Saturday, February 24, 2007

Do We Really Need a Gang-Rape Joke on My Name is Earl?

Apparently we do. On Thursday’s episode of MNIE, after Crabman complains that sex in the walk-in freezer of the bar caused his scrotum (yes, that’s my cute little allusion to this) to get stuck on a keg of beer, tongue on flagpole style, Joy says:

So we'll just wait till this place closes and you can do me on the pinball machine like in that porno Jodi Foster did.

(From Season 2, Episode 18.)

Now, I assume the crux of the humour derives from the fact Joy has misinterpreted the brutal gang-rape scene from The Accused
as hardcore pornography. I “get” it. But how funny is “it”? I found the line shocking, but not funny. I actually paused the episode and said “I can’t believe they got that onto a mainstream network comedy.” I thought MNIE was better than that – at least the first season seemed to suggest this was the case.

I am also left wondering: Is the line supposed to reveal Joy’s inability to distinguish between coercive and consensual sex? Is it an expression of a rape fantasy? Is it a comment on the Hobbesian sexual practices of hicks? Or is it simply MNIE creator Greg Garcia (who wrote the episode) seeing if he could get a rape joke on mainstream television? The thrill of sneaking something past the censors perhaps?

I remember reading about how in the bad old days, you would have a network censor (Standards and Practices) who would read the script, and tell you what to remove. Anticipating this, you would stick something outrageous into a script, in order to ensure that your compromise joke would make it into the script. And that compromise joke was, in truth, the joke you wanted to use in the first place.

To me, the pinball line was a self-imposed challenge on Garcia’s part to see if he could make a rape joke without making it sound like, you know, a joke about rape. A writerly bet to see if he could do the impossible. I’m reminded of George Carlin:

Well, sometimes they'll say, well you can talk about something but you can't joke about it. Say you can't joke about something because it's not funny. Comedians run into that shit all the time. Like rape. They'll say, "you can't joke about rape. Rape's not funny." I say, "fuck you, I think it's hilarious. How do you like that?" I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. See, hey why do you think they call him "Porky," eh? I know what you're going to say. "Elmer was asking for it. Elmer was coming on to Porky. Porky couldn't help himself, he got a hard-on, he got horny, he lost control, he went out of his mind."

What the Joy line demonstrates is how thoroughly uncensored network TV has become. (Christ, I sound like a social conservative at this moment, and I lack the time and patience to nuance my argument a little more effectively. Whoops.) And I think this is somewhat of a shame, because I honestly think the joke shouldn’t have made it to air. (The Accused is based on a real-life rape, which for me puts that extra bit of inappropriateness into the mix.) And I realize what a hornet nest that places me inside of. Having recently completed a thesis on Vice for my Master’s, I also realize that the moment you isolate or name a taboo, you create a cultural scenario in which someone will transgress it. As I was doing research for this post, I stumbled across Borat’s reference to The Accused as a sex comedy. I’m also reminded of Sarah Silverman’s rape joke oeuvre.

There is so much more to say here, but I’m still trying to puzzle through the Borat/Silverman cultural ascendancy in a meaningful way. I promise that in the future I will be better able to articulate what their particular types of transgressions mean. For now, I’ll stick to the undoubtedly unpopular stance of wishing NBC had censored a rape joke.