But That’s the Joke: Reconciling Trauma with Humor



I sat in Gotham Comedy Club on Tuesday, September 1, 2015, during one of their talent showcases. As most comedians do, the first few opening acts poked fun at various attributes of themselves (among which was a guy calling his Turret’s Syndrome “cute” and an 80-year-old woman strumming on a ukulele, singing about being bisexual). Then a middle-aged female comic took the stage. She started off with some subpar jokes about being middle-aged–the normal, almost formulaic post-40 humor. Then came the roofie jokes. That is right, plural. Line after line about them. A joke about her husband feeding her a bottle of tequila and a few roofies to get her to loosen up before his high school reunion. Jokes about her chewing them like TUMS. The club burst into laughter after each one was delivered. Why would people laugh at the date rape drug? Because the jokes were funny.

Comedy is a delicate balance of two things: the politically incorrect and the relatable. Put too much political incorrectness into your joke and people get offended. Make your storyline too personal and people will not be able to connect with your narrative. It is an intricate dance the comic must perform to make sure they receive a handful of chuckles, at minimum, to make their delivery a success. One of the riskier topics to use in stand-up is rape. The actual topic itself is no laughing matter; yet, comics (often times, female comics) use it in their stand-up all the time. As stated previously, comedy is a very delicate balance. I am going to make a statement that may make people need some emergency room assistance: rape jokes can be funny. There, I said it. Let me explain before you revoke my feminist card. Rape jokes should serve only two purposes: to help heal or to highlight the problems of rape culture. Joking about a traumatic event may seem counterintuitive; however, it helps a sexual assault victim regain control of an autonomy that has been stolen from them. I spoke to Juliana Perciavalle, an amateur stand-up comedian that performed at the Gotham showcase, about her thoughts on rape jokes. She put an emphasis on being able to control the narrative and what people laugh at, “Whatever your trauma is, it’s valid and you deserve to twist it and make it funny all you want.”

So where does that leave non-victims? Well, if you want to make an insightful, tasteful rape joke (an oxymoron, I know) follow one simple rule: never make the victim the butt of the joke. Just do not; the end. Juliana put it more eloquently stating, “If you don’t have that kind of trauma you have no right to make fun of it.” To further explain, I present exhibit A: the case of Daniel Tosh. Back in 2012, a female audience member heckled Tosh by saying that, “Rape jokes are never funny.” Tosh’s go to response was, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?” Every comedian has faced hecklers at some point in their career; however, the knee-jerk response is not to make a threat of physical violence as heinous as rape. If anyone reading this finds that statement funny for any reason, please just stop reading and go reevaluate your life and its choices. If you are amongst the elite with a moral compass, you will realize Tosh’s comment was a direct act of aggression. No, he may not have hired out a bunch of men to actually gang bang this woman, but he singled out a female audience member and made her the butt of a poorly executed “joke” by pinning her against a culture of rape that she faces every single day. That is just a really fancy way of saying his masculinity is so fragile he has to sound like a 13-year-old boy saying, “Lololol go get raped”–so edgy.

There are many reasons why rape jokes can actually be beneficial in combating rape culture. To do so, a comic must stare the problem directly in the face and call it out. Sarah Silverman did that in her joke (hyperlinked earlier in the article) by providing commentary about the vast majority of rapes that go unreported. Louis C.K. made a brilliant rape joke in one of his comedy specials, “I’m not condoning rape, obviously—you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to [have sex with] somebody and they won’t let you.” This highlights the issue with rape culture: people think they are entitled to sex. Despite what your mommy told you growing up, you are not special and you are not entitled to anything–especially sex. Just because you have sex organs, does not mean you get to use them whenever you wish. Again, neither of the above cited examples make the victim the butt of the joke. Silverman’s joke highlights a society where victims have to fear scrutiny for being attacked. Louie literally boils down the logic of rape culture. Both jokes receive A+, would quote jokes again.  

Just as people are free to use words in whatever way they wish (be it productive or not), people are free to be offended in any way they want. No one is forcing anyone to like rape jokes. You are free to hate them as much as you please. However, there are rape jokes that are actually helpful. Comedy is a fantastic tool to highlight idiosyncrasies in our society and draw attention to real issues (such as a little thing called rape culture). Not every joke has to make someone else the butt or the punchline. Most comedy serves to help the comic regain control of their own life and be able to write their own narrative. Yes, comedy can be distasteful and crude but it can also serve a purpose. At the end of the day, we are all just searching for a way to get a handle on this uncontrollable thing known as life.

If you, or someone you know, has been the victim of sexual violence and would like to speak to someone please call (800) 621-4673.  

One thought on “But That’s the Joke: Reconciling Trauma with Humor

  1. Pingback: But That’s the Joke: Reconciling Trauma with Humor | thegrouchyartist's Blog

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