Monday, 24 September 2012

Rape Jokes, Female Comedians and Re-evaluating.

Since I've noticed that this long, circular conversation about rape jokes in stand-up comedy is still completing its long, circular journey, I thought I'd add in a few thoughts. I am not an expert, or an authority on the matter, but I do feel like I have some insight. So this blog post will cover why I feel like I can talk about the subject at all, as well as my conclusions on it. Also, I'll mention what it prompted me to do, which may be of interest if you have any thoughts with regards to female comedians.

I organise a comedy night in Wood Green, at the Big Green Bookshop. It's an unusual, intimate gig set in a slightly odd venue, and it does seem to be one that the comedians and audiences enjoy. It's not a large one - regular crowds are between 20-50 - but we get a nice, smart, left-wing audience.

I also perform the MC duties throughout the night, which involves me acting as the warm-up for each half of the show, as well as my main duties of introducing and linking between the acts, so I usually end up doing around 15 minutes of material throughout the night.

So, effectively, I'm coming from the point of view of a performer and a promoter, as well as a fan of comedy.

Rape jokes weren't something that I thought about until I saw a rather good comedian at the bookshop, who put on what i thought was a storming routine that went down well. Except the following day, one of my friends was particularly upset. And she wasn't the only one. Two people (at least) in that small audience had been raped or sexually assaulted. I don't know the details. I didn't ask.

Basically, he'd made one or two off-hand jokes about rape during his routine, and for them, it ruined it. They'd been sat there, in the dark, surrounded by people who were laughing at something that brought up violent, difficult memories.

Now, one thing that I see some fairly new comedians doing - and when I was first doing comedy back when I was 20, before I stopped doing it for a decade, something I did myself - is working against what likeability you actually have. Now, your mileage may vary with regards to my personal likeability, but I'm mainly talking about other comedians. Being likeable isn't something everyone has, and I'm always confused when someone works against that with unpleasant material.

Maybe it's a desire to be seen as an angry young comedian. Maybe it's too much influence from comedians that play off the anger side of things. Maybe it's from a slightly paradoxical desire to be taken seriously.

But now, I am an old, decrepit man of 32, and I have no desire to make life more difficult for myself. If I can get an audience to like me, it's going to be easier to make them laugh. As far as I'm concerned, it's in my interest to take advantage of any innate likeability I have.

But doing material that could cause genuine upset, in a manner that I would have difficulty understanding? I find that hard to justify.

Now, that's not to say it's completely unjustifiable. All subjects can be talked about, and all subjects can be joked about. But I think that if you're going to tell a joke about something potentially very hurtful, be it race, religion, sexism, homophobia, or sexual assault, you should be aware of the potential consequences.

Essentially, I think my conclusion on the whole situation is that you can tell rape jokes, but they'd better be bloody good jokes, otherwise you're potentially upsetting audience members, and also turning them off you, for a joke that more than likely isn't worth that.

Obvious responses have been 'they're only jokes' and 'the majority of people like them'. True. But the majority of people haven't been raped. Sometimes, it's the minority you've got to look out for.

Jokes may not be intentionally malicious. I'm reminded of this clip from TVAM in 1984. Faith Brown may not have been intending to be malicious, but it's incredibly uncomfortable viewing. I suspect that some of the people who are arguing that rape jokes are fine are going to be looking back in twenty years in a similar way.

I'm not saying it's totally off-limits, and I'm not saying there haven't been good jokes told that involve rape. Sarah Silverman has at least one amazing joke about it in her catalogue, and on the London Circuit, I've seen Harriet Kelmsley and Nick Sun both do great routines involving it as a subject. But there was usually a different point being made (Silverman's is about Jewish stereotypes, Kelmsley's is about attitudes towards rape, and Sun's is deeply involved with his dark, screwed up comedic character).

Perhaps the point is just that it's a subject that needs to be carefully considered, and not just used casually or lazily.

Partially in response to it as a topic, I thought it would be nice to have an all-female comedians night at the bookshop. I thought it'd be nice to do something a little different, and run a night with a different ethos. It didn't start off as intentional - the first three comedians I booked were women, and I thought I may as well run with it. We did an all-female night last year, the month after we'd unintentionally had an entirely male lineup.

This time, I didn't want it to be a gimmick. When we promoted it online, we didn't mention that it was an entirely female night. When I MC'd, I didn't point out that all the acts were female. I just ran it as a regular night. And it was absolutely a regular night - in fact, it was a fantastic night. One of my favourites we've done.

At the end of the night, I was talking to audience members, and a few people said they hadn't even thought about it. Which I think is great. I don't know how noticeable an all-male comedy night would be. I suspect a lot of the time, it would go unremarked upon, but all-female line-ups tend to be flagged up as such.

This ties back in. I think a lot of the ways in which society is still more male-orientated are in ways that a lot of people don't see. Or at the very least, they are so in ways that I tend not to see. I feel like I'd notice an all-female lineup more than an all-male lineup (although the comedians that were booked that night were SO good that I think it'd have taken me a while to notice if I were an audience member) And in the same way, it can be easy to talk about rape, and not think about the victims, which while not exclusively female, are more likely to be female. The recent talk about rape jokes, and the reactions I've seen from some people, has caused me to think about how important it is to think about things from other points of views than your own, and use it to re-evaluate.

When it comes to equality, and when it comes to thinking about the possibility of offence being caused, I think it's important to sometimes do that. To think about what the consequences are, and weigh it up with what you're setting out to do. If it's worth it, absolutely do it. If it isn't, maybe just think about it again.