July 10th, 2012: The day Louis CK — favorite comedian of existentialists, Woody Allen fans, other deeply conflicted intellectuals, and this particular writer — defended a stupid and unfunny rape joke by Daniel Tosh, a man who gets paid to point and laugh at YouTube videos. At least, that’s what we all assumed happened until last night, when CK appeared on The Daily Show and had more to say about the Tosh controversy than the new season of his excellent FX series, Louie. Apparently, the comedian was on vacation at the time and staying away from the Internet, as is his custom. CK merely caught an episode of Tosh.0 in his hotel room, found it funny, and tweeted his appreciation: “@danieltosh your show makes me laugh every time I watch it. And you have pretty eyes.”
It’s a relief to learn that Louis CK wasn’t endorsing an unfunny and somewhat threatening rape joke directed at an audience member (although it’s not exactly thrilling to find out that he loves Tosh’s awful TV show). But in his interview with Jon Stewart, the comedian didn’t condemn or even criticize the joke itself.
Louis CK responded to the rape joke controversy in a way that’s entirely consistent with his comedy. Rather than casting a hero or a villain, he painted the picture of a media circus perpetuated by two equally ridiculous groups: “This is a fight between comedians and bloggers, which is like, we’re all just… hyperbole and garbage comes out of those two places.” Then, he noted that the Tosh incident had put comedians into conflict with their “natural enemy,” feminists. While the latter are “stereotypically” humorless and comics are known for being ultra-sensitive to criticism, the outrage on both sides was inevitable. Later in the discussion, CK picked out two other groups who were both wrong about the controversy: women, who think everyone should care about their personal feelings, and men, who don’t listen to women when they’re upset.
There is clearly a grain of truth to each of these binaries, but what’s disappointing is CK’s conspicuous failure to address the elephant in the room — the joke Tosh actually made. As plenty of writers, from Jezebel to Splitsider, have pointed out, this controversy is not primarily about all rape jokes. In fact, some feminists have responded with lists of rape jokes they actually find funny — and various Louis CK bits are turning up on these lists, because his jokes always complicate and intensify, rather than simplify and ridicule, the idea of rape. From CK we get, “You should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason. Like you want to fuck someone, and they won’t let you. In which case what other option do you have. How else are you supposed to have an orgasm in their body if you don’t rape them. Like what the fuck? Ah, OK. That’s fucked up.” What Tosh did was reply to a heckler who called out “rape jokes are never funny” by cracking, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her.” (At least, that’s what happened according to the heckler, an account the Tosh camp has lightly disputed but not gone out of its way to correct.) There is a big difference between CK’s joke and Tosh’s, and while CK may not be eager to publicly take issue with a fellow comedian, making a distinction between well-constructed and astute bits that don’t trivialize horribly traumatic events and vaguely threatening statements that aren’t even a little bit funny would actually have been a really healthy and helpful thing for comedy.
But at least Louis CK didn’t leave without saying something of value about the controversy, subtly acknowledging that it was more than just a non-issue manufactured by over-sensitive comedians, hysterical feminists, and attention-hungry bloggers. “I’ve read some blogs during this whole thing that have made me enlightened to things I didn’t know,” he said “This woman said how rape is something that polices women’s lives, they have a narrow corridor, they can’t go out late, they can’t go to certain neighborhoods, they can’t dress a certain way. That’s part of me now, that it wasn’t before. And I can still enjoy a good rape joke.” We can only hope Daniel Tosh will someday reach something approaching that level of awareness.