespectful to everyone – kids, parents, scout-masters, paedophiles, kids who were scouts and might one day be parents and/or paedophiles. But I almost wet my pants, because it was funny. And somewhere in that shameless laughter was that delicious seductive burn that we all feel when we laugh and it feels a bit wrong. Later on in his show Jim revealed that it was a true story, and that he himself had been a victim of this woggle-wearing nonce. All the people who had been squirming in their seats with either discomfort or disgust suddenly sat still. Ooh. This stage-pacing misanthropist seemingly without any warmth or regard for people’s feelings had earned his right to tell such ‘jokes’, because it was his story to tell, and his treatment of it – turning it from a thorny part of his history to that most mysterious ineffable thing ‘humour’ – was not only justified, but brave, and quite possibly even cathartic for anyone else who had shared a similar experience. Despite its harshness, it had a human warmth somewhere at its core.
Last week an American comedian named Daniel Tosh got filmed dealing with a heckler and it went viral pretty ruddy quickly. This ‘heckler’ was a woman who commented on a joke of his not being funny. This particular joke of his was about rape. He responded to her comment by saying something along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be funny if you got raped right now. Wouldn’t it be funny if everyone got up and started raping you right now?” Cue: a lot of fuss, and Daniel Tosh having to make a very public apology. I have googled the comedy of Mr Tosh and he is not my cup of tea. From the few clips I watched I found him a bit too generic ‘All American collegiate’ for my taste – a fraternity initiation rites instigator who knows how to talk his way out of trouble. Perhaps further delving into his online gems would prove more illuminating but I can’t be arsed. However, no matter how charmless his retort may have been, I don’t think he should be lambasted for daring to joke about rape. It is quite obvious the poor dear panicked live on stage and the first thing his average mind threw up as a come-back to this woman daring to question his comedic prowess was a childish “Get raped”. It had all the sophistication of a wedgie. Done with all the force of a kid calling another kid a poo-poo-head. Unfortunately for a lot of women, a mention of an aggressive act is tantamount to intent or future capability. Especially if that mention is in front of a mostly-testosterone-fuelled comedy club and fortified with laughter. The chances are a lot of women would feel small, offended, singled-out, foolish, nervous, possibly even physically intimidated. Just like I could have felt intimidated by Jim telling me he wanted to give me a spunk facial. Luckily for me, I didn’t. I think I’m a bit numb to comedy clangers now. But I would be an idiot if I denied other women’s right to respond in such a way.
The thing with going to comedy is that psychologically it’s a bit like inviting someone to throw stones at your stuff and seeing if anything gets broken. In fact, any consumption of an art or medium (good or bad) opens you up, makes you vulnerable. Your senses observe it, you take it in; it has an effect. A personal example of this. A few years ago my Dad committed suicide, and all of a sudden, references to suicide were everywhere, and for a good long while they felt deeply personal and horrendously unfunny. A casual joke “God – if I have to listen to Mavis drone on about her petunias anymore I am going to kill myself” – the kind of casual reference to wanting to end it all that we all say from time to time – was enough to make my insides feel like they’d been sliced with salt-laced swords. It hurt. I felt affronted, sad, insulted, singled-out for pain. The references seemed to be everywhere, for years. Even more oblique references hurt. Like when I found out “kick the bucket” stemmed from hangings – and people’s casual use of it for general death made me both livid with its incorrect usage and deeply tearful because I still ached over it all. Suicide was everywhere all of a sudden. But then, after a while, it started to fade. Time worked its magic. It stopped hurting as much. I even started to find aspects of it funny. Because Laughter is second-cousin to Survival. Now I bloody love a good suicide joke. A good one really resonates. Just the other day I was struck by the hilariousness of the pointlessness of my father’s inquest. We had to wait months for what was essentially a five minute meeting to announce he had died by hanging. No shit, Sherlock. Was it the fact he was found hanging from a doorframe by a noose that led you to such a surprising conclusion? By that point he’d been cremated and we’d sort of figured it out ourselves that he wasn’t coming back, probably because of the big old noosey-death thing. I laughed – genuinely, loudly – at the absurdity. Because every now and then I find it funny. Certain things about it. I laugh because I need to. I laugh because I’m not dead; laughter is one of the purest acts of grasping life.
I’m not saying I am totally immune to the pain a joke can cause. If a thoughtless cretin makes a bad suicide joke I am naturally more apt to fantasise about punching them full in the face than I am to chuckle with recognition – but each and every time I hear something which misses the mark of taste or intelligence, I know that it is imperative that they are entitled to say it. All sorts of people in all sorts of times and places have struggled for the right for us all to have the freedom to occasionally be offensive unfunny pricks. The freedom to say abominable stuff is just as important as the freedom to say beautiful stuff – never forgetting that there is no one empirical judge of any of it.
Context, in comedy as in all things, is everything. Jim Jeffries in his hour-long show has the time to take you on a journey through a construction of jokes during which are revealed back-stories or more developed points. You buy your ticket to see him specifically, you take a risk if you have not seen him before, you sit, you watch, and you make your mind up, you laugh, or don’t. But at a standard comedy club with a mixed bill you are signing up for an eclectic sack of performers you might not know and you might not like. The performers are doing shortened sets, in which they might crack out a tight script of tried and tested favourites, or have a loose plan of which material to stick to, or – more dangerously – just go out and improvise. Some jokes work, some don’t. Some need build-up, some need a twinkle in the eye. Sometimes comedians have an off night and don’t tell a joke properly; they are, after all, humans, doing jobs. (A lot of them, incidentally, are dire at it.) Neither can the audience be wholly accounted for. An ad hoc gathering of strangers. Some might be tetchy from a bad day or steeped in sadness and trying to plough on by doing something ‘normal’. Life bashes up against life and it doesn’t always fit harmoniously.
Daniel Tosh had no desire to make the woman feel threatened, he may not even had any real desire to see her put in her place as a member of the ‘lesser sex’. He just flicked through a not-terribly-well-stocked survival kit and pulled out something which sounded a bit shit. It wasn’t funny. Even the men laughing in the clip are only doing it because of some base reflex, some juvenile synapse in their brain which went “Ha! He joked about rape to a lady and because it’s something you don’t hear often, we’re going to laugh.” There probably wasn’t a glimmer of any misogyny in the room. I bet you Daniel Tosh went home to his girlfriend and felt like a total schmuck. He probably told her about it and she probably listened and just gave him ‘a look’ and a sympathy pat. That’s if Daniel Tosh has got a girlfriend. He might just have gone home for a lacklustre wank which finished limp and dry as he stared into a fridge of perfectly lined up bottles of Bud. Later, he may even have been inspired to write some better jokes so the whole darn mess will never happen again. Taken his jokes to a comedy club, tried them out, saw if the number of people who thought they were funny outweighed those who did not and decided to keep trying them. Sometimes jokes, like life, are also about keeping on trying; honing something until it is right.
In a comedy club, you might not get the beautifully crafted. You might not even get funny. But you will get a live performance, from someone with a pulse, a trier, because you chose to go out and hear people’s spontaneous thoughts instead of sitting in front of a screen of pre-prepared pre-edited pretty stuff signed off by a TV company solicitor. If you talk to the people on stage, they can talk back, and it might not be ‘nice’. But life isn’t nice, and it doesn’t apologise when it gets stuff wrong either.