People hating your rape joke is not the end of free speech as we know it

If you haven’t heard already, Melbourne’s comedy scene had it’s very own rape joke controversy last week. A comedy debate was planned at Station 59 with the subject “There’s nothing funny about rape” with all male teams on both sides and an extremely awkward poster.
























Just take a second to take all that in. You will not be surprised to learn that Facebook and Twitter were unimpressed and people rapidly unleashed against all involved. Much of the controversy is nicely summarised here:

You can also go to Station 59’s Facebook thread where a lot of it blew up:

Management has said they weren’t involved and the gentlemen who designed the poster and set the topic have both been apologetic. As have most of the proposed participants.

Quite a few good things that needed to be said were said on the blog below. Several REALLY important things about how a lot of women feel about rape and the risk of rape, that are worth reading aside from all of this are said here:’s-rapist-or-a-guy’s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/?year=2009&monthnum=10&day=08&like=1&_wpnonce=90795f55e6&wpl_rand=3e0a045463

I had a good chat with one Richard McKenzie last night over beers about this whole thing and, without shitting up everyone’s day, wanted to put some thoughts down on the page so I can stop thinking about it.

To be clear, I don’t know many of the guys involved, I don’t know what they were planning to say. This is just a discussion of rape jokes in general.

Some have said you shouldn’t ever tell rape jokes ever. While that’s not a bad rule of thumb (and I’ve never told one) I don’t think there are ever absolutes in comedy. I’ve seen good jokes from Louis CK that involve rape but are told skilfully that prove it can be done. For example here:

If you’re a male comic and you write a rape joke the first question you should ask yourself is “If a female (or male) friend of mine had been raped and heard this joke would she/he feel uncomfortable?” If the answer to that is yes then you have a problem. As a professional entertainer (which BTW is what you are as a comedian) you’ve failed at your job. People will like you less as a person. And you’ve probably set some horrible memories off in the mind of someone you don’t know. You should then ask, given ALL that, is my desire to tell a joke about rape so strong that it should outweigh those other considerations? Do I have NOTHING ELSE TO SAY?

I should add that I’ve got close friends who’ve been raped. Friends who’ll hear a strange sound or see something that reminds them of some aspect of the event and shut down. Friends who have nightmares that leave them afraid to sleep, afraid to go out, afraid to talk to people. If you REALLY think that any joke you have is worth triggering that kind of stuff, you think too much of yourself.

Re all the free speech bullshit people have been arguing about. Yes, you have the right to tell the joke. People also have the right to be offended by the joke and express that point of view. But if no one ever told another rape joke would democracy end? Would free speech as we know it disappear into an Orwellian mushroom cloud? Would the thought police burst into your share house, put you in a bag and disappear you into a bank vault somewhere in South Australia? No? Then stop whining sunshine. Free speech DOES mean the right to offend sometimes but stand up comedy is entertainment dude. You’re not Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Mandela. It’s 2012 Australia and if you really believe that your right to tell a joke about rape is the tipping point for democracy then you need to stop drinking Mother at 2 AM and have a break from the stage. Comedians are performers and we can be truth tellers and agents of change but free speech is a dialogue and if people start screaming back at you maybe stop and think before you kick off your second rape joke.

Apparently some of the folks involve in organising the debate have been getting death threats and the venue’s been getting horrible phone calls. That’s not okay either and doing that kind of stuff because you’re outraged at someone else’s appalling conduct makes you a bad person.

About Toby Halligan

Toby is a stand up comedian, improviser and writer. He started writing comedy at school for the Radford College Annual Fashion Revue and his career has never enjoyed quite the same heights since. He moved to Melbourne from Canberra in 2009 to pursue stand up comedy and has never looked back, lest he be turned into a pillar of salt. His day job is writing and occasionally producing for Channel 10's The Project, and he's written for SBS's Legally Brown, Mamamia, the Punch, the Monthly, the Age, mX and the Sydney Morning Herald. He co-writes Diary Leaks with Mathew Kenneally and runs a monthly political comedy room called Political Asylum with Gerard McCulloch and Simon Barber.
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