Daniel Tosh Incident Aftermath: Why Do Comedians use Rape Jokes?

Note: This is not an attempt to justify rape jokes, but a look at why comics use rape humor based on what makes us laugh.

Daniel Tosh Performing Stand Up Comedy

This is a screenshot of Tosh performing a stand up special.

Following Daniel Tosh’s recent  incident at the Laugh Factory, there has been a lot of controversy over whether or not rape jokes are ever appropriate.  One side says they are never appropriate, while the other side says they are fair game.  And while I don’t want to get into the debate over which side I think is right, it brings up an interesting point: So why do comics use rape jokes anyways?


  • It’s Surprising:  When someone says something we aren’t expecting, we are prone to laughter.  Shock humor is an extreme form of this.  When a comic makes a rape joke many people are quite surprised because they simple cannot believe the comedian just said that.
  • It Shows Superiority or Insecurity:   Comedians make fun of those that are “superior” to them in order to bring them down to their level. They also tend to be insecure about their superiority over others, so they make fun of those “below” them.  This could lead to jokes about a fear of being raped or a fear of raping.
  • Incongruity: This happens when two opposing ideas clash to a level that is absurd.  Comparing rape to just about anything qualifies as absurd.
  • It Copes with Tragedy: Humor is a known defense mechanism against things that upset us.  In the case of rape, the comics (as well as audience members) have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a victim of rape and cannot even begin to comprehend it.  And their brains don’t want them too.  Humor is then used as a way of making the topic not seem so terrible.
  • There May Be Elements of Truth:  Well, less truth and more  perceptions of truth.  Comedians will poke fun at some common perceptions to show how ridiculous they are.  For example, South Park’s Episode “Ms. Teacher Bangs a Boy”  picks on the perception that guys are always lucky to score with an attractive woman, no matter what.

As I mentioned, these are simply reasons why comedians use rape jokes (based on actual reasons we laugh), not a justification for using them.  After all, we can clearly see (from the debate this controversy has caused) that rape jokes do offend people.  I was going to cover that briefly, but I’ll make that the subject of my next post–from a technical standpoint.

A special thanks to the following references:


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