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Laughing At Rape In a Crowded Theater

A brief history of the rape-joke debate.

Last weekend, the Great American Rape Joke Debate finally hit Portland. It's been a long-boiling controversy in the comedy world: Who can joke about rape and when? These questions have also raged in Portland's comedy scene, most recently in a Mercury blog post by comic Barbara Holm, who called out a male comic who had taunted her from stage at an open-mic night. The rape-joke debate may or may not be mentioned from stage at this weekend's all-female comedy festival All Jane No Dick, but we wouldn't be surprised if it's what's being discussed at the bar. Here's a primer on its recent history.

July 6, 2012: When an audience member at Hollywood's Laugh Factory tells professional fraternity pledge Daniel Tosh that rape jokes are never funny, Tosh replies that it would be hilarious if she were gang-raped right there, in the club. Twitter explodes. (Never mind that Tosh has been making rape jokes for years, including one in which he describes date rape as "the politest rape of all.")

July 10, 2012: Comedian Louis C.K. tweets at Tosh: "@danieltosh your show makes me laugh every time I watch it. And you have pretty eyes." Turns out C.K. had been on vacation in Vermont and didn't know about the rape-joke dustup when he wrote that tweet. On The Daily Show, C.K. describes how the Twitter furor increased his sensitivity to rape culture and argues that sometimes joking about bad things can make the world just a little bit better.

July 12, 2012: Lindy West, the funny and smart Seattle-based Jezebel writer, schools the Internet on how to make a rape joke, which she says is sometimes OK. “Easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE,” she writes. (West will appear at All Jane No Dick on Sunday.) 

May 30, 2013: West and comedian Jim Norton hash things out on TV. Norton warns against censorship; West makes clear she’s not promoting censorship but reiterates that rape jokes victimize survivors. Afterward, West is bombarded with rape threats and comments about her appearance. 

June 4, 2013: Roseanne Barr rants on Twitter, accusing West of advocating censorship. West tweets: “I think I need to block Roseanne. This is weird.”

July 25, 2013: Patricia Lockwood publishes a poem called “Rape Joke” on The Awl. Sample line: “The rape joke is that you had been drinking wine coolers. Wine coolers! Who drinks wine coolers? People who get raped, according to the rape joke.” It’s beautiful, wrenching and darkly comic. The rape-joke debate seems, at least for the moment, silenced.

Oct. 12, 2013: Portland comedian Barbara Holm (who will also appear at All Jane No Dick) writes a blog post for the Merc about being called out by fellow comic Will Woodruff at an open mic. According to the post, Woodruff started telling a rape joke and then changed course: “Have you noticed that Barbara Holm never laughs at rape jokes, no matter how funny? She laughs at feminist jokes but no rape jokes. Come on, why don’t you laugh, Barbara?”

Oct. 12, 2013: In a comment, Woodruff claims he wasn’t bullying Holm because “you have way more Portland cred than I have, you can bully me, not vice verse [sic]. Also I love how if you don’t like something you can paint it as this woman-hating shit.”

SEE IT: The All Jane No Dick comedy festival runs Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 17-20, at multiple venues. Lindy West will appear on a Q&A panel following a screening of Women Aren't Funny at the Hollywood Theatre at 3 pm Sunday, Oct. 20. Barbara Holm will appear at Curious Comedy Theater at 7 pm Thursday, Oct. 17 and at 10 pm Friday, Oct. 18. See for full schedule.