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Unpunny, or The Mainstreaming Of ‘Edgy’ Comedy

It happens very frequently when I watch comedy: I get offended. I saw one joke that hinged on a Jesus Christ Superstar pun and had that feeling that some inarticulate people describe as “throwing up in your mouth a little.” After that, someone told a perfectly funny rape joke and I almost forgot the dumb pun that I was subjected to.

Comedy is at a point, possibly, where rape jokes are becoming rather tame and “edgy” means doing stupid puns with conviction.

Getting offended while watching, listening, or experiencing comedy is pretty much a universal experience, although, outside what Standards and Practices and the MPAA deem as offensive, the zeitgeist of what makes a majority of the audience cringe in 2012 is vastly different than that of a score of years ago. There are certainly plenty of groups, factions, etc. that still get outraged at a reference to rape or a natural disaster or even a celebrity that just died. Yet, as traditionally offensive material is now being accepted as humor, the dynamic in how comedy is received has arguably been flipped.

Jokes about not only rape, but 9/11, Jeffrey Dahmer, lewd sex fetishes, the N-word, and more are pretty common in the comedic milieu. The repetition of such objectively racy topics has perhaps desensitized comedy audiences, but has also made the comedic premises of “the difficulty of dating”, “I’m half [insert ethnicity] and half [insert ethnicity]“, and corny wordplay very disagreeable.

Without fail, if I hear a joke that sounds like it’s from a innocuous joke book, perhaps one titled, “100 Good Clean Jokes,” I will want to boo whoever is on stage. Even when done in an sarcastic, ironic fashion, those jokes are still overplayed.

Some of the people reading this might think this is a bad sign of how morally corrupt we’ve become, that we laugh at such despicable things. Of course, as far as I’m concerned, they’re wrong. Going to back to Bill Hicks and even as far as Lenny Bruce, the concept of laughing at taboo topics disarms whatever power they hold over the masses. Lenny Bruce had a funny bit about blowing up a plane that would be heavily edited today, almost sixty years after he told it. Luckily, comedy tastes are broadening to a point where stimulating and entertaining discussions can arise on supposedly unspeakable topics instead of just covering your eyes and ears to it like a child.

If this type of free thinking comes at the sacrifice of cheesy puns being publicly shamed, then, I say, so be it.

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38 comments

  • Though I don’t disagree with much in the above post, and I’m way capable of laughing at some twisted sh*t on occasion, I gotta agree with Cassie on the rape ‘jokes’.

    Specifically, if “the concept of laughing at taboo topics disarms whatever power they hold over the masses.” then what is it a (typically male) comic is trying to ‘disarm’ about the concept of rape?

    Just wondering.

  • Way to miss the point. Blowhard feminists make it hard for a feminist male to stay behind your banner. Let comedy be comedy and drama be drama, you queens.

  • Almost anything can be the subject of humor, no matter how beyond the pale. Sarah Silverman says with her humor she makes the audience uncomfortable, then rewards them by breaking the tension with the punchline (I’m paraphrasing).

    Example: “I was raped by a doctor,” says Silverman, “which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”

  • @Cassie, You were sexually assaulted by a comedic routine? Or was it a sexually deviant asshole?

    I believe whoever assaulted you should be accepting the brunt of YOUR emotional issues with the world. Comedy shouldn’t have to suffer just because you did. I also was sexually assaulted and I don’t expect anything from anyone for it. Grow a pair and take control over your own emotions. In conclusion:

    Blowhard feminists make it hard for a feminist male to stay behind your banner. Let comedy be comedy and drama be drama, you queens.

  • Seriously, man. It’s one of the most traumatizing experiences any woman can go through. It’ll never be funny and should never be taken lightly.

    Why don’t people talk about rape? Cuz it was freaking hell when they went through it. People who can just joke about it either never had it happen to them, are trying to hide their pain, or they have no care about what other people have gone through.

    When It happens to your wife/sister/daughter, tell me you’ll keep laughin. Not hoping that does happen, never would wish it on anyone, but you can’t laugh at it.

  • I am super curious what part of the comedy world has so many rape jokes being accepted easily that it is commonplace? Is this an Internet thing or are people in specific towns in the US totally cool with rape jokes?

  • I have been the victim of sexual assault, and I think rape jokes are HILARIOUS. That’s all.

    And, re: disarming “rape.” Even speaking about rape or sexual assault is taboo, and many women (and men, I suppose) who have been raped don’t report it, because of societal pressures that tell them it’s their fault, to just hide it, etc. etc. etc. Joking about rape takes away its power to be taboo, and allows frank discussions.

  • Rape’s become the new airline food of hack comedy subjects. The worst thing for a comedian to hear is silence and even if it doesn’t get a laugh, it’ll probably get a boo which means at least there’s something to play off.

    Same with the bad pun, at least you’ll get a groan which is something.

  • Different people have gone through it and every one is at a different place when it comes to where they’re at in coping with it.
    honestly, I don’t know how anyone can find it funny.
    But there are bunch of people out there who are still dealing with the pain of it. I don’t expect someone who hasn’t experienced/know someone close to them to understand. But the reality and weight of it should be enough for people to respect people who have gone through it. Some perverted maniac is going around violating people. Half the time it’s someone they trusted. Trust issues come. It’s unbelievably hard for a lot of those people.

  • Also, humor is subjective — rape isn’t funny, but I suppose some people will find some jokes about rape funny. Others will find them offensive. Neither position is incorrect.

  • Wow.

    Has Nerdist turned into an open mike for people interested in “trying out writing articles” for the first time?

    Because this basically amounts to someone stepping up to a coffee store mike, shuffling through his note-pad then going, “hey….. um….. have you ever noticed…… like, it’s pretty much OK to laugh at a rape joke these days….. if it’s not too hacky….. but, y’know….. puns are like so not OK…… am I right? Like, we’re down on puns these days….. finally we’re getting somewhere…… that’s like progress, right? *tap tap* Is this thing on?”

    If you’re going to say ‘rape joke’ a bunch of times, it kind of behooves you to have some kind of semi-coherant point, unless you want to come across like a first-time observational open-miker.

    I’ve read this article several times and the best I can come up with is, you seem to be saying, “Some things used to be considered offensive, but these days not so much. Still, some people will always be offended by some things, but that’s always going to happen, so really, that’s just the way it is. Me? I’m a comedy sophisticate. Hearing badly constructed joked makes me vomit, but not in a cliched way. So, I guess that just goes to show how things have changed. Um… yeah. Like rape jokes can disarm that nasty rapey feeling. But have I mentioned how finely honed my comedy tastes are? No amount of rape showers can wash the bad taste of a hacky one-liner from my skin. A knock-knock joke is like ear-rape to me, I tell ya. It’s kind of progress that we can talk about rape-things now in comedy. But have I mentioned how violated I feel when I hear a badly-telegraphed punchline…… ”

    We get it.

    You’re so not like those people who say, “threw up in my mouth.”

    It’s more like, “involuntarily fucked in the face” for you.

    But, you know, that’s nothing to take offense to.

    If you don’t have a point, perhaps consider framing your observation in the form of a question we can all ponder.

    “The previously unraped community seem to feel no shame these days in laughing at a rape joke. Is that some kind of indictment of our constantly shifting cultural mores? Or should the previously-raped community just get over themselves?

  • Hey…I’d say there are more important things at stake than comedy and the construction of jokes. How bout the thousands/millions of people who want to raise rape awareness and have people take rape seriously? How bout the traumatized women and men who have suffered it who want to talk to someone about it but can’t seem to find someone who will empathisize with their pain? In the big scheme of things, a bad joke is the least of this world’s problems.

  • Note that most “rape jokes” don’t involve someone saying, “hey, wouldn’t if be funny if you were raped?” but instead revolve around the quick, evocative punchiness of the word itself within a punchline. It’s a linguistic issue, not generally intended to make you visualize actual rape.

    So, rape itself may never be funny, but talking about it can be.

  • My point is that people need to be sensitive about it. The girl up there was sexually assaulted. I understand there are people, like one of the contribs. up there who don’t get bothered. All I’m saying is people need to analyze if something is worth joking about. I also understand that much of comedy is at other people’s expense. Doesn’t have to be that way. There are some things that are best left “unjoked” about.

  • I think that Jake’s take on this is interesting, but there’s a side to it I’m curious about, because I can’t explain it. I love “edgy” humor, too, but here’s the thing: While some jokes on some topics make me cringe (rape is in that category), I’m fine with Holocaust jokes, and I have a very direct connection to that (I’m the son of a survivor whose entire family other than her were wiped out by the Nazis). Why I’m OK with jokes about a tragedy that affected my own life and family, I have no idea. Maybe I’m insane.

    But in any event. I’d rather let comics push, or wipe out, the boundaries than to set up “you can’t joke about this” rules. You’ll get a lot of hacks being offensive, but that’s also how you get Louis CK or Chris Rock taking on taboos and creating memorable comedy. And if someone IS offensive, there’s always the option to change the channel/walk out/wait for the next comic. And you always have the option not to laugh.

  • I’d rather not joke about something that might offend someone than joke about it and offend someone. You lose more than you gain, really. If it’s about fame and being memorable…are we really willing to shove people aside and joke about them/their horrible experiences for that? Hey…there are plenty of legit things to joke about. I’m all for joking and I think people should laugh at themselves more often. But there are some things (like rape, 9/11, etc.) that aren’t worth being “pushed.”
    Hey… I understand that people aren’t always gonna get offended. But there are people that will. Sometimes it’s about doing the “better” thing.

  • What most people don’t understand is that when many comics tell a joke about a subject, it isn’t meant to make light of the subject but instead is meant to disarm the taboos about the subject and hopefully make it so people feel more comfortable talking about it. Many sexual assaults go unreported because women don’t feel safe talking about it. If a comic can broach that subject without being insensitive to it, then it is possible it will help some victim feel safer discsussing their own experiences, be that with friends, a counselor, a family member, etc. I don’t think rape should be taken lightly, I have a 15 year old daughter and I am terrified of her ever having to deal with that kind of trauma, but I think by refusing to talk about subjects and just sticking our heads in the sand is the worst way to deal with them.

  • Here’s a joke:
    “Approximately 1 in 6 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime…& some people find this a fit subject for comedy”

    *pause for laughter*
    Seriously. Name 6 women you know personally. Now think about that statistic (a Dept. of Justice study was the latest source) again .

    This has nothing to do with censorship, women in comedy, or how humour is subjective. Comedy can be a great way of expressing important ideas that more people should be discussing, so why aren’t people making more jokes about how inept police departments are with their horrendous backlog of untested rape kits? Or how it’s always in the name of being “edgy” that comedians try to push the envelope, by disrespecting victims?
    Or, I don’t know, how the focus on rape prevention should be placed on the actual perpetrators of rape?

    Nobody is saying “Stop saying that” because nobody can stop you; freedom of speech ensures you have that right. What we are saying is stop propagating rape culture, because it’s unnecessary, it’s damaging, & it makes you (& the people who laugh back) look like arseholes.

  • I have seen an alarming amount of Dahmer jokes over the past year, not that it offends me, it just seemed to be a surprising trend for someone who died over 10 years ago. I grew up in the school district he went to and I remember when he died, suggesting, jokingly, that we do a piece about him in my elementary school newspaper. The teacher was not entertained.

  • Perry Michael had the right idea. You can always walk away, change the channel etc. If you’re at a club and are honestly deeply offended by some of the material I’m sure you can ask for your money back.
    Just remember no one has a RIGHT to not be offended. And just because you don’t find jokes about a certain topic funny doesn’t mean it’s not “legit”.
    Let’s not forget they’re only words.

  • I got ya. hey…i understand that not everyone one understands the intention of a comic. I’m sure come comics don’t intend harm or think light of certain subjects. But no matter what his “true intentions” were, it can be taken in the wrong way. What i’m saying is i’d rather not make the joke about the kid whose grandmother got shot in a gang bang even though I may be intending to slam gang bangs, than to joke about it and come across as insensitive. If we’re gonna talk about the kid’s grandmother, i’ma do respectfully. To the kid, it happened in the most unfunny way.

    Disarming a topic is no guarantee. Honestly, there are some subjects that you can’t disarm. SOMEONE out there will be deeply offended if some comic (even if he means well) is making jokes about it. Doesn’t matter if their cultured in comedy or not. Fact is…they still went through it and it’s still as real and painful as ever. You CAN’T turn EVERY topic around to a lighter side using comedy. It’ll only seem light to the people who didn’t experience it. The person who lost their loved one 9/11, got raped still is living with that reality.

  • con’t:

    If someone who did go through those things CAN joke about it, that’s there prerogative. But that’s NOT everyone. We can’t brush off those people that are still in pain just because comedians want to tell jokes and be “memorable” at their expense. We can joke without appearing to make light of the subject and adding to their pain. Let’s joke about something else.

  • I believe some woman who have been raped can laugh at jokes involving rape I actually know a woman who does, although I didn’t rape her myself so have no definitive proof. She does say don’t joke about that but there have been many times when people slip and she laughs. It is all about what the intention and the point of the joke is. For example I have a Cleft Lip and it makes me uncomfortable when comedians joke about it but if there is more to it than just you cant speak properly there is humour to be found in all subjects.

    Teacher: ‘John open your book at page 112 and mark each it and I’
    Mark: ‘You eat shit and die’

  • If comedians were to not joke about subject matters that could offend then we honestly would have no jokes left. Everyone gets offended about something, that’s just how it works out. We all have our limits, whatever they may be.

    Comedians have to be willing to take risks and push boundaries, or else comedy would be static. Of course you can’t turn every subject to a lighter side for everyone, but I don’t believe that’s the goal for most comedians. For those who believe comedy, specifically stand-up, is an art form it doesn’t have to do with being “memorable” or attaining “fame”, but crafting something new and funny that’s hopefully insightful or poignant. I know he gets name-checked all the time, but a perfect example is Louis CK’s joke on masturbation and 9/11.

    That said, screw the comedians who mistake misogyny as edgy humor.

  • It is tough deciding what will or won’t offend someone. The only judge you have as if it will offend is yourself. If you, as the comedian, are not offended, then tell the joke.

    Penn told a story about the drowning trick that he used to do with Teller. One time someone in the audience walked out before the trick was finished. His people asked the person why she did. She said that she had someone close to her drown. She also said that she understood Penn and Teller had no way of knowing this.

    You never know what baggage people are walking into a show with. It is impossible to know what will offend. I think it is up to the individual comedian to decide how far and what topics they are willing to go for.

    Not all comedians have to be willing to push boundaries. Two of my favorite comedians are Steven Wright and Larry Miller. They are both funny for very very different reasons. I do not think either of them are edgy in the sense of this article.

    Larry Miller tells awesome stories about his life. I think the best word to describe Miller’s humor is poignant. He’s all about the value of being silly and finding the silly in living your life.

    Maybe what comedy has lost is its silly playful side? I admit that all silly and playful leads to happy meal box type jokes but can we really be “edgy” all the time too?

    That’s my 2cents. Keep the change.
    -Diane. :-)

  • Hey Diane, I agree with you for the most part except for the idea Steven Wright wasn’t edgy or boundary pushing. At the time he was doing something completely different compared to other comedians, specifically in Boston. To me, that’s edgy since he took the risk and stuck with it even though he knew the audience may not go along.

  • Ah, nevermind. Misread your comment; didn’t see, “I do not think either of them are edgy in the sense of this article.” Sorry about that.

  • Anything can be funny and a previous poster was definitely right about the bias of experience. In gchat before I simply said “I’m back like cancer” and someone was horribly offended because they lost a parent to cancer but my bf lost his mom to cancer and he didn’t care.

    If you don’t think rape is funny, do you think death is funny? Have you never laughed at anyone getting hurt or dying in a joke or a movie?

    Not every joke is funny. There are a lot of awful inherently malicious and homophobic AIDS/HIV jokes but there are also some hilarious ones. I’ve laughed at gay bashing jokes before even though I find most distasteful.

    Frankly, I don’t find talking about such things to be edgy. I find real moments of honesty and vulnerability to be edgy. I’d be much more uncomfortable than the worst of shock humor by a comedian being so honest and open that I felt a need to hug them our of concern.

  • I have yet to see one “rape joke” quoted here. Can you think of any good comics (and by good, I mean look at the list of former Nerdist guests, or Comedy Bang Bang guests, etc), with a rape joke? Can you tell it? Is it really about rape, or does it just use the word? Because if you’re thinking back to some meme or some kid on youtube, you can’t be seriously discussing this. Even if there’s a funny one once in a while, those forms of humor are low-rent unprofessional nonsense, not even worth analyzing.

  • To Reed: Todd Glass: (90 year old woman crossing the street) “Oh, look her! She’s just asking to get raped!”

    Even if you did not find this funny I am sure there is one you would. ANYTHING can be funny.

  • You know what’s funny? In Nov. of 2006 comedian Godfrey, who I think is a brilliant comedian, was interviewed by CNN anchor John Roberts after Michael Richards used the N-Word repeatedly while attacking hecklers in the crowd.

    “ROBERTS: And Godfrey, what went through your mind? I mean, you’ve been up there. I’ve seen your shtick. You make fun of Indian people sometimes. There’s a lot of profanity in your act, but I mean, when I saw this, I was shocked at how over the top it was. How about you? 



    GODFREY: I make — every comic has racial jokes. Racial jokes are part of like our meat and potatoes in comedy. But I have no problem with how you feel, but you are at a comedy club, you are supposed to be funny. You know, you don’t just insult people. And the thing is, you’re insulting people that supported you when you were on “Seinfeld.” 



    ROBERTS: Right.”

    The fact that Godfrey, who is African-American, can take and make racial jokes says a lot about the latitude of taboo material these days, but it has it’s limits — even for comedians. No one was laughing at Michael Richards. Not even Godfrey.

    Fast forward to 2002: An article exerpt from writer Michael Wilki.

    “In the latest 7UP ad, its bumbling spokesman (comedian Godfrey) shows up in a prison to find a “captive audience” for the product. When handing out free soda, he drops a can but then laughs and says, “Ooo, I’m not picking that up.” (No matter that he’s safely on the other side of the bars.)

    The commercial closes as he sits on the edge of a bed in a cell next to a heavily tattooed prisoner who has his arm around him. “When you bring the 7UP, everyone is your friend,” he says, but gruffly adds to his cellmate, “That’s enough being friends.” Even the year-and-a-half old tagline, “Make 7UP Yours” — originally a play on “up yours” — takes on new meaning.

    After running the ad for two months, 7UP and Dr Pepper parent Cadbury Schweppes pulled the commercial after criticism that it makes light of human rights.”

    Fast Forward to 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LneOzu6Ytio

    Godfrey makes a joke about rape during a standup bit in NYC and an audience member calls him on it. Things get pretty heated.

    My question is, although taboo subjects such as rape can be funny to some, even a majority, is it worth it for comedians to make them part of their act? I’m sure Godfrey has had jokes that didn’t go over well with crowds not because they were edgy or taboo, but because they were just not funny. All comedians do. It’s part of the process. So, you work on the material or you throw it out the window. Why? Because it doesn’t serve you.

    Godfrey is really smart and hilarious at times. His part in Zoolander was comic genius, but after two specific instances where rape has not served to further his career I wonder if it would serve him better to take that particular subject and place it in the file with his other jokes that did not work.