A few weeks ago, the Canadian comedian, Mike Sheer published a piece on Chortle, in which he discussed rape jokes and whether women can be funny. The piece was meant to be tongue in cheek, and promote debate on attitudes to women in comedy and rape jokes in general. It was not well received by a number of people who read it, and so, after Mike commented on the blog I wrote about the subject, I asked him if he’d be willing to be interviewed via email about the piece, the backlash it created and his thoughts on the whole situation.
He agreed. This is the interview, with Mike’s responses to my questions appearing in full. The only changes I have made is adding anchor links when they were needed.
Tell me a bit about yourself, how you got into comedy, why you came to the UK, etc.
I am a 31 year old Caucasian man born and raised in Toronto, Canada. All my family except my sister and me are from England, so we dodged that bullet. When I started doing comedy, my background was in live music, acting, and writing monologues & horror stories. I ended up at a college in Toronto that had just started a comedy program. I wanted to do sketch comedy and theatre.
I never had plans to be stand up comedian, but it fit in with everything I wanted to do: write, be on stage, travel, anger & disappoint people. Also, the incredible difficulty appealed to me. I remember thinking stand up comedy was perfect because you can do anything you want.
I arrived in the UK to live in 2009 after years of being back and forth between Melbourne and Toronto. I came here because this is supposed to be where you go to do comedy when you’re Canadian and don’t want to live in the US.
When did you first notice comments in the comedy industry about women not being/being funny?
Within a week of living here. The first things I was told were “women aren’t funny” and “Canadians are funny”. I thought, what about Canadiennes?
My Australian girlfriend who I moved here with was doing a bit of comedy and initially got involved with the Laughing Cows thing in Manchester. I hung out with them one night and heard all about the prejudices.
Obviously, women can be very funny, why do you think comedians are still asking whether women are funny?
First of all, as far as I know it’s not really comedians who are asking it. It’s audience members and bookers. But mainly journalists who think it’s a surefire interesting topic.
I really think to say women aren’t funny you are belying a deeper issue you have with females. Like I said in the article I wrote:
“I hate how they appear to like me and then rarely do. So when one steps behind that microphone, can you blame me for reeling?”
This goes for both sexes. I know women who say women aren’t funny, but then go on to show they have issues with the gender.
The thing is that people judge comedians on physical appearance – whether that means boobs, facial hair, skin colour, whatever. It’s natural. It’s up to the comic whether or not they want to incorporate that in their act. I think a lot of comedy courses now tell you to, but there’s few things as awkward as when a comic rattles off superficial gags about their appearance and no-one cares. This can happen with more urbane crowds. And it’s how I feel when I watch someone. Like, I don’t really give a shit what you look like. I just want to know what’s up with you. If that involves how you’re perspective has been shaped due to your physicality that’s cool, but own it. Don’t make it a gimmick.
I went through a phase where I thought all grossly fat comics were hilarious because the pathos of being that unhealthy and also wanting to comedy was a funny pairing to me. It’s the humanity behind the pretense to humour that I find hilarious. Some of the most poignant, jaw-droppingly hysterical moments in live stand up I’ve seen have been when the mask slips out of place by accident. A lot of comics are able to recreate that but nothing’s funnier then when it happens by mistake.
For example, I will never forget this act that I went to comedy college with. He was a clean-cut suburban boy who really wanted to be a stand up. Week after week he would come up and try to slickly deliver these awful bits about hot dogs and the Backstreet Boys. Then one day he came in all unshaven and told us his girlfriend had split up with him. He went on stage and started ranting away, calling her a “cunt” etc. It was so funny, because you were seeing the real him.
I seem to have really really gone off topic.
What is your opinion on rape jokes? Have ever told one, or would you tell one?
I’m going to give this question a lot more thought than I ever have before, because I’m interested in knowing the answer too.
Okay, after the more thought, here is the answer:
I have a joke that implies I rape a turtle. I have a joke about the tip of my dick getting ripped off like a bottle cap by the teeth of a Scottish woman. When I’m being heckled by a particularly imposing Alpha male figure in the audience I’ll often insinuate I am going to be sexually violent at him, usually with the microphone stand. Or vice versa. Does that count?
One of the things that pisses me off and drove me to write the brilliant piece of damning satire that I did, is that “Rape Joke” has become a meme. We bandy the term around like it can only mean one thing: a whimsical quip regarding the rape of a woman. The kind of thinking that leads us to say “STOP RAPE JOKES”, and the perpetuation of it, is what devalues it as an issue people genuinely have with comedy.
It’s one of those things that’s considered a problem, but is not. It’s a symptom.
Also, if some people want other people to stop making jokes about rape, these people need to come up with a better way than directly complaining about it. The kind of person who make jokes about something like sexual violence is not going to do what they are told, or even asked nicely. I always thought this was obvious, but it’s clearly not.
Anyway, maybe I am wrong here, but I assume when you ask if I tell “rape jokes” you mean jokes about a woman being sexually brutalized? The answer to that is no, I’ve never done that. And no, I wouldn’t sit down with a strong black coffee and rack my brain trying to write one.
When I was doing comedy in Toronto, a “rape joke” would be taken to mean a joke about male-on-male prison rape. Generally the punchline being that it’s instigated by “a big, black guy named Bubba” or some such thing. And no, I’ve never done that joke either.
Do you think rape jokes and jokes about women being funny are acceptable for a comedian to say in 2012?
That’s an interesting question because you used the word “acceptable”.
I’ll put it like this: I wrote an article making fun of attitudes towards the debates of funny women and rape jokes. I’m not sure I would say it, in that I would not do it in my live act. This is mainly because, what are the chances your audience cares/knows about these issues? I wrote it on the internet instead, where it’s more relevant, thinking that it would find its audience, which it did.
As far as it being “acceptable” (I keep putting that words in quotes because that’s what we do when we hate a word but still have to use it, as if we are protecting our other words from it’s horrible presence), I am of a belief that most comedians share: say whatever the fuck you want. As a comedian, it is your right. You’ve earned it. Especially in 2012.
Because, to be a comedian, you will have subjected yourself to the worst of humanity as someone in a weakened position. Nearly every comedian has a tale about being attacked at or after a gig, mostly apropos of nothing. We know what is funny to say and what is just cuntish to say. We know. And we always deal with the consequences – mainly because you have no other choice, but also because that’s part of the arrangement.
So the only time it isn’t “acceptable” to say something as a comedian, is when you are doing it without any aspirations of humour in mind. In those cases you are just a local psychotic (who can also potentially be quite entertaining).
But the ongoing debate about whether or not it’s okay to do is never going to be solved. A lot of comedians that are of a certain ilk, of which I am one, see the world for all its ills all the time. I am constantly seeing the flaws in everything. That’s why we get so defensive and/or reactionary when it’s implied we don’t know what’s “acceptable”, or that we’re being “offensive”.
Why do you think comedians are using rape jokes? And why do they seem to be using them more now?
First of all, there’s the easily adaptable formula of taking something horrible and addressing it in a light-hearted way. This is a fun game to play with a bunch of your idiot friends, but doing it in your act is selling yourself short.
But like I said in the article, there are billions of gigs popping up all over the place. Also, billions of people want to be comics. And good, honest, and/or interesting material is a grinding & risky slog. So people form their act in unison with what they think people will want to hear. And going with the general misogynist tone in some areas can perhaps give birth to the Rape Joke.
Something that the Twitter/blog reaction to my article really drove home for me was the desperation people have for content. Everyone online is trying to build an empire through their blog, loads of comedians are trying the same with Twitter. And me as a spokesperson for misogyny and rape became a solid piece of content that people eagerly latched on to. This is the same thing that shitty comics are doing in shitty towns at shitty gigs all over this shitty world. Using iconic tragedies as content.
Is there a correct way to perform or tell a rape joke, in your opinion?
With an arrow-through-the-ears headband? A Canadian accent? A cheeky wink and a vagina? No, I wouldn’t deign to know the correct way to do anything. However, if you look at Jimmy Carr who does some rape jokes in the classic sense, you should probably do it in front of an audience of thousands who bought tickets to specifically see you.
What inspired you to write that blog post? Was it because of a specific situation, or was it the result of many situations and conversations that you’d witnessed over time?
Yes it was a build-up. Things like how the Australian girlfriend I mentioned earlier made a hilarious & interesting comedian, but was so put-off by the industry that she didn’t want to do it anymore. The weirdness of having quotes by intellectual beacon Christopher Hitchens shoved in my face as unequivocal proof of women’s unfunniness. Online aggressors demanding an end to “rape jokes” and those that engage them. The constant flow of articles pondering women’s funniness written by morons who think it’s an actual subject worthy of study. Feedback from idiots who consider themselves comedy experts because they own a television. Pretty much anyone whose ever analyzed comedy in a destructive way.
Can you tell us what happened with Chortle? Did they approach you and ask to use your blog, or did you approach them?
Chortle provides a free space for people to write articles about comedy. Even though they end up being mostly re-imaginings of the same topics, it’s a great thing for them to do. I’d submitted one once before . I’d sent in another one but was told it was too jokey to put in. When I sent in the Women or Rape article I figured it would be turned away too.
How did you think people would react to your blog? Did you think they would see it as satire?
I had no idea that anyone would see it as anything but satire, but to be completely honest I didn’t really think about it that deeply. I know I’ve just gone on about us comedians being savvy etc. but I didn’t apply all my analytical faculties to this one. It made sense to me, and a couple of other (female) people I sent it to.
As soon as Chortle put it on, I got another email from them saying to look at the outrage on their Twitter timeline. I had a look and was surprised, but thought it was hilarious someone would think anyone would actually mean these things in the way they were written. I went out to do a gig and didn’t get back online until about midnight when I saw the true fury.
Quite a few blogs, and even an online petition, had popped up. As I said before, it’s mostly people trying to brand themselves and be the go-to for insightful opinion on the latest moral scandal. They need content. And if it’s content framed in a context they are secure everyone else believes, all the better.
It was funny seeing people pick apart arguments within my article that were hugely absurd, and posit that I sincerely believed it. Writing a blog decrying me as a misogynist rape fanatic must have been a gloriously easy task. Low effort and huge reward in terms of readership. That’s why I liked your blog, because it wasn’t sensationalist and asked questions.
But I really do think it’s all fair enough. The internet is weird because you can hear everyone’s opinion. In real life, nothing would ever get done if you knew what every single person thought.
What did you think of Chortle’s response to the blog? Do you think Chortle should have used your blog?
Sure, that’s why I sent it to them. I think they had the appropriate response. Chortle – as far as I know – is the brainchild of one man, and he got the joke. So he responded accordingly by saying he got it and there it is.
Did Chortle advise you on how to deal with the fallout from the blog?
No, they were as surprised by it as I was.
Your blog obviously got a lot of negative coverage, was there any piece of criticism that stayed with you, or anything that you agreed/disagreed with?
The biggest thing I learned was how the internet works. It’s a frontier, and frontiers are always rife with terrifying pack mentality when it comes to justice.
I should have put in a caveat when posting to Chortle. Since the audience was so broad, I guess it did need something to indicate I was joking. Again, I didn’t think of the scope I was reaching, and the possibility of decontextualisation. If it was in my live act, I would have been more careful.
I try very hard to look behind the words people use and see what they really mean, and it’s because of this that I wasn’t bothered by the criticism. A lot of people were quite transparent. They came at me with harsh words, petitions, hashtags like #mikesheerisacunt (which I’d like to keep going) – but it didn’t/doesn’t bother me because it’s not really directed at who I am and what I stand for.
I put out the follow-up article afterwards and some people have said they’re disappointed I had to. But I did it in response to all the women’s groups, rape crisis centres etc who thought it was a serious piece of hate speech. That was something I felt I needed to put right.
Once it became known it was intended as satire, people wanted to stay angry. So it just boiled down to a group of people saying I’m a bad, unfunny writer. My Twitter allies closed ranks and took care of them for me. But surprisingly, there were a few comedians joining in the criticism. I found this odd, because in my experience comedians don’t openly get involved in these things. Oddly enough, I think a lot of those comedians suck and are boring too, but I would never tell them! Why would they need to know that? Even ones who write insipid, cloying articles for free morning newspapers.
Do you think your blog has helped raise awareness of these jokes, or simply made you seem like something you’re not?
It’s hard to say. I wanted to push the arguments about these issues so far that we could move on from them, and I sort of feel like I did that, but as a side effect I became a pariah. It’s funny how we are more keen to target an individual and create a devil out of them than get anywhere with real issues. We are truly a tabloid culture. At the risk of sounding like a negative nelly, I’ve learned that very few people have an interest in accomplishing anything, as our personal hang-ups always get in the way.
The reaction to this was so mixed, in terms of people loving it, hating it, chuckling and moving on, etc. But I got the impression that those who really hated it but knew I’m not a jerk needed it to be a failure. So I got quite a few “sorry you failed, better luck next time” type comments, which I’m happy to play along with.
Now this whole free speech thing has come up, where people are getting arrested for dumb jokes online. And now Frankie Boyle is in court defending his TV show. It’s all so stupid. He’s being called a racist because of things on his show that we’re meant to parody fascist opinions. And he’s coming out about being in anti-racist groups etc. But it’s like that stuff doesn’t matter these days – words speak louder than actions.
Without getting into the free speech topic too much, as it’s quite boring, I have to say that to me part of having it is that it’s self-policing. A lot of people didn’t like what I said, and misinterpreted it, but they came forward and abused me. That’s the way it should be. Real law doesn’t need to be involved
What’s next for you? Are you going to continue blogging, writing online and gigging?
Yeah, I’m going to try to do a lot more of the online article writing thing.
I’m getting told a lot to try to do a stand-up show about this experience, and I’m playing around with that. This year I’ve had a pretty great UK festival run with my solo show Undergod and am hoping to bring it to Canada in the new year. I’ll be doing the UK festivals next year with something new anyway. The act is always doing something.
Right now I’m also doing a lot of work with my ska band Rags Rudi – we’re recording an EP and gigging around town. It’s great playing with them because you can make people have a great time and never have to explain yourself to those who didn’t. Know what I mean?