The first time I told a rape joke, I was on a small comedy tour, at an open mic in Salt Lake City.
The Middle of Nowhere, America is not necessarily the safest place to debut frankly off-limits material in front of complete strangers. But, I figured that if I ruffled anyone’s feathers, it wouldn’t be a big deal, because I would never go back to that pizza restaurant/dive bar/mini-arcade again. And I had been mulling over the joke for awhile by then: on the road, in a van full of comics, I’d had a lot of time to think about the purpose of I was doing. The moment I wrote that first rape joke down in the back seat of the van, a spike shot up my spine. Something about this felt more important than the rest of my material.
At the time, the extent of the joke was: “Actually, I have had an abortion. You can all calm down; it was a rape one.” Then I went on to talk about how the abortion clinic I went to had a picture of a clown skiing down a rainbow on the wall. It was all very Obvious Child, and the joke went over fine; no one booed or walked out or anything, and some people even laughed.
The thing about the rape joke was this: telling it made me feel amazing.
I was raped in high school, in an upstairs bedroom with blue walls and a fish tank with no fish. Those are the details I remember best; while it was happening, I was trying to think about anything but what was happening. Afterwards, I was deeply, deeply ashamed. I became obsessed with making lists of things I could have done differently to prevent it; I filled an entire (secret) notebook with just these lists. I woke up abruptly almost every night to add something new: “If I had worn jeans instead of my pink skirt;” “If I had screamed”; “If I had stayed in and watched VH1 like I had originally thought I was going to.”
I was the kind of teenager who did well in school but dyed my hair pink—your typical Hot Topic poser. I had never been drunk; I had never tried drugs; I didn’t stay out late. I met the boy who raped me at a concert, and went over to his house afterwards on a whim. My mother would have never let me go if I had asked her permission, and I knew it. Going to his house felt like an enormous act of rebellion in and of itself. When he pushed me against the mattress and shoved my face down with his forearm, I was practically unsurprised. I’d seen after-school specials about this kind of thing. This was what I got for playing the rebel. And when I got pregnant, it felt like an appropriate and inevitable punishment.
I mentioned it to a new boyfriend a few months after it happened, but otherwise kept quiet about the rape. I didn’t even tell a therapist about it until after I had finished college. She did what therapists are supposed to do: she gently told me that it wasn’t my fault, and that it was normal to be reactionary around sex.
And I had become reactionary around sex. I started having to close my eyes and think about Mr. Rogers when I was having sex, which I know is weird, but it was all I could do to prevent myself from having panic attacks. Still, I was very annoyed with my therapist for saying this to me. Of COURSE it was my fault. The skirt! The not screaming! The pregnancy! She was just saying what she had to say because that was her job. She wasn’t willing to be honest with me: I had fucked up. It was all my fault.
Nine years later, I started doing standup after going through a bottom-scraping break-up. Now that I was (desperately) alone, I had decided to try all the far-off things I had always wanted to. (I call this stage of a breakup “the podcast stage,” as in, the stage in the breakup where you decide to finally start that podcast you always said you were going to start.) I did my first set at an open mic in someone’s shotgun house on a Monday night.
I rehearsed that first-ever, three-minute standup set in my car for a week before I performed it. When I got to the signup table, I told everyone that I had done standup tons of times before, so no one would think I was a noob. This was a rookie mistake on two counts: first, audiences are way gentler with people who are trying standup for the very first time than they usually are; and second, no seasoned performer ever says that they have done standup “tons of times.” I went up late, bombed completely, and left immediately afterwards.
I probably wouldn’t have tried standup ever again if I hadn’t gone out on a date with one of the guys I met there who suggested we follow our risotto dinner by doing another open mic together. Wanting to impress him, I said, “Sure! I do tons of open mics. I am a seasoned performer.” This relationship obviously didn’t last.
But, for whatever reason, the second mic (same jokes, different swagger) didn’t go as badly as the first one, and I decided I wanted to try again. My material was very hit-or-miss. I told jokes about video games and chat rooms and bad dates, and people didn’t really laugh much, but they also didn’t heckle. For a while, I tried all my material from the perspective of a April Ludgate-type character, droning on and on about how boring it was to be single. Soon, I started to lose steam. I wasn’t really enjoying standup, and standup wasn’t really enjoying me.
This all changed during my fourth year of teaching. I had been working during the day as an elementary school teacher, and for the first three years, I wasn’t very good at it either. I couldn’t understand why, though: I got to work an hour early every morning and stayed until 7 or 8 at night, trying to make sure everything would go off without a hitch. I implemented classroom rules and expectations the way I had been taught to, the way I had watched other teachers successfully implement them in the past. But none of it was working. I was following the teacher directives to the letter, but none of it was working.
Then one day, a friend came to watch me teach. After class he said, “That must be exhausting, having to act that way every day.”
“What way?” I asked him.
“Well, I mean… the way you teach… that isn’t you,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I was stunned. It hadn’t struck me that I’d taken on a teacher-training-video affect; I thought I had been convincingly genuine all along.
The next day I went to class and taught my first graders the way I would teach my own children if I’d had them: with lots of jokes and without lots of rules. It was the first easy day of teaching of my life. The most important thing in the world, I thought, is being honest.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I hadn’t been honest in my comedy, either. The next week, I performed a set about the stupid mistakes I had made as a first-year teacher. I made fun of myself, but I did it with my own voice. And, more than that, I talked on stage for the first time about things that were complicated, because they really mattered to me. The set destroyed.
Dr. Scott Weems wrote a terrific book about what makes things funny called Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why. Focused on the minutiae of humor, Dr. Weems uses modern technology to examine the human brain while it interprets comedic material, and he reaches the compelling and obvious conclusion that humor makes us better. There are studies that show that laughter literally improves your health.
Dr. Weems’s book was on my mind when I decided to talk about the rape at the open mic in Utah, about three years after my honesty epiphany. This rape—this fleeting, momentary act—had consumed so much energy in my life thus far. I had spent over ten years pushing it down and bottling it up. I had spent countless hours in therapy trying to feel better and let go. And now, standing in front of a room of strangers, just admitting this tiny thing—telling this one small truth—actually made me feel better.
Later, I extended the material. I talked about what it was like to try to explain to people what had happened; how silly things got in bed, or how weird people sometimes acted. I talked about going to therapy. I talked about how I felt when I was called a rape survivor. Sometimes, there were parts of my set that weren’t funny at all. But the material nevertheless generally went over well; sometimes women even came up after shows to say thank you.
Still, telling rape jokes is a tricky and hotly debated subject. I e-mailed Dr. Weems about my rape joke, and asked him why he thought I got so much pleasure from telling it. He wrote back:
I suppose on one level, it can be intensely healthy for the comic being able to share such serious, traumatic experiences in the form of humor. […] There have been plenty of studies to show that people who laugh about the loss of loved ones dealt with the loss in healthier ways. […] But probably regardless of the trauma or the psychological processes, it can definitely make for great comedy because by sharing such personal experiences, the performer can really connect with an audience fast.
Reading that, it seemed simple to articulate why the audience liked the rape joke material. They could tell, I think, that I was telling the truth: the truth being that rape, like anything traumatic and tragic, can be funny. In the hands of the person that owns that truth, the rape joke is tremendously powerful: Every time I get on stage and talk about what happened, I don’t feel like a victim at all.
Sophie Lucido Johnson is a writer, illustrator, and comedian in New Orleans. She is the editor-in-chief of Neutrons Protons, and she blogs and makes comics at her website. Illustrations by the author.