There are few jokes more divisive than rape jokes. For (some) audiences, a rape joke instantly devalues the struggle against sexual violence and dehumanization of that term while for comedians, unless the usage is utterly original, becomes a lazy throwaway stereotype used against Delhi. I’m talking about this because for Indian stand-up, this is a point of rupture brought forth only when something like the Daniel Tosh controversy happens. And it is something that needs more thought.
For those not in the know, Daniel Tosh, famous provocative comic in a recent performance at The Laugh Factory started a bit with “I think rape jokes are funny”. An offended audience member decided to cut short his joke setup by responding with “Actually, rape jokes are never funny”. Tosh then cashed in on the comedic license against heckling and let fly a “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if like five people came and raped her right now?” You get the idea. Read more here.
The next day, Guwahati. I’m not even going to spend any time outraging about this incident because internet outrage doesn’t solve anything beyond turning everyone into participants of a “who has a superior moral compass” contest. The only feeling I was overcome with after hearing of the incident – I didn’t feel inclined towards looking at the footage – was that of helplessness. It is something one encounters in everyday life and is powerless to do anything about. I know when I’m out with friends my brain is constantly scanning for douchebag(s) who’ll make lewd remarks, attempt to grope or stare down cleavage. They’re always there. Mocking your vulnerability if you’re alone. Gurgaon. Bombay. Goa. There seems to be no escape beyond looking the other way and feeling powerless. And that brings me to my question.
Should the existence of incidents like Guwahati lead to a different moral code for comedians in India? Does it carry more “weight”?
I have always been an absolutist in my support for free speech. In the case of Daniel Tosh, while I did not find Tosh’s takedown of the heckler very funny, I completely support him saying it. Comedy is one of the few industries left that has license to break social code – but does it in countries like India need another look in?
We all know comedy is subjective and what one person finds funny might not apply to another at all. For example, there are some absolutely hilarious rape jokes that subvert the very notion of what the word connotes. Examples include Dave Chappelle’s bit about “Man rape” and the ever so awesome Louis C.K. Do comedians need to draw their own lines in a country where they’re already being forced and told to do so on every second issue?
I also wonder why in the Indian context the division is limited to jokes on rape and perhaps cancer. Why do people still laugh at the every Delhi is a rapist joke? Why does no one in an audience get offended at “Mayawati is a man” jokes? Is it because the threat of sexual assault is levied at one of our kind while the latter doesn’t concern us? Because the English stand-up industry only caters to a certain castes and class profiles? And what about religion? Where it is perfectly normal to make fun of Islam and Sikhism but not of Hindus? I don’t really have the answers, but if there’s one thing the Daniel Tosh incident teaches us is that comedic lines are being drawn and shifting almost instantaneously – and while for me no issue is too offensive to joke about – these lines within Indian audiences need a look in by fellow comics. The weight of the issues we joke about perhaps is a lot heavier.
Except Bollywood. Fuck that shit.