There's nothing less funny than trying to explain why a joke is funny. But given the subject at hand, I guess we're left with no other choice.
In one of the best scenes in the original British version of The Office, Ricky Gervais's pompous and delusional branch manager David Brent squares off with a customer care expert who's been hired by the company to help train Brent's staff. Brent, predictably assuming that he understands interacting with the public better than anyone, takes part in a role playing exercise with his poor guest that deteriorates in hilarious and shocking fashion when Brent not only goes off-script but seemingly off-planet earth.
Pay special attention to what happens at 1:44 of this clip and in the few seconds afterward.
Maybe it qualifies as a "rape joke" in the strictest sense, but the line, "I think there's been a rape up there!" is nothing short of brilliant. What Brent says isn't the least bit funny and yet it's incredibly funny precisely because it's so shocking and sums up in one perfect moment everything that David Brent is all about. It's a completely inappropriate thing to say -- and only an insufferable buffoon like David Brent would think it's exactly what should be said in the context of a customer service training session at work.
There's a certain amount of backlash happening now against a similar bit that will run this Sunday on the widely anticipated and heavily promoted Simpsons/Family Guy crossover episode. In a clip of the show that was actually shown for the first time at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, the two animated families' respective infant terriblés, Bart Simpson and Stewie Griffin, make crank calls to Moe's Tavern, one of which misses the mark completely. While Bart, as usual, gets Moe to step into the trap of an embarrassing but quaintly inoffensive pun, Stewie just belts out a completely horrific "joke."
Bart asks Moe if he can talk to someone at the bar with the first name Lee and the last name Keybum. (Get it?) Stewie on the other hand tells Moe, "your sister's being raped."
It's terrible and not the least bit "right" and that's exactly the point. The very idea is to highlight the difference between the two families' -- and two shows' -- brands of humor and it succeeds wildly.
It won't surprise you to learn, however, that the Parents Television Council is losing its mind over this thing. Tim Winter, the group's president, has written to both Matt Groening and Seth MacFarlane asking that the gag be removed from Sunday's show and he wants Fox to consider pulling it if the creators of the two shows won't. So far everyone has ignored Winter, which is leaving him in his natural state-of-rest: aggrieved and irrelevant. "We don't mock certain groups because we realize that it is highly insensitive and morally wrong," says Winter. "Why wouldn't we do the same thing about sexual assault?"
The encouraging thing here is that the Parents Television Council seems to thus far be the only big name group complaining about the joke and, again, they complain about anything. Who's not complaining is RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Their spokeswoman Katherine Hull Fliflet says that she doesn't find the line offensive because "the show is making it clear that rape is not funny by how they are positioning the joke." That's precisely what it's doing. What Stewie does is supposed to be perceived as wrong because the Griffins themselves are generally wrong.
Despite the firestorm of controversy surrounding the use of rape in humor that seemed to begin in earnest two years ago with a Daniel Tosh comment, there have always been outspoken feminists who've argued that while making a rape joke is a little like handling nitro, it can be done. I've always believed that very little should be off-limits for use by a skilled comedian or comic writer, even subjects that disturb and offend us most as a society. What sears our psyches is often what leads to some of the most vital comedy in the world.
The Office and the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover prove it.