You can't ban 'rape jokes'

...says comedian Tony Cowards

The furore regarding offensive comedy and the biggest bête noire, the ‘rape joke’, shows no sign of abating.

As a comedian and comedy writer, I'm uneasy with the term ‘rape joke’ being a catch-all for some genre of joke which is unacceptable. Surely like all subjects there are funny ways of broaching it and there are callous, tactless ways.

I remember a very old joke that goes;

‘I've just been graped!’
‘Don't you mean raped?’
‘No, there was a bunch of them!’

Which, essentially, is a ‘rape joke’ but I'm sure that most people wouldn't find this example of wordplay particularly outrageous although if you analyse it to the nth degree it clearly implies that the subject of the joke has possibly been gang raped, surely beyond the pale for humour? 

Tom Basden's excellent BBC Radio 4 show Party recently featured a ‘rape joke’ in so much as one of the characters mistook someone describing a ‘field of rape’ as something akin to the killing fields of Cambodia.

Again a ‘rape joke’ but one that was deemed acceptable for national broadcast at 6.30pm. Just think about that for a moment, it was a joke about the possibility of there being a field in which multiple rapes had occurred, so much so that the field itself had been renamed the ‘field of rape’, truly horrifying but a joke about a questionable subject handled in an amusing context.

As someone who deals in puns and silly one-liners, I wouldn't want to upset an audience but I do think it's dangerous to try to limit what comedians can, and can't, joke about, if ‘rape jokes’ are banned then why not jokes about murder, genocide, celebrity deaths, illnesses, erectile dysfunction, people falling over and any number of other subjects with a victim?

A lot of comedy is about confronting taboos, death, sex, religion, etc, etc, Monty Python wrote a song and a sketch based on a crucifixion, not generally a subject seen as ripe for comedy but now considered a comedy classic.

Context and intent is everything, which makes everything a grey area. One of the beauties of comedy is that there is no overall arbiter of taste and moral decency, which is what allows it to be the constantly evolving artform that it is.

I can totally understand comedy clubs and promoters wanting to avoid upsetting their audiences but this should be done with selective booking and making sure they know the acts they have on the bill rather than any form of censorship.

Anyway, that's my tuppence-worth as someone who has only ever written one ‘rape joke’ which was:

I admit that at university I did molest a prune but I deny that it was date rape.

Published: 9 Nov 2012

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