Dealing in dangerous matters
Black humour and rape? 'Elle' tackles comedy's last taboo, but the risk-reward ratio has tipped in favour of its director
French film Elle was originally going to be a Hollywood production. There was just one small problem, according to its director Paul Verhoeven: "No American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie."
There are many shades of amorality in Elle, but it's fairly safe to conclude that American actresses opted out because it subverts the role of the rape victim. Even more dangerously, Verhoeven's rape revenge thriller is laced with black comedy.
Predictably, the film, which stars Isabelle Huppert, was mired in controversy before it was released, yet reviews are promising and suggest that the button-pushing director has tipped the risk-reward ratio in his favour.
Elle has already won multiple awards, a critic from the respected RogerEbert.com site has hailed it as one of the smartest films about consent she's ever seen and audiences have been leaving cinemas with more questions than answers - not least the question of whether the comedic moments elsewhere in the film lighten the heavy subject matter.
This isn't the first time that dark comedy has suffused a rape storyline. We've seen it handled with care and we've seen it poorly-executed by directors who don't understand the subtleties or nuances of the form - the date rape scene in the Seth Rogen film Observe and Report comes to mind.
Intent is everything - and one always has to ask whether the writer or comedian is trying to convey a wider point or if they are driven solely by shock value.
Back in 2006, American comedian Doug Stanhope had his set cut short at the Kilkenny Cat Laughs festival, and his remaining slots on the showcase bill cancelled.
According to a headline on the front page of the Irish Daily Star the following day, he was given his marching orders for saying "Irish women are too ugly to rape".
This isn't entirely true. In his own words, he "ventured on the issue of one making an 'honest mistake' and having intercourse with someone you believed to be of legal age" before surmising that "most of the women there were such misshapen pigs, that if you actually were to f** them, you would be more concerned about what species they were…" Suffice to say, he wasn't invited back.
In 2012, comedian Daniel Tosh was called out by a female audience member for making a rape joke that was about as funny as an internal examination. His response? "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?"
Comedian Ray Badran had a similarly jockish retort for a female audience member who confronted him about making a rape joke: "F*** off and die". Badum tish!
Rape jokes are fundamentally a matter of taste but there's nothing funny about the moment the veil slips and the inner misogynist is revealed.
Dublin-based comic Joanne McNally agrees: "Any (rape jokes) I've heard have been done by sh*t comedians who are looking to shock people because they don't have any actual gags… They're the lowest of the low.
"If I was the victim of rape and I went to a comedy gig and some spanner on stage was making rape jokes, I'd feel like it was happening all over again, because by laughing at it, they're belittling the severity of it.
She adds: "You can make a joke about absolutely anything - it doesn't mean you should. I love dark comedy - the darker the better - but I hate rape jokes."
Comedy writer Maia Dunphy is of the same opinion: "I like edgy, dark humour," she says. "I also like slapstick and silliness, but sometimes the darker stuff is what we all need… Having said that, I can't think of any context in which a joke about rape would be funny."
Perhaps that's why Louis CK - a man who is frequently on the side of women - is one of the few male comedians who knows how to crack a rape joke.
"How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men?" he asked during one set. "If you're a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear, half-lion." Meanwhile, his 'fun with a girl' riff considers the complicated issue of consent when a woman enjoys forceful sex.
Louis CK gets away with rape jokes because they aren't about rape per se. They're about rape culture. It's an important distinction and, invariably, it's the difference between the rape jokes delivered by male and female comics. For instance, Sarah Silverman once opined that rape jokes are a "comic's dream" because the material seems so "dangerous and edgy".
"But it's actually the safest area," she continued, "because who's going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don't even report rape." Amy Schumer took a similar tack in 2015 with her Football Town Nights sketch, a spoof of the hit series Friday Night Lights in which a small-town high school football coach lays down some ground rules for the team, before writing 'No Raping' on the white board, to which one of the players retorts: "But coach, we play football!"
Schumer often talks about the grey area of rape - a phenomenon she refers to as 'grape'. It has echoes of the moment when Zach Galifianakis's character in The Hangover asks why 'roofies' (rohypnol, aka the date rape drug) aren't called 'rapeys'. Four years later, Danny McBride's character in This Is the End worried he was giving off a "rapey vibe".
Like it or loathe it, the word 'rapey' has passed the rape joke litmus test - if there is such a thing - by entering common parlance. We're also disproportionally lenient about jokes that reverse the roles and trivialise male rape. We laughed when Vince Vaughan was tied up in Wedding Crashers and we've seen enough comedic prison scenes to know exactly what it means when a prisoner drops his soap in the shower.
The acclaimed Comedy Central series Broad City cleverly shone the spotlight on these double standards when one of the leads, Abbi, continued to have sex with Male Stacy (played by Seth Rogen) after he had passed out.
"So, to clarify, you raped him," says Abbi's best friend Ilana, when she tells her what happened the next day.
"No … he seriously wanted it," Abbi replies.
"That is literally what they say." Is this a bona fide rape joke? Perhaps not, but we ought to remember that comedy gives us scope to explore what Schumer calls the 'grape' area without getting tangled in semantics or quashed by political correctness.
"There is a lot of ignorance when it comes to comedy," agrees Cork comedian Ross Browne. "What we should look at is the stance of the narrator and the intent of the piece. Comedy is art. Each piece should be judged individually but no subject should be off limits."