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?”
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.
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,