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Not So Funny: Sam Morril’s Rape Jokes and Female Comedy Fans

Posted on Saturday, May 4th, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Author: Sady Doyle

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 Morrill 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 Morrill is apparently a big fan of stories about women getting physically hurt when they object to the concept of having sex with Sam Morrill.) 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 Morrill’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 Morrill. 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.

Best,
Sam

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 Morrill 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 Morrill 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.

S.

To date, we have received no response from Sam Morril.

 

Photo by visual.dichotomy , licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 license.

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  1. This is not journalism – this is a one-sided character assassination on very superficial grounds.

    For the record – I am a female and I am not a stand-up comedian, but I regularly attend comedy shows. I admittedly am not fond of rape jokes. If I don’t like a rape joke, I do the same thing I do when I don’t like any other kind of joke – I don’t laugh. I don’t take it personally, I don’t take aggressive action, and I don’t make it my selfish mission to try to “humiliate someone”…

    I read Sam’s very composed and intelligent response on the link another commenter left. It is completely devoid of the agitated self-righteous smugness this article contains and written much better than this one, as well. Then again – I suppose writing is just as subjective as comedy.

  2. Anya,
    I am not a comedian. I am not even female. I have never been raped. But I do know people who have.
    It is not funny.
    It is not humor.
    It substitutes shock for humor.
    Humor is an attempt to trigger a persons sense of the absurd, usually by highlighting how their expectations are different from reality.

    Knock knock,
    Who’s there?
    Boo
    Boo who?
    Don’t cry.

    The humor comes from the disconnect between the question who is there, and the response not to cry. The brain recognizes both as legitimate responses and at the same time not – the misunderstanding implied is funny.

    This “Rape Humor” does generate laughs, but only because it is appalling. Laughter becomes the only acceptable response in place of an appalled silence. The audience laughs because it is more acceptable to fill the silence with laughter and pretend it is funny than sit silent after such an appalling concept is aired.

    There is no real justification for attempting to find humor in this particular form of degradation of individuals.

    Rape does not need to be brought to public attention in this way – there are plenty of regular news stories to keep the problem foremost in peoples minds.

    There is no need to use humor to challenge societies stance on rape – it is currently and rightfully abhorred by society.

    All the usual defenses for “humor” being offensive but necessary for the greater good are not present.

    Only the overused defense of free speech protects it and I am glad to live in a country (Australia) that can prove freedom does NOT require unfettered free speech to protect it.
    There are rules of decent behavior in the world.
    Then there is human kindness.
    No one will force comedians to comply.
    But it is NOT funny to simply breach these rules and knowingly inflict pain on others.
    If you cannot find another way to make people laugh than to knowingly inflict pain without any remitting benefit – then I find you to be a poor comedian.

    Ian McIntosh

  3. Sorry Anya – I forgot to conclude correctly:

    It is not character assassination, and most importantly NOT superficial grounds to challenge him on.
    It may be poor journalism for other reasons but not these. It is a journalists job to bring this to our attention. There is no real way to do it without making the comedian look bad, because what he did was wrong.

  4. I read this article, then read Sam’s response and I must say his response was SPOT ON!! And I also agree with Anya… “This is not journalism – this is a one-sided character assassination on very superficial grounds.”

  5. My guess is he didn’t respond because you opened with claims of statistics that are astonishingly suspect. As Christine Hoff Sommers wrote, regarding the CDC claims, “…where did the CDC find 13.7 million victims of sexual crimes that the professional criminologists had overlooked? It found them by defining sexual violence in impossibly elastic ways and then letting the surveyors, rather than subjects, determine what counted as an assault.”

    Do you think rape jokes cause rape? If so, superhero jokes should make me fly. And to make this more specific, “Kill all men” jokes should increase homicide. But they don’t. Black humor comes from the recognition of cultural taboos–there’s no evidence that black humor weakens those taboos. Do dead baby jokes cause abortions?

  6. What you’re suggesting is that all comics should apply the following standard to their material: Will this premise remind anyone in the audience of anything horrible that has happened to them or anyone else? If so, I can’t do the joke. This standard, if applied, would destroy stand up comedy as an art form or, at the very least, create an environment in which only the safest and most boring comedy could survive.

  7. I agree, this is a really shitty piece of journalism. Its not badly written or researched, it’s just based on a gross assumption that the only humor that is off limits is rape jokes. Where’s your outrage about murder jokes? Or Holocaust jokes? Or homophobic jokes? Violence is violence, gendered or not, so either everything is off limits or nothing is. The author just can’t fathom any of those other terrible things happening to her so, in the most solipsistic way possible, she channels her outrage at someone who is not deserving like the very talented Sam Morril.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that I don’t think the author is stupid or strident, I just think she’s a selfish, cherry-picking hypocrite.

  8. Just to point out how you are twisting things, how does a Tosh’s joke (whether you find it funny or not) become a direct threat? and how does Dane Cook’s suggestion that “it’s best for everyone if you just kill yourself.” become “a remarkably rough night Cook and Tosh had PLANNED.”

    Again, it’s not (to me) a question of whether you find the joke funny or even if you think Tosh and Cook are bad people for making these statements. You probably even have an argument that these statements create a hostile environment (although that depends to a large degree on context). What you are doing however is hyperbolizing the “threat” in order to add weight to your condemnation. By magnifying the incident you get to accuse and condemn these guys not just for bad taste, but for sexual violence – even though that DID NOT HAPPEN!

    This is an unfortunate habit that feminists have of using hyperbole to support their arguments. It just makes you look bad because you can’t have a discussion based on the facts at hand you need to exaggerate for effect, which is essentially lying.

  9. If I were Sam, I’d respond thusly:
    _____________________________________
    I used to watch family guy regularly. I have a rather chubby wife, and when that show would make what I considered cruel and unfunny jokes about fat people, I’d feel annoyed, I wouldn’t laugh, and I’d get a little mad. Other jokes about, let’s say, the disabled, could also be considered cruel or unfunny, but I might laugh at those jokes, because they don’t hit close to home for me.

    Your point about alienating a large part of the audience is an excellent one, at least in terms of establishing the practical disadvantages to making rape jokes. However, to the extent that an audience exists which does find them funny, it could be that pleasing the humor-tastes of that group is a viable comedic business model, so to speak.

    The fact is, much comedy stems from tragedy. In this case, a certain amount of the humor likely emerges simply from the act of making jokes about something that, until recently, people didn’t joke about. Abstractly, it is absolutely lazy and artistically unimpressive to rely on that “edginess” to evoke laughs. Nevertheless, the success of comedy can and should be determined exclusively by the number of laughs generated. If a comedian makes a bunch of rape jokes and nobody laughs, then he’s not likely to remain a comedian for long, or at least he’ll avoid rape themed jokes in the future.

    The bottom line is that each of us has our triggers. I love my wife, and am easily offended by stuff that reinforces societal perspectives about body image that I consider wrong and evil. You have a different trigger.

    A comedian has to walk a very tricky line. No doubt someone out there is offended by just about every joke. Now rape is probably a more common trigger than most others, based on the statistics you cite. And this is something that comedians should give more consideration to going forward. But remember, there was a joke by some comedian that night which you laughed at, and which also deeply offended some other member of the audience. In that regard, a rape joke is no different than any other. If you go to comedy show, be prepared to be offended by at least some of the material. If you encounter a comedian whose material deeply offends you, then feel free to angrily rant about it, or slam that comedian in an article. But the notion that rape jokes are particularly and uniquely offensive to the extent that they should never be told is misguided and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of comedy.

    Respectfully,
    Rape joke making comedian.
    __________________________________________________

    If Sam had replied thusly,Sady, how would you have responded?

    Thanks for taking the time to consider this perspective.

    Eric Strauss

  10. Wow, what a bunch of assholes. By what bizarro world definition of accurately describing what someone said an example of “character assassination”? You all just love your rape jokes so much you’ll say any bullshit to defend them.

  11. Also, how is it that Michael Richards no longer has a career? I thought anything goes. If assholes are allowed to make jokes about rape, why can’t he use the N word?

    Clearly this is about double standards and the pride of being a shitty misogynist. And morons who think that accurate descriptions are “character assassination.” No wonder you people think rape jokes are funny – because you’re slightly retarded and you don’t get anything more nuanced.

  12. Nancy flings the word “retarded” around like it aint no thing, uses false equivalence (no-one is saying the r-word is off limits, and similarly, Michael Richards wasn’t making an n-word joke), and decides to ignore the actual arguments put forth and instead call everyone who didn’t like the article a rape-joke-loving misogynist. Nancy, you are sad, and I’m sorry about your brain and life.

    With regards to the actual issue, I don’t tend to find rape jokes particularly funny either, because OFTEN they only serve to shock/humiliate without having any real humour built-in. Often, the ‘shocking’ punchline substitutes actual comedy. However, if a joke is well constructed, I don’t see why it can’t be about rape and still be funny. Lots of things that ‘aren’t funny’ make for great jokes: death, blindness, motherhood, epilepsy, polar bears, lists of statistics, etc.

    Also, just because a joke is ~about~ rape, it doesn’t necessarily mean rape victims are the ‘butt’ of the joke. For example, Chris Brown jokes these days are about domestic violence, but Chris Brown is usually the clear loser of the joke. In MANY rape jokes, there is actually no winner or loser, it’s just about turning a situation that seems harmless into a terrible one that you weren’t expecting (to follow-on from Ian’s brief explanation of how comedy often works–sorry Ian, but the Ambien joke 100% fits your quasi-neurological explanation of what makes a joke funny!).

    I’ve heard sexist jokes that did offend me as a woman, and sexist jokes that I found hilarious, because I could tell the difference between a joke that served to denigrate (some idiot calling his girlfriend a ‘cumdumpster’, not funny) and one that both highlighted the absurdity of sexism and took me by surprise (http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mdlfgoxUm11rvmzlbo1_500.jpg, pretty funny, though to a misogynist it might be funny for a different reason. This is complex!).

    Also, many rape jokes only ‘work’ if you find rape abhorrent, I don’t see why they should normalise rape.

    Finally, someone else pointed it out, but EVERY joke EVER is likely to be offensive to somebody. To somebody, all those silly topics are very real and very serious. Rape stats are awful. Rape happens to real people. So do lots of things, including sickness, disability, poverty, death, sexism, heart-break, etc. So, which topics are off-limits? Why is rape different? Some people are able to laugh at their disability, others are not. If a blind joke helps one blind person deal with their situation, but makes another feel hurt, what should we do about blind jokes? This is also complex.

    So, I think saying “all rape jokes are off limits” dilutes the real issue, which is a shame. It slaps a simple answer on a complex question. The main problem is that some jokes only function to glorify rape/humiliate victims of rape. Disambiguating the issue should make a much stronger point than saying an entire topic should be off-limits in comedy, which to me is absurd.

    I want to share this article, because it has some examples: http://kateharding.info/2012/07/13/15-rape-jokes-that-work/

  13. Sorry, that was not to say that the author of the article explicitly said “rape jokes should be off limits”. However, it did seem to be the implication, since no disambiguation was provided, and the actual nature of the rape jokes was not examined in any meaningful way. Also, this is the main point that is bouncing around online, and appeared to be the main argument of a couple of the comments.

  14. “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.”

    I don’t want you raped or dead but I do want you to shut the hell up when I pay money to go see a comedy show. I’m not paying to hear you heckle the comedian, though the response to heckling can be funny some times, I’m paying to see the show.

    If you are offended by something the comedian has said don’t buy a ticket next time and deny them whatever profit they would have received from you. That’s your right as a consumer. You don’t however have the right to tell all of us who thought the joke was funny that we can’t think it’s funny and we shouldn’t be able to listen to that kind of comedy.

    Just to let you know I was raped by a close family member as a child (not sure if it counts to you though seeing as how I am a male) and I have not been offended by any of these jokes people are blowing up about. I think all you complainers really want is attention.

  15. Pingback: Rookie » Saturday Links: Hanging With Paris Edition

  16. Just as some people’s mental wiring does not allow them to feel empathy for others or respond to subtle social cues, I believe that some people cannot understand jokes. Their neurological makeup simply cannot understand that someone can say something while conveying the exact opposite thing. I call this “joke-blindness” and I suspect Sady has a touch of it. It’s a waste of time to try to explain that you don’t really mean the terrible thing you just said. They just don’t get it.

  17. For Ian:

    While i dont find rape jokes particularly funny (though i found this bit VERY hilarious, about guy on guy rape: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cVQN-9nVN0 )myself, im not a comedian, and i dont even go to comedy shows really. Though i do watch a lot of stand up.

    The bottom line is: if just ONE person laughs or is amused, then it IS comedy, it IS funny. The beauty of comedy is that there can actually be comedy in everything….its like beauty. Everything has some beautiful about it, even the ugliest, most detested things in the world.

    As far as this article, i found it full of worthless connections and very one-sided. The reason he never responded to it is he could tell you were going to be shitty and close-minded about any discussion that would ensue.

    We live in a country defined by the 1st amendments and the ones thereafter. Within that is a freedom to find something funny if you find it funny….and if a comedian says a joke and you laugh. Then it is by definition, comedy, atleast for 1 person. And thats all it takes. Sorry your feelings are hurt. Dont support the guy and spread that word as much as you want, but you have no right to be on the soapbox about it.

  18. Pretty amazing stupid and nasty attacks here…”you have no right to be on a soapbox” about your opinions? But the asshole comedian can say whatever he wants because let’s see, some people think it is funny, the author is hypocritical because she single out violence against women and not other highly offensive (to some people)jokes, and other lame defenses (oh btw the Michael Richards career ending episode did not apply because it wasn’t in his routine, just a response to hecklers? Then why isn’t the supremely unfunny Dane Cook (she should die) or Tosh (she should be gangraped) etc all advocating actual violence blacklisted? The boys’ club is thriving and running things is why. That so many women buy into it is sad. Anya, really? No compassion for your sisters? Never been raped? Beaten by a man? Or are you just dim, as evidenced by your lame “character assassination” nonsense?

    Whatever the stats it is no secret (unless you don’t want to know)that half the population is female and they are subjected to widespread violence and sexual assault. Widespread. Let’s start telling jokes about the hundreds of thousands of Africa women raped in Darfur! Not funny? Can’ you take a joke? I’m just joking?

    Do rape jokes “cause” rape? Actually they do contribute to it. They contribute to a culture that refuses to take women and the harm inflicted upon them seriously.

    I go to a lot of comedy shows. I am amazed at how many bad comics actually get jobs and also how stupid much of the audience is. If the timing is right, or the drinks strong enough, they laugh at anything. It depends on the audience. You can tell a lot about the region and the intelligence of the audience by what they do laugh at.

    Btw the author did not say if she found other sensitive topics inappropriate. She should not have to. She was writing about a specific comedian, a specific show, and a specific topic. And last I checked there is not an onslaught of abortion jokes, or holocaust jokes or whatever else was thrown out. How about if every show featured riffs on the hilarity of child abuse? How about animal abuse, elder abuse? Not just one offs but would routines by numerous comedians? Tolerated, laughed at by the audience suddenly cool? I doubt it. But hey, it’s just violence against women and if you don’t find it funny, leave (do we get a full refund?), just die, get raped by two men, and please don’t write about it, or complain, and don’t heckle and ruin the fun.

    Fuck off, assholes.

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