Comedian W. Kamau Bell had controversial stand-up Jim Norton and Jezebel writer Lindy West on his FX show “Totally Biased” to debate what it means for comedians to have an arsenal of rape jokes at their disposal. FX aired a 6-minute version of the debate, and the full 15-minute segment was recently released online. Calling the segment “Comedian vs. Feminist,” Kamau allowed Jim to express his view that comedians shouldn’t be censored — especially if it’s clear they’re joking — and Lindy to relate her opinion that laughing about rape can be very damaging.
What’s crucial about Jim Norton’s position is that, typical of this side the rape joke debate, he couches it in a larger context of censorship in general, essentially arguing that comics should be free to tackle any and all subjects. While making his point, Jim brings up Hitler, he brings up school shootings, he brings up the fact that Joan Rivers makes jokes about AIDS. But Hitler isn’t going to come back from the dead and reenact the Holocaust (unless we manage to screw up that time machine thing), and there is no such thing as “AIDS culture” the same way there is rape culture — by which I mean, at its core, the AIDS epidemic is about a virus, while the rape epidemic is about people doing things to other people. It’s about the power dynamics present in a society, which are able to be influenced and always in flux. Yes, it’s possible that someone might be offended by a Holocaust joke, but by no reasonable stretch is that going to cause another Holocaust. But contributing callousness to the national discussion of rape most definitely can cause, and likely has caused, more rape.
Lindy’s response argument doesn’t tackle the issue of censorship itself — she is, on principle, against it — it more addresses the personal responsibility that the comic has to his audience, both the people sitting in front of him in a small comedy club and the culture at large which he, ostensibly and if he’s good at his job, aspires to influence. She is basically saying that if a comic chooses to tell jokes at the expense of the victims or even future victims in his audience, she has the right to call him out for it.
Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on (I clearly agree with Lindy here), I think it’s safe to say that both parties have thought about the issue and are offering reasonable arguments. Yes, Jim Norton may be defending rape jokes, and that may offend some people, but he is addressing the issue in a respectful manner. Internet commenters, however, are being, well, typical internet commenters.
The comments written in response to the video read as a stream of hateful vitriol directed at Lindy West. She receives rape threat after rape threat, along with comments about her weight and physical appearance. Lindy addressed the comments in a Jezebel post called “If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why Am I Getting So Many Rape Threats?,” arguing that this reaction just proves her point that the comedy landscape can be a very hostile environment for women. Included in the post is a video of Lindy reading some of the horrendously vicious comments directed her way, and watching it, it’s hard not to see her side.