They’ll say, “You can’t joke about rape. Rape’s not funny.” I say, “Fuck you, I think it’s hilarious. How do you like that?” I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. See? Hey, why do you think they call him “Porky,” eh? I know what you’re going to say. “Elmer was asking for it. Elmer was coming on to Porky. Porky couldn’t help himself, he got a hard-on, he got horny, he lost control, he went out of his mind.
A lot of men talk like that. A lot of men think that way. They think it’s the woman’s fault. They like to blame the rape on the woman. Say, “She had it coming, she was wearing a short skirt.” These guys think women ought to go to prison for being cock teasers: don’t seem fair to me.
– George Carlin, Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics (0:22, 1)
The Funny Rape Joke has been something of a white whale in comedy since Lenny Bruce taught comedians that they could venture into the blue. Quoted above, George Carlin performed a routine that got as close to a funny rape joke as possible, a Charles Blondin-esque tightrope walk. The paragraph that follows the above cited joke captures in the most succinct fashion his philosophy of how to make such jokes, and what qualifies as a joke in general.
Don’t seem right, but you can joke about it. I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke. What the exaggeration is, what the exaggeration is. Because every joke needs one exaggeration; every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion. (1:04, 1)
You can see that model applied to every joke Carlin or any other comedian has told in their career. You use that model yourself in every day life joking with friends and co-workers. When referring to the Porky Pig rape, the disproportionate exaggeration is the placing of beloved timeless cartoon characters in an extreme sexual position.
The argument against this joke being funny is a simple line drawn in the sand, one that is hard to disagree with. As always, I crowd source thoughts on social media about topics before writing and my sister offered that “The ridiculousness of the image of Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd is the fact it’s Porky Pig having sex with Elmer Fudd. That’s the funny part. The rape part, the necessary power dynamic that exists between the rapist and the victim, is still not funny.” The humor in the joke could remain without the rape. It could just be consensual intercourse and the absurdity remains. With this absurdity, nothing about Carlin’s model of a joke requires that it be imaginary. In fact, the real absurdities of human life are what comedians strive to point out and make light of. This brings us to Dave Chappelle.
In the first of his two Netflix Specials released earlier this month, The Age of Spin, Dave Chapelle recounts a half-assed pitch to hollywood executives about a superhero whose super powers can only be activated by touching a woman’s vagina. Unfortunately, the Super Hero is so ugly no woman would allow him to touch their vagina, so he is forced to rape them. However, this rape allows him to save tens of thousands of people, or as Dave puts “He saves more than he rapes.” Later in the performance, he speaks of his personal anguish coping with the reality of Bill Cosby’s alleged (though Chapelle admits, likely) rapes, “It would be as if you heard chocolate ice cream itself … had raped 54 people. You’d say to yourself, ‘Aw, but I like chocolate ice cream. I don’t want it to rape!’” Chappelle goes on to list off all the good Cosby has done for the world, his achievements as a black entertainer paving the way for people like himself. The good Cosby has done is undeniable. To wrap it up, Chappelle recalls his imagined superhero who saved more than he raped.
The special featured a frame tale regarding the four times he met OJ Simpson. Before the whole double-murder thing, OJ was a superstar much like Cosby. His fame in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s was as if you merged Tom Brady and Brad Pitt, then made him black. OJ was one of the first black cultural superheroes. Dave recalled early in his showbiz career after the trial shaking OJ’s hand whilst at a restaurant having dinner with showbiz people. His dining companions were aghast. His defense was similar, “he ran for over 10,000 yards.”
Needless to say, Chappelle’s jokes about rape were not well received. Over a week has passed since the special and it birthed numerous thinkpieces whether or not the rape jokes were okay. The overall consensus was no. Some publications were harsher than others. Lux Alptraum in Complex wrote “Abuse survivors are used to people treating their pain as collateral damage on some important man’s road to greatness. It’s just painful to see that kind of talk echoed by a man who claims to be a feminist” (2). Even kinder takes still offered some heat, as Michael Harriot wrote in The Root “The rapey transphobia came off as if he were trying to be shocking for shock’s sake. We wanted to fall in love again with the skinny, awkward outsider from 2003. It turns out we found a muscle-bound multimillionaire who just wanted a one-night stand” (3). The middle ground position and narrative take was captured by GQ’s Damon Young, writing:
He is a public figure whom we (black people) have collectively and justifiably circled the wagons for; sensitive to his wish for peace of mind, and his attempt to possess it; ultimately aiming to protect one of our icons from the scourge of capital letter Whiteness attempting to transmute him.
I just… I don’t know, I just would like for him to join us in 2017. There’s so much he can do here. (4)
Time. It’s the same sort of thing that is said about people we like when they say offensive thing, like when Alec Baldwin calls someone a faggot. It’s a product of the times he grew up in. It’s half reprimand, half excuse, all bull shit. But in fairness to Chappelle, the special was recorded in 2015 at the height of the Cosby scandal. At the time it was recorded it was timely, and it was doing a lot. In Young’s article he comments on Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain special and how the politics of some of the jokes made re-watching it uncomfortable. He acknowledges however that it is “an example of how comedies tend to be snapshots of a moment of time—reflections of the politics and the cultural zeitgeist when they were created” (4). This would have to apply to Dave Chappelle in 2015. The moral and ethical questions surrounding the Cosby rape was part of the zeitgeist.
The ethical questions of course, were not whether his actions were okay but how we are supposed to treat the legacy of a man who had committed such horrific crimes. Do we throw all of his contributions out? Do we scrub history of him? As a black celebrity Dave Chappelle is in a unique position to comment. Dave Chappelle makes a living on the achievements and groundwork laid by Bill Cosby and yes, even OJ Simpson. It would be absurd to expect Chappelle to throw out everything Cosby achieved. He would be throwing himself out with it. Even worse it would be unfair for him to pretend Cosby never existed, that the ground he is standing on was paved by some nameless gray face.
But at the end of the day, it is about the rape jokes. The Carlin Exaggerated Absurdity was present, and it was real. Maybe too real. Cosby sure did do a hell of a lot of good. Cosby also raped a hell of a lot of women. The topic was worthy of exploration from Chappelle, but Dave seemed awfully cavalier in talking about the rape. Maybe it was gallows humor, a man trying out loud to work out the struggle between what he knows he ought to feel in the present and the way he felt before, a man who himself has struggled with what it is to be a black celebrity, but it is unfair to dismiss Chappelle as someone who time has passed by.