I tried not to embarrass Sam Morril.
To understand how hard this was, for me, I should start at the beginning. Which was: On April 15, I went to a comedy show. The opener was one Sam Morril. And his opener, as per my notes, went as follows: “My ex-girlfriend never made me wear a condom. That’s huge. She was on the pill.” Pause. “Ambien.”
When Sam Morril tells a rape joke, he pauses for a moment, then says some variation on the phrase “that was a rape joke.” He invariably sounds both proud and delighted. I should know. I heard him do it several times.
And it went on. He saw a woman fighting with her boyfriend, and something bad happened to her, and she said it wasn’t funny, but it was. He bothered a girl at a bar, and her friend said that the girl wasn’t interested in him, so he eventually paid someone to punch the woman who had stopped him from hitting on her friend. (Sam Morril is apparently a big fan of stories about women getting physically hurt when they object to the concept of having sex with Sam Morril.) It wasn’t just the occasional rape joke, or the occasional self-congratulation for telling the rape joke, that made the set so exhausting. It was just the steady, relentless, predictable drone of a man whose only punchline was some variation on “I do not like women.” At one point, I flipped him off. Then I flipped him off again. Then my face started developing a nervous twitch. And then we hit the night’s highlight:
“Hey, I’m attracted to black women. Yeah, I had sex with one once.” (Once!) “It was kind of awkward, because the whole time I was fucking her, she kept using the N-word. Yeah, the whole time, she just kept yelling out, no!”
At that point, much like any of Sam Morril’s conscious ex-girlfriends, I just fastened my eyes to the ceiling and waited for him to finish amusing himself.
So I told my editor I was going to confront him. Something big, and rude, and embarrassing. I’d send him an e-mail – maybe I’d just quote a bunch of rape statistics, and ask him to rate how funny they were on a scale of 1 to 10 – and I’d wait to see if he responded.
I had a reason for being invested in his response. Last summer, the entire Internet had been set aflame by comedian Daniel Tosh essentially threatening a female audience member with rape for objecting to his rape jokes. She had a blog; she used the blog to relate what he’d said; Daniel Tosh, who had an entire show about the goddamn Internet, was apparently shocked and mortally wounded that someone in his audience had a blog.
Which would have been obnoxious enough on its own, without the stand-up comedians of the world rallying around Tosh. And yet, rally they did: Patton Oswalt referred to the woman as “some idiotic blogger,” and lamented that Tosh had been made to apologize to the woman he’d wished would be “raped by like two guys.” Dane Cook helpfully informed those who were offended by Tosh that “it’s best for everyone if you just kill yourself.” (After you get raped by the two guys, I guess. It’s a remarkably rough night Cook and Tosh had planned for that woman.) Even the normally reasonable and intelligent Louis C.K. got sucked into defending Tosh’s comments – although, thankfully, he didn’t go the route of Doug Stanhope, who hashtagged his Tweet about the controversy, simply, #FuckThatPig.
He was, yes, referring to the woman that Tosh had threatened. Because this is how it goes, between female comedy fans – especially feminists – and male stand-up comics. Let’s be entirely clear here: These are grown men who get paid money to stand in front of an audience and say, quite literally, whatever they want, as long as they think it’s funny. And yet when women talk back, especially if it’s not flattering, we’re “idiots,” pigs, better off raped, or better off dead. These guys grow up, go into entertainment, and then react to the presence of an audience as if it’s a form of armed robbery. But female comedy fans exist. We go to shows. In the age of social media, our microphones can be as big as any comic’s, or bigger. Why shouldn’t they hear what we have to say? More to the point: Why do they still act as if it’s avoidable?
Because they do. One year and approximately seventy thousand blog posts later, people were still hiring Sam Morril. Because, you know. What could possibly go wrong?
So, I wrote to my editor, I was going to do it differently. I was going to give him no possible chance to claim that he’d been ambushed, or stabbed in the back. I was going to find him. I was going to tell him exactly who I was – “My name’s Sady Doyle. I’m a feminist journalist and pop culture critic, and I attended your show on April 13,” is how I opened my first e-mail — and I was going to tell him that I planned to write about his show. I was going to do this whole thing as fairly as possible. While still, you know, planning to write an entire piece specifically for the fun of humiliating the guy in public.
He wrote back.
Lets do it, Sady! Shoot me the questions. Thanks for thinking of me.
It was at this point that the story changed. He’d responded. In fact, he’d responded almost right away. There was a chance I could actually talk to the guy. And so I started to have doubts about my initial premise. A list of rape stats and an invitation to rate them on the scale of humor: I could do that. I could send that. I could print that. It would have been splashy, and it would have made my point, and – moreover – I was absolutely certain that he would be unable to respond to it. He would look like a coward. I would look like a hero.
But it would have been a lie. It would have been worse than that: It would have been shitty journalism. I could game the system, pre-determine the outcome, give Sam Morril something he absolutely couldn’t respond to without looking like an asshole, and absolutely couldn’t ignore without looking weak, and then reveal to my readers – as if it were a surprise – that I’d managed to make the guy look bad. I would have looked brave to the outside world, while knowing deep down that I’d risked absolutely nothing. In point of fact, I would have been no better than a stand-up comic bullying an audience member for not laughing at his jokes. To do this thing right – to do it fair – I had to come to the table with the presumption of good faith. I didn’t have to pitch the guy softballs. But I had to give Sam Morril an honest chance to write back.
So I sat down. And I wrote the nicest e-mail I could manage.
Hi Sam —
Thanks for responding so quickly! And I’m sorry that I didn’t do the same. The fact is, I have one main question, and it is: What’s with all the rape jokes?
I know the relationship between feminists and stand-up comics can be notably contentious on the rape joke issue. (Think Tosh.) And to be blunt, I sent you the e-mail because your set made me really mad. That’s probably what you were going for. But instead of firing shots at each other from the safety and comfort of our personal Twitters, maybe it’s worthwhile to talk about it. This conversation tends to get stuck in one repeating 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. So, even though I would expect you won’t like some of these questions, maybe this is an opportunity to open a dialogue.
One in five women reports being sexually assaulted. For women of color, that number is much higher; one study says that over 50% of young black women are sexually assaulted. (One of your jokes: “I’m attracted to black women. I had sex with one once. The whole time I was fucking her, she kept using the n-word. Yeah, the whole time, she was yelling NO!”) On your Twitter, you warned people that they shouldn’t attend one particular set of yours if they’d recently had a miscarriage or been raped. So, like: Are you comfortable excluding that big a chunk of the population from your set? I always wonder this, about comedians who tell a lot of rape jokes. You presumably know that it happens. Do you know that it happens this often? Is it a realistic possibility, in your mind, that not just one but several of the women in your audience have experienced it?
It’s not just that. An even higher percentage of the female population, 1 in 4, reports having been assaulted by a partner. 30% of all murdered women are murdered by their partners. To be blunt: You make jokes about hitting women. You also make quite a few jokes about killing them. One extended bit was about getting someone to hit a girl who didn’t want you bothering her friend, because you “couldn’t” yourself. On your Twitter (paraphrasing here): “I would never hit a woman. Or push one. Out of the way of a moving bus.” The basic punchline in your set was, the girl got hit, and you caused it. The punchline in your Tweet is that a woman gets killed. The punchline in your extended series of Tweets about Pistorius: Girl gets killed.
But in your Tweet about the Boston Marathon, you write that “this violence is infuriating.” What’s the difference between the violence perpetrated at the Boston Marathon and the violence that will affect about one-quarter of all women during their lifetimes, and account for no small number of deaths? That’s not a set-up for a joke. I just want to know. Why is only one of those infuriating?
Finally, Sam: The two rape jokes I counted in your set weren’t just about the concept of rape. They were jokes in which the punchline was that you raped a woman. (That didn’t happen with any of the other comics on stage, even though I remember at least one other joke about domestic violence, and the host did a long riff about rape.) And then a story in which the punchline was that you indirectly assaulted a woman. Given these numbers, what’s the benefit of presenting yourself to an audience — which is likely to contain some women, and some assault victims — as someone with an interest in raping and hitting women? Even as a joke? Where’s your pay-off there?
And I want to stress: I actually do want to hear what you have to say here. People keep having the same fight, and nothing changes on either side. Maybe this is a chance to actually have a conversation. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
To date, we have received no response from Sam Morril.
Photo by visual.dichotomy , licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 license.