Why Is It Okay for SNL to Make Rape Jokes?

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I don’t think you need to be more than a casual viewer of Saturday Night Live to notice the air of casual homophobia hanging over Studio 8H. This is more than just a hunch. I’ve known writers who have worked at SNL over the years, who’ve confirmed the show has an allergy to hiring openly gay cast members, whom certain Powers That Be feel are limited by their perceived effeminate mannerisms. Straight guys, however, can play straight and gay characters—and when they play gay, boy is it hilarious! Thus the tendency to fall back on gays and gay sex as an easy punchline, a crutch dating back to the show’s beginnings. What’s changed in the meantime is the rest of the world. It’s 2011. Gays are denied equal rights to their straight counterparts, while gay teens are committing suicide at alarming rates; meanwhile, gays are more visible than ever. The shock of two men kissing just isn’t quite what it was when Lorne Michaels was in his 30s, when the show began. (He’s 66.)

Which brings me to this weekend’s SNL, hosted by Zach Galifianakis. Galifianakis is a very talented and likable comedian and actor who nonetheless was sunk by sub-par material, in a show I’d grade a D at best. It had some amusing moments, but those were few and far between. What stood out most was a vile and unfunny sketch that’s been mounted dozens of times before; only this time, as it dragged along (its two minutes felt like forever), it struck me as being even more vile and even more unfunny than all the times before.

The concept is that a trio of youths have been sent to a local precinct house to be “scared straight” by two prison inmates. The first inmate is played by Keenan Thompson, who is the star and focal point of the sketch; the second inmate is usually the episode host. Then there’s a rigid format: Thompson and his sidekick are introduced by a law enforcement official, played by Jason Sudeikis, who's present only in body and badge. Thompson relays a trio of cautionary tales, each of which is the plot of a well-known movie. The delinquent teens call him out each time, at which point he and his sidekick make threatening comments, involving puns and word play, suggesting the teens will be anally raped if they fail to follow the law. There’s physical comedy involved—most of it involving roughing up the kids—but the choreography and blocking is invariably sloppy. Thompson frequently has to stop what he’s doing and reorient himself to get a better look at the cue-cards that prompt his next line of dialogue.

And what of that dialogue? Here are a few lines:

Keenan: “You better watch yourself, punk. You won’t be ‘home alone.’ You’ll be in prison, getting boned.”

Zach: “You won’t get hit with cans of paint, you’ll get hit in the mouth with nuts and taints.”

Keenan: “You’ll be doing this face all right. [He does the Home Alone scream face.] But it won’t be a scream coming out. It’ll be a dude going in.”

Keenan: “You better shut your mouth, or they won’t be any Colin Firth. They’ll be entering you colon first.”

Zach: “And it won’t be Helena Bonham Carter. There’s going to be hella boning in your farter.”

Keenan: “What happens in your ass stays in your ass.”

And so on and so forth.

I adhere to the belief that any subject, no matter how taboo, can be made funny. It’s all a question of point-of-view, context, phrasing, etc. So I’m not going to make a blanket statement like “rape jokes aren’t funny.” I’ll instead say that the vast majority of rape jokes are not funny, and, without a doubt, that these particular rape jokes are very, extremely not funny. It goes without saying that had three women been sitting in those chairs, the sketch would never have happened. So what made it fit for broadcast? And assuming there was something worthy of laughing at in the sketch, what was it, exactly? From whence derives the humor? As far as I can tell, and I’ve spent more time thinking about this than I care to acknowledge, it’s in the fact that the threatened rape is perpetrated by a man upon another man. In other words, the implied homosexuality of the act. And that’s not okay. That does not fly. Not for any show, but particularly not one with a track record like SNL’s.

Next week, Elton John will host, making him, along with Alan Cumming, Ellen DeGeneres, Ian McKellen, and Neil Patrick Harris, and Jane Lynch, the fifth sixth openly gay person ever to host the series. I’ll be watching with keen interest.

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