On curating, censoring, rape jokes and freedom? (not very festive)

a hasty reply, apologies for errors of spelling, punctuation, and possibly logic. This is not about a joke, but about how the situation for the joke occurred.  

After one of the Nine Lessons shows this week, I received a furious complaint. One of the acts, in character, had said something about rape. I didn’t hear what she said, as I spend most of my time offstage getting everything ready for the next act, checking on technical stuff, who needs to plug something in or wants a clothes line to hang out the details of what has been going on in the universe since the big bang. 

Whatever the rape reference was, it left the viewer with a general feeling of disgust and disappointment. It is a pity that whatever these sentences were mired all other acts and everything else that had gone on, and a pity I can neither condemn or defend the act as I didn’t hear it. The audience member is glad that the shows are to be no more if this is the way it’s going. 

I now disagree with my next sentence – I found this a little sanctimonious – but I think it is odd to think “this is the way the shows are going”. If a third of the acts were doing rape jokes and gags of a similar ilk, you might think, “woah this direction is new, and I don’t like it”, but it was one person. The immediate leap to moral high ground, to being utterly appalled, seems a popular position to move to without passing Go or any area for debate or thought beyond the certainty of your grand morality. 

The comment was written soon after the show, so it may have been in the heat of the fury, but it was certainly heavy in its judgement, which meant the person had been highly offended, so I don’t take it lightly and I gain no joy in their upset. The shows are not about shock.

So I thought I would tell you how these, and other shows I curate, work within the iron grip of my creative control. I choose people whose work I admire. Whether it is Alan Moore or Josie Long, Jim al Khalili or Grace Petrie, I like what they communicate and how they communicate, based on what I have seen. From that point onwards, they are free to do what they wish, the audience will be the judge. I guide people a little if they ask, especially if it is the first time. 

“Does it have to be all about science or atheism?”

No, you can do what you want, but it is a good opportunity to explore the science side as you have an audience hungry for it. As for atheism, if you have something you want to get off your chest, pro or anti, you are free to do it, but the show is not quite the worship of atheism that some people presume. It is a night of enthusiasts, eccentrics and sometimes dabbles with the borders of sanity. The Norwegians of Comedy provided one of my favourite 8 minutes of experimentation, anarchy and nudity. From 3 minutes of comedy in Norwegian, language barrier being no barrier to the audience laughing, to a visit from a man from the future to tell us of what 2019 would be like, to the entrance of a feral and naked deity. I had seen none of this before. Since meeting them in Oslo, I trusted that they would, at the very least, be interesting, and they were far more than that. (and they were easy to persuade to return to the stage as the naked feral deity to shock Steve Pretty and his jazz men during their experiment in noise). 

I do not wish to be prescriptive. I enjoy working with people and giving them artistic freedom. Sometimes, this leads to artists working together over the run and creating new collaborations. Though the risks pay off most of the time, sometimes it may lead to things going awry and there is the possibility of offence or even boredom. If I could write out the rules that must be religiously kept to, that would always lead to the most interesting  and satisfying performances, and nail them ruthlessly and Luther-like to the stage, then I would. But dogmatism doesn’t lead to the best performances, though it might lead to the safest. 

When Johnny Ball notoriously overran by 12 minutes, and went on an anti climate change tirade that led to booing, I spoke to him lengthily the next day. I told him he could do still do whatever he wanted, just as long as he kept to his time (some in the press, not wishing to sully their copy with facts, made a story about the censorship of Johnny’s views). 

This is one of the reasons I did not sign a pledge “to never perform rape jokes” (though I believe the pledge was started with very good intentions) . Firstly, I don’t know if I have ever performed them. Secondly, who defines what is a rape joke? Context is pretty important in humour. Thirdly, by signing a pledge or a contract, I am able to opt out of thinking on the subject. 

“Why won’t you do that joke?”

“Because I signed a contract”

“what do you think is wrong with the joke?”

“Well, it just is. It is a contractual thing.”

This is the key to fundamentalism. Thoughts are not required, you must follow the rule of law. 

It is not regulations that will change such humour, it takes people not laughing anymore. 

I don’t know what the joke on the night was, so I remain without comment on that. I am sorry they were so offended the other 13 acts could not make up for it. 

Being in an audience can be risky, the unexpected can occur, both for the performer and the audience. I warn you that the work has not been scrutinised, pasteurised or neutered. Hopefully, the times you are offended will be made up for by the surprises that can occur by unfettered creativity (as long as you don’t run over time, then I find fetters). 

I am back on tour with a new show about the mind – Norwich, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol and many more, plus tour with Grace Petrie and Josie Long, and Skeptics in the Pub Tour (Gravesend and beyond) Details HERE

happiness through science DVD (incl Prof Brian Cox commentary) is HERE

and our science app Cosmic Genome has Chris Hadfield and all new Brian Cox stuff in a couple of days http://www.cosmicgenome.com 


As a footnote, here is something I wrote last year about rape jokes and offence. I don’t think it contradicts what I have written here, but it may turn out I am a hypocrite. https://robinince.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/a-joke-is-just-a-joke-apart-from-that-one-about-me-now-thats-offensive/
Further footnote – this is what the act says of the incident – “our characters are a parody, so anything highly inappropriate they do is what we’re laughing at,hopefully.”

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13 Responses to On curating, censoring, rape jokes and freedom? (not very festive)

  1. Chap says:

    This is a great post. This puts into words the discomfort I get whenever I think about blanket bans for certain joke types. I remember Sarah Silverman telling a joke about rape which was actually a great bit of social commentary (which couldn’t have been phrased any other way without loosing impact IMO).

    I wouldn’t feel comfortable consigning that joke to the wastebin simply to satisfy some arbitrary edict. I think we need to treat each joke on its merits and keep the dialogue open. Because I think you are correct about pledges being an opt out of thinking about the subject.

    The only way i think they could work is if they had more specific and defined criteria for the types of joke they are trying to ban (what is the context, who is the butt of the joke, etc),. The only other way of going would be to have a sort of Kite mark for gigs stating that there would be no material about rape of any kind whatsoever. This could prevent victims being triggered, but might be hard to implement bearing in mind the improv element that lots of gigs have.

    I’m not sure what the solution is. But I feel that acting in haste on any matter of censorship isn’t a great idea. Thanks again for this clarifying (for me) post.

  2. Can I just put the point forward that just one bad reference can sour an otherwise excellent show? It only takes a few drops of vinegar to turn an entire bottle of milk. I remember years ago watching Birds of a Feather on TV. There were homophobic ‘jokes’ about ‘shirt lifters’. I never watched the programme again.

  3. Meg says:

    From the twitters, because as you pointed out, it is ludicrously hard to have a conversation about srs bsns in chunks of 140 characters. My points were basically as follows:

    First off, I found your characterisation of the person complaining as judgmental and sanctimonious pretty problematic. As notes to the milkman pointed out above, only takes one reference to sour an entire show. The link I posted on twitter (http://www.fugitivus.net/2009/06/24/a-woman-walks-into-a-rape-uh-bar/) explains really well why this can be especially true for rape jokes or references – in that they can be incredibly triggering for people who have experienced this – so I think it’s pretty off to imply that it was unreasonable for this person to be angry. The way you say ‘I warn you that the work has not been scrutinised, pasteurised or neutered’ very much puts the onus on people who have been offended to just deal with it, rather than thinking about the reality of words, performances and jokes having a very real effect on peoples’ lives (and the lives of marginalised groups most of all).

    2. Rather than blogging to say that you don’t have an opinion about it (but pointing out that this person was angry, and that you’re not prescriptive etc), wouldn’t it have been better to have found out what the joke or reference actually was? Like, listen to the person who had the problem, and address it, whilst bearing in mind that it’s a subject that affects a huge amount of people. Because at the minute all this says really is ‘Weell, I don’t know what joke they made, but there’s a lot of other funny stuff in the show as well.’
    EDIT: I just caught up with your replies on twitter where you said you were finding it. Fair enough. But the stuff about triggering above is I think still valid.

    3. It’s disengenuous to suggest that it would be censorship to book or not book people for a show based on their opinions or offensive material. It’s certainly not censorship, because you don’t have a responsibility to give people a platform to say offensive stuff (not necessarily assuming it was, but I felt it was an important point because it’s one that people cock up a lot). If you were campaigning for it to be illegal to make rape jokes, that would be a different issue.

    I wanted to say also that I think your comedy and SCIENCE stuff is awesome, so I am trying to explain stuff whilst not having a go in a shitty fashion, but I felt that some of the stuff you said was pretty un-ok and makes some bad assumptions about how censorship works and how people in a position of privilege shouldn’t have to examine the words and phrases because ‘censorship.’

    • robinince says:

      This blog is about how the situation arose, not the joke itself. It is explaining how this incident happened and dealing with the problem of how much you can set up an event with rules without also creating a censorious atmosphere. It is not a defence of rape jokes. As I stated, I was not booking an act who I knew was keen on rape jokes, I was booking someone whose work I had seen and admired but not seen this one sentence of this particular performance. The main point of the blog post is about how certain can you be of what someone is going to say, how do you draw up rules of certainty, can such a thing be done. I think you have missed the point of this blog post, so clearly I have not explained myself well enough. Do I have to take the part of Lord Chamberlain and read through every word that is to be said on stage?

      • Meg says:

        Re-reading through it, I do see what you mean, in that it is a blog post about the wider way you book and rules etc. But I don’t think that makes a difference in that I still had an issue with a couple of the things you said, and you did bring up the complaint.
        I wasn’t saying anything about your broader stance on rape jokes or the like, and I did really like your linked post, which I think /did/ explain it.
        Of course I don’t think you have to read through every word that’s going to be said. But booking someone does denote a certain approval of their work or ideas, so it’s not unreasonable for someone to complain to you about it.

  4. dropscone says:

    I’m in agreement with notes to the milkman. Fortunately I have never been raped, but I have had another very traumatic experience which I recently saw made light of in a comedy programme. I can’t describe how hurt and angry it made me feel, and I don’t see how running the risk of hurting and angering a proportion of an audience who have endured a horrible experience is worth it to entertain those who haven’t.

    • Dean says:

      Do you not see how horribly limiting that then becomes though? It means a comic can’t mention any traumatic experience ever? No rape, no mugging, no violence, no dead dad shows, no jokes about cancer, etc.

      • dropscone says:

        You’ve read something into my comment that I didn’t say.

        If a comic who has experienced the horrible thing wants to make jokes about it, I would understand why, even if what they said caused a bad reaction in me, but when (as I suspect is the case more often) it’s someone with no first-hand experience of the subject then they should really think hard before choosing to make a joke of that nature.

  5. Liam Mullone says:

    Rape – along with death, disease, growing old,loss of function, murder, bereavement and grief – is part of the pantheon of human suffering and therefore belongs squarely inside comedy. If we remove from our humour anything that might stir bad memories in some section of the audience how do we achieve catharsis for all the shit we go through, mitigate our tragedies or riff on the human condition? All we’ll be left with is stuff about how cats are fussier eaters than dogs.

    A lot of people who want to ‘ban’ rape jokes actually mean they want to ban any MENTION of rape, lest it offend someone. So they just want rape off the agenda, basically. Like it was in our wider society for most of the last century. There are perfectly good jokes on rape, cancer, AIDS, drone strikes and genocide which give the subject due gravity and aim to make you think about it. The jokes that are cruel or juvenile are generally from comics who are just not very interesting on any subject.

    • Dean says:

      I find it sad that it tends to be the mention of the word ‘rape’ that causes issues. While jokes actually about rape but not acknowledging it as such (stories about having sex with a sleeping girl, or ‘accidental’ anal) go unremarked when they actually do contribute to rape culture in a way most rape gags don’t.

    • Chap says:

      I don’t think offense is a a valid reason for censorship.
      I do feel that avoiding a triggering experience (see Meg’s link above) for a rape victim is a valid one. The problem is, it doesn’t matter how well intentioned or expertly crafted the joke is, even the mention of the word can be enough (to trigger).

      Therefore modern comedy becomes exclusionary for survivors because they would rather not risk having a horrific flashback in the middle of a live comedy gig. It isn’t a safe space for them. I know I’m generalising here and that some may get to the stage where they feel comfortable in dealing with the issue if it comes up. But some is not the same as all.

      That’s why I think it might be a good idea to have gigs where it is explicitly stated that there will be no material on the subject. This provides an area where they can enjoy stand-up comedy with the rest of the audience without constantly being on edge.

      Over time, these gigs, rather than being the exception, might become the norm. I actually feel this would be a good thing as it would mean that a comedian making a rape joke would have to seriously weigh up its merits (does it provide social commentary, does it lampoon the existing rape culture, is the value of this shock joke high enough to risk alienating a portion of the audience, could it be written in a different way and keep its impact) against the exclusionary effect it would have on them, booking wise. What this means is, the alienating effect that the joke has is inverted back onto the comedian, rather than a considerable part of their audience.

      And those who like their humor bleak and uncompromising will still have venues to go to where they can delight in seeing boundary pushing stuff (as I often do myself). The comedy circuit avoids an outright ban whilst becoming more inclusive. Any takers?

  6. Someone who was there says:

    The act was more someone talking about rape as something that she enjoyed. It didn’t make any sort of social commentary. I agree about not having censorship, but thinking about how your words and acts might affect other people isn’t too far to go. The viewpoint that “its not rape if you enjoy it” or other lines that make women feel lesser, like they don’t have a right to complain, if rife in society – and definitely not something to be laughed at (the show didn’t seem to be doing it in an ironic way). I’ve seen you as a great spokesperson for science and climate change – maybe equal rights is something you could add?
    I think that as a producer/talent curator of a show you have a certain amount of responsibility. I guess these comments should be passed on to the act – but you’re the person putting on the show so I can see why it’s right this came to you.
    Not endorsing censorship, but lets try to be nice?

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