Wednesday, 22 June 2011

On the "he was only joking" defense

Louis CK defended Tracy Morgan's anti-gay ranting last week, noting that his own comedy routine includes a potentially offensive joke trivializing and justifying rape.  He argues, among other things, that Morgan wasn't serious, he was just joking around.

I think good comedy is often comedy that will say things that shock or that involve some departure from norms. But that doesn't mean, I don't think, that comedians have carte blanche, that there's no accountability for what they say because they're comedians and these are jokes and none of it is true. If comedy routines were nothing but fiction reflecting nothing of actual beliefs, they'd cease being funny. Comedians are funny insofar as they speak the truth or point to something that is true. They make us laugh because they are speaking the truth clearly and bluntly, or saying things that we'd never dare say but sympathize with to some extent, or because they say things that are obviously false but, as such, thereby illuminate something that is true. This is the huge difference between Louis CK's rape joke and Morgan's "kill my gay son" joke. In the case of CK, the rape joke is obviously absurd and thereby illuminates the stupidity of a rape mindset, i.e, the notion that somehow one's desire for sex trumps another's personal security. But Morgan wasn't articulating a position that was obviously false and funny because it illuminated the absurdity of the position he was articulating, it seemed to those in the room that he was being quite serious. It also failed because it didn't have a ring of truth, it wasn't a dark place but one that we'd also been to. We didn't think, "yeah, i'd never say it out loud, but I'd want to kill my son too if he were gay and started talking effeminately." Rather, we, or most of us, I think, thought, "wow, that's really terrible and disgusting and sad, and if that's your dark place, you need serious help."

In any event, here's a good interview with CK: link. And here's a great discussion of it from Ta-Nehisi Coates: link, which makes, I think, similar points to the ones I'm making. And finally, here's a discussion of whether CK really should get away with a rape joke: link.

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