Canadian comedy show gives the narrative back to survivors of sexual assault

Heather Jordan Ross and Emma Cooper wish their comedy show wasn’t so relevant.

Not that “Rape is Real and Everywhere: Rape Jokes by Survivors” is only suddenly topical, they insist.

“People keep on saying, ‘This Weinstein thing makes your show super-relevant,’” says Ross, a native of Fortune, P.E.I.

“And we say: ‘Yeah, just like Cosby made it super-relevant, and Ghomeshi made it super-relevant.’ Unfortunately, there’s always some gigantic creepy (person) making our show super-relevant.”

Ross and Cooper have embraced the tricky balance of using humour to discuss sexual assault and harassment at a time when late-night TV hosts have been reticent to go there.

The first allegations against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein broke in the New York Times on Oct. 5, a Thursday, but they didn’t get mentioned in most late-night monologues until the next week. Any mention of Weinstein was also noticeably absent from “Saturday Night Live” that first weekend.

On Oct. 13, James Corden was hosting a charity gala in Los Angeles and built a joke around the Weinstein headlines — which backfired.

“It’s a beautiful night here in L.A.,” Corden reportedly told the crowd at the beginning of the event. “So beautiful, Harvey Weinstein has already asked tonight up to his hotel to give him a massage.”

Asia Argento and Rose McGowan, two of the women who have accused Weinstein of rape, tweeted that his jokes were in poor taste. He was making light of people’s very real pain, they said, treating trauma like a punchline.

Through his spokeswoman, Weinstein has denied engaging in any non-consensual sexual contact.

Facing an intense backlash, Corden apologized. “I was not trying to make light of Harvey’s inexcusable behaviour, but to shame him, the abuser, not his victims,” he said in a statement.

Emer O’Toole, professor of performance studies and Irish studies at Concordia University, wasn’t impressed by Corden’s joke but has seen Ross and Cooper’s show and applauds their approach.

“From any perspective, (Corden’s was) just a really crap joke,” says O’Toole, who is also a member of the school’s working group on feminism and controversial humour.

“The joke is, ‘Tonight is so beautiful that Harvey Weinstein would want to rape it.’ It’s just … lazy in terms of structure, in terms of context. How much thought went into that? How much imagination went into it?”

But “Rape is Real and Everywhere” succeeds in giving narrative control back to survivors, she adds.

“Of course rape isn’t funny, but these comedians really are,” O’Toole says.

“The ways in which they’re framing their stories and the skill they apply to framing those narratives (means) we end up laughing at rapists. We end up laughing at the ridiculous things that survivors are made to feel about their assaults.”

Appropriately enough, the idea for the show came from a joke made in a dark situation. It was late 2015, a few days after Ross reported her rape to the police. As people who both use humour to help process grief, Cooper was sympathetic when Ross told her she wanted to incorporate parts of her experience into her standup set, but also “never wanted to hear rape jokes again.”

“And then Emma said, ‘I wish there was a show that was only rape survivors telling their own rape jokes,’” Ross remembers. She was being facetious, but it struck them both as a good idea. Three weeks later, Cooper and Ross sold out their first show.

Rape jokes are common among what Ross calls “22-year-old ding-dongs”: young, inexperienced, often male comedians. She says comics who want to be perceived as edgy are willing to break the comedy rule of only “punching up” — or going after a target with more power or status than the person telling the joke — rather than punching down at someone more vulnerable.

Ross says the key to a successful rape joke lies in who the joke rewards.

“If the person who walks away loving (the joke) is a rapist, and the person who says, ‘Maybe I can’t do comedy anymore’ is a survivor, you have to think about the atmosphere you’re creating,” she says.

Ross has seen attitudes change, even though progress is slow. A male friend of hers stopped making callous rape jokes after she told him how much it hurt her. He said had never considered the impact.

“There’s a brand of comedy that is only for … a middle-aged white dude,” she says. ”For a long time, that was OK. And my comedy, it’s for them too. But their comedy is not for me.

“There are comedians who are totally thrilled to have only half the audience laugh. They are totally willing to leave you behind.”

Over 30 comics have been involved in “Rape is Real and Everywhere: Rape Jokes by Survivors,” which has also included male survivors, who Ross says are underrepresented in conversations about sexual assault. She hopes to take the show to more university campuses in the upcoming year.

“We’ll basically do this show until we’re not relevant,” she says. ”That’s the goal, is to someday be completely irrelevant.”

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