Huffpost UK Comedy uk
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John Fleming Headshot

In Defence of Rape Jokes

Posted: Updated:

A comedian phoned me yesterday evening, angry that another comedian was Tweeting trying to get comedy performers and promoters to sign up for a 'No Rape Jokes' pledge.

The idea is to ban comedians who tell rape jokes.

The first promoter to have 'signed the pledge' appears to be a club that only allows female comedians to perform, which seems a little ironic. I am thinking of opening a comedy club at which Jewish performers are banned but at which no rape jokes would be allowed. No problem there, then.

Trying to ban rape jokes is like trying to put sticking plaster over a symptom to hide an unsightly abscess, not cure the problem. It is the wrong target. The aim, surely, should be trying to stop audiences laughing at rape jokes.

Unless - in my opinion - they are funny.

Funny is funny.

I have known and worked with three women who were raped as children. All bore psychological scars. Obviously.

When I hear a comedian tell a rape joke, I cringe because of this. But also because the comedian is usually getting an easy laugh. He (seldom she) knows the audience will laugh in shock because the subject is in bad taste. They used to be able to get a laugh by just using the word "fuck". That word's shock value disappeared. Then it was the word "cunt". Now that word on its own no longer gets a laugh.

But now you can get an easy laugh by telling a rape joke or a joke about (presumably) little girl Madeleine McCann or her parents. It is lazy comedy. Knee-jerk comedy.

I do not like rape jokes. By and large. The comedians who tell them are bad comedians. By and large.

But Scottish comedian Jerry Sadowitz has told rape jokes. He is a brilliant comedian. The jokes were funny. I laughed. I enjoyed the jokes as jokes.

Fellow Scottish comedian Janey Godley (who was repeatedly raped as a child) used to tell stories around the subject of child abuse and rape. There is a fascinating clip on YouTube of her starting her act.

Normally, I do not repeat comedians' routines. But this one is worth repeating because what is being said is in no way funny yet it gets big laughs because, as Frank Carson might have said: "It's the way she tells 'em".

It is a masterclass in how to get laughs from an audience.

Janey says:

"When I was five, I was sexually abused by my uncle... Now, I don't want you to all rush the stage and give me a hug, cos it's OK... cos I got him killed for my birthday later on (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)... Yeah (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)... No, I did (BIGGER AUDIENCE LAUGHS)... That's no a joke (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)... Yeah (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)... Got his cock cut off (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)... So... (AUDIENCE LAUGHS)..."

What is being said here is not funny.

At no point does Janey say she is joking. She says the exact opposite. She tells the audience a man was murdered and - five times - she points out to the audience that this is not a joke. She is joking about murder and sexual mutilation. But the laughter continues and heightens.

If rape jokes are to be banned, why not also ban murder jokes, incest jokes, adultery jokes and jokes about travelling salesmen, mothers in law and rabbits? All were certainly offensive to the ears of pre-War BBC Radio.

It is a short and slippery slope from banning jokes to burning books.

Lewis Schaffer, a Jew, has what I consider to be (currently) the world's best three-part Holocaust joke, Should he be banned from telling it? He says on-stage that he is allowed to tell that joke. And not for the reason you might think. And that is part of the joke.

Blanket bans on jokes can never be a good idea. Let the audience decide. Or try to change audiences' attitudes. But don't try to ban the jokes.

I talked to comedian Bob Slayer about this last night.

"I'm thinking of blogging about The Rape Thing tomorrow," I told him. "If I did, I could glide into the attack I have not yet launched in my blog on left wing neo-Fascism. That should get me spat at in the bars of Soho and the streets of Edinburgh... Love Bernard Manning. Hate Tony Benn,.. Something along those lines..."

I am old enough to remember the late-1960s and early 1970s when the Vietnam War was being fought. When people were booked at universities to speak in support of the War, demonstrations were organised by well-meaning left wingers who believed strongly in Freedom of Speech... to get the person banned from speaking.

In the real world, left wing irony has never been widespread.

Nowadays, freedom-promoting left wingers sometimes say candidates from the right wing BNP should not be allowed to promote their views in TV programmes or on the streets. But the BNP is not an illegal political party. If their views are so appalling, a law should be passed to ban the party. But, if what the BNP believes is expressed in a perfectly legal way, then trying to ban them from speaking is, in my view, Fascistic.

I personally agree that the BNP is abhorrent, but that is irrelevant.

I blame the French.

We say 'left wing' and 'right wing' because of the seating arrangements in the Estates General during and after the French Revolution.

The reality is that political extremism is part of a circle, not a horizontal line.

Hitler's political party was correctly called a (national) Socialist party... Because extreme right wing views about a strong centralised state overlap into extreme left wing views about 'the people' controlling everything via a strong centralised state.

Wanting to ban jokes about rape is indefensible if you do not also want to ban jokes about murder. And, if you ban talking about certain things at live gigs then, logically, you have to ban the same things on television and in print.

It is a short and slippery slope from banning jokes to burning books.

Bob Slayer disagrees with me. He jokingly supports attempts to ban rape jokes in comedy clubs.

"Of course," he says, "all of this will require a comedy police force to ensure that these rules are adhered to. Someone will have to vet every comedian, judge them before they even do their first open mic gig and award them with a provisional licence to perform clean, pre-approved jokes. They can then work towards proving they are capable of a full comedy licence to make up their own jokes.

"A comedian licence would work along similar lines to the one for buskers on the London Underground. It used to be that buskers who were homeless and looked like they were only busking in order to keep in the dry were driven outside to think about their lives while they slowly died of cold.

"Thankfully, they were then replaced by college students and trustafarians who had achieved at least grade 4 on their chosen instrument. These approved buskers were then given a laminated badge and allowed to entertain commuters with officially sanctioned playlists.

"I look forward to comedy being ordered in the same way."