Just the phrase "rape joke" is enough to set one's teeth on edge. Rape jokes are associated with terrible bro comics who aim to be edgy but instead land in the reprehensible muck of knee-jerk shock comedy. Rape jokes are associated with endless debates on their validity, who can make them and when, why they exist, whether they should exist, et cetera and so on, and on, and on.
But comedian John Mulaney — a longtime Saturday Night Live writer, the creator of the short-lived Fox sitcom Mulaney, and star of Netflix's brand new standup special The Comeback Kid — has found not just an effective way to joke about rape, but a hilarious way to joke about it. The key to his success? To never, not once, mock rape victims. Instead, the joke is firmly on him and on the culture that tolerates the constant threat of rape.
The joke opens with Mulaney, a scrawny, baby-faced kid in this clip, expressing his shock and awe that any woman could perceive him as a threat. "Because in their eyes," he muses, "I'm an adult." And then he recounts one fateful night on the subway in New York, when he and a lone woman were walking to a train at 2 o'clock in the morning. Even though the woman kept nervously looking over her shoulder at him, when she started to "pick up the pace," Mulaney just assumed she'd heard the train coming — and started to sprint after her, causing her to panic.
I'm almost there — I'm almost at her — and then it dawns on me. "Oh. She's running from me. In her eyes, I'm an adult. And adults rape each other. Kind of a lot!
The key to the bit is that Mulaney never blames the woman for thinking he's a threat. He certainly doesn't believe he's a threat — "I'm not a man" — but the second he recognizes why she's running, he gets it. The joke isn't on her for being cautious, it's on the messed-up facets of society that led her to get so scared in the first place. How was she supposed to know Mulaney wasn't a creep? For her, assuming otherwise wasn't worth the risk — and that, more than anything, is what drives the bit.
The only rape jokes worth making are ones with empathy
Cracking wise about contentious subjects has been its own source of outrage for years. Some comedians complain about not being able to try out their touchier material without getting blasted on social media, or the drag of working within a "politically correct culture" that supposedly stamps out comedic creativity. Others advocate for "punching up" versus "punching down," or taking care not to disparage groups of people who are traditionally less privileged than themselves.
The problem with rape jokes specifically is that some of them — too many, in fact — seek to shock people in a way that will catapult them into some vague "edgier" realm. The ones that actually succeed, however, don't rely on the alarming fact of rape in order to work (because if that's all they're doing, they surely won't work at all). As Lindy West said in her searing Jezebel piece "How to Make a Rape Joke":
You can be edgy and creepy and offensive and trivial and, yes, you can talk about rape. Doing comedy in front of a silent room is scary, and shocking people is a really easy way to get a reaction. But if you want people to not hate you ... you should probably try and do it in a responsible, thoughtful way. Easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.
Crafting this kind of joke certainly requires more finesse than just disparaging something for "raping your childhood." But if you take the time and effort to be more innovative, and turn the punchline on the culture that actually deserves the mockery, you can get to the hilarious, true place Mulaney did.
John Mulaney's new standup special The Comeback Kid is now available on Netflix.