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Jokes about sexual violence: the line between insensitivity and raising awareness

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(Left to right) Madison Shepard, A Martinez, Bobbie Oliver, and Ricky Leis.
(Left to right) Madison Shepard, A Martinez, Bobbie Oliver, and Ricky Leis.

What role do comedians play in how we talk about sexual harassment and assualt? Take Two brings together three LA-based comedians to talk about it.

Since the Harvey Weinstein story broke earlier this month, sexual assault and harassment have taken center stage. And the spotlight is only growing, with new allegations that director James Toback also sexually harassed dozens of women.

Many say it's a watershed moment, with thousands of victims coming forward to share their stories. Comedians are commenting too, including late night TV host James Corden.  He recently told some jokes about Weinstein that sparked a lot of criticism, after saying it was a beautiful night in LA....

Corden has since apologized for the jokes.

On the other hand, Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update cracked wise about Weinstein without the same blowback.

So, what role do comedians play in watershed moments?

Take Two brought together three LA-based comedians to talk about it.

Panel Guests:

Bobbie Oliver, Founder of the Tao Comedy Studio.

Richy Leis, Creative Director of Comic Cure.

Madison Shepard, Host of the podcast Mixed-Up.

Why was Corden's joke problematic from the victim's perspective?

MS: James' joke throws the women under the bus, basically. He makes it about the victims' experiences versus Harvey's behavior. Many victims were likely in the audience... that I just think it was poorly pitched. It was not the right audience for that joke.

BO: And he categorized the experience as awkward. Rape and sexual assault is not awkward. 

They say, comedy is tragedy plus time. When is a joke "too soon?"

RL: I think that for comedians "too soon" is really just the edge that you approach the joke. There is no "too soon" as a comedian. If it's smart and funny, then it's more acceptable.

BO: The sooner you make a joke about a tragedy... the more sensitive the joke has to be towards the victims. He did bring the victims' experiences into the joke, and he made light of their experiences.   

Should men be making jokes about an issue that affects women so much?

RL: I think it's a comedian's job to really talk about what's happening. Especially today, where everyone's looking at the media and most media is so negative. I really feel comedy is booming right now, stand-up specifically, because people are coming out to hear what we have to say. And to get a funny perspective on the crappiness of things going on right now.

MS: I think that if you are going to do it, you better do it very smart, and it better be the most funny thing that anybody has ever heard. 

BO: I think jokes about trauma should be written by the people who have experienced the trauma.... I don't want to hear a rapist's perspective, personally. I don't want to hear any more jokes from the perspective of the rapist. I write a lot of jokes about rape culture but from the perspective of a rape victim. I believe that you should make fun of situations like that but not make light of the violence and the trauma. We have a no-rape joke policy at our studio -- you can talk about rape culture, but you can't talk about ‘I'm going to beat up and rape this woman...’ Because it's so common. 

What is "punching-up" vs. "punching-down" in comedy writing?

BO: You don't make fun or people who society has already kicked in the face. You don't go after the underdog... go after the people who are doing that to them. I just don't believe in going after people who have had a bad time of it. 

Comedy writer Janis Hirsch recently came forward with her experiences of harassment while working in TV in the 1980s. What are the gender dynamics in the professional comedy world today?

RL: Yes, I know it's still dominated by men but what I'm seeing is really a push via female and ethnic comedians right now. 

BO: I don't see that at all. I would say we're about 30 percent... I think what's happened is that more people are creating their own rooms and their own shows. And so, we're giving each other opportunities but in mainstream comedy clubs, they have not gotten the message. 

MS: I think that in the future, we're going to see a lot more women female representation as well as more non-binary representation, more queer representation. I don't think  that we're there yet, I think that we're moving towards that but we have a lot of work to do. 

Where does comedy fit into the conversation about sexual harassment and assault?

RL: I think every subject should be approachable but with some thought. That's why we go out and try jokes at open mics before you go into a club and before you go in front of an audience. And I think that there's nothing that should be untouched but within reason. If you can't do it, then don't do it. 

BO: I don’t just like to entertain, I like to inform and enlighten. I’ve been doing comedy almost 30 years at this point. I’m tired of just making people laugh. I have stuff to say. If I’m going to go up there every night, I’m going to say something.

MS: Comedy has the opportunity here to be cathartic for the audience as well as for the performer. You never laugh harder than when you’re at a funeral because we need the relief, we need that tension to be released. And I think making a joke about something really terrible in a really careful and constructive way can offer that to society. And that’s a real gift that comedy gives.

To listen to the complete discussion about the role of comedy in tackling sensitive issues like sexual  harassment, click on the media player above.   

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