Comedy Central

Comedy Central

When Daniel Tosh replied to a heckler in 2012 by stating that it would be funny if she were raped, he was wrong. It was a hateful and violent response, a joke fundamentally wrong in its approach and construction regardless of the situation that created his need to defend himself (a comic’s right against a heckler but one that needs to be handled with equal measure of wit and restraint). The heckler, though likely right in her philosophical stance regarding rape jokes, might have also been wrong to disrupt mid-joke (not just in terms of debatable comedy club etiquette, but for not allowing the joke to run its course before assuming the need to rebuttal an unformed conclusion). In fact, it’s quite possible that everyone in the room was wrong, from the offensive performer to the disruptive, offended party to all of the people who vocalized allegiance to one or the other. Tosh’s reactionary ugliness was certainly the most wrong, but because human behavior is complex and the human mind’s understanding of it even more so, it is okay if we allow nuance in our perception of the event and concede that each of these behaviors was wrong to a degree that is independent of its relation to the others.

The incident, if nothing else, opened up a widespread public discourse regarding rape jokes that was louder and more rightfully impassioned than any that we have seen or heard before it. Note that it’s possible to credit this incident with triggering the subsequent fruitful cultural conversation without celebrating Tosh as a hero moderator of the topic. Comedy is a landscape atop of which acceptable social attitudes are negotiated, and even the bad jokes help  construct necessary boundaries in everyday behavior. It’s the safest forum in which to hold a trial-and-error investigative study, one in which even the erring performer adds value to the conversation.

However, in terms of Daniel Tosh, who today celebrates his 40th birthday, the distinction of “erring performer” must be carefully applied to individual bad, bad jokes or, at broadest, segmented portions of the comedian’s oft-conflicting variety of personas. Since the almost career-defining rape joke incident, Tosh-detractors have forced a hurried reassessment of his entertainment value which has rendered an unfairly reductive labeling.

Let me be the first to concede that comedic personalities that hide under the flimsy protective umbrella of “anything is fair in comedy” — that is the collection of Dice Clay-influenced jesters touted as being “equal opportunity offenders” —  represent the easiest, dumbest, and least rewarding comedic form. In this progressive age, one in which female comedians are just now earning credit as belonging to the same talent collection as their male peers rather than being dismissed as a lesser subsection, and with the once-taboo subjects of racism and sexuality moving out of the pool of punchlines and into a position that allows valuable comedic perspective, there’s no reason to expect the exclusively-shock approach comedy to survive the current decade. I’ll be happy to see it go. But the hasty dismissal of Tosh as being “one of those kind” of comedians is somewhat unfair and dismisses some of his valuable large and small contributions.

A few examples: having grown up in a working class family, I’ll never stop crediting Tosh for his early standup celebration of his poverty-defined roots (“…the lava game… you might have called it something different, but it meant the same thing: you were poor”) or his later first person personification of condescending upper-class condescension (“Ah, Orange County, where everyone is rich and white like God intended it.”). Tosh’s Web Redemption interviews on Comedy Central’s Tosh.0 program often exhibit more personable and respectful exchanges with his embarrassed, hopeless, and differently-abled subjects than is practiced by high profile, condescending talk show interviewers who insist on more marketable sympathy, blame, and patronage. It’s also worth noting that Tosh’s intentionally blurred presentation of his own sexuality, from a comedic standpoint, lends to a “Why does it matter?” reading, even if less intuitive audiences mistakenly believe that the implied homosexuality is the punchline. And let’s not forget his now-ironic readiness to take professional sports and fraternity culture to task for their contributions to rape culture.

Of course, these forms of humor are easily digestible in comparison to the unsettling instances in which Tosh adopts and displays the role of the oppressor: the clean-cut, now wealthy white male reciting too-familiar racist and sexist one-liners. To any fair-minded, level-headed observer, it’s an aesthetic that doesn’t sit right. And it shouldn’t. Who can fault a reactionary public for throwing the metaphoric baby out with the bathwater, if the baby in question has its George Carlin-influenced DNA tainted by the DNA of the ugliest segments of our culture and history?

The current American moment is more culturally sensitive than any before it. That half of you reading that previous sentence interpreted it to be a complaint is evidence toward why it’s actually a very good thing. It is really quite incredible that our society is finally constantly cognizant of the non-white, non-heterosexual, non-male life experience and openly aware of how those experiences are vastly more difficult. The danger, of course, lies in giving full cultural license for these sensitivities to serve as jury and immediate executioner, because that unquestioned yielding can halt forward social movement.

Hear me out as I offer a specific example outside of comedy.

When Donald Sterling, the billionaire former-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was caught on tape espousing racist sentiments to his mistress, the general American public responded with predictable outrage. But, as Bomani Jones, an ESPN personality and keen observer of American race relations, noted on ESPN’s Highly Questionable program:

This is the only opportunity that a lot of people out here will have where they feel comfortable within their souls and within their psyches to stand against racism. Because it’s so easy to do it on this right here… So everybody’s like “I can’t miss my chance to speak down on racism because when the next time comes and it’s real racism…” …that’s when you get to pop up and say “But wait, I said something against Donald Sterling.” This is what’s going on here: [Sterling] didn’t say he didn’t want black people to come to his games… Most of the racism he talked about on that call was actually blaming racism on society and saying that he was simply riding along with what was necessary given the world that he was in. What he talked about was fairly illuminating if you listen to him. What he said was “This is how things go with the rich people I hang out with.”

As Jones might have predicted, an angry public seemed satiated by Sterling’s removal from his position, but he was removed without ever having to answer about who his racist friends were and he never had to answer for his real on-the-record racial oppression. Years before the highly publicized (now forgotten) scandal, Jones had reported on Sterling’s massive settlement toward housing discrimination suits. As Jones points out, “That stuff literally kills people.” But knee-jerk, faux-liberal outrage never allows the conversation to get to that stuff.

The thing about social witch hunts (at least when the “witches” represent a real social problem within the metaphor) is that there are two unintended consequences that outweigh the small, cathartic victories: 1.) They implicitly reject a more Humanist approach of attempted retribution or eventually earned forgiveness and refuse to allow the idea that poisonous ideas can exist in the minds of redeemable or otherwise good people and 2.) They teach the witches to move their covens to better hiding spots.

So it is with comedy. If we nozzle every unfunny-to-offensive poor taste joke, we also prevent subsequent conversations about what part of the collective social psyche informs its attitude and how we can grow past being a culture that harvests these destructive strains of thought. Outright muting the joke doesn’t mean we’ve fixed the problem. It just means we’ve put a flesh colored band aid on a puncture wound without regard for the injected venom.

In a recent interview with Salon magazine on similar subject matter, comedian Patton Oswalt explained, “…not only am I not responsible for the responses, I’m glad that there were shitty responses. Because those shitty responses lead to someone else going, ‘You know, that’s not the joke.’” I recognize that Oswalt often has a tendency to over-license his own voice in matters of equality (I know, I know, strong words from an unfunny white male mansplaining 2,000 words on race and gender in comedy), but I can’t help but align with his rationale here. The notion that comedy must constantly avoid being wrong is one that will ruin comedy as an art form.  Any suggestion that any art form should serve as a trumpet for existing social perceptions or ideals rather than assisting in a working compromise of them is one that is crippling toward that form’s purposefulness. Such a suggestion — that we decline comedy’s assistance in negotiating terms of social fairness within its more benevolent ideological space — seems to stem from a mindset dangerously similar in its hubris to that which is exhibited in the more conservative assertion that we already live in a post-racial, post-gender, post-sexuality society. We clearly do not. We all need the help and the training.  We are very imperfect and in need of progress. We live in a modern era where gender equality still feels like a discouragingly faraway goal. We are a nation whose most densely populated cities have long been segregated primarily through racial determiners to appease vaguely hidden racial motivations, and a country whose geographically-central population is largely segregated in non-diverse community vacuums. Within those pockets, subcultures have manifested and citizens have, both in our individual minds and our collective cultural consciousness, cataloged our understanding of “other” cultures through simplifications and  generalizations. We all hold within us varying degrees of racism and bigotry. To focus too intently and vengefully on the erupting incidents of mistaken or malicious prejudice from singular individuals, while concurrently refusing to face the widespread racist and sexist practices which we all permit or practice (to, again, varying degrees) is to treat our symptoms for the purpose of hiding our disease.

Though with his hip-hop influenced approach he left women’s rights too far back from the periphery of his comedy, Dave Chappelle was the last comedian and perhaps the last public figure to host a fruitful, progressive dialogue on our country’s race relations. With Chappelle leading the committee, more information was allowed to be introduced for consideration and our figurative cultural jury was provided much more substantial evidence with which to deliberate on charges of bigoted attitudes and behaviors. In all of our best efforts since to crown a replacement king or queen of comedy, from Louis C.K. to Amy Schumer, we haven’t found a comedic figurehead so adept at pushing toward equality-seeking conversation. But we have had individual comedians who have contributed smaller important parts of that pursuit, intentional or otherwise. C.K. for instance, provides a much-needed white man’s “How to be Decent” guide and Schumer is now revealing sexist hypocrisy on a weekly basis. And Daniel Tosh has also been one of those important contributors.

After all the most prejudiced or bigoted of Tosh’s punchlines, when his unfairly boyish face grins ornery and his brief silence yields the conversation to his audience, there almost always seems to be two distinct audible reactions that drown out the rest: 1.) The forced indignant gasp of the stupidly unsuspecting middle class, a notably Caucasian portion of the audience, individuals who prefer to pretend these sentiments are fading attitudes from a shameful past, those who likely feel their “SMH @ Paula Deen” Facebook statuses qualify as a form of activism and 2.) The rowdy flood of hoots and hollers, the endorsing applause of a notably male segment of his audience, the voice  of unknowingly privileged individuals who might explain away their support and enjoyment of Tosh by describing him as “the only one telling it like it is.”

If nothing else, even if he’s proven that he isn’t intelligent or disciplined enough to moderate the conversation on race and gender relations, Tosh at least sat millions of people at the same table, gave them honest labels of description, and offered a brilliant conversation prompt: “Oppression exists and each of you is contributing to it.”

But along the line where Tosh’s grossest hijinks find his most ardent detractors, that isn’t the how the conversation manifests. The targeted punchline of these lowbrow low-blows isn’t Tosh’s dollar store brand of racism and sexism, but the exaggerated, middle-class convenient outrage that is elicited. And, inversely, in Tosh, the self-trained social media “outrage culture” finds the cleanest personification of its oversimplified, imagined enemy: white male, uncomplicated, rich, and straightforward with his oppressive language. And so the two entities become clashing strawmen, wasting the ammunition of good intent on the rich soil of opportunity.

It would be a huge and unjust logical leap to take Tosh’s most offensive incidents and try to spin them into a description of Tosh being some intentionally-martyred white knight of social progress. No one ever has to give Tosh credit for repeatedly returning to the shock schtick, even if there was benefit to be had in its unveiling. At the same time, none of us have to blame Daniel Tosh for our own inability to continue the real, necessary conversation from the headstart position that his controversial approach to comedy could have provided us.