Home > Don't make me hurt you, pissed off and totally ranty > Being an Artist Doesn’t Give You Carte Blanche to Be an Asshole

Being an Artist Doesn’t Give You Carte Blanche to Be an Asshole

Imagine you are sitting in a crowded comedy club. You are purposefully not sitting in the front. You are there to have a good time.

Then the comedian makes a joke. A bad joke. Maybe it’s a joke about murdering a baby. Or killing someone. Or somebody blowing something up. Let’s say he starts ranting about how it’s always funny to make a joke about a kid getting murdered. (I think we can all agree that’s pretty frakked up.)

It gives you goosebumps, but not the good kind.

Maybe you know someone whose child was murdered. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you just watched a story unfold on the news. Maybe you just have a heart and a sense of right/wrong. The comedian keeps talking and talking about it, until you’re too uncomfortable to stay. But you want to say SOMETHING. So, taking a deep breath, you do the only thing you can think of – you heckle. Actually jokes about murdering a child aren’t funny.

After a pause, the comedian quips, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she were murdered right now? Or her kid? I mean, wouldn’t that be fucking hilarious?”

You’re in a crowded room. People snicker and laugh, nervously or otherwise. What do you do? You continue to leave, because you were uncomfortable to begin with – but now? You’ve just been threatened.

Yesterday, a story came to light about comedian Daniel Tosh. Apparently, at the Laugh Factory, part of his routine was to go on and on about rape jokes. When a female in the crowd (who found his material offensive) yelled that such jokes weren’t funny (because she felt that she had to say SOMETHING), he pressed on, singling her out – saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

As someone who’s never been raped, I find that offensive. I find that offensive as a woman and human being. I find it unacceptable, because I have friends who have been raped and abused. And honestly? That just isn’t funny. None of it is. Rape is a serious crime. To diminish and undercut the severity of it, especially in this society where the first reaction is usually to lay blame at the feet of the victim (oh, she was asking for it, look at how she dressed, why wasn’t she more careful?) – it is reprehensible.

It reminded of the other week, when I was in a convenience store. A guy got a ticket for his order, and it was 911. He, apparently, was from NY. He asked the girl making the sandwiches if she could just call his name or something else, because the number really bothered him. She agreed, and then mocked him while he went to the register to pay. Her behavior wasn’t threatening, but it was disrespectful and ripe with blatant disregard for humanity. While the situation is completely different, the principle is very much the same: some things just aren’t funny.

The Tosh situation was disturbing enough, until I found out that there are people out there defending the comedian. The argument, basically, is that he’s an artist. It’s free speech. Art gives you license to be offensive.

My response would be: yes, if you are an asshole. (Eloquent, right?) I’m all for art being everything from beautiful to disturbing. But I also do not think that being an artist means you have carte blanche to act like a jerk, to threaten other people, or cross all lines. Yes, there are lines. Sometimes, it’s tough to figure out where they are. Sometimes, one misstep can cost you a lot. See, Gilbert Gottfried and the joke he made after the tsunami. That cost money and respect. Yes, you can argue similarly to Tosh, that Gottfried is a comedian, and he was just trying to be funny. But what the hell was funny about what he said? Nothing. The same goes for Tosh, except some people don’t quite see that.

At point one, I saw a man arguing that Tosh has a right to say whatever he wants. He has free speech. And that’s true. He does. But he also cannot yell FIRE in the middle of a crowded movie theater, unless there is actually a fucking fire. Free speech does, indeed, have decency limits. All things cannot be excused with a shrug, mumbling, “Well, he’s an artist.” You know who else was an artist? Hitler. That didn’t make him anything less than a mass-murdering megalomaniac of epically horrible proportions. I’m pretty sure the Louvre didn’t hang up any of his painting, excusing his tendency toward genocide, because he’s an artist.

*ahem* Back to the point. Another argument was that if you find Tosh offensive, the answer is simple: don’t go to his shows. And yes, that’s a valid point. After this whole debacle, I’m 100% certain that I’d never choose to see him perform live, even if accompanied by Muppets. However, avoiding him doesn’t remove meaning from Tosh’s words (this suggestion was made, verbatim: you, as the consumer, need to educate yourself on who you pay attention to, in order to avoid being offended.). *blinks* What’s this now? In order to avoid things that might be offensive, I have to smart enough to know what to avoid? The condescending attitude aside, what the frak? Avoiding something doesn’t invalidate another person’s actions/statements in the least. What Tosh did, and said, is still very wrong – regardless of whether or not I plunked down money to attend one of his shows. Consider Mel Gibson’s anti-semiotic rant that most of us either read or heard about. None of us were there. We didn’t choose to hear it. We didn’t walk up to Gibson and say, “Gee, Mel, what ARE your feelings on Jewish people?” But what he said was still what he said. Not being there, personally, is irrelevant. Actions and words, especially of a public figure, are a measure of who we are. If something is said, it’s put out into the world – and in the case of a celebrity, it’s pretty much there for all eternity. Gibson’s oeuvre is still impressive; he’s got Braveheart and The Patriot. But he also is that guy who got sloshed and spewed hate speech.

Also, there is the suggestion that Tosh regularly employs black humor. Great. Awesome. I like black humor. There is a wide-spectrum of humors that I appreciate it. But I’ll say it again: threatening someone, like Tosh did, is never frakkin’ funny. What if that person was your sister? Your cousin? Your mother? Your friend? Your wife? That shouldn’t need to be personally contextualized to matter, but let’s do that, anyway. What if that girl who stood up in the club was someone you cared about?

Someone pointed out that she should’ve kept her mouth shut. That the woman should’ve known better than the heckle a guy who is famous for his “black humor.” (Are rape jokes really black humor? I don’t know.) “I definitely wouldn’t heckle someone who has gotten famous off of black humor if I was easily offended by the topic of his bit.” Basically, this insinuates that the woman is to blame, that she brought it on herself, and that if she had only kept her mouth shut, things would’ve been fine. She was, essentially, an idiot. But I’d argue that she was brave, as every person is who takes a stand against something or someone that’s wrong. The kid who stands up for someone getting picked up. The person who helps someone up after they’ve fallen. The woman who puts her foot down and says, enough, this is wrong. All brave things. Because if you stand by and let something slide, it makes you culpable, in a way, for knowing it’s wrong and ignoring it.

Being an artist doesn’t give someone a license to be a total asshat. It doesn’t mean that he can say whatever he wants without consequences. Yes, Tosh has freedom of speech – but you cannot blame people for finding what he said/did offensive. No one is arguing that comedians should be censored by some kind of Oversight of Humor section of the government. But it is important to acknowledge that what he did was awful and that chalking it up to art is nothing more than a shameful cop-out, a misdirection of wrongdoing and responsibility.

  1. July 11, 2012 at 9:02 am

    “Being an artist doesn’t give someone a license to be a total asshat.” Truth! Great post, my friend.

  2. July 11, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Rape jokes in general aside (God, I can’t believe I have to freakin’ say that), he threatened this girl. If he had said that to her on the street, it would have been considered a crime. The fact that he can get away with it in a comedy club absolutely baffles me. Here’s the thing: If it WERE a joke, jokes tend to have very clear set ups. Someone heckles, you give a punchline. People laugh. There was NO punchline to this. It was akin to being bullied in school on a much larger scale. He was butt hurt because he’s a bad comedian and can’t do “on the spot” funny, so he basically said, “fuck you, die” in the worst possible way. There was no joking in what he said. He INTENDED to make her fearful. The whole situation pisses me off and I really need to stay away from it on the internet. In any event, I agree with your post. (This being your blog and all, I should probably say something about you, yes? That’s how it works?)

    • July 12, 2012 at 8:05 am

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jen! I agree, completely, about your punchline point. That’s something I didn’t really think about. Thanks for reading!!!

  3. July 11, 2012 at 11:36 am

    You’ve just sparked a round of philosophic musing in me that will probably distract me from everything else I’m doing today. Comedians like Tosh come from comedy clubs, where most of the patrons are drinking copious amounts of liquor. If impaired people find a person funny, are they really funny? I’ve been to some clubs (and managed to nurse my two-drink minimum all night) and heard some funny bits. I’ve also heard some offensive stuff. I just walked out on them, although I guess they still got my money.

    I love your line, “You know who else was an artist? Hitler.” I may have to borrow that.

    Yeah, I guess Tosh has a right to free speech, whether you like his free speech or not. But I wonder if he would’ve laughed if that woman had suggested it would be funny if HE was raped by 5 guys. “HA HA, Daniel! Laugh riot, isn’t it?”

    Personally, I don’t watch him on TV and wouldn’t go see him in a club. Not my cup of hilarity.

    • July 12, 2012 at 8:06 am

      Gayle, I have never watched anything he was in or had done, so I didn’t really know anything about him. This, however, was enough to sour me. Also, that line? Totally my favorite in this piece. *grin*

  4. July 11, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    From blackface forward to W.C. Fields and ultimately the present day, people have been calling asshattery “art” for a very long time. But this tweaks a nerve.

    In my professional community there’s an ongoing discussion about what can be done to give women and people of color greater visibility within that community as a whole. Representation of women is not a problem; getting them to share their ideas and perspectives more publicly is.

    Lately the discussion seems stalled at “they avoid attention because they’d rather avoid being the targets of asshattery” (of the sort we’re discussing here). Weakness and (more often in the case of men) stupidity make good humor as a rule, but excepting cartoon characters we’re not amused by people getting hurt unless they’ve got it coming. It follows that a whole lot of people believe that women have it coming as a matter of course.

    And then there’s the friend of long standing who’s lurched through two shitty marriages and managed far less than her potential because of that same problem: she doesn’t want to be a target – an outcome I found utterly unbecoming, albeit easy to grasp.

    It’s refreshing to hear a voice that yells out to the effect of “better pissed off than pissed on.”

  5. July 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    I have two thoughts on this. One is that rappers crossed this Rubicon years ago with lyrics that glamorize rape and murder, advocating killing police officers etc. There were calls for new laws and censorship. But in the end, all it amounted to was additional publicity for otherwise bad artists. Which brings me to my second point:

    Celebrities bank on their name recognition and fame. Even if that fame comes through negative attention, it still increases their value as a commodity. Otherwise, Charlie Sheen would have been gone long ago. Thus the way you punish people like that is to ignore them. Don’t watch their shows, don’t buy the merchandise they wear and don’t talk about them at all. It doesn’t take a movement, it just takes enough people turning their backs and any celebrity will disappear into the “Whatever happened to . . . ” category.

    • July 12, 2012 at 8:08 am

      Hmmm, I suppose it’s worth noting, then, that I don’t like much rap. Honestly, I never thought about that comparison before, but you’re right. Also, Charlie Sheen — ugh. It’s a shame, because I used to really like him, and now? Not so much. Good suggestion about avoidance. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Jim!

  6. July 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    This whole situation just leaves a foul taste in my mouth. I am with you on all accounts here. It’s one thing to make a blanket statement about an entire group of people (because I have seen comedians do that, and politically incorrect as it usually is, sometimes it’s funny), but to single out an individual and propose that such devastating harm to her would be amusing is something I can’t wrap my mind around. What an asshole. I’ve never watched his show, and now that I know about this, I never will.

    • July 12, 2012 at 8:08 am

      The whole thing was just an onslaught on WRONG. He has since apologized, but it is (in my opinion) the most insincere thing ever.

  7. July 11, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    I’m going to play a bit of a devil’s advocate here…
    Raping a woman is never, ever funny. Obviously. I’m a feminist and it’s icky. It’s horrific. That said…I’m a big proponent of free speech. I vowed to never lose my sense of humor and yes, I may be an asshole for saying this but it’s comedy. I watch Tosh and I know what to expect. Dirty, filthy, crass humor. If you heckle a comedian, you’re gonna get scathing remarks. Or just leave the club. You’re there on free will. It’s their show.
    I joke around and can be one of the raunchiest in the room. But in real life I wouldn’t bully anyone or rape them or deliberately hurt them.
    I’m not defending Tosh at all but feel the need to post a little “both sides” of the story: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/10/daniel-tosh-rape-joke-laugh-factory_n_1662882.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular
    To just pull a quote from this – if Sarah Silverman can say, “I was raped by my Doctor. Which is bittersweet for a Jewish Girl” and it’s not the news of the week – it just seems like reverse sexism to me. I’m all for equal-opportunity jokes, freedom of speech and all that jazz.
    And I certainly don’t want you to think I’m an asshole (since I adore you) but I did want to get my rambling in here.
    Two cents done.

    • July 12, 2012 at 8:10 am

      Jule, I respect what you have to say. I do. And I totally support raunchy humor, and lord knows, I can make a dirty joke out of anything. It’s a gift. *grin* But as for comparing Silverman to Tosh, there IS a difference. Silverman was using herself as the subject of her joke, not someone else. She was threatening some dude in a crowd. So, in my opinion, there is a bit of a difference. But for the record? I do not think you’re an asshole, because you are not. And I adore you as well. thank you for what you said, and the link. I’m glad that you shared!!

      • Jessica
        July 13, 2012 at 12:09 am

        Ali, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the difference – its all in the subject of the joke. I read a piece someone wrote explaining how rape jokes could be construed as funny, and the basic point that the author made was that if the subject of your joke was a rape victim, it is never funny, but if the joke is rather focused on you, or some aspect of anti-woman or rape culture, it will come off as less offensive.

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