Comedian Cameron Esposito was thinking about rape jokes long before the Me Too movement.
Can they be told? How should they be constructed? Who has a right to tell them?
So it’s only fitting that she released a stand-up special this summer titled “Rape Jokes.” But it isn’t a collection of boundary-pushing quips. Instead, it’s centered around a night when she played a drinking game with a man who proceeded to sexually assault her after she was drunk. And it walks the razor-thin line between uproarious comedy and deeply serious drama.
Esposito is one of many creatives using comedy to explore issues of sexual assault and harassment. Rape has often been used as a punchline that makes an audience laugh uncomfortably. But with the rise of the Me Too movement, several comedians and TV shows are flipping the script by focusing on the survivors of sexual assault. Their humor tries to expose rape for the crime it is, rather than relegate it to a cheap laugh. And several of the comedians, such as Esposito, are survivors themselves.
Stand-up comic and “Conan” staff writer Laurie Kilmartin has watched this play out in the comedy world during the past year.
“I think there’s more room culturally to talk about having been through the other side of that experience as opposed to having a rape joke where rape is sort of the punchline,” she said. “Now, sadly, it’s a premise.”
That wasn’t always the case.
The 1934 screwball romcom “We’re Not Dressing” follows a man and a woman who share a mutual attraction but can’t admit it: She’s high society; he’s not. The movie’s comedic climax arrives when Bing Crosby’s character wrestles with Carole Lombard’s, ties her hands with a belt and chains and says, “Tomorrow, you’ll be back in your own world, spoiled and feted and sheltered and out of my reach . . . But tonight, you’re mine.”
That this was labeled as comedy might seem wildly outdated, but consider 2007’s “Superbad,” which follows teenage boys on a quest to buy alcohol in hopes of getting their female classmates drunk enough to have sex with them.
Sprinkled among these was “Porky’s,” a movie in which teen boys peep on their showering female classmates, plus stand-up Daniel Tosh “comedically” telling a female heckler it would be funny if five men raped her and comedian Jimmy Carr joking, “What do nine out of 10 people enjoy? Gang rape.”
Funny stuff, right?
Sujata Moorti, the director of Middlebury College’s gender, sexuality and feminist studies program, said rape jokes became more pervasive with the rise of feminism, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. Suddenly common were gags such as a “Revenge of the Nerds” character donning a jock’s Halloween mask and having sex with the jock’s unsuspecting girlfriend, and jokes like Rodney Dangerfield’s “My girlfriend is so ugly, when two guys broke in to her apartment, she yelled, ‘Rape!’ They yelled, ‘No!’”
As the public discussed sexual assault more frankly, jokes “became a way of defusing the kind of cultural crisis that was being produced by saying that certain behaviors were assault, and not just ‘boys will be boys,’” Moorti said. “If you make a joke about it, one can trivialize it.”
Actress Molly Ringwald pointed out that one reason for this trope is that jokes are often about a loss of power.
“There’s something funny about when someone slips on a banana peel, or when someone who is all dressed up falls in mud or seeing someone with toilet paper on their foot,” Ringwald said. “[Rape] is the most extreme example: completely taking away a woman’s power.”
Many women are using comedy to take that power back by telling their own stories.
Comedian Brittany Brave, for example, likes opening sets with: “My name is Brittany, and I know that makes you either want to take me to a mall or punch me in the face. If you’re my ex-boyfriend, you get to do both.” Hannah Gadsby, meanwhile, released a revolutionary Netflix special called “Nanette” that deconstructs comedy itself, using the story of her own sexual assault to explain that rape isn’t a topic that should be approached lightly.
Esposito walks a similar path in her special. As she tells the story of her assault, she begins with humor, such as when she’s describing the drinking game they were playing, which involved darts: “If you hit the dartboard, you would shotgun a full beer. And if you missed the dartboard, you would shotgun a full beer. Hazy rules.”
Her tone then shifts dramatically. “I don’t totally remember what happened that night. I have a lot of flashes of what happened. I know that I didn’t say ‘yes.’ I also know that I couldn’t have,” she says in a serious tone. “And I used to tell this story at parties as a funny thing that happened to me. That’s, I think, how disconnected so many people are from our own agency.”
She then slowly returns to jokes, adding that she’s trying to shine light on this type of assault. Instead of thinking of men taking advantage of drunk women, she jokes, we think of rapists as characters on SVU: “He’s got a bloody cleaver, he’s covered head to toe in mud! It says ‘Dick Wolf’ right here!” Meanwhile, she jokes that survivors are often portrayed as gaining something from the experience: “She’s assaulted, and then she becomes very good at swords.”
Esposito told The Washington Post that she wrote the special because she felt that during the Me Too movement the media generally focused on the perpetrators. “Never in this cycle did I see a moment where people were tracking the story of the survivors,” she said, adding that she would wonder, “ ‘How did you continue to date? How do you trust people? What is it like at work now that you’re out about this?’ ”
It wasn’t easy to keep telling her story onstage or in interviews, especially as the president of the United States gleefully mocked an alleged survivor, Christine Blasey Ford.
“The sense that cultural change is very long and very difficult sometimes does overwhelm me,” she said. “It’s a crushing feeling. You can feel like I’m doing everything I can to get in the way.”
But opening up begets opening up. Esposito said she doesn’t think she would have released “Rape Jokes” “if I didn’t see everybody else that had really put themselves out there, really put themselves on the line.”
That trend continued with shows as wide-ranging as “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (in which Kimmy unwittingly harasses a male employee) and “BoJack Horseman” (in which the lead character publicly criticizes violence against women before choking his female co-star) using comedy to explore the Me Too era this year.
Reboots like “Will & Grace” and “Murphy Brown” are retooling characters’ backstories to address sexual assault. Grace tells her father that a family friend violently assaulted her in his office when she was 15 years old. Afterward, she grabbed money from the man’s desk and fled. Her father asks why she hadn’t told him, and she replies that she had tried — but all he ever heard was that she stole money from his friend.
And Murphy attends a sexual harassment seminar, which sparks memories of a professor who tried taking advantage of her in college when she went to his home after winning a prestigious award. The scene in which she confronts him and gains some closure carefully balances drama (she tells him, “I ran out of this house shaking.”) and comedy (she adds, “I forgot my award, and I love awards!”).
“We really wrote the comedy around the issue, rather than on top of it,” showrunner Diane English said. “We constantly had our antenna up to make sure that we weren’t overstepping the boundaries between comedy and drama.”
The show always tackled thorny issues — English said it’s her way of “trying to have an effect and do some good” — and she felt Me Too was too large to sidestep.
While many artists are breaking new ground, some find themselves looking back at art that might be problematic but still lingers in the public consciousness. Ringwald, for example, has spent the past several months reexamining the sexual politics in the John Hughes comedies that launched her to teenage stardom: “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty In Pink.”
In “The Breakfast Club,” “as I can see now, Bender sexually harasses Claire throughout the film. When he’s not sexualizing her, he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt,” she wrote in the New Yorker. “He never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.”
Yet “The Breakfast Club” is her “favorite” of the trio, in part because it showed “everyone is different and everyone has a voice.” As she wrote, “How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose? What if we are in the unusual position of having helped create it?”
“It was really hard to look at them with a critical eye,” Ringwald told The Post. “It was very heavy, but ultimately I feel like it’s just not black and white — and life isn’t like that.”
The question is whether comedy’s new approach to sexual misconduct will stick.
“There may still be ‘Superbads’ coming out, but I think it’s being countered by these other voices,” Moorti said. “Having more Espositos, having more Gadsbys talk about the effects of rape may actually make it really hard to make a joke about the whole thing.”
It’s even talked about in theater, in Sarah Jones’s solo show “Sell/Buy/Date,” which imagines a radically feminist future. The characters she plays laugh at the primitive rape culture of the past — a professor, for example, asks her class, “What were male sluts called? Very good, they were called men.”
“I think there was this myth around a window that’s closing, such as the anniversary of the Me Too movement,” Jones said in an interview. “But it’s not like weather . . . the reason this is a sustainable conversation that won’t end is because women aren’t just going to go away.”
Ringwald agreed. “I feel like rape used in a comedic way is something that’s going to become like a minstrel show,” she said, meaning that it will become so obviously taboo, no one will attempt to use it as a punchline again.