Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A popular comic is under fire in a heated controversy involving the use of rape jokes in stand-up comedy. This probably sounds familiar if your short-term memory goes at least as far back as last July, when Daniel Tosh faced a giant helping of righteous indignation following a confrontation with a heckler at a comedy club in which he apparently made a crack about her being raped. There were calls for Tosh to be fired from his job at Comedy Central and essentially run out of popular culture on a rail, and a debate began over whether rape should ever be joked about and, if so, how to do it and how not to. At the time it felt like it was all anybody was talking about, due largely to the social media outrage machine that ramps up every time anybody gets offended in this country these days, but the respectful debate over what could and couldn’t be mined by comics for humor wasn’t necessarily a bad one.
But now comes this: Patton Oswalt is being raked over the coals by a very vocal faction of the feminist media community for his position, once again, on rape jokes. Now if you’re saying to yourself at this very moment, “Wait, Patton? But he doesn’t make rape jokes and, besides, he’s one of the funniest people in America and someone who consistently comes off as a genuinely good guy,” you should probably know that the controversy this time isn’t like those that came before it. It all stems from an opinion piece that ran late last week over at Salon — a site that’s become the premier destination for outrage porn on the internet — written by a political writer and small-time New York City comic named Molly Knefel. In “The Rape-Joke Double Standard” — and I can’t blame you if you begin rubbing your temples now — Knefel laments the fact that Oswalt eloquently spoke out following the Boston Marathon bombing but supposedly can’t be bothered to raise his respected voice in defense of the millions of women who’ve been sexually assaulted in this country. So, yeah, her disappointment in Patton Oswalt isn’t the result of something he said but something he didn’t say. Because that’s where we are now.
Patton tried to respond respectfully but tersely, in a way that didn’t give the growing chorus of perpetually aggrieved Twitter and Tumblr enthusiasts any ammunition or even the dignity of believing that their argument held much water. But it was obvious he was pissed — and he had every right to be. True, he defended Daniel Tosh last year when a third-hand description of what had happened in a comedy club between Tosh and an offended audience-member hit the internet and started an avalanche of indignation that had the potential to threaten the Comedy Central host’s job. But what Patton was speaking up about at the time was Tosh’s right to say what he did in the context of a comedy show; he was commenting on the chilling effect it could have on comedy in general if comics suddenly lived in fear of the reaction they might get to potentially offensive material, since comedy is often about confronting uncomfortable subjects and because humor itself is so subjective. Either way, to criticize someone like Patton Oswalt because he was moved enough by one despicable and violent act to offer his thoughts on it but, supposedly, wasn’t just as moved to offer thoughts just as affecting and powerful on another issue involving despicable violence is ludicrous. And that’s what Molly Knefel seems to be saying: that Patton is missing out on an opportunity — and, I suppose, shirking his responsibility — to effect real positive change simply by remaining quiet; he’s, I guess, proverbially allowing evil to triumph by doing nothing.
Since Knefel is a quasi-professional comedian, I won’t say she’s entirely unfunny — I haven’t actually seen or heard her stuff — but you still have someone telling one of the funniest people in America how to be funny and concern trolling him over his supposed cultural negligence in not taking the public stand she feels he should take on an issue that’s important to her. It’s Patton Oswalt’s job to be funny. And he’s incredible at it. It’s not his job to be an outspoken crusader for women’s rights and against sexual violence — and the fact that he’s not an outspoken crusader for women’s rights and against sexual violence doesn’t mean he’s a bad person or that, through his silence, he’s endorsing rape and denouncing women’s sexual sovereignty or anything else that’s pro-woman. It’s not his fucking responsibility to use his microphone like a weapon in the war to end atrocities committed against women by assholes — and it’s wrong to give him an oversized ration of crap for not speaking out on one particular serious subject just because you happen to think that it’s a subject that requires his immediate attention.
In the wake of the Knefel piece, Patton’s been subjected to the wrath of Lindy West of Jezebel — because, of course — who wrote a lengthy “Open Letter To White Male Comedians” excoriating comics who don’t deal in the kind of humor she would ostensibly not be irritated by. (West, by the way, famously wrote the most widely circulated of the many insufferable pieces in the wake of the Tosh miasma lecturing comics on “how to make a rape joke”; she was also behind an essay called, “Hey, Men, I’m Funnier Than You,” so you have a pretty good idea where she’s coming from.) He’s also been bombarded with tweets from Tiger Beatdown’s Sady Doyle — who for some reason is incapable of referring to men as anything other than “dudes” — letting him know that the reason he’s being criticized is that he’s “on the wrong side of an issue.” (Doyle went on to provide everyone with a list of “#goodcomics,” in other words ones she feels show proper deference to, and genuflection before, the god of her very specific brand of feminism.) Meanwhile, again, all he did was not use his public forum in a way someone decided for him that he should. Molly Knefel wrote a piece out of the blue and drew Patton Oswalt into a mini-maelstrom over — nothing.
Here’s where I say something that shouldn’t need to be said because, as with Patton Oswalt, silence shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of human decency, but these days you have to fill in every blank lest you be misconstrued: Rape is wrong, period. It’s a sickening and contemptible act and there’s never any excuse or justification for it. It’s also a difficult subject to even broach and if you’re going to try to use it in a way that’s darkly humorous you’d better know going into it that you’re walking on very thin ice. There’s almost nothing in this world that can’t be mined for comedy in the hands of someone who’s truly talented, but a joke involving sexual assault of any kind is the sort of thing that’s just about guaranteed to offend somebody. That said, no one gets to decide for me or anyone else what is and isn’t funny and what I or anyone else can and can’t laugh at. That’s the nature of comedy. Likewise, laughing at a well-done crack involving even a sensitive subject like rape doesn’t make somebody a troglodyte or a despicable monster out to oppress women.
Patton Oswalt didn’t do a damn thing wrong. He’s a comic. He believes in being funny. He believes in doing whatever’s necessary to ensure that he and other comics like him — male and female — continue to have the freedom to take chances when it comes to being funny, because humor is so subjective and, one more time, no one has the right to tell somebody else — or to dictate as the voice of an entire culture and for the alleged benefit of society as a whole — what is or isn’t funny, what can and can’t be poked fun at as long as there’s no genuine malice intended. Patton’s history as a comic is one of brilliance, insight, and, yes, a lack of malice toward anyone; what Molly Knefel did to him was cheap and unfair and the only person it should make look bad is her. Maybe her intentions were pure, but as she so piously lectures Patton on, intentions mean shit.
Last night, my girlfriend and I sat on the couch and watched Louie CK’s live show from New York City’s Beacon Theater. It’s well-established that Louie is beloved by the people who traditionally raise hell over the use of rape jokes; he’s both the go-to defense for those who make audacious jokes that fall flat and the example used by the perpetually offended of how to do a joke “right,” because, yes, he’s just that good. It’s fair to say that not everyone can walk the kind of comedic tightrope Louie does, but it’s also obvious that Louie’s given a hell of a lot of leeway by the Molly Knefels and Lindy Wests of the world because a lot of his jokes defer to the feminist model embraced by them. While he’s hilarious, Louie does openly genuflect before the god of indignant feminism by doing bits like the one in which he says that men are the biggest threat on Earth to women; that’s music to the ears of the Jezebel staff, proof of him “getting it” simply by seeing things their way.
What’s interesting, though, is that at the end of the Beacon special, Louie dedicated the show to the great Patrice O’Neal, who died a year-and-a-half ago. For the unfamiliar, Patrice reveled in a complete lack of paralysis over whether he appeared sexist or racist or generally misanthropic. The result was dangerous, exhilarating comedy. In his last special, Patrice grilled the audience on why it wasn’t okay for men to sexually harass women at work; he called it unfair and said that all you’re doing by stopping men from commenting on how a woman looks is turning down the volume on thoughts you know are there. Louie was a fan of Patrice’s because Patrice was always willing to “go there,” to gleefully be “wrong.” He was unafraid, and while that didn’t on its own make him a brilliant comic, it’s what gave him the opportunity to be a brilliant comic. That’s an opportunity worth protecting. Louie believes it. Patton believes it.
But I’m still trying to figure out what it was that Patton did to earn him an internet chastising anyway. From what I can see, he did nothing — and I guess these days that in itself is enough for somebody to get pissed over.
(There’s now a quick follow-up to this piece here.)
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.