On April 23, I wrote to Sam Morril that I wanted to work with him to change the conversation about rape jokes. That conversation, I said, was stuck in a frustrating, repetitive pattern: “Feminists say rape jokes are offensive, comics say they have the right to offend people, and we just keep repeating the same lines from that point forward.”
Sam Morril chose not to have that conversation for 13 days. When he did respond, on his Facebook, and after the article was published, he said – basically – that he had the right to offend people.
It’s hard to engage with Sam Morril’s response, because it is, among other things, a hash of cliches so thoroughly unoriginal, and so completely in line with what I described about this dynamic in my original piece, that there’s really nothing to say about it that I didn’t say four days ago, before it ever happened. “Comedy comes from dark places,” check. “Other comics tell rape jokes,” check. “You ambushed me,” check. “My mother thinks I’m funny,” check. (Also, awwwww.) “Political correctness police,” check and mate.
Likewise, engaging with Sam Morril’s fans, friends, and defenders seems pointless. There’s not a lot you can do to explain the ills of institutional sexism to guys who go with “humorless fucking bitch” or “bloody cunt” as their first response to mild questioning. Generally, people tend to know that those terms are sexist. Generally, people tend to know that insisting that women should shut the fuck up about sexual violence and let the men talk is widely considered a misogynist position. If they’re doing it, it’s not for lack of information about the perceived sexism of their behavior. Mostly, this is malice, not mere ignorance, doing the talking. And so, convincing these people that I’m not a wicked PC cunt out to take their fun away is like convincing a two-year-old there’s no monster under his bed. You can reason with him all you like, but he’s scared.
What Sam Morril thinks — and what his fans overwhelmingly think — of this conversation is that there shouldn’t be one. It’s something he states, more or less directly, in paragraph seven of his response: “Stand-up comedy is a performance, not a discourse. There are bouncers there whose sole purpose is to make sure our performance goes uninterrupted.”
Sam Morril’s performance, as it happens, did go more or less uninterrupted. What happened is that somebody wrote about it, after the fact, in a way that he didn’t like. But his confusion, here, is both interesting and telling: He doesn’t perceive a significant difference between a bad review and heckling. Both of them are the same thing – someone speaking, someone challenging him, when she doesn’t have the right and should be silent.
So what interests me is why this particular conversation is so threatening. Why it makes so many people so deeply angry that I asked Sam Morril questions, and printed his lack of response. This conversation gets to something deep, and primal, about who has the right to speak, especially about violence against women, and what they have the right to say.
On to Morril’s response. I won’t quote every line and every word – you can find the full version on his Facebook – but it begins:
First, let me say that I do not condone rape, and it is never my intention to write a joke that upsets people. I never write a joke thinking, “this’ll show ‘em.” I’m a comedian.
I don’t imagine Morril thinks it’s a great idea to go around raping women. He does think it’s a good idea to make jokes in which he portrays himself as someone who rapes women, and causes them physical harm, and finds it funny when bad things happen to them, which is what I questioned.
He also says that doesn’t intend to write jokes that upset people. In fact, Morril advertises himself as a comedian who upsets people, Tweeting about how he should have caution tape over his mouth in headshots, his bad effect on “unsuspecting audiences.” So we’re starting off with half the truth, but it’s a start.
[When] you paraphrase jokes on very delicate topics, you’re stripping them of their meaning and irony, the things that makes them funny. In my N word joke you referred to, you decided to leave out the punchline, which is pretty important when you’re quoting a joke, especially about such a sensitive topic. The punchline is that the crowd thinks: “We thought he was going to say the N word, then thank God…It’s just a rape joke.” It’s a moment of relief, but really it’s much worse. It’s a commentary on political correctness, not an approval of rape. Your reaction compounds the irony. My joke on political correctness brings out the political correctness police.
If Sam Morril felt that I misrepresented his joke, he had over a week in which to correct my quotation of the joke, because I wrote him an e-mail in which I quoted that joke, to which he did not respond until after the article was published.
You mention the “reasonable” and “intelligent” Louis CK. Well, Louis has plenty of jokes about rape. Ever heard the one? “You should never rape a woman…Unless you want to have sex with her and she wont let you…Then what other choice do you have?”
Many female comics joke about rape as well. Sarah Silverman has one: “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”
Well, I think I said “usually” reasonable and intelligent. I don’t think that joke is very good. Louis CK also written many other jokes that I do like, about sexism, about racism, and about people taking cell phones for granted. He’s proven that he can write three-dimensional, interesting female characters, for which I give him extra credit. (He’s also said, as readers have pointed out to me, that he didn’t intend to defend Tosh, for which he gets an apology and extra credit again.) Silverman isn’t someone whose work I follow closely, but she’s made me laugh, and I think she’s a smart woman, and I think some aspects of her act are subversive in a way I really like. If we’re talking jokes about rape that we like, I think Tig Notaro’s “No Moleste” is brilliant.
I take individual comedians, and individual jokes, on their individual merits. The point isn’t that some jokes contain the word “rape,” and are therefore all equally bad. The point is how those jokes work. I thought Morril’s jokes, and particularly Morril’s rape jokes, worked in a way that was specifically bad.
Do you understand that neither Louis nor Sarah approves of rape? Do find it necessary to send them the pages of rape statistics that you sent me?
Here’s the rub – the idea that someone must, by default, consciously and willfully “approve” of rape if they make a joke that supports attitudes which result in violence against women. The idea that those “pages of statistics” have no bearing or relevance to the jokes Sam Morril tells. The idea that being asked to look at them is, in itself, an insult.
What those “pages of statistics” say is that violence against women – both intimate partner violence and sexual assault; Morril only addresses one, but I asked him about both – are incredibly common. If 25% of all people reported being mugged, we’d declare a massive public safety crisis. If one in five Americans had influenza, every news channel would broadcast 24-hour coverage of the plague. But for women, those epidemic rates of assault – one in four, one in five – are the low numbers. Among more marginalized populations, they go up, until the survivors are actually in the majority.
What this means is that we live in a culture where hurting women, because they are women, has been largely normalized. There are assumptions ingrained in the culture that are allowing these huge numbers of gendered assault to exist. Because we live in culture, we absorb these harmful attitudes without realizing it. It’s not a fault or a sin or a sign of being an evil or consciously harmful person. It’s a sign of being a human in a culture that needs improving. A man who shares these attitudes is not “bad;” he is normal. But so is violence against women, and that’s the problem.
Most pernicious among these assumptions is the idea that violence against women is fundamentally not as serious or as tragic as harm done to other people. That having an emotional reaction to it, in fact, is the bigger problem: That women who get upset about this or even speak about it are “hypersensitive” or out of line.
One result of these attitudes is widespread violence against women. Another result is a man getting on stage and telling a series of jokes that end with the punchline “I have raped women,” or with harm done to women, with the expectation that he will not experience any serious blowback or criticism. A third result is the perception of that criticism, when it does arise, as a socially impermissible attack from a hypersensitive, out-of-line female who should have stayed quiet.
They’re not three instances of same thing. They’re three different things that arise from the same basic assumption. And the assumption is that violence against women is nothing to get angry about. It’s certainly not as worthy of mass outrage as, say, a comedian getting a bad review.
You conveniently left out the sentences in your initial first email where you wrote, “you really stood out from the other comics.” You wanted to engage with me so you pretended to be a fan by complimenting me. Very tricky!
Sam Morril did, in fact, stand out from the other comics, because he told two jokes, and the punchline of both was “I raped a woman.” As I said, that didn’t happen with the other comics. The assumption that a writer would only want to engage him if they were also “a fan” speaks to Sam Morril’s deeper assumption that the only appropriate or permissible response to his work is praise.
You completely misquoted a story I told to portray me as a misogynist or worse.
If Sam Morril felt that I had misunderstood or misremembered his story, he had eleven days in which to correct me, because I wrote him an e-mail which included my perception of the story, to which he did not respond.
There are lots of bad people out there who do evil things. I think your time would be better spent attacking them. Most of them have no sense of irony either. You clearly were not interested in having a conversation. For some reason, you chose me to ambush[.]
You might not want to use words like “attack” and “ambush” to refer to difficult interview questions or bad reviews, when you publicly giggle about raping chicks, and intersperse that with long stories about how a woman who told you to leave her friend alone wound up getting punched in the throat at your request. I’m just saying. That’s a little bit of irony you might not intend.
I got a Tweet from one of your readers 2 days ago saying, “someday I hope a man forcefully penetrates your asshole with their veiny cock. Rape jokes won’t be quite as funny after that.” Also, “or maybe your mother gets raped, or little sister. I don’t think you understand the culture you’re adding too.” Should I take that threat seriously? Do you condone this? Is that the kind of behavior you’re trying to motivate?
No, and I condemned it immediately after I read Sam Morril’s response. I’ll condemn it again now, and note that a large chunk of the original article was about the fact that wishing rape on someone is unacceptable.
I’ve yet to see Sam Morril denounce any misogynist, violent, or threatening comments aimed my way. He did do this, with one of them:
Woody Allen says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”
Again: Might not want to use the guy who fucks his kid as your personal Yoda. Just, you know, since “irony” is important here.
Comedy is an art form. We get paid to say whatever we want, and I’ve earned that right to do so on good stages by putting in work year after year, and proving I can do it well.
Well, aside from the debatability of that last point: Criticism is a job. We get paid to state our opinions, whether or not they flatter the subject. It looks as if Sam Morril and I are both doing our jobs.
The sad fact is, I think Sam Morril’s job is a lot more important than he does. An art form is inherently bound to its social context. It both mirrors culture and changes culture. If an artist believes that his work has no ability to influence or affect people, he believes his art is powerless. I think that believing art is impotent is far more insulting than believing that art can be harmful.
And Sam Morril’s art is harmful. This is a conclusion I’ve only really come to in reading his fans’ responses to the article, but, yes: Sam Morril harms people, particularly his fans.
To really talk about this, let’s talk about what great comedy is capable of. Louis CK points out common stupidities in a way that challenges his audience to become smarter, to think more closely about themselves. Sarah Silverman’s audacious crudeness challenges her audience’s ideas of femininity, of how a woman can present herself in public. Maria Bamford talks about having mental illness, and makes you laugh with her; Maria Bamford is one reason that more people in this world are willing to think about mental illness with empathy and nuance. Tig Notaro comes on stage and tells people she’s got cancer, her mother is dead, and her heart is broken, and then she turns tragedy and grief into catharsis. She asserts the power of great comedians to use the darkest and most frightening material to create joy.
Sam Morril inspires people, too. He inspires people to write “sounds to me like there were some bloody cunts in the show,and she didnt have the balls to confront you at a human level but instead hides behind here shitty writing and cuntness,long live rape jokes and fuck female cry babys.” He inspires them to say, “nothing like the profound wisdom of a humorless fucking bitch.” He inspires them to say, “could have been anyone of us but you were planted right in that estrogen warpath” and “she tires so easily — Ambien’s unnecessary.” Sam Morril inspires people to think about women getting raped and punched, and to laugh about that, and to respond to the people who aren’t laughing with open, openly misogynist rage. He inspires people to feel like sexism is just pretty darn okay, and a good way to have fun, and anyone who gets in the way of their fun, no matter how she does it, is some humorless crybaby bitch on her period who didn’t get asked to the prom and who’s probably been raped.
And it’s that – the assumption, or joke, that came back more than once in these comments, that I had only written the piece because I’d probably been sexually assaulted or “victimized,” despite my not having mentioned it once in the piece – that’s really my closing argument, when it comes to Sam Morril.
Because these comments — of which there was more than one — seemed to think that having been raped or assaulted made a woman less qualified to have an opinion on how sexual violence is portrayed in art. It was part of the general trend of how I was portrayed: Damaged, weak, emotional, irrational, stupid, “taking things personally” or letting my emotions cloud my silly little feather-brain so that I was incapable of truly appreciating the objective might of a man’s Art. These stereotypes are ancient. But what stands out, here, is that on top of the standard-issue “women are not smart or strong” sexism, the specific problem was that I might be a rape survivor. When someone writes that “I’d love to see the article she wrote for her first rapist” (as a commenter on Morril’s original post did), or “you were victimized at some point in your life, you’re angry at the world, and you’re super-jealous of people who are able to enjoy themselves,” as a commenter on this site did, the specific message they are sending is that survivors of rape and assault are stupid, bad, weak people. And being asked to think about them is ridiculous, and stupid, because they don’t matter.
The bottom line is: I know more about comedy than you.
I know more about funny than you do,
Oh, how I wish that were true.
and nothing was ever made funnier by political correctness.
But nothing was ever made smarter by refusing to think about it, and nothing was ever made worse by kindness, and no society or art form was ever destroyed by asking difficult questions, though plenty of terrible things have been caused by suppressing them.
Sam Morril makes bad art. And Sam Morril thinks he’s doing a super job.
Photo by Daehyun Park, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license