Are rape jokes funny? Racist jokes? Holocaust jokes? Are they funny? Should certain subjects be off-limits when it comes to comedy?
I've been encountering this debate numerous times lately. There was a big stink raised when somebody demoing a video game on-stage during E3 made a rape joke to a competing female player on the stage with him.
Jokes about horrific subject matter can be funny. However, the fact alone that they revolve around horrific subject matter does not automatically make them funny.
Here's the thing. If somebody tells a skillfully-crafted rape joke and it gets a laugh, rape is not the target of the joke. Rape is not the thing that's being laughed at. There's obviously nothing funny about rape, in and of itself. There's nothing funny about somebody being sexually assaulted and being robbed of all of his or her control. The image is horrifying. However, when that horrifying image is combined with an element of absurdity in a well-told joke, the joke has potential to be very funny. It's the enormous contrast between whatever that absurd element you've introduced is and the undeniable horror of the subject that produces laughter.
I use my newly-created Twitter account to tell a lot of offensive jokes. A couple of them involved rape. Here's one:
"Jokes about rape disgust me, it's too strong a word for any comedic context. That's why I only use it when I'm actually raping people."
People who follow me considered this funny. What makes it funny? Is it solely the fact that I've stated I rape people? Of course not. But that's juxtaposed with the false sense of security I establish in readers of the joke in the first sentence, which states my belief that rape should never be joked about. It suggests that I would definitely have a problem when it comes to actually raping somebody, but the sentence that follows it takes it completely in the other direction. Set-up, punch-line. That's a joke.
Here's another one I wrote:
"Life can be a struggle for victims of sexual abuse. That's why I murder them afterwards."
Why is this funny? The fact that I've stated I murder people? No. The second sentence takes the idea placed in people's minds by the first sentence and turns it completely on its head. It's the contrast that's funny. A set-up alone isn't funny, and a punch-line alone isn't funny. That's why a joke needs both.
If you ask me, the joke that was said on-stage at E3 wasn't funny, and it shouldn't have been said. Why do I think that? Because rape jokes aren't funny? No, because there was no set-up to the punch-line. All the guy had said was, "Just let it happen, it'll be over soon." It suggests the idea of rape without contrasting it with anything, and it's the contrast that's key.
Jokes about offensive subject matter can be very funny. But the contrast generated by the joke needs to be large and funny enough to warrant the incorporation of whatever the offensive subject is. A joke should be able to be made about anything as long as the joke teller is skillful enough.