When the Daniel Tosh firestorm started my initial reaction was to shrug and say “who cares?” It was a comedian making an off-hand offensive joke not on television, not on a CD, but to a live audience. The jokes weren’t great and they weren’t in any way PC, but I felt like they were a non-issue; I had seen many comedians say worse things to hecklers. (I thought it was much worse when he encouraged his fans to “Lightly Touch Women’s Stomachs While They’re Sitting Down.”)
But then it became a discussion that was being had everywhere by comedians and non-comedians alike, and I started looking at the situation differently. I realized much of tension that has come up between comedians and those writing about this stemmed from comedy not used to being criticized this way. This both means it’s not used to capital-C Criticism, like that has existed for other art forms for centuries, and it’s not used to this scale of people caring about it.
“Comedy is subjective” was thrown around a lot last week. Well, guess what: all art is subjective and always has been. Critics are the people whose subjective opinion we as a culture allow to speak for more than themselves. Comedy, especially live comedy (people obviously have been reviewing comedic films), has lacked specific critics until very recently. Instead of critics, there was the audience. It was up to the audience at that given moment to decide if a joke was good and they did so in a very clear way: they laughed. It was pretty simple: no laughs indicated a bad joke, small laughs indicated an OK joke, and big laughs indicated a good joke. In that capacity, the more people a comedian could make laugh, the better comedian he or she was.
As a result, the only people that were really tastemakers were people in the position to book comedians. Most notably Johnny Carson could be considered a critic insomuch as his subjective taste became an agreed upon as a standard. And Johnny loved great comedians — Jerry Seinfeld, also Ellen Degeneres, Andy Kaufman, Garry Shandling — and he loved Jeff Dunham. (He LOVED Jeff Dunham.)
Ultimately, the only people who dissected comedy en masse were comedians. I imagine no non-comedian said the phrase “joke structure” until the 90s. One can argue it wasn’t until Seinfeld that on a large scale we heard someone talk about comedy in terms of something beyond what makes you personally laugh; the character of Banya represented “bad comedy” as a specific and different thing from just unfunny comedy. Arguably at that time comedy was still seen as a lowbrow art, so by clarifying this distinction, we started towards a mass critical look at it as an art form. Similarly, rock n’ roll wasn’t talked about in the same terms as classical music, so magazines like Rolling Stone were created to do so. Then those previously high-minded publications adjusted and began talking about The Beatles in the same conversation as Bach. Criticism, at its best, contextualizes a piece in the history of the form and art in general. Comedy has not had that happen on that scale, until VERY recently.
Splitsider is currently one of the three largish comedy-related websites. There’s also Huffington Post Comedy and Laughspin. All three primarily focus on two main functions: reporting on comedy-related news and celebrating great comedy. The primary indication that comedy is bad is omission. This also seems to be the case when comedy bleeds into broader publications. Jason Zinoman is the New York Times’ first person to write a bi-weekly column on comedy and mostly he’s used it to shine a light on comedians, comedies, or comedic trends that have probably eluded the Times audience. He doesn’t write a column about how he thinks a recently comedy special represents a step backward in someone’s art. (For example: I don’t think I saw anyone anywhere say the simple statement that Louis CK’s last special was very good but probably the worst of his recent output.) No one really writes anything negative and long about stand-up, excluding things like people using their personal blog to shit on Dane Cook or something along those lines.
And if we do write something even slightly negative, comedians aren’t particularly cool with it. In conversation, a widely-published critic told me of a comedian who called him (CALLED HIM! Like on the phone!) the day after a negative write-up. A certain podcaster tweeted at a fellow writer when a positive paragraph he wrote alluded to a less-than-desirable part of his show. Personally, I’ve had a couple of comedians publically or privately voice complaints. This is not to say that comedians should love people saying negative things about them, because who would? People saying negative things sucks regardless if it’s a commenter or a New York Times writer. It’s more that they can’t believe it exists — they’ve been getting laughs and that’s the only feedback they planned on receiving. Other artists understand that negative criticism is part of the territory and smartly do their best to avoid reading it.
My problem with the Tosh fallout was that it felt like many people were just lashing out at him because he’s not a good comedian. What makes Louis C.K.’s rape jokes not offensive and Tosh’s offensive? Ultimately, Louis’ jokes were better because he is a better comedian. For Tosh to become a better comedian, to tell better jokes (rape and otherwise), he needs to keep on working on his craft, which is what he was doing when he delivered the much-discussed jokes. Comedy is different from other art forms in that you have to be bad in public. You might start off by writing shitty songs, but you don’t have to play them in front of people — you can wait until your songs are less shitty. But comedians need to tell shitty jokes to figure out what jokes are not shitty. And if you are a comedian who says borderline-offensive things on stage — be it Daniel Tosh or Tracy Morgan — you have to push the audience to see where that border is between funny and offensive. It’s not too different from observational comedians who have to find that sweet spot between a unique observation and a relatable one. The difference is “edgy” comedians are flying closer to the sun. If a comedian goes “Have you ever noticed that all orange soda makes you think of West Virginia,” no one will laugh because that is completely unrelatable and that will be the end of it. But if a comedian goes: “Have you ever noticed that orange soda makes you think of the time you raped a girl in college,” the reaction will be different. And it should be different. These comedians have decided to play with fire, with something that can really hurt people and if it doesn’t work, they will probably hurt someone.
It was a point perfectly made in Lindy West’s excellent piece on Jezebel:
“And the flip-side of that awesome microphone power you have—wow, you can seriously say whatever you want!—is that audiences get to react to your words however we want. The defensive refrains currently echoing around the internet are, “You just don’t get it—comedians need freedom. That’s how comedy gets made. If you don’t want to be offended, then stay out of comedy clubs.” You’re exactly right. That is how comedy gets made. So CONSIDER THIS YOUR FUCKING FEEDBACK. Ninety percent of your rape material is not working, and you can tell it’s not working because your audience is telling you that they hate those jokes. This is the feedback you asked for.”
Ultimately, free speech goes both ways. Comedians are free to tell whatever jokes they want and people are free to write about them (they shouldn’t heckle or do anything resembling heckling, however).
So, was the conversation about Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes blown out of proportion? It’s hard to say. They were very bad jokes and Daniel Tosh is a very big comedian. Think about how much people talk about when very large actors or directors make really bad movies. (People will forever talk about how awful Godfather III was.) Every joke a comedian makes should obviously not be analyzed on the scale of a blockbuster film, but some might be when they represent a growing negative trend. The conversation about Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes was not a conversation about Daniel Tosh, it was a conversation about rape jokes as they represent a variety of issues in comedy: free speech vs. responsible speech, misogyny, the power of language, the relationship between the artist and their audience, and so on. Maybe it wasn’t blown out of proportion because this is now the proportion at which comedy is discussed. And maybe that’s a good thing.
This dust up can be seen as a reflection of society’s newly impassioned view of comedy as an art form and comedians as artists. Through the Internet’s unifying of comedy nerd culture, podcasts, and the huge and varied opportunities given to comedians on cable, comedy has reached the point where people really care about it in a way that goes beyond entertainment. Like never before to this scale, comedy is being put on a pedestal as something important, meaningful, and representative of the state of the world, and comedians are being seen as more than some schmo clown; they’re philosophers, poets, truthsayers. And when it works, like it has for Louis CK recently, your art is talked about in the same publications, and with the same gravitas, as those whose work hangs in MOMA or the Smithsonian. And when it doesn’t, well, people will also talk about it.
Comedians should and will continue to be able to tell awful, offensive jokes; they must just accept that the times have changed. A joke can get you inundated with backlash or get you into the New Yorker. This is distinctly different from when comedians were being arrested for cursing and obscenity — no one is saying Daniel Tosh should be prosecuted for his jokes. He still has two TV shows. It’s more about the sanctity of the craft. And that’s where I disagreed with the aforementioned Jezebel piece, when she said: “a comedy club is not some sacred space.” It is. It is in the way a rock concert can be for some people or a temple/church/mosque could be for others. Comedians, you’re no longer Rodney Dangerfields — you can get respect. So, the question is: What are you going to do with it?
Jesse David Fox is a writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn. He LOVES comedy and he LOVES criticism.