Last week, if you follow pop-culture news, or general-culture news, or probably beekeeping news, you probably heard the controversy over Daniel Tosh and rape jokes. In a way tiny nutshell: a blogger reported going to a Tosh comedy show where he made a remark about rape jokes being funny, being able to joke about anything including rape, &c. (As far as I know, there’s no recording of the show.) She yelled out from the audience, “Actually, rape is never funny.” Tosh said something to the effect of “Wouldn’t if be funny if she were raped by five guys right now?” (There’s dispute over the wording, but he later publicly apologized.) The blogger blogged about it, and the Internet exploded.
One thing or another kept me from writing about it until it seemed way too late, but for the record: (1) You should be prepared to be offended at a comedy show, but Tosh was still being a jackhole. (2) Rape is never funny. But a joke about rape can be. (Likewise the Holocaust, disasters, assassinations. Infanticide = never funny; A Modest Proposal = funny.) (3) Comedians, in general, can joke about rape. But Daniel Tosh, in particular, seems really, really crappy at it.
Anyway! One of the many sidelines to this debate was a tweet that Louis CK posted during the furor, saying that Tosh’s TV show, Tosh.0, always makes him laugh. The tweet was interpreted as his taking Tosh’s side. But as Louis CK said last night to Jon Stewart, he was actually on vacation in Vermont and unaware of the controversy, until he went online a couple days later and found: “So I’m a defender of rape now! … I’ve been called a rape apologist because I said ‘Hi’ to a guy.”
Then he talked for about five minutes about the Tosh controversy and rape humor generally. I don’t want to slice and dice his response into soundbites because it’s best listened to in whole. But whatever you think of his larger argument, this passage is key: “To me, all dialogue is positive… If somebody has the opposite feeling from me, I want to hear it, so I can add to mine. I don’t want to obliterate theirs with mine.” In particular, he said, his reflexive response that “any joke about anything bad is great” was challenged when he read a blog post about how the possibility of rape “polices women’s lives” and narrows their possibilities.
You may disagree with his take on rape jokes. (He’s made some himself, including searing, horrible, and God-help-me funny riffs on child rape and raping Hitler.) But there’s something in that answer that also defines his FX show, Louie, currently on a tear in its third season. What’s distinctive about Louie—and I credit this insight to Mrs. Tuned In, catching up on the show the other day—is how it builds stories about people who are open to new encounters, new perspectives and new opinions in a way most sitcoms don’t explore.
The show is like a ribald travelogue of one guy, Louis CK’s alter ego, going out into the world and meeting new people. Sometimes he gets in conflicts (“Bully”). Sometimes he makes friends (last week’s “Miami”). Sometimes he does both (“Come On, God,” where he connects with his antagonist from a cable-news debate about masturbation). But the upshot is always that new experiences and new perspectives make you grow.
In the “Miami” episode last Thursday, Louie stepped outside his comfort zone on a Florida trip and made such a connection with a young Cuban-American lifeguard that he didn’t want to leave. His new friend guessed that he was probably gay—I read it more as a kind of Brideshead Revisited intense bromance—but the bigger point was that Louie was in love with discovery: being open to it may get you in trouble, may make you embarrassed, but it almost always makes you better. Or as his new pal put it, in Spanish, “Say you don’t know and then you learn everything.” It may be a corny sentiment, but it’s clearly not an obvious one these days.
It’s possible Louis CK may have stepped into something in explaining himself, saying that feminists “can’t take a joke” or that comedians “are big pussies.” (He’s a comic, and hyperbole is his gig.) And he deflected his call for reflection with a punchline: “And I can still enjoy a good rape joke!” But the idea of wanting to hear other points of view not to attack them but to improve your own, of growing by leaving your comfort zone, might make a lot of people better audiences and better comedians.