RapeJoke and The Politeness Police: Louie, Tosh, and Episode 2

Dear Jane, Phil, and Evan,

I’m a bit behindhand as I’m writing this from Chile, but tell me if you’ve heard this one before:

*

Girl: “You’re making jokes about rape, and that’s offensive.”

Boy: “You don’t like rape? You don’t? That’s really weird, cuz you wouldn’t exist if your mom hadn’t been raped by that homeless Chinese guy. No, listen, I’m sorry. It’s hard to really come back from that, but I’m sorry. Can you do me a favor?”

Girl: “What?”

Boy: “Can you please die of AIDS? Does anybody here have AIDS? Can they put their dick in her face and get her started on that?”

*

I thought about making this one of those “who said it?” Facebook infographics where you prove that Rush Limbaugh and Mira Sorvino or whoever say the same stuff. It’s pointless, of course. We all know it’s from Louie’s first season, the “Heckler/Cop Movie” episode, and we all know that it almost perfectly mirrors the woman’s account of her encounter with Daniel Tosh wherein he wondered how funny it would be if five guys gang-banged her right there (here is a good meditation on how funny). The internet has its laws, and I hereby dub this the Tosh Theorem: if there’s an article about Daniel Tosh and the girl who spoke up at his show, then there’s a commenter saying that Louis CK already did an episode on this. And the two instances—the real-life one and the fictional one—will blend, and the comments will curve asymptotically toward a single self-evident truth:

Was she a heckler? Is saying you don’t think rape jokes are funny heckling? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (here’s a worthwhile defense of the latter), but we don’t ask those questions. Instead, we use the word heckler to simplify a complicated moment wherein two different scales of right and wrong come into conflict.

If we had any doubts about Louie’s influence on comedy culture, we need look no further than the extent to which that “Heckler/Cop Movie” episode has crystallized comedy-goers’ sense of how people are supposed to behave at a show. It’s what everyone quotes. That episode shortcircuits to this: if you’re a bad audience member, you’re a bad person.

“You have a good life and it’s just the way you want it to be,” Louie says in his Reasonable Guy voice. “These guys don’t have a life. This is all they have. Their lives are shit. They don’t have families, they don’t have friends, all they have is this. They have these fifteen minutes … and you took it away from them.”

Comedians are a special case. That’s the argument. It’s slipped in there so quickly you barely notice it as the guilt goes swishing by. Not that the special pleading should surprise us. Remember Joan Rivers’ line to Louie? “What we do, my darling, is a calling.” Louis CK believes that, and he believes that comedians in their capacity as comedians are exempt from our scorn and our bad behavior—or should be. He doesn’t feel this way about other jobs; Louie, remember, has no trouble hassling people doing other kinds of menial work. Like rental car agencies. “I always switch my car,” he says. “I ask for another car, and they ask me, ‘why?’ And I’m like, because I’m an asshole. That’s why. Just—this is your job.”

The girl offers a version of precisely this argument. “People are going to talk,” the girl says, “and it’s your job to deal with it, or learn to handle it at least. Why are you being such a baby?”

“Most people are polite,” Louie says, “and would rather cut off their hand than hurt a show by talking. A good person wouldn’t do that, so you must be a bad person.”

Linger, if you will, on the ambiguity of that phrase, “hurt a show.” At first I thought it referred to the audience’s right to a show they paid for. But that’s not it—Louie’s defense has less to do with the audience and their rights than with the comedian whose performance it is. It’s the comedian’s show that’s being hurt.

Louie doesn’t really think he’s an asshole for demanding a different car, or for dropping a rental car off in front of the airport without returning it and making someone else go get it. Not really. These things might make him a bad customer, but they don’t make him Fundamentally Impolite, i.e., a Bad Person. Politeness is beside the point in an ordinary transaction like renting a car. Who cares about whether a rental agency customer service representative has family and friends? Not us! But comedians and their audiences transcend the transactional, Louie implies. Therefore, being a bad audience member is morally wrong.

That’s the crux of the Louie Defense that got lobbed at Anonymous Woman by the #toshdefenders: being a bad audience member makes you a bad person.

It’s worth reviewing that logic, because it’s otherwise hard to understand the phenomenon that followed l’affaire Tosh, in which hordes of shock jocks suddenly transformed into scorched-earth Emily Posts. These people were adamant about manners, and their thought process was clear: a violation of etiquette absolutely and uncomplicatedly warrants a thought experiment in which someone is gang-raped in front of the audience by five men. (Or, in the manager’s account of things, a thought experiment in which the comedian wonders aloud whether the woman objecting to a rape joke is upset because of her own history of sexual abuse. He seems, oddly, to think that this version of things is better.)

It is wildly weird to see a crowd that revels in stories about jerking off and sisters getting raped morph into prim neo-Victorians when someone interrupted Tosh’s show. Ever the notetaker, I summarized some iterations of the phenomenon as best I could:

A slight variation on the theme held that she was preachy, shrill, and an instance of the damage feminism has done to society. The following argument was made without a shred of irony:

Being sanctimonious about someone else’s sanctimony is the new shock humor. Politeness is in the air, y’all.

Jane got us all thinking about comfort and courtesy last week, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about comfort and courtesy since.

“I’m not comfortable with that,” Louie says to Laurie in Episode 2. “You wouldn’t want me to do something I’m not comfortable with, would you?” “Fuck that,” Laurie says.

Everyone should read Jane’s history of what it means to be “comfortable,” but at the heart of its usage in Episode 2, and Laurie’s rejection of it as relevant, are two competing paradigms of politeness. Laurie says it’s impolite not to give sexual satisfaction if you’ve willingly accepted it. Louie says it’s impolite to demand a sexual experience that the other person does not wish to deliver. The first case is built around a gift whose social function goes unrecognized and is not reciprocated. The second is built around an understanding of a gift as a donation detached from a social context and which requires no reciprocation. But both parties agree on one thing: the terrain on which their arguments will live or die is the field of Good Manners. Which—this is the fight they’re having—is the more discourteous action?

Evan observed that the end of Episode 2 was a sort of extended nod to The Aristocrats. He is immensely, profoundly, oh-so-right. I didn’t know about The Aristocrats, I’m embarrassed to say, so  when Evan mentioned it/them I watched Bob Saget’s epic take and most of the 2005 documentary where all the greats doing their best versions of the all-time best comedian joke. I ended up … puzzled. It’s admittedly not the sort of joke one is supposed to hear forty times in a row, but even taking that into account, the joke just wasn’t very funny.

When I say the joke isn’t funny, I’m really talking about the punchline. The way the joke is supposed to work is by upsetting your expectations of what aristocrats do and are. It works beautifully if you’re a nineteenth-century person who subliminally associates the aristocracy with courtesy and correctness and purity. No twenty-first-century person has any such associations—the word “aristocrat” is a quaint anachronism. We have the Kardashians and before that we had Paris Hilton. We don’t resent the rich the way we used to, and they don’t try to model morality for us. They’ve become The Aristocrats. That’s just how it is, and so the joke just doesn’t really speak to us anymore. It doesn’t enliven our sense of society or the language; it doesn’t act on our deeply-held expectations. It’s the kind of joke an uncle tells but with some shit, incest and vomit thrown in. It feels old.

But there’s another way the two poles The Aristocrats juxtaposes have collapsed. It’s not just that the “aristocracy” has gone and got itself some diarrheic morals, which it has. It’s also that the comedians have started codifying morals of their own. We used to have the filthy decadence on one side and the patrician masters of etiquette on the other, so it was funny when they became connected. Now, though, there’s a sector of the population that is simultaneously the raunchiest, loudest, filthiest and the group most stringently obsessed with enforcing social proprieties. That sector is the comedy crowd. That may be inevitable, but the point is that #toshdefenders aren’t thinkable in a universe where The Aristocrats is funny.

I want to get back to Evan’s important point, though, about how Louie is using The Aristocrats. The Aristocrats is shock-based; but it’s a slow-cooking shock.  It’s takes the funnybone burnout that plagues comedians and rubbing it viciously until it becomes erect. In this sense, it’s intensely coercive. But it’s also an insider’s game, a game of comedic one-upmanship. It’s a contest at its core. And it’s a blank check to indulge in what seems to have become the Holy Grail for comedians: the rape joke. And that Holy Grail is what everyone is circling the wagons to correct. If the rape joke is the Holy Grail, the funny rape joke is the Philosopher’s Stone.

Louis CK’s support of Daniel Tosh might sadden but it shouldn’t surprise us. Let’s be real; Tosh wasn’t even taking a risk when he flamed that woman. It wasn’t a misstep. He cribbed his heckler shutdown technique straight from CK in “Heckler/Cop Movie.” Sure, it’s possible that the resemblances are coincidental. It’s much more likely that in the heat of the moment he reached  out and found, ready to hand, a comedically critically acclaimed script on that very subject! That he wondered aloud about the funniness of rape the very week Louie aired Episode 2 was just a stroke of good luck. As I waded through the soup of sanctimony, anger, freedom of speech claims and theories of comedic liberty—nestled in with the comfortable consensus view that a bad audience member deserves all The Aristocrats can give and more—I may have missed something important: the end of Episode 2 was (unless I’m much mistaken) supposed to be CK’s crowning achievement: a funny rape joke.

Rudely,

L

PS–No sooner had this post gone up than Gerry Canavan and Rafi Kam informed me that Louis CK walked back the Tosh support this very eve,  claiming (among other things) that the tweet to Tosh was a coincidence. That seemed wildly unlikely, but I just reviewed his Twitter usage habits and they’re random and spare enough that it does seem plausible. (Just.) I can’t see the clip because Chile is a barren wasteland without same-day access to breaking American television, so I can’t comment in any more detail, but I hope what he said was good and makes us feel better about him. It doesn’t change any of the above: “Heckler/Cop Movie” is clearly a source text for comedians and comedy-goers—that’s how it’s functioning, regardless of Louis CK’s intent—”Setup” is still setting up a rape joke, and politeness is (literally) all the rage.

Over and out,

L

9 responses to “RapeJoke and The Politeness Police: Louie, Tosh, and Episode 2

  1. The aristocracy has always been connected with filthy decadence, ever since the Roman Empire and probably even earlier. No poles have reversed; nothing has changed. Sure they all put on a moral front, but they do that today, too. Everyone in power puts on a moral front but the populace well knows that the reality is different. Nothing has changed from the Victorian days in that respect. The way the joke The Aristocrats was *always* supposed to work is that the punchline is both unexpected and makes perfect sense.

  2. Lili Loofbourow

    Sure, in broad strokes, but that account overlooks some important fluctuations. The Restoration was legendarily filthy, and Victorianism came in as a powerful conceptual (if not practical) corrective. However many nineteenth century aristocrats misbehaved, and there were of course many, there was nevertheless an *image* of correct aristocratic behavior that makes the joke both possible and funny. We don’t have that image. Paris Hilton makes no pretense of respectability.

  3. I’ve done stand-up for the last year and a half. I am by no means a seasoned veteran or expert. It is a hobby and it will never be anything more than that for me. But if the worst thing standups can complain about is occasionally having someone who pays for them to live their life is going to be rude or disaproving and interrupt, they are doing okay. All the comics in that Louie scene, make enough money to live on doing the thing they love (which is the most fun thing in the world) and far more often than not get verbal praise heaped on them for it every 10 to 15 seconds while doing it. When you do standup, some shows suck. Some audiences don’t care and are rude. You get over it. It is not the worst thing that has happened to humanity or to you (and if it is, count yourself one of the lucky 0.0001% of humanity). Reactions to jokes are contingencies. It’s what makes the whole thing fun. Sometimes crowds you expect to be great are terrible Sometimes crowds that look awful are the best. That is part of life. The woman is right, it is our job to deal with it.

  4. Great post. The one thing I might add is that in the Louie episode, I got the impression he & his comedy buddies seemed to know & let on at the end he was talking bullshit to the girl outside the Cellar. They said as much when one of them said “You had a shot. You could’ve turned that around.” Meaning, in effect, they weren’t so interested in identifying her as a bad person, but that she feel like a bad person. Perhaps not a huge difference . . . but maybe the subtle ones are the most crucial, certainly when it comes to viewers now thinking Louie was playing the “good guy.” Which, seriously, no . . . he’s no more a good guy in that show than Larry David in his show is a model for being honest.

  5. Hey, I came across this post from Jane Hu’s twitter feed, and just wanted to say that while I totally agree with your point, and that it WAS crazy to see so many people defending a comedian’s right to say anything he wants, no matter how vile, while simultaneously (hypocritically) chastising the audience member in question, who was only making a vallid and non-threatening point (and probably in response to a question Tosh asked the audience “What do you guys want to talk about?” — thereby INVITING the audience to join in, which is all the woman in quesiton was doing), still I think the Louie episode you are referencing actually make the opposite point about heckling, and in fact supports what you are saying.

    Yes, Louis scolds the heckler and argues for a black-and-white rule, and tells the heckler she is a bad person, but every scene that follows illustrates that the Louie character is in fact the bad person. He doesn’t want to do even a small favor for his agent, even though it would mean a lot to his agent, and even if it only means taking a bit part in a movie staring Mathhew Broderick (not exactly a burden in his line of work). Why doesn’t he want to do it? No reason. He just doesn’t feel like it. He doesn’t bother to practice his two lines. During the rehearsal he doesn’t try. Broderick says, “I want you to take a walk, and see if you can find it within yourself to give a shit.” On his walk he stumbles into a convenience store robbery, but he can’t help the victims because he’s a fake cop with a plastic gun, the perfect satirical illustration of himself as the stand-up comedian issuing moral edicts to his audience. As the credits roll we are back to the stand-up scene, with the same woman heckler, except the mood is different. Instead of playing the victim, and putting her down, Louis is generously and creatively working her into his act. She’s laughing and the audience, instead of sitting in stunned silence, is enjoying the show. It’s the example that rounds out the show. The moral is: “Here is another way to behave.”

    The point, I think, as with every Louis episode, is to suggest that maybe things are not so simple, and that you can’t easily moralize about them from either side. Sometimes the self-righteous stand-up going after a heckler might be the bad person. There are no rules, and a comedian being heckled is as capable as anyone of creatively solving a conflict with generosity.

    This is another reason why Tosh’s defenders were wrong. They were seeing a simple moral lesson in a complex situation. Their lecturing was indeed obnoxious. Did you see the piece in Jezebel on how to tell a rape joke? That was the best take on this, for my money.

  6. The line from the Louie episode isn’t “…you wouldn’t exist if your mom hadn’t been raped by that homeless Chinese guy.”

    It is “…you wouldn’t exist if your mom hadn’t raped that homeless Chinese guy.”

    Apparently you switched it around in your head because you cannot fathom the concept that a woman could commit a rape against a man.

  7. Also, since I just rewatched “Live at the Beacon Theatre”, another point needs to be raised about your article.

    You say: “Louie doesn’t really think he’s an asshole for demanding a different car, or for dropping a rental car off in front of the airport without returning it and making someone else go get it. Not really. These things might make him a bad customer, but they don’t make him Fundamentally Impolite, i.e., a Bad Person.”

    The explicit premise about that rental car bit is that he is not a good person. He begins it by saying “I’d like to be a better person. I think I’m getting worse. Let me give you an example…”

    So, what is the point of this article exactly?

  8. Pingback: They forgot the right to shut up!: political correctness, censorship and your basic rights | Life as Improvisation

  9. Man, some people need to lighten up. You have over complicated that episode of Louie to the core. Comedians shouldn’t have to put up with that crap at a Comedy show. You pay to come to a show, order a bunch of drinks and food and then just talk through the whole damn show like the are the center of the universe and Louis C.K. was just trying to give people that sense of in the moment everything is going to be alright because I can relate to you, I am laughing and having a good time. The heckler ruins that for not just the comedian, but for the audience members that want a night out during their stressful lives. I have been to plenty of comedy shows and a heckler is going to get heckled at a comedy show. This has been happening for years. If they are aware that this happens and you are talking all throughout the show then you might as well not of even paid to see the show if you are not paying attention. Go sit in an internet cafe or a quite bar and talk. Louis C.K. made a great point about the life of a Comedian. It is tough because you deal with people who think they have every right to talk during a “Show” which also includes, magician shows, talk shows, ballets, the opera, Broadway plays and symphonies. Just because most of those are classier, we put it in our mind that we can’t say a word because an usher will throw you out if you cause a scene like a heckler at a comedy show. It should be handled just like any of those other kind of shows. You have no right to talk when a guy who is making a living off of something that they love. Comedy has always been known for being inappropriate, and controversial, but its not like Louis C.K. believes or lives his life based on everything he talks about on stage. He is a loving father and a great guy in real life. I have met him and he is very nice to his fans. If you want respect then be respectful back. What do you expect the comedian to do just let her/him interrupt the show?They should get one warning from the Comedian and then the 2nd time they should be kicked out.People pay good money to see these comedians. That is why its a show and they are called “JOKES” If you don’t want to get heckled then shut up and have respect for the person who is on stage. This article is crap and it over complicates a very easy solution to the problem.

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