Patton Oswalt rethinks his stance on rape jokes in thoughtful essay

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Image Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Sorry, Daniel Tosh: You just lost an ally. In a treatise of over 6,000 words, comedian Patton Oswalt Friday spoke out on the rape joke controversy, pointedly retracting his support of Tosh’s stance to make jokes about anything, regardless of subject matter.

But first, let’s rewind. Last summer, the host of Tosh.0 found himself in a sticky situation after a spectator complained about the way she was treated at one of his shows. Specifically: As Tosh was allegedly riffing about how hilarious rape jokes are at an open mike, the spectator felt moved to shout out, “Actually, rape is never funny!” By her account, Tosh paused, then said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…?”

While Tosh issued an apology for the incident — “all the out of context misquotes aside” — it sparked a long-simmering conversation about feminism, the male-dominated comedy community, and what is and isn’t acceptable in making light of horrific and tragic topics. Tosh’s opponents argued that there’s a difference between jokes that lampoon the absurdity of rape culture — an attitude that normalizes, excuses, and tolerates sexual assault — and jokes that mock the victims of that assault. Tosh’s supporters, by contrast, accused his opponents of censorship, saying that there should be no limits on what comedians should be able to joke about.

Among the people in that second camp: Patton Oswalt, who told EW at Comic-Con that while he didn’t agree with what Tosh said, he thought it was “very dangerous to create an atmosphere where people can’t f— up,” since open mikes are meant as safe spaces for comedians to try out new material.

Fast-forward to this past spring, when the rape joke controversy reared its ugly head once more. The firestorm began anew when feminist writer Sady Doyle called out comedian Sam Morrill for telling a series of “steady, relentless, predictable” rape jokes during a show she attended. The article rippled around the Internet, leading Salon’s Molly Knefel to lament the “rape-joke double standard” and Jezebel’s Lindy West to write “An Open Letter to White Male Comedians,” in which she called comedy clubs “overtly hostile” spaces for women and requested those she was addressing stop acting like “a bunch of entitled babies terrified of a few girls in your clubhouse — demanding that women be thick-skinned about their own rapes while you’re too thin-skinned to handle even mild criticism.”

West went on to discuss the ethics of rape jokes with comedian Jim Norton on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell:

She followed the appearance by reading some of the most horrifying rape threats she received after the show.

Though plenty of comedians have dispensed 140-character thoughts on the debate, a pro hadn’t contributed a long, thoughtful examination of the issue — until Friday. Its title, “A Closed Letter to Myself About Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jokes,” appears to give a nod to West’s Jezebel post. Its author is Patton Oswalt.

Over the course of the extensive post on his web site, Oswalt first tackles two other issues: joke plagiarism — he’s been on the receiving end more than once — and a Chicago Tribune article written this January that called heckling a good thing for comedy. Oswalt, naturally, disagrees both with that premise and the idea that joke stealing isn’t a big deal — and wonders why a knack for being funny isn’t valued or respected the way that other skills are:

Why is it – and this only seems to apply to comedy – that some people so deeply resent those that can write jokes, can invent new perceptions of the world that actually make people laugh?  Resent them so much that they have to denigrate the entire profession, just so they can feel better about themselves?  Do they really think they’re less of a person if they can’t make up a joke, or be funny in the moment?  Why is it so crucial to them?

In the essay’s third section, Oswalt takes a left turn — first sharing an anecdote about a “handsome, friendly” comedian he once knew who’s currently “serving a 55 to 70 year sentence for a string of rapes he committed at college campuses where he toured as a comedian,” then exploring the “knee-jerk” reaction he had when last summer’s now-infamous Tosh Incident blew up.

After noting that he still thinks comedians should be “allowed to f— up” at open mikes and saying that he doesn’t condone the behavior of the woman who heckled Tosh in the first place — “Don’t interrupt a comedian during the set-up” — he reaches an epiphany:

But remember what I was talking about, in the first two sections of this?  In the “Thievery” section and then the “Heckling” section?  About how people only bring their own perceptions and experiences to bear when reacting to something?  And, since they’re speaking honestly from their experience, they truly think they’re correct?  Dismissive, even?

[...]

Why, after all of my years of striving to write original material (and, at times, becoming annoyingly self-righteous about it) and struggling to find new viewpoints or untried approaches to any subject, did I suddenly balk and protest when an articulate, intelligent and, at times, angry contingent of people were asking my to apply the same principles to the subject of rape?  Any edgy or taboo subject can become just as hackneyed as an acceptable or non-controversial one if the exact same approach is made every time.  But I wasn’t willing to hear that.

The bottom line, in Oswalt’s words: His initial reaction to Tosh’s joke — and the rape joke controversy as a whole — “was… fu—ing… wrong.” Thankfully, he concludes, “I’m a man. I get to be wrong. And I get to change.”

Your move, Tosh. Read the essay in full here.

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