Rape jokes from survivors - courtesy Canadian stand-up Heather Ross
Rape jokes aren't acceptable. Except, they can be - if they punch up to get a positive discussion going. Or, if the person cracking the joke happens to be a rape survivor who's more aware of the reality of the experience, and hence more sensitised to what the joke's purpose should be - to expose, under the headlights of comedy, various forms of rape culture.
Canadian stand-up comics Heather Jordan Ross and Emma Cooper were both acutely aware of all this. In fact, about two years back Ross was sexually assaulted by a co-worker. After almost a year, the person got back in touch with her, wanting to "hang out." The whole thing was hard to deal with obviously, but it also got in the way of her work as a comedian. That's when the idea to start a national comedy tour occurred to Ross and Cooper - it would feature comedians who are rape survivors. That's how the show, Rape is Real and Everywhere, started out in Vancouver six months ago.
Heather talked to Catch about what's an acceptable rape joke, why new artists punch down and the need for rape survivors to utilise the stand-up comedy stage more.
Could you tell me a bit about yourself? Were you always a professional stand-up comic?
I started doing stand up while I was studying to be a journalist. I completed an honours degree in journalism in 2012 and worked as a small town news reporter for a year while still doing stand up on the side. In 2013, I decided to move across the country to try being a stand up comedian for real. I've been based in Vancouver for the past three years.
How and when did you decide to form such a collective of survivors?
Emma Cooper, my co-producer, and I were talking over beers about how the people usually telling jokes were young guys who didn't have any connection with the experience. Then we asked ourselves: what if there was a comedy show about rape, as told by survivors? At first we talked about it in jest, and then we realised it was a great idea. That night, we came up with a venue, a deadline, and at least five comedians we could contact to be on the show.
What were the reactions of other comedians to your idea - any apprehensions or hesitation at all?
In Vancouver, we asked comedians who we knew were survivors, whether they talked about it on stage or had told us personally. Some people were on board right away, some people waffled and then agreed, and some said it wasn't something they ever planned to talk about on stage. Many comedians came into this nervous but ready for a challenge, but they found the experience very cathartic.
How did you go about convincing others to join your gig?
When we decided to tour, we wanted to hire on location. We reached out to comedy groups in every city and asked people to submit if they felt ready. No one had to tell us their story, they just needed a submission of their regular stand up act, and the willingness to write a new set for this show. It was a total leap of faith to join our team, because, until two hours before the show, we were strangers. But across the country, the gamble paid off. Emma and I were blown away by everyone's vulnerability, heart, and humour.
When and where did you hold the first show? What was the audience response like and has it changed as you toured?
We held the first show last January at Hot Art Wet City in Vancouver. We sold out immediately. Our first audience was supportive and a little nervous. We realised we had to give them permission to laugh, and then they warmed up.
On tour, Emma and I realised that the less the audience could see themselves, the more they laughed. I think people are afraid of laughing at the wrong moments. But truly, every crowd has been incredibly warm. It's the best audiences either Emma or I have ever had. Many of our audience members are survivors who have been ready to laugh for a long time. Once Emma warms up the crowd (she's the MC) it's a comfortable space.
Our venues varied, sometimes our audience was 55 people, sometimes it was 300. You're going to get differences there, but overall audiences were incredibly supportive.
A lot of stand-ups try to engage directly with the audience as part of the performance. Did you attempt anything similar?
One of the incredible things Emma came up with was getting audience members to submit jokes. They did. About their rapes. And lots of them were really funny. I don't know if the jokes are too 'Canadian' to get, but one girl said she got raped to Nickleback (a famous Canadian band Canadians hate). She said she didn't think anyone could make Nickleback worse! We probably got over 60 submitted stories that ranged in jokes, support for the show, and stories of sexual assault.
What's an "acceptable" rape joke? How do you maintain sensitivity in a joke and yet make it funny?
Good jokes punch up. They bring something new to the conversation. I have a joke that makes a lot of people say, 'whew.' Because it's dark. But it still punches up. It goes like this, "Someone accused us of doing this show for the money. I loved that. Yes, I got raped and went into the arts for the money. That was my evil plan all along." I get a big laugh from this, clearly I'm being sarcastic. Then I say, "If I wanted to get raped and make a lot of money, I'd join the army." That's a dark joke. But, it is a real problem in North America that women in the army are being raped and being silenced. In Ottawa, a group of women that represent survivors in the army told me: keep telling that joke. It's important. That joke is dark, but it brings up a conversation we aren't having.
What are some mistakes a rookie comic might make when dealing with sensitive issues such as rape?
It's easier to punch down with a joke. That's why new comics do it. When you punch down, you repeat shitty ideas people already have. Even Louis CK has a joke where he says, "Well, if you could kill someone and get away with it, you would kill someone." And then he says, "you'd at least kill a hooker". The joke there is that a hooker's human life has no value. That idea is already pervasive, which is why a sex worker is more likely to be killed and police are less likely to investigate their deaths. When Louis tells that joke, he's on the side of the perpetrator and the problem. That sucks.
Do you think others might see your efforts as a way to appropriate rape jokes from non-survivors? Is there a need to do so at all?
We've been very firm that we don't make rules about who can tell jokes. Just be funny. Think about what you're saying. The thing about people that are edgy instead of funny is that they tend to sort themselves out. More and more, thoughtful jokes float to the top. Because thoughtful jokes use more imagination, and people flock to that.
There have always been rape jokes, and there have always been rape survivors, we just finally brought those things together. I think many survivors were ready to talk about this but they didn't know how it was going to turn out. Now we know people are ready to talk about this, and ready to laugh about this. It's very encouraging.
In the future, will you be open to getting onboard women, or men, to perform even if they aren't survivors?
Probably not. This show has a very specific angle: rape jokes, as told by survivors. There are enough talented survivors, we won't have to stray from this. That being said, we have had a comedian who tells a story about an attempted assault, and her story has value. If someone presented a good case for being on the show, we might discuss it of course.
Do you feel the same joke can have a different resonance coming from a survivor as compared to a man?
That's a tricky question, because we have had at least five male survivors on our shows. Those two things can be the same.
The fact is, people do feel more comfortable with a survivor telling their own story as opposed to someone outside of the experience. I would say, however, both narratives are important. There are people not ready to listen to survivors. They are ready to listen to people who look and act like them, so approaching this subject as a non-survivor in a smart way does have value.
Louis CK got himself into trouble with an episode from his show (labelled the Date Rape episode) last year that, many felt, had overtones of rape. Have you seen that? Your thoughts?
I haven't seen it. There are a lot of things I love about CK but I'm wary. There are rumblings of his treatment of women, and I have a feeling it's not going to be good.
Are there any stand-ups you feel have done a decent job of cracking jokes around rape/ rape culture?
Yes. Wanda Sykes has a great bit, Amy Schumer does a wonderful skit on her show, and many more.
Any one particular joke that always lands well with the audience?
Emma has some real gems about talking to a guy who wants her to explain the entirety of rape culture to her just so he can knock it down. It's brilliant. One of my favourite jokes pokes fun at the idea that audiences need to be less sensitive and people should joke about whatever they want. It's VERY sarcastic. It gets laughs every time.
"I get it, if you're sensitive don't come out to shows. Because why would a survivor of a traumatic assault... ever deserve to laugh again?"