1 Apr 2015

A rape joke walks into a comedy festival

9:03 am on 1 April 2015

Here’s a story about stand-up comedy that shouldn’t be shocking: Adrienne Truscott’s first full-length show involves an hour of jokes about rape culture, during which time you can see her genitals.

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Photo: Supplied

In reality though, how rape is usually treated by comedy is best summed up by a furore sparked during the Melbourne Comedy Festival over the weekend: male comedian (in this case Ray Badran) makes rape joke; female audience member stages silent protest; male comedian tells female audience member he hopes she dies. Everyone takes to Twitter in response, for a debate that’s exactly as polarised and unconstructive as you’d expect.

It’s not a new story; in fact it could be used interchangeably with any of the times similar exchanges about rape jokes have occurred between comedians and punters at stand-up shows in recent years (also at the Melbourne Comedy Festival: Jim Jefferies has essentially sold his show by promising lots of misogyny). The level of certainty some comedians seem to have that their jokes – about rapes that happened to other people, not them – are clearly, unimpeachably funny should be the thing that shocks us.

It’s into that climate that one New York comedian has injected her first full-length stand-up show: Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else. In it, she tells rape jokes while drinking gin and tonics and undressed from the waist down (except for shoes, if that matters), with the implication being that in our victim-blaming culture, the natural conclusion to the evening is obvious.

Despite the fact that Adrienne’s jokes are at the expense of the culture, and the perpetrators, of sexual violence; despite the fact that about one in six women – and many men – will report sexual assault in their lifetimes; and despite the fact that an unknown number of people must be committing all those sex crimes, the show has come as a surprise to many.

Adrienne recounts the story of being interviewed by a journalist from the BBC, shortly after winning an award for the show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

I reckon there’s not a lot of people walking around this planet that doesn’t have some kind of relationship to this act of violence.

“He said, ‘but what would you do with this show? I mean, it’s not very mainstream. Like, you might be able to do it at a Fringe, but what’s after this?’

“And I said, ‘Well, sir, if you think about how much people love to laugh, and how many people have been raped, it’s very mainstream!’”

Similarly, Adrienne hates reviews that state the show is “not for everyone”, because, “I find it wildly presumptuous that they would ever say that about any kind of work.

“Part of the point of this show is that regardless of what side of the issue you’re standing on – whether it’s something you’ve survived, whether it’s something you’ve perpetrated, or whether you know someone who’s done one or the other – I reckon there’s not a lot of people walking around this planet that doesn’t have some kind of relationship to this act of violence.”

READ: Speaking Truth to Comedians: Comedy about Female Genital Mutilation, anorexia, and death. 

If it all sounds pretty serious, that’s because it is. But the person guiding you through the issue is ebullient and gregarious and makes you want to go for cocktails with her; she once told a journalist fishing for a personal story that the most important lesson she’d learned while performing Asking For It was “pacing.” It frustrates her that women in comedy are defined by the issues they speak about, when men aren’t.

“There’s another comic I heard… He did 20 minutes of material, and he’s a very well-known American comic,” she says, “And I kid you not, there was not one instance of material that did not involve the beating up, the killing, or the raping of a woman – in 20 minutes.

“I did ten minutes of feminist material, and [then people say], ‘Oh, oh, so you’re a feminist,’” she says.

“By the same logic is he, like, a violent killer? It’s amazing to me that no one would comment on 20 minutes of material that’s all based on violence towards women.

“People ask me if I’m a feminist comedian, and I’m like, ‘Did you just ask so-and-so if he’s a misogynist comedian? No! So just ask me if I’m a comedian.”

Listen: Charlotte Graham speaks to Adrienne Truscott

Adrienne says she was kicking around joke ideas about rape culture in a political sense when the now-infamous Daniel Tosh controversy erupted (a female audience member told comedian Daniel Tosh during a show that rape jokes weren’t funny; he responded that it would be funny if the woman was gang-raped, “right now”).

The trained dancer and professional cabaret performer says it seemed like a ripe moment to create a stand-up show discussing the issue.

“It’s a little bit of a boozy walk through some of the things that we might lazily think about when we think about rape in our culture – like, some of the ridiculous ways it’s legislated, some of the cultural assumptions about why it happens.

“And if you really just look at them and start to pull them apart, the logic… I find it – I don’t know if hilarious is the right word, but I often say that comedy, for me, sometimes, is the membrane that lies just after incredulity and before insanity.”

Being onstage without pants is not something Adrienne finds much of a challenge, and she doesn’t mind that some people come for that reason alone. She can tell from where their eye-line is what they’re there for, but welcomes all-comers regardless – and in fact, she fears complacency more than she feels vulnerable.

“I just keep trying to make sure that I’m still taking risks,” she says. “The show changes here and there as I do it; i.e. there’s less focus on Daniel Tosh now, and a little bit more on Bill Cosby.

“But I just feel like any kind of performance I would do, I just need to keep the stakes a little bit dangerous for me onstage, to feel like it’s going to be sharp and provocative and so that I don’t get lazy and mercurial.”

What she does push back against is the idea that guys doing hack-y rape jokes in comedy clubs – mostly to people just like them – is anything other than lazy and mercurial. She says such men view themselves as edgy defenders of free speech, but they’re the furthest thing from it.

“There was a keynote speaker at a festival [that I went to] that was trying to take on all of this; the terrible, draconian limitations of this new, PC terrain… He was a straight, white, successful, American, male comedian – and he was talking about Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and I was like, ‘Could we contextualise this a little bit?’

“Richard Pryor grew up in a brothel; he played the Chitlin circuit in the 1950s, 60s, as a black comic, and then just had enough of it and started doing incredibly provocative comedy about racism and about black people, that people weren’t really prepared to hear. And he often did them to white audiences.

“That’s really different to a straight white guy making lazy rape jokes about a woman being raped, to a straight, white, male audience… If that person wants to go and try to pull that joke off at the Women’s Studies Forum, then I would find that an edgy move.”

“Here’s the thing,” she says, later, of that bloody Daniel Tosh joke – which has probably led to more analysis of Tosh’s stand-up than his comedy ever deserved or warranted, “It wasn’t funny.”

READ: Eamonn Marra’s Seven Values for Conscientious Comics

More than anything in the controversy, she was most angry that male comedians, even those defending freedom of speech, wouldn’t admit that Tosh’s joke was a bad joke. But the latest kerfuffle in Melbourne shows that insensitive rape jokes, and shouting down women who disagree with them, is still a mainstream way to get easy laughs.

A woman turning up to mock that culture, naked and unapologetic about it, shouldn’t be niche. It should be for everyone. And I applaud the New Zealand International Comedy Festival for bringing Adrienne Truscott here (I’d rather she wasn’t one of only three female solo shows in Wellington, but change to such a male-dominated scene, I suppose, comes slowly).

Adrienne says the suggestion that male comedians are being “censored” by having their material critiqued is an outright straw man. “I’ve been in these discussions… where male comics are sort of like, ‘It’s all so PC now; we can’t do our jokes.’ And I’ve been like, ‘You can, mate. You can do whatever you want,’” she says.

“’It doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to laugh, cos actually times are changing, but by all means, you keep doing your material. Like, actually, you’re the ones whinging.’”


Adrienne Truscott is performing at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, in Auckland and Wellington, in April and May. 

This content is brought to you with funding support from New Zealand On Air.