I haven’t been to an open mic since the Bill Cosby allegations kicked up again. I haven’t joked about or tweeted about him. But I’m glad others are.
Twitter and open mics provide the space to pore over and react to the events of the day, and to see other people’s better or more interesting or more informed takes on these events. Hashtags and trending topics are nothing new in comedy. They are the current iteration of what comedy has always done when it was done best.
The best comedy explodes and explores the things we hate in order to make life more livable. The best comedy says what you wish you would have said, if only you had thought to say it. Or thought to think it.
Cosby is a comic, and there is a long-held tradition that comics protect our own. So I’m proud it was a comic—Hannibal Buress, whom I’ve known and respected and watched for years—that reignited this shitstorm. Because it was a comic who stepped up and turned the mirror on Cosby, other comics have taken the allegations seriously.
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Even more so because it was a male comic and a black comic—someone who would be qualified by the same sex/race modifiers as Cosby in a New York Times article about “Mr. Buress’ set” and “Mr. Cosby’s fall from grace.” I’m glad we didn’t have to read the sexist jokes that would have wormed their way into Twitter feeds, microphones, and bullshit office conversation if Hannibal were a female comic. Or, if Hannibal were white, wade through racist anti-Cosby nonsense that somehow placed fucked-up attitudes toward sexual assault unevenly on the black community.
More important than these modifiers, though, know this: Hannibal Buress is a really great at stand-up. You should know who he is. And he used his skill to do what comedy does when it’s done best.
And yet, I’m still disappointed in all of us that it took a dude to push the tidal wave of allegations over. I’m bummed that the women most affected by these allegations were shuttled along and shouted over for so long. I tend to believe folks who step forward and say they have been raped. It’s not something I can see another woman claiming lightly, not for financial reward or revenge or any other reason.
It is a hard road to admit being harmed and harder still to do so in a culture that will question every detail, causing the victim to relive each moment. The victim is scrutinized—story taken apart, life taken apart, choices taken apart. The victim isn’t painted as a hero. Even in this case, the women alleging these horrible acts are not heroes for stepping forward. Hannibal is the hero, or comedy is.
But comedy hasn’t always done well by rape victims. It is of note that these events are all unfolding within a community that has a history of taking a stand for a comics’ right to tell rape jokes, specifically a male comic’s right to tell rape jokes. Seems like every six months or so—maybe once a year—the debate recurs.
Here’s how it tends to unfold:
A dude comic tells a joke about rape or deals with hecklers in way that includes rape. A woman hears this joke or is the heckler. She publicly states that she is upset or didn’t think the joke was funny or doesn’t think it dealt with the topic well. The comic gets wind of this feedback and LOSES HIS MIND.
Other comics get on board and support the comic. For some reason a discussion about censorship breaks out, which is nonsensical since the audience member isn’t in a position to censor anyone. Dude comics generally support the dude comic’s right to tell a rape joke, even though no one’s rights to speak were being questioned. Chick comics support the dude comic or keep quiet—not wanting to be labeled stupid or bitchy or against their own community. Female audience member is labeled stupid or bitchy and publicly shamed by comics. Everyone moves on.
I personally don’t advocate for any topics being categorically off limits, because OF COURSE I DON’T. I’m a comic. I have talked about rape onstage. How the hell can we ever move through the terrible things that haunt our minds and our bodies if we don’t explore them, separately and as a group?
But I do think that when a comic is in a group of people more often unaffected by a topic, that comic should understand they’ll need to do some extra work to make their jokes funny, relevant, and well thought out. If you are a white comic talking about dealing with racism, or a straight comic talking about being uncomfortable in a gay neighborhood, or a dude talking about rape, you are speaking from outside the community most affected by the issue you discuss. You’ll have to work harder to tell a good joke. You’ll be rewarded for the extra work, trust me. Look at Louis C.K.’s career. Taboo topics addressed personally. That’s his whole thing and he’s doing just fine.
There are plenty of angles on rape that affect dudes more—no one has ever thought I could possibly be a rapist, for instance, which is an angle I have heard dude comics use for huge laughs and it’s totally worked. There are always new jokes to tell on a topic or new angles to take.
IN THE END: Tell the jokes you want to tell. But know that feedback isn’t censorship or persecution, especially when it comes from a group more affected by the topic of your joke. The best defense against criticism is a better joke.
So: How can we talk about Bill Cosby? How can we joke about him? How can we joke about all of this?
We can take it seriously—we can take women’s voices seriously in general. We can be honest in our response and not make it about the victims. We can keep having conversations that challenge long-held, but perhaps inaccurate beliefs. We can—like Hannibal—keep making the type of jokes that improve the shit we see around us. We can open mic it until we get it right.