Three impossible metaphors = three very difficult jokes

by david

Sometimes I teach sketch comedy writing classes. I’m unambiguously for a certain kind of comedy, which for this post, we’ll call “smart comedy” (whole posts can be written about the limitations and blindnesses of this perspective). I don’t make many rules about writing. But every once in awhile, I do give a note along these lines: don’t use the word “rape” for anything other than “rape.” Similarly, don’t use the word “holocaust” to describe anything other than “The Holocaust,” and unless you’re referring to another type of actual slavery–like obviously-situated Roman slaves–never use the word “slave” to describe anything other than an American pre-Reconstruction slave. The reason for the three is related, and can be illustrated a bit using:

I. The recent rape-confession-cum-comedy-monologue at the Del Close Marathon.

An email exchange about it reminded me of:

II. the Penny Arcade “Dickwolves” controversy,

Both of these reminded me of:

III. Ta–Nehisi Coates’ response to Rick Santorum’s comparison of abortion and slavery.

Hey, what??? Maybe this seems bizarre, but there it is. Let’s quickly break the three down.

I. A man tells a story, very publicly, about committing a rape. He tells it, very clearly, because he believes it is entertaining. The story may better be understood as a public confession to a crime. Best case scenario for him: he’s a liar and has an absolutely terrible sense of humor. No metaphor here: this is a joke about rape.

II. Cartoonists write a joke that mentions rape. The rape mentioned in the joke is incidental, not central to the main joke of the cartoon. The spot filled by “rape”, logically, could have been torture or boredom or teen pop, but the cartoonists chose rape. Essentially, “rape” is a metaphor for suffering that must be relieved. Once it was brought to their attention that some of their readers were troubled by the rape joke, they could have responded a number of ways. Rather than apologize or ignore the criticism, they doubled down, saying essentially, “don’t get so bent out of shape about a rape joke.”

III. A politician compares abortion to slavery. A pundit logically supports his analogy. A more thoughtful pundit (on this topic, at least (and is it fair to call Coates a pundit?)), sets them straight: the analogy is inaccurate and diminishes our understanding of what slavery really was.

I truly hope I’m not making the same mistake myself here. I know that I’m equating three very particular horrors (rape, the Holocaust, and slavery), but I hope that I’m equating them in one respect only, and only from the perspective of a comedian and writer: these three topics cannot serve as metaphors. No matter how much something might seem to be rape, or slavery, or the Holocaust, it isn’t. People compare taxation and gas prices and ticket processing fees to rape. It’s cringe-inducing. Your relationship to your boss is not equivalent to the societal compact to build a culture on the enslavement of fellow humans. Anybody who would dare compare whatever it is to the Holocaust, it’s not. It’s simply not. An attempt to use them in metaphor only calls attention to the weakness of your metaphor. It does you no credit as a writer.

And second to that, but related, they are EXTREMELY difficult territory for jokes. Not impossible: extremely difficult. I believe that they are impossible metaphors, not impossible jokes (I don’t think anything is off limits in comedy). This is part of what makes them difficult ground for jokes: you can’t be talking about rape as anything other than rape. If you refer to a holocaust, you are talking about The Holocaust. Unless you’re telling a very specific joke about contemporary slavery, your slave joke is probably about slavery. And if it’s not, it’s about rape. So, uh, that’s difficult.

Note, I said difficult. Not impossible. But you’ve got to be pretty confident. And it wouldn’t hurt to check with someone who a)knows what they’re talking about, and b) will be honest with you. Because sometimes when you’re pretty confident, it’s because you’re pretty wrong. We’re all wrong sometimes. It’s OK. Then we learn. As a teenager, I said something stupid to a gay friend and his response was historically gracious: he gave me an icy stare and walked away. I pretty quickly realized how stupid I was. We’re not born with full awareness of our stupidity. Hopefully we learn without insulting, but if we do insult, we should have a good think about it. Maybe we decide we’re right. Maybe we decide we’re wrong. But we owe it to them to think. Maybe the worst thing we can do is to go with our gut reaction.

Unless your goal is to start an argument, the gut, the hip, and the ego are terrible places from which to write comedy about complicated issues. Because our guts, hips, and egos are deep in a mire that is filthy and constrained and maybe a little bit angry. And it’s tremendously stupid: if you take the time to process that shit through your brain, you’ll get one of two outcomes: a) my gut is right, or b) holy shit, life just got more interesting. My two cents: stupid comedy is the comedy of dumb guts and bullies. Smart comedy is the comedy of “life just got more interesting.” Louis C.K. has engaged on the word “faggot,” and with his brain, he’d made a joke that uses the word. Maybe you think it’s offensive, but it’s not dumb guts. Sarah Silverman has made conscious and controversial jokes around race, gender, and the word “retarded.” Same thing. Neither of them is doing cheap old material. They’re taking risks, and what they’re doing is difficult. It’s not “shooting from the hip.” And it’s not metaphor. It’s never metaphor.

But most people working this territory aren’t putting the same level of thought into it that Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman have. Most are telling offensive jokes because offensive jokes get laughs. Some people love gay bashing jokes and some people love racist jokes, and some people think rape jokes are hilarious. The guy at the Del Close Marathon was getting laughs. He was also getting boos. But he was getting laughs. And that’s why he was so confident that his story was hilarious: that shit always gets some laughs. His decision was being reinforced as a good idea. Even in an audience where statistically there were bound to be rape survivors, a story about rape got laughs. If you, as a comic, are aware of that balance–of the cheap laughs you get for exploiting pain versus the pain itself and the role your joke plays in normalizing an ongoing culture of acceptable criminal brutality–and don’t care, then you’re opting for the comedy of dumb guts and bullies. If you, as a comic, engage on these topics in a way that makes us question that norm, well, you’re back into “this is really difficult.” Good luck to you. Have a good long think, give it a try, run it by some comics you trust, and be prepared to apologize. If you get it right, you’ve done something semi-heroic.

I don’t want to be a censor. I just want people to think about the effect of their words. I’m reminded of the adage about newspapers comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. I don’t think comedy’s job is to comfort anybody. But if you’re afflicting the afflicted, you’re doing it wrong. That’s just bullying and inciting.

Race isn’t impossible as a metaphor. Homosexuality isn’t taboo in comedy, and isn’t impossible as a metaphor. They’re both difficult in comedy: high risk, usually low reward. Mitchell and Webb have a great series of sketches (one embedded below) about Nazis that don’t use the Holocaust as a metaphor and don’t use it as a joke. Their sketches aren’t about exterminating Jews. They’re about the nature of the Nazis themselves, of squaring the Nazi identity with the basics of being an average guy, and how hard that is to square. There’s a TON of good Nazi humor from Monty Python to Tarantino.

Mitchell and Webb could do an hour on the Nazis and it’d be hilarious. But I bet they’d have a tough time doing 20 minutes on the Holocaust. Part of it is their perspective: unless you can make that personal, it’s often exploitative. It’s easier to get smart laughs with a slavery joke if you’re descended from slaves. It’s easier to get smart laughs with a Holocaust joke if you’re descended from survivors. And it’s easier to get smart laughs with a rape joke if you yourself are a survivor. It’s easier to be smart on these topics when they’re a part of your life, because you’ve done the thinking and the coping and suffering and the adjusting to a larger culture that doesn’t see things from your perspective. You’ve got the ingredients for smart comedy (and it’ll still be extremely difficult).

There’s no real advice in this post for how to do this hard work, and why would there be? I’m just figuring this stuff out myself. Despite my heritage, I don’t do Holocaust jokes, because even with my relatively high access level, I haven’t found the funny yet. And despite what I’ve told my students, I don’t think anybody should be prohibited from trying: I just think they need to double, triple, and quadruple question themselves. Because as much as it sucks to have to follow your punchline with an apology, it doesn’t suck even the slightest bit as much as it sucks to have a comedian make a joke out of your deepest wound and hear the people around you laugh. As a comic, if you get credit for the laugh, you also have responsibility for the pain you cause.

I don’t typically write drafts of blog posts, but this one is much improved for time and the attention of others. Thanks to Sara Faith Alterman, Pete Fenzel, and Erik Volkert for checking my lazy thinking as I wrote this. My post doesn’t reflect their views, but is much better for having had their eyes on it.