After Tina Fey and Amy Poehler made their series of Bill Cosby jokes at Sunday night’s Golden Globe awards show—jokes at which I laughed—I thought, “Well, they’re in for it.” If you’re going to make a rape joke, you expect to hear about it.
Before we get into Fey and Poehler, let’s take a moment to consider some not funny rape jokes. Back in 2012, comedian Daniel Tosh made a joke about replacing his sister’s pepper spray with silly string. That same year, James Franco joked about being raped by Seth Rogen: “[He] forced his way into my dressing room, blew pot smoke into my mouth, pinned me beneath his sweaty, heaving, schlubby body.”
No, I don’t think Daniel Tosh would actually do that to his sister, but the fact that #yesallwomen can probably viscerally imagine the sensation of going to defend themselves and finding that impossible is not funny, at all. As for Franco: Dude. Being an “intellectual” doesn’t mean you’re incapable of sounding like a homophobic a**hole.
Back to Poehler and Fey. Let’s begin with the first part of their two-part Bill Cosby joke: “Sleeping Beauty just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby.” It is typical awards show fare that incorporates the theme of the evening (movies) with current events (Cosby). It takes another step by combining a children’s story heroine with a beloved star and household name accused of drugging and sexually assaulting women. There is something funny about imagining Sleeping Beauty getting coffee with Bill Cosby, because you don’t think of them being together, and then—wait a minute—if Sleeping Beauty was your daughter, you would not let her go anywhere with Bill Cosby, because Bill Cosby is not to be trusted…not even with a fictional character. Yes, the foolishly innocent Sleeping Beauty suffers a little here, but her foolish innocence needs to be there to laugh—albeit bitterly—at Cosby’s evil deceit.
Now the best part of that joke, actually, might be the fact that we thought that was the end of it. “Ok, we went there, and yes, Jessica Chastain got very upset, but it’s over now.” But it wasn’t.
Fey started things up again, saying that Bill Cosby had finally spoken out about allegations against him. Then, in a cartoonishly bad imitation of Cosby’s voice, she exploded with: “I put the pills in the people, the people did not want the pills in them!” Poehler shook her head and in a chastising manner said, “No, Tina. Ok, Tina that’s not right. That’s not right,” and Fey looked a little ashamed. Then Poehler said, “It’s more like: “I got the pills in the bathrobe and I put them in the people!” Fey nodded, both satisfied and a touch rueful at having been bested and said, “You’re right, it’s gotta be like ‘I put the pill in the hoagie,’” and Poehler nods, “Yeah. That’s it.” Then they both muttered to themselves, “That’s fair. That’s fair.”
After Fey’s first imitation, we thought we were going to see a sort of a faux debate about the appropriateness of the subject. The fact that the question wasn’t about whether it was permissible to make fun of the Cosby rapes but merely what was the best way to do so was awesome. The fact that what they were debating was which of their enthusiastic but hackneyed Bill Cosby imitations was better was genius. The joke anticipated its backlash and told viewers, “We so don’t care if this is appropriate or going too far that we’re going to incorporate a joke about the very notion of that bullshit into our joke.”
It also let those watching in on the way that comedians tend to think about the things we think are sacred: “If we can find a way to make this awful thing that no one thinks is funny funny, we’re going to do it, because that’s just what we do.” Finally, the muttering to themselves at the end, the attempt to convince themselves that what they’d done was OK, even though they were really going out on the edge, showed that they didn’t think they were uttering these words in a vacuum. They were aware of the consequences and the criticism, and they were going to do it anyway.
If you’re going to make a rape joke, you’re going to also have to prove that you care, that there’s something at stake here for you. With Tosh and Franco, I just see two dudes hoping that being offensive will do the work required to make something funny so that they themselves don’t have to. But Poehler and Fey—accused by some of getting away with this because they’re women—have an actual target. They are attacking a man who refuses—other than with his own stunningly terrifying joke—to discuss or acknowledge his 32 accusers.
Now of course the question remains, what about Cosby’s victims? Would these jokes have been hurtful to them? My guess is some of the women would hate the jokes, and some of them would have loved them. So should the jokes not have been made so as to spare the feelings of those who would have hated them?
To ignore the accusations against Cosby at Hollywood’s most irreverent public event would have been to surround his alleged crimes with even more silence, and that doesn’t seem like a great option. (Interestingly, Cosby was very well imitated, and skewered, in Season 3 of 30 Rock, by Rick from accounting.) There’s nothing funny about rape and there’s nothing funny about being raped. But there is something funny, there just is, about two women leading an entire nation to laugh in the face of a man who’s been accused by 32 women of sexual assault and thinks maybe ignoring it will make it go away. There is always a risk of a joke offending someone, but politeness in the face of cruelty, well, there’s nothing more offensive than that.