"There is nothing more entertaining than listening to a comedian explain why a joke is funny, and why you’re wrong for misinterpreting it."
-No one ever
The most important thing I want to get across (and what serves as the recurring thesis to this long, meandering post) is that I didn’t set out to be offensive. I didn’t sit down at my piano and think, “How can I be as edgy as possible? How can I offend?” The topic of my song wasn’t pulled from thin air.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss “Can You See the Rape on my Face?”
I’m sure some of the people reading this have already seen the video. If you haven’t, please don’t. You’ll regret it. I’ll summarize it, but you’ll probably even regret reading my summary.
You went ahead and watched the video, didn’t you? I told you, man.
Three years ago, I went onstage at a coffee shop on USC campus, sat at a piano, and sang an upbeat song about rape. No one laughed, and during the second verse, the manager of the establishment, in tears, begged me to get off the stage. It culminated with her yelling, “I AM SO OFFENDED!” I walked off the stage. Of course somebody was videotaping when this happened.
For three years, the video sat on my YouTube channel, not even approaching 100 views.
In April, I ill-advisedly uploaded it to a website called Reddit, and it currently sits at 69,577 views. It was not my intention to draw so much attention to a video that I’ve personally only been able to sit through twice in my life. But, I did. As more and more people began posting misguided comments on Reddit, I outed myself as the comedian in the video and gave it some context. This off-handed comment was bizarrely viewed as profound, and it was accepted as my official stance on the train wreck I had linked to.
In the time since I posted the video and wrote the comment, my opinions on the matter have violently vacillated. I’d like to use this blog post as a platform to give my official opinions on the video. Opinions that have been formed over months and months of stewing in my own filth. I’d also like to give it the proper context and talk about what really went down, which I already hastily covered in my Reddit comment.
So here’s the thing. I’m a rape baby. The product of a middle-aged man date raping an 18-year-old girl at a party. My birth mother went through with gestation, popped me into this world, and then gave me up for adoption.
She could just as easily have aborted me. And I really wouldn’t have minded if she did. If she did, the only difference it would make to you is that you wouldn’t currently be reading my whining.
Regardless, you are listening to my whining. My parents adopted me and gave me quite a nice life.
Here’s the other thing. I’m a stand-up comedian. And not just a guy who says he’s a stand-up comedian. I’ve been going onstage for about six years now. That doesn’t at all correlate to the quality of what I do, but it does speak to the fact that I wasn’t just some punk kid wanting to shake things up.
Almost none of my bits are clean. However, I don’t swear onstage. I pick topics that are excruciatingly personal and talk about them innocently, often in a self-deprecating manner. It’s a nice little groove I’ve found. So while you wouldn’t want to bring your mother to one of my shows, I don’t do “offensive” or “shocking” material.
Before I started standup, I made YouTube videos, often times singing a silly little song or rapping a silly rap on my keyboard. Now that my videos are actually being watched by people other than my friends, the insult that’s most often leveled at me is that I’m a “Bo Burnham wannabe.”
I was making silly videos and writing silly songs way before YouTube came along. However, my first YouTube song was in 2008. Through a bit of research I just did, Mr. Burnham started in 2006. I wasn’t, at all, aware of his presence when I first started my YouTube channel. I imagine there were thousands of people posting videos of silly songs back then. When Mr. Burnham was brought to the public eye, I continued writing the same types of songs I had been. I greatly admire what he does, but, stylistically, he’s never been an influence. I’m certainly not ripping him off any more than he’s ripping off Tom Lehrer. Mr. Burnham’s songwriting and musical abilities far surpass mine, so I completely agree that “Bo Burnham does it better, asshole.”(Point for you, JimthePussyEater9669)
In any event, my songs came from a different place. There were no jokey punchlines- the songs themselves were the punchline. They were extremely personal songs, and, for a long time, I wasn’t even in on the joke. I was singing sincerely, but people thought it was hilarious. My first song- ‘Tyler Nelson (Please Don’t Date Dannika)’ became huge among circles of friends. It was getting over 1,000 views, and I felt a bit famous, even though I couldn’t pin down why the song was funny to begin with.
A few years later, a writer/director friend of mine (who I won’t name, but I will say you should watch his fantastic show on FX) pointed out why the songs were funny- they were personal to the point of being cringeworthy, there were no punchlines, I couldn’t hit a correct note if I tried, and overall, they were very humorous train wrecks. However, they were train wrecks with a sincere heart.
This friend of mine began pushing me to write more and more songs in the same oblivious style. He and I mined my personal life for song topics. Out of this came songs like “I’ll Never Be Your Boy Scout” and “There Are Other Places to Put It.”
He had another suggestion that quite intrigued me, though. He proposed that I write a song about being a rape baby, singing to my birth mother. He even had a title, “Can You See the Rape On My Face?” That was quite a heavy topic, so I put that idea on the back burner.
About a year later, I was living in New Orleans, and I looked at myself in the mirror. My hair was long and greasy. I had weeks-old stubble. I was wearing a floral shirt. And I’d been going out in public like that. People had gotten used to me looking like that. I’d been trying to write a new song for quite some time but couldn’t find a topic. I decided to try writing a song that made fun of my unkempt appearance. Which is when it came to me-
I looked a bit rape-y. Suddenly I had an angle for “Can You See the Rape on my Face?”
I sat down at my keyboard and spent some time putting together a tune. The gist of it was this-
The song is me singing to my birth mother, asking her “Can you see the rape on my face?” Through the various verses, it plays around with two ideas-
1. That if my birthmother hadn’t been raped, I wouldn’t be alive. So, in a sense (and taken to the extreme), I have to be glad that she was sexually assaulted. Rape is never, ever okay, but I kind of have to make one exception to have some self-esteem and to affirm my existence. This is an uncomfortable position to hear, but it seems valid enough to me. Put yourself in the shoes of a rape baby. How would you feel? Do you like to be alive? Are you glad you’re alive? Wouldn’t it also follow that you’re glad a specific man raped a specific lady? Sure, you can say that it’s unfortunate that your conception had to be a rape, but that’s bullshit. The two people responsible for me being alive did not know each other previously. It’s rape or nothing. When it comes down to it, would you prefer that your mother didn’t get raped or that you were never born? Which is more important? It’s not an easy question to answer- I’ll give you that.
2. That young men often look up to their fathers and try to make them proud. My real father was a rapist. That’s all I know about him. Rapists are disgusting scum, so the idea of pretending to want to make my father proud seemed really quite funny to me.
Here’s an excerpt from the second verse (the one that got me kicked offstage)-
I grow a beard that I don’t trim/in an effort to live up to him
I don’t take baths, I don’t comb my hair/flowery shirts are all that I wear
And when I go to any parties/ I always make sure to bring plenty roofies
I’m poking fun at myself for being a slob (which I was). The joke is on me. I (and rapists) am the butt of the joke.
"But you said roofies!"
Yeah, I know, that’s awful. But in the framework of the verse, I’m working with the comedy rule of threes. The first two lines slyly allude to my unkemptness resembling that of a rapist’s, without outright saying it. Then, bam, in the third line, roofies. It wasn’t a joke about roofies- it was me playing around with the audience’s expectations. I wanted to express that over-the-top line in a way that was so broad, no one could reasonably take offense to it. Saying you bring roofies to parties is tantamount to saying, “Oh, and I rape people.” Which is what I wanted. It’s so obviously a tired cliche that I’m surprised when people point out to me how cliched it is, as if I were out of the loop.
See, here’s the difference between my song and a song like Blurred Lines. When I talk about rape, I make it explicit in the lyrics that I’m talking about rape. If a guy sang a song where the only lyric is just the word ‘Rape’ sung over and over again, you might hate the guy, but you couldn’t take personal offense to it with a straight face.
Blurred Lines, on the other hand, is slightly ambiguous. “I know you want it” and “Just let me liberate you” are things that an actual rapist would say. That’s why the song is disturbing.
On the other hand, “When I go to any parties, I always make sure to bring plenty roofies” is not at all what a rapist would say. Maybe a cartoon rapist. I wanted to avoid being offensive or hurtful by going as over-the-top and broad as possible when writing lyrics about sexual assault.
Either way, I write this song, right? I was really proud of it. I thought I had a point-of-view that has never been expressed onstage before. It was going to exclusively be a YouTube video, because I didn’t think it would work onstage. It’s not a joke-y song filled with wacky punchlines.
However, at the time, I was in charge of running an open mic at the local comedy club (still in New Orleans). I ran lights and sound, hosted, and performed. Since I was performing for the same people every week, I tried to have fresh material every Friday. A week or two after I finished the song, I found myself at a loss for material. I took a risk, and decided to try it onstage.
The open mic had a mercurial attendance record. One week, only comedians would show up. The next week, we’d have a full house. The night I performed the song, it was only comedians. Since I was also hosting, I usually put my set near the end of the show. By the time I got onstage, I was playing for an audience of one- the owner of the club had unexpectedly dropped by at around midnight to hang out in the corner and drink some adult beverages.
The club owner was/is a very polarizing woman. I credit her with giving me my start, but she has many rules that are quite arbitrary. One of these rules is- no joking about child abuse or sexual assault. Ever. She has a child, and had personally gone through these things and didn’t want to relive it through some shitty comedian grasping for straws.
Regardless, I had nothing else planned. I went onstage, brought out my keyboard, and announced the title of the song. The club owner laughed.
I began singing my song, and it was getting knee-slapping laughs from the club owner. When it was over, she told me she thought it was the bee’s knees.
I had videotaped that night, and I sent the first documented footage of me singing my new song to all of my friends, including the guy who wrote the title. I got a mixed reception.
"It goes on way too long."
"I thought it was pretty funny, but it definitely needs to be trimmed down."
"I don’t like it. There’s no heart."
The last one was from The Guy. If you know anything about this guy, nothing is off-limits for him. But he listened to my Hilarious Song, and thought there wasn’t enough sincerity to justify the potentially offensive lyrics.
But, what he did know?
As I started doing more and more shows, I decided to use my song as my closer. I’d spend ten minutes establishing my stage persona and then go out with a bang that seemed consistent with everything that preceded it. Huge laughs every time. Laughs from friends of mine who were survivors of sexual assault. Everyone thought it was funny. And why not? I was performing in a community where everybody knew me. They knew I wasn’t a rapist. They laughed with me as I mocked my appearance.
After months and months of reviewing tapes of my performances ad nauseum, I started being hard on myself, as one is prone to do. I listened to the song over and over again until I came to the following conclusion-
As many laughs as it may have been getting, it was not a good song. At all. It did go on way too long. Excruciatingly long. The gist of the song wasn’t as clear as I thought it was. There was indeed no heart. Lyrics like the ‘roofies’ lyric were getting the wrong kind of laughs. It was mean-spirited, and I didn’t want to be That Guy. None of my other material was mean-spirited. It was certainly a good first attempt at broaching the subject, but, just, technically, it wasn’t all too good.
I took the song out of my repertoire, even though I knew it would cost me a lot of laughs. Luckily, you know, I wrote a bunch of nice jokes that filled the void nicely, and the song went away.
Fast forward two years.
I was in LA, working my way around the open mic scene. When I first moved to LA, I mistakenly made friends with a fellow comedian who had also moved out from New Orleans. I knew nothing about his comedy or character, but I needed someone to show me the ropes. I watched a few of his sets, and they seemed quite bitter and hate-filled. I didn’t agree with his material, but it was commendable that he found such a strong character, even if people weren’t laughing.
One night, after striking out trying to get up at the regular mics, this friend of mine suggested that we go to a mic on USC campus. It was at a coffee shop and was an open mic for any kind of performance. It was mostly inhabited by musicians.
My friend, two other peers, and I went to the mic. I was going to do a five-minute monologue, but I couldn’t help but notice the grand piano onstage. It’s not often that a comedian gets the opportunity to work with an actual piano.
When it was my turn, I went onstage, sat at the piano, and sang ‘There Are Other Places to Put It.’ It’s about what you think it’s about. I still maintain that it was one of my best and most well-received performances ever. The audience ate it up, and everyone was singing along by the end of the tune. I was in love with the venue.
About half an hour later, my friend was about to go up. Last minute, he asked me if I would go on with him and play some nice background music under his jokes. I agreed.
As I softly played ‘Sierra Sue’ and ‘The Last Roundup,’ my friend told some of the nastiest jokes I’d ever heard. Holocaust jokes. Sexist jokes, in which women were called “bitches.” Racist jokes. I believe he even used the N word. About two minutes into the routine, I wanted offstage as quickly as possible. My friend got no laughs, and as I walked off the stage after the set, I pulled aside the host and whispered, “I honestly don’t know that guy. I’m sorry.”
My friend professionally recorded the audio of my set, and I still like to listen to it once in a while when I’m feeling down.
I spent the next six days looking forward to going back to the campus coffee shop.
The next week came around, and again, my friend, two other comedian pals, and I went. My friend, by the way, had been doing standup substantially longer than me, with no big breaks. Those two other comedians who had to be a witness to the disaster were newcomers, but, as of the time of writing, they’re well-known names.
I planned a monologue to do that night, but when I walked in the door, I was under the spell of that damn piano. I knew I had to reprise what happened the week before and sing another song. I thought about the songs I’ve written, and the question, ‘Can You See the Rape on My Face?’ crossed my mind for the first time in years. I remembered the laughs it had gotten. This venue had a hip audience, and I thought I had another guaranteed slam dunk on my hands.
I ran out to my car to my keyboard, practiced it a few times, shortened it up a bit, and changed a few lyrics. I came back in, hardly able to contain my excitement to go onstage and sing the song.
My turn came, I walked onstage, and the rest is history. For those of you who are heeding my advice to not watch the video, I’ll transcribe what happened-
I set-up the song as I always do. I went into a sad-type character, and related the true story of my conception, without telling jokes. “I wrote a song about it that I’d like to play for you guys. I hope you all enjoy.”
I sat at the piano. “This song is called ‘Can You See the Rape on My Face?’”
Maybe three or four people laugh. That’s supposed to be a big laugh. It’s the intended punchline to two minutes of pretending to be serious. I immediately realized I had made a mistake. The audience wasn’t on my side. But I was three minutes into the bit, and there was no backing out now.
I hesitantly began the first verse. That one is innocent enough, but, again, this a very upbeat song. I got to the chorus-
Can you see the rape on my face?/ When he didn’t pull out, I know he left a trace
But did any of that trace go from you to me?/ When you look in my face is it rape you see?
I got to the second verse. You know, the one about trying to make my father proud by being unappealing, gross, and, oh, yeah, bringing roofies to parties.
I got to the chorus again. That’s when shit went down.
Over the PA system, a woman said, “You’re done. I can’t support what you’re singing” in a fair enough voice.
I say “a woman” because I had no idea who I was hearing. I thought it was a heckler. Except, a legitimate heckler with what seemed like legitimate concerns. Part of me wanted to shut the heckler down, but what I heard sounded earnest enough, so, on the spot, I decided to try to have an actual dialogue with the voice.
"I’m sorry, what’s that? You can’t support what I’m singing? Why?"
On paper, that sounds like a horrible thing to say. But I truly meant what I was asking and my tone reflected that. In the back of my mind, I knew it wasn’t a great song, but it had never crossed my mind that it might be legitimately offensive. I was responding quickly and extemporaneously, and only by the end of my question did I realize to what the woman was referring.
"Because I am so offended…"
And, again, in a fair enough voice. The song had never offended anyone before, and, in the moment, I was genuinely curious in regards to what was specifically offending her. I knew I wasn’t going to come out on top, but I was still in performance mode, and I thought it would be interesting to discuss the song with the heckler.
"…to my core. I’m just so…"
Her tone was rising and becoming more emotional. From the stage, I couldn’t hear everything she was saying, so I jumped in to try to steer the conversation back on track.
"…on the verge of tears right now." She was actually crying and beginning to shout. "I can not believe that you would sing that!"
Shit had gotten real. Someone was crying. I had no idea what was taking place. This is not something that regularly happens to comedians. No comedian is prepared for this situation. To try to make sense of it, I finally asked-
"Who am I speaking to?"
"I AM THE MANAGER!" (through tears) "I AM OFFENDED THAT YOU ARE SINGING THAT. I AM SO OFFENDED RIGHT NOW!"
Everything came together. It was time to get offstage.
Between “I” and “apologize,” a man in the audience said, in what I’m going to unapologetically describe as, in a douchey voice, “Get off the stage! Your time here is done!”
Now that was a heckler. I hadn’t been speaking to him. Who is he to say that my time is done? If he wouldn’t have interrupted, he would have witnessed me standing up and walking off after finishing the word “apologize.”
Even though I still hadn’t had enough time for it to sink in, I had taken the manager seriously. I mean, not only was she crying, but she was the manager. But after the guy spoke up, my mindset reverted to- the entire audience is against me. I’m being heckled. I need to be a performer and leave with some dignity. I’ll figure out what really happened later.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Justin Kline." I banged a C chord and walked off.
I briskly walked outside and gathered my bearings. I replayed the song in my head and realized how horrible it sounded to that audience. Or maybe… how horrible it really was. I didn’t know. But it surely couldn’t have been worse than my friend’s set the week prior, and the same manager hadn’t asked him to leave the stage.
Shamefully, I walked back into the coffee shop to dirty stares, sat down with my friends, and waited for their sets. All of them were struck off the list for having arrived with me.
When I got home, I was visibly shaken. I got on my computer, tracked down the email address of the manager, and wrote her a lengthy, heartfelt apology. No funny business- just three or four pages of me telling her how sorry I was.
The next day, I received a furious, vitriolic response. It was filled with personal insults that were probably deserved. In other words, apology not accepted. Which is fine. That’s her choice. Much as writing the initial email was mine. The correspondence didn’t work out, but at least I tried. Oh, and I was banned from the venue. Which I kind of thought was an agreement that was tacitly made the night before.
I really didn’t know what to do. My friend had the whole thing on video, and he sent it to me. I watched it one time before I vowed to never watch it again. Regardless, I put it up on YouTube, because it’s a bit of a curiosity piece.
My friends loved the video. Not just the guy recording it, but all of my friends, including the guy who suggested the title. The schadenfreude experienced from watching the video was unlike anything ever seen. The professional audio recording of the performance was played on a few podcasts in LA against my will.
Meanwhile, I chose to never perform the song again. No re-writing, no modifying, no touching it with a ten-foot pole.
Since this incident happened, I’ve played a few booked shows where the person in charge has explicitly told me to play the song. I always refuse. I honestly don’t even know how to play the song anymore. The thing is, the people who really dig the song don’t dig it for the right reasons. People are aware of what happened, and they want to try to provoke another incident.
So, really, after a while, the storm calmed down, and I went about my life. Cut to about six months ago. I was quite bored and reading an article about comedians dealing with hecklers. I had a good heckler video, and I was curious if there were any places I could submit it. The first Google hit was something called Reddit. I’d never heard of it before. But, from what I gathered, it was a site where you post things, and then a handful of people will either like or dislike what you posted and write some comments, leaving you with a good twenty extra YouTube views.
I registered for an account, posted my heckler video on the heckler page, and watched. Indeed, a handful of people both liked and disliked it, and I got about twenty or thirty views. Some of the comments were quite nice. But one guy told me that my video would be more at home at a place he called “/r/cringe.”
I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up. It’s a place where you can post videos that are hard to watch all the way until the end. I thought, “I have one of those,” and posted the video of the Rape Incident willy-nilly.
I expected a handful of people would see it, but you can guess what actually happened.
So here I am. Trying to make sense of what happened, knowing that people all over the world are cringing at my video.
I’d like to return to the first paragraph of this post. I don’t so much mind all the misconceptions of me that are out there, but the idea that I went out to offend because I thought I was being “edgy” is something I take issue with. People assume that I thought of the topic ‘Rape’ and then tried to wring bad humor out of it. Not the case. It came from a personal place. I was singing a song about something that defines my life in a way and is quite unique to me. When I looked in the mirror, the humor came first, and the subject matter was incidental.
So I don’t like that.
One of the first arguments that popped into my head (that I never articulated anywhere) is that, in general, comedians aren’t rapists. Comedians aren’t sexist. Comedians are the kindest people you’ll meet, so to take anything they say at face-value would be ridiculous.
This (eerily similar to the #notallmen argument) stance dominated my mind for a while. But then I took a step back and thought about my friend. The one with the bitter and hateful sets. I always assumed that was his (albeit intense) character. When he started being a real asshole to me later on, I still didn’t make the connection.
Only this year did it come together. I was doing a festival in New Orleans, and he was also on the bill. I was nervous about seeing him after our falling-out. I messaged some of my old LA peers (again, names you would know) to ask if he was still the asshole I remember. Turns out, being an asshole is the least of his worries.
Remember how he told sexist jokes where he called women “bitches” and degraded them? It’s not a character, Jack. He’s a domestic abuser. He’s a sexual predator. He’s a repressed, privileged white male who regards others as property.
This would be dismissed in court as hearsay, if not for the fact that he admits to these things proudly in his blog. The absolutely disgusting posts about how he found arousal by beating his girlfriend are written in the guise of an apology, but, I mean.
He wasn’t a character. He was a bad man who just went onstage and talked, never getting laughs. If he wrote ‘Can You See the Rape on My Face?,’ I would perceive it as the confessions of a rapist.
So, really, why wouldn’t people infer the same about me when I sing it? I had only been in LA for a few months. I was fucking palling around with the real predator. It’s not at all a given that comedians are always just joking. That’s not a privilege that the profession affords us. You can earn that status, but only after hard, hard work.
I had earned that status in New Orleans. 75% of the audience at any given performance were either my personal friends or friends of personal friends. This is part of the reasons my song got laughs with them. They were comfortable with me. I wasn’t a stranger.
The other reason I got laughs with them is the same reason I wrote the song to begin with. I was making fun of myself. Everyone on the scene had seen my not-so-great personal hygiene and seemingly endless supply of floral shirts. They were in on the joke. When I performed it, I would be in a floral shirt, and I would be unkempt.
But on campus at USC, no one was in on the joke. If anyone knew me, it was because they were there the week before. I was singing self-deprecating lyrics about my appearance in a dress shirt and slacks. I was well-groomed. The song was no longer personal. In a very small way, I anticipated this problem. You’ll recall how I said I altered some lyrics. Here’s what I actually sang that night-
I don’t take baths, I don’t comb my hair/ Ed Hardy shirts are all that I wear
Hacky as fuck. Not only was the butt of the joke no longer on me, but now my song had an extra layer of hackiness. That hypothetical song where the only lyric is “Rape!” would have been preferable.
But it happened. This was pre-Tosh Incident, so there were no obvious reference points for me to look at.
So who was right? The manager or me? Should she have kicked me offstage?
I’ve thought about this for a very long time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that all of these questions have multiple correct answers.
As I thought about these questions, I ran into a marvelous piece by Patton Oswalt. Unfortunately for me, the arguments I had put together were articulated so much better in his piece. Incidentally, the piece addresses parallel thought, which is what my musings are, in relation to his.
From the comedy side of things, comedians should never be interrupted mid-bit. The first thing that came into my head (as well as Oswalt’s) was Lenny Bruce’s, “Are there any niggers here tonight?”
Comedians should be given the benefit of the doubt that they’re going to steer a topic to the right place. In general, comedians aren’t out to offend you or shock you. They’re there to entertain, to make you laugh, and to occasionally make you think. No one’s going to write material that does nothing but offend. I mean, you know, people are, but you probably aren’t going to see them anytime soon. There are some very gifted comedians who will deliberately shock and offend, only to tie it all up together to make a point or a funny. If you use the humor as a starting point, the topic you’re talking about is incidental.
Rape jokes can be funny. Holocaust jokes can be funny. 9/11 jokes can be funny. But if you examine the (very few) successful jokes that tackle that subject matter, you’ll find that the humor is often not in the topic itself.
You see, you’re supposed to start with the funny. You don’t say, “How can I make INSERTTOPIC funny?” You think of something that makes you laugh, no matter how small. When you work it out into an actual joke, perhaps you find that it relates well to sexual assault or the Holocaust or something. You then try applying it to a bunch of other topics, but if ‘rape’ winds up being the best one, then you’ve actually put thought into a rape joke, and, chances are, you’re not glorifying rape.
I’ve done my best to not name names here, but one of my acquaintances is a darling of feminist bloggers, because she pulled off a successful rape joke that is linked to over and over again. (I share the same manager as this comedian and have been on the same bill, so how’s that for a mindfuck?) The humor in her rape joke is not found in the topic of ‘rape.’ She clearly found humor in a different observation, and wove it extremely well into the rape culture discussion.
Point is, I still had a verse to go in my song. To be honest, it’s no better or worse than the rest of the song, but, for all the manager knew, it could have done a 180 and finished with some sort of profound statement on how horrible rape was. The manager would feel rather silly if that was the case.
I have similar bits that are just as long that are seemingly offensive. I have a bit on “Mentally Retarded” people. At the last minute, I pull out the rug, and it turns out I’m not poking fun at all. If she took particular offense to jokes about the mentally handicapped, and I had performed that bit instead, I can only imagine her embarrassment when I told her the rest of the joke if she were to interrupt me mid-bit.
So. No. It’s not okay to interrupt a comedian before he’s/she’s allowed to at least finish the bit he’s/she’s in the middle of. Cut him or her off between bits if you want. But, really, just because you hear a word you don’t like (say, ‘Rape’) doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to stop things right there. We’ve put too much effort into establishing trigger words, and, as a result, there are many people who can’t appreciate nuance or are unwilling to listen further. A word like ‘Rape’ shouldn’t be a shut-down word. I should be able to sing a song called “Can You See the Rape on My Face?” and you should be able to listen (as in, actually listen) to the whole thing before deciding if it’s offensive (and if it is, then feel free to speak up). Ears shouldn’t shut off the moment they hear a certain trigger word. If my material was in the form of a monologue that maybe didn’t treat the topic as flippantly as the song does, I imagine some people would still turn off their ears or get upset the moment I say, “So, I’m a rape baby. I’m the product of a rape.”
I’m not whining about my First Amendment rights, by the way. What I’ve just described has nothing to do with whether or not I should be allowed to say certain things onstage. I’m pretending that “Can You See the Rape on My Face?” is the greatest thing ever written in comedy history, and still imagining people tuning out at ‘Rape.’ Despite literally being told that I wasn’t allowed to continue at a particular venue, me not being able to say whatever I choose to say is not something that’s legitimately under threat.
You shouldn’t have to rely on Jezebel to tell you what rape jokes are okay to laugh at. If a comedian presents you with what you perceive as a rape joke, listen to the whole thing, and then judge him or her. If you’re truly uncomfortable, and certain words are actually triggering bad experiences for you (and I understand that this most often an involuntary reaction), maybe step out.
I should say, by the way, I’m not a fan of rape (or any other offensive topic that would fit here) jokes. I’m just speaking in defense of all the potential rape jokes that could be constructed by very talented people.
On the other hand.
In a way, I’m proud of this woman. Here’s a woman who lives on a college campus. She’s inundated with sexist behavior every day. She lives in a frightening rape culture. She’s in charge of an open mic that usually just consists of musicians anyway. Now here comes this privileged white male who is going to make what sounds like a mockery of sexual assault on her stage. Everyone is too scared to say anything, so why shouldn’t she speak up? That was really rather brave of her. She put her emotions on display for everyone in attendance. That’s quite impressive and requires considerably more guts than most people have.
As I’ve explained, she had no reason to expect that I wasn’t actually a sexual predator. The audience was clearly uncomfortable anyway. So, yes, shut that shit down, before it gets worse. And then when the guy tries to whine his way out of it in an email, shut him down even more, to get across the point that this isn’t okay. This woman is a feminist hero of sorts.
I should add, by the way, that I don’t subscribe to the view that this woman was a victim of sexual assault, based on her reaction. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t, but I don’t care. Prefacing her opinion with that fact almost delegitimizes what she has to say. What if I told you that I was also a victim of sexual assault? I may or may not be. Would it change your views on my song? If it would, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
I’m not being satirical, nor am I “white-knighting.” I genuinely see both sides.
At the same time, things could (and should) have been handled differently. Rules could have been established beforehand. She could have let me finish to no applause, and then pulled me aside after to tell me how she felt. She wouldn’t have had to disrupt the show, and she still could have banned me from the club. If she did absolutely feel like she had no recourse but to interrupt the show, she truly didn’t have to subject everyone to a response so over-the-top that the authenticity of it arguably has to be called into question. If someone on a microphone calmly tells me that they are the manager and that I need to get offstage, I would do it immediately. People will understand what is happening, and the show as a whole won’t be entirely brought to a halt. Things could have been handled more professionally… says the guy who banged a C-chord as he left the stage.
Lastly, remember that part where I wrote her an apology, and how this entire post is basically an apology (don’t worry, I’ve stopped paying attention, too). Turns out I got shit for that, as well.
Apparently there exists a rule among standup comedians that one should never apologize for a joke. If your joke offends somebody, then screw that person. Don’t compromise your material so it can be digested more easily. Or something. That’s nice and all. But remember how I said I’ve been doing this for six years? That’s almost nothing. Now is not the point in my career where it would be wise for me to say, “Fuck that lady” and keep doing the song, as hip as that might be.
I have to rely on my audiences being real people with real feelings. I mean, I care enough to want to make them so happy that they involuntarily emit laughter. So why not care about the bad feelings? The manager at this establishment was not Bob Zmuda in a mask. If my song actually put someone in tears, it has the potential to put another person in tears. And hurt them. I wouldn’t want to hurt people in my personal life, so why would I want to hurt people involved with my profession?
And at the end of the day, is it worth it? Continuing to do a song I’m not even proud of? No.
I don’t apologize for my song. It was a legitimate attempt to broach the topic of being a rape baby. I put work into it. It didn’t come out great (in fact, not well at all), but it was something. I am sorry that I didn’t take the necessary precautions that night, or realize that it wasn’t the appropriate venue. My apology to the manager still stands. I understand that I involuntarily triggered an intense emotional response in someone, and that that’s not okay. But people also need to understand that it was an open mic. I was trying an old song out, using modified lyrics. It’s normal and expected to bomb at an open mic. What the manager deprived me of was being able to gauge an audience reaction to a performance, which is all I was looking for. I got a taste of it, but it would have been much more helpful for me to sing into the silence and get no gratification at the end.
I guess, even with all these words, I don’t know how to articulate what I claimed was a well-defined stance. Even though I’m not apologizing for my song, I am able to have empathy for this particular woman. I can see how she thought interrupting was the right thing to do. I think she, like me, had honorable intentions. Our intentions butted heads that night.
A large group of my comedy peers have begun a standup revolution, in which the inherent misogyny of the scene, both on and offstage, is becoming a thing of the past. I’d like to be a part of that. It’s easy for me to watch my video and say, “Yeah, but I’m not actually being sexist.” It’s not so easy for me to watch older clips of my other performances and say the same thing. Granted, I’ve never called women “bitches,” but it’s the subtle and sly sexism that is the worst. Point is, I’m just working on doing my part, and I started by writing this.
Don’t let your takeaway from this post be that I think my jokes are hilarious, and people are wrong to think otherwise, because they just don’t understand them. I don’t even think the song is funny, but I didn’t intend for it to be. It’s not a good song. Nor do I get special privileges to say whatever I want because my story is true. It’s fine if you don’t like the song. Even if you understand where I’m coming from, you still don’t have to like it.
Again, though, everything has its place. I don’t have a witty ending, so I’m going to link to a song I’m quite proud of. It’s, in a way, quite sexist. But it has the heart that ‘Can You See the Rape on My Face?’ sorely lacked. I think you’ll find the contrast incredible. But if you don’t like it, I give you full permission to stop it at any time and yell, “I AM SO OFFENDED RIGHT NOW!” at your computer screen.