Q&A with Tom Ballard: rape, the Holocaust, and the politics of comedy
Controversial comedy has been a hot topic recently. American comedian Daniel Tosh caused a furore in July this year after making a joke about rape in response to a heated encounter with a heckler. Closer to home, a backlash against Facebook pages such as ‘Aboriginal Memes’ has been so strong the page has been removed from Facebook. Then comedian and Triple J radio presenter Tom Ballard got into hot water on his breakfast radio show during an ill-fated word association game named ‘Six Degrees of Hitleration’. The discussion around these controversies has been heated, but it has also been loaded with familiar maxims such as ‘pushing the boundaries’ and ‘crossing the line’. These phrases—as self-assured as they may appear—are ultimately evasive. Whose line is being crossed? In the world of comedy, should sensitivity be left at the door? Meg Watson asked Tom Ballard what he made of it all.
Meg Watson: Is there a line comedians can’t cross in their routines anymore—any topic which is off limits? Or is it always going to be dependent on delivery/intention?
Tom Ballard: There is absolutely no topic in the entire world that is off limits and anyone who tells you different is wrong. Anything is eligible for humour; anything. There are lots of things that take a great deal of skill and thought to be joked about, but they’re eligible nonetheless.
And yes, a joke’s success is certainly dependent on a comedian’s delivery and their interpretation, as well as approximately a billion other factors. Context is vital; the funniness of a joke depends on things that have been said before it, where and when it’s being told, who it’s being told to, who it’s being told by, what the weather is like, how it was said, etc—it all counts.
Taking any subject—rape, the Holocaust, drugs, cot death, cancer—off the table completely only serves to give that subject more power and mystery, thereby contributing to its taboo factor and its comedy potential.
MW: From a comedic standpoint, why do you think a comedian such as Louis C.K. can pull off his seemingly hugely offensive act, but Tosh can’t? What’s the difference between these two comedians?
TB: CK is a far more nuanced, varied comic. A large portion of his stuff shocks you, yes, but there lurks a truthful point behind it. Furthermore, he does so much self-deprecating, ‘I’m an idiot and no one ever knows what they’re talking about anyway’ stuff that we’re obliged to not take everything he says seriously, or even semi-seriously.
I’m not familiar with a huge amount of Tosh’s work, but to me he seems to be more toward the ‘shock value’ end of the spectrum. He crafts ideas that are so distasteful, told so cavalierly, he shocks his audience into laughing. Sometimes, for me, it works. Many other times it doesn’t and I get bored because I don’t think I’m really learning anything or being told to see things from a different angle.
To be fair, it must be said: sometime Louis just openly says really wrong shit on stage, because it’s fun to say wrong shit onstage. He knows the audience is going to groan, then laugh as he smiles cheekily at their reaction. And it’s okay. Because these are jokes.
MW: The Vine criticised you pretty heavily around the idea ‘you [shouldn’t] make jokes about a tribe you don’t belong to’. Do you think that maxim still stands? It seems pretty limiting.
TB: This sort of comes back to the importance of context. Yes, belonging to certain tribes gets you certain freedoms and greater license. I know that as a comedian who’s gay, my audience is going to let me say a lot of things about homosexuality and gay people onstage that they wouldn’t let slide for a straight comic. That’s just the way it is. I’m not saying that straight/bi/asexual comics shouldn’t talk at all about gay issues or homosexuality or what they think of the idea of being gay, I’m just saying that they’re going to be given less rope.
Similarly, as a Gentile, there’s a huge range of stuff that I never could—nor should—say about, say, Jewish people or their persecution. It just wouldn’t work comedically and would be, by and large, a waste of everyone’s time.
But Nazis, the Holocaust, stereotypes of Jewish people—these are all things that are in the world. And as a person in the world, I relate to those things and I think about those things and I wonder about those things, and there’s definitely room for comedy to move around those topics.
Oh and also? Simply because you mention a topic in a comedy routine, that doesn’t necessarily mean you think that thing is funny in and of itself. The grim realities of the Shoah, rape and cot death are appalling; but jokes about or involving those topics may not be. This is the comedian’s challenge: to make the horrific/sad/scary/boring … well, funny.
MW: You wrote last year in The Lifted Brow that every comedian wants to be a ‘wellspring of humour from which a unique, interesting and fucking hilarious world view flows, flooding the world with goodness and truth'. What happens when the truth of your world view has the potential to hurt and offend? How do you reconcile larger truths with people’s relatively smaller feelings? Who does a comedian have a duty to?
TB: Yeouch. Good question. The crux of the issue, really; I can jump up and down and whine and moan about comedic freedoms and people being overly sensitive and not ‘getting’ me or ‘it’ and misrepresenting what I have and haven’t said, but at the end of the day, some people became sad and upset and pissed off when I was trying to make them laugh, and they felt like the butt of the joke when I didn’t intend them to be. That sucks and it’s something I’m sorry for.
The only way I can imagine managing this dilemma is on a case-by-case basis, with a healthy dose of cost/benefit analysis. Sure, your joke about domestic violence might make 99% of the room piss themselves, but is it worth the risk that there’s a surviving victim in the room who’s been through hell? Do laughs trump shitting on someone’s night unnecessarily?
There are limits, obviously. Sometimes you just have to say, ‘I can’t care about this person’s objections because it’s quite clear that as soon as I uttered the phrase “September 11”, they were going to get mighty pissed, regardless of what came next’. And the kind of ‘hurt’ matters too; for my comedy, anyone getting worked up over me ‘insulting their religion’ can shove it. Criticising religion is really important, and at worst someone might be ‘offended’ about having their personal choices being called into question.
If you have a relative who was killed in the Bali bombings or a sister who was raped, that could be a tad different, and if I wanted to reference those things in my comedy, I’d better have some solid reasoning to make it worthwhile.
Of course, offended punters are always capable of walking out of shows or turning off the TV or radio or closing the internet tab. I’ve done it a bunch of times and it’s important to keep in mind. No one has a right to not be offended, and in this crazy techno-cyborg world, it’s a lot easier to research the kind of entertainment you’re going to experience and to make informed decisions. I think audience members have a responsibility in that respect.
Finally, I’d say this: this conversation needs to get better vocab. I find phrases like ‘rape jokes’ and ‘Holocaust jokes’ really unhelpful, because I have difficulty defining what they are. Are they jokes that simply include the words ‘rape’ and ‘Holocaust’? That seems simplistic and, again, completely dismissive of context, which I think is so important. I don’t set out to write ‘rape jokes’ or ‘race jokes’ or ‘disability jokes’ or ‘cunt jokes’; I just write jokes and, when performed in front of an audience, they individually live and die on their own merits.
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03 Sep 12 at 14:40
Really insightful interview, great stuff guys! Any chance of a longer-form essay from Mr. Ballard? He seems to be pretty switched on about these kinds of issues. :)...