Hold up, internet. It’s true that in almost any imaginable circumstance, the words “men” and “rape jokes” appearing in a headline together is a signal for women to run far, far away. Comedy is already a man’s world, and adding discussion of one of the most traumatizing things that can happen to a person—something that happens to women with agonizing regularity—goes against conventional wisdom, to say the least.
That’s part of the reason why comics Emma Cooper and Heather Jordan Ross started a show that deals exclusively with personal experiences of rape—to break down everything we think we know about it, and start a new conversation. “This idea that you have to be a clean, perfect individual in order to have anyone’s sympathy, that’s something we want to challenge,” Cooper told VICE. “We’re punching at that, and also the idea that women only get raped, because gender is a spectrum, and it happens to men.”
For months now, the Rape is Real and Everywhere comedy show has been selling out Vancouver venues. Cooper and Ross invited funny people to share their stories of rape in all their absurd, impossible complexity—and got such a massive response they’re launching a cross-Canada tour May 15, making stops in 10 cities from Victoria to Charlottetown.
“The first goal is laughs, but the nice benefit is that it humanizes people,” Cooper said. “It pokes at the assumption you have to feel like a victim. I don’t think most of the people in the show feel like victims. They’re like, ‘Well, this happened to me, here’s the bad shit I feel because of it, but first I’m a comedian and a human.'”
By including men who have survived abuse, the show illustrates there’s no right way to be a victim, no right way to process abuse, and no right way to tell a joke about it. VICE caught up with three performers from the touring show—yes, two of which are men—to find out how and why they’re breaking the rules of comedy.
VICE: Hi Mark. How did you get into comedy?
Mark Hughes: When I was 20, 21, I got sentenced to nine years in prison. I did about seven years of it, and when I got out and I had to get my life straightened out. I was a recovering addict so I had to get clean, learn how to be law-abiding. About five years after I got out, my life was stable—I knew how to pay a bill, how to pay my rent, how to drive a car that I didn’t start with a screwdriver. But life was really boring because if you can’t rob banks, what do you do for fun, right?
Someone suggested I find some kind of creative outlet—I think they meant oil painting or pottery or something like that. People had told me for years I was funny, but I always chickened out when it came to getting on stage. So I enrolled in a class, did the class, did a set at the end of the class and I really liked it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
You caught the bug!
Well yeah, I got off the stage, and someone said, “What did that feel like?” And I said, “Like robbing a bank.”
So why tell a joke about rape?
I’m joking about the stuff I know. I joke about the streets, I joke about addiction, I joke about abuse and rape and homelessness and mental illness. It’s just what I’ve known, it’s what I find funny. I didn’t realize those are actually challenging subjects, because they’re normal to me. The one I tell jokes about happened to me in an institution—if you want the more detailed version you’ll have to go to a show—but I was in prison and a guy raped me. Just like the movies, but no shower.
What should male comics know about rape jokes?
There are different kinds of rape jokes—one where the victim is somehow the punchline, one where the subject of rape is discussed, and a third where you’re talking about your own experience as a victim. If the victim’s not you, you’re going to have a hard time. Those aren’t as common as people claim, though, and most of them aren’t funny. Being the victim, it’s a little nerve wracking. Some people don’t even think men can be raped, and some social justice types will be like, “It’s so rare, you’re not really a part of this conversation.” And others say if it happens in prison, well, you were in prison. As if it’s a part of the punishment.
VICE: Is there a right way to joke about rape?
Kathleen McGee: I don’t have a set of rules. A lot of times I just work it out on stage. I’ll just say it. My comedy is basically therapy for me. It’s weird, people can’t imagine sharing as much as I share, but for me, the more I talk about it the more it gets easier for me to accept.
When did you decide to share your own story?
I did a podcast with Ari Shaffir, and the title of the podcast was Rape and Eggs. Because I went on a date with this guy who I met online, and he brought a friend, and we just went out. I got really drunk. They took me to a remote location, where there was nowhere for me to go. Then they both basically did what they wanted to do. I was too afraid to say no over and over or do anything other than lie there because I thought they could kill me. I literally thought I’m in the middle of nowhere, I don’t know who they are. So that happened, and they took me out for breakfast after. That’s why we called it Rape and Eggs.
It took me four or five years to understand what happened to me, because that whole time I thought I had made a bad decision—that I got drunk around these guys and whatever happened was my fault. And I never thought even though I was drunk, even though I went with them, they did something I didn’t want to happen. So it wasn’t my fault. It took me a really long time to understand that.
What do you want to see happen with this tour?
I think if a guy watches and sees a girl talking about a traumatic experience and might think, Well, she went on a date with those people! It might open their eyes to what consent really is—because that’s a very grey area still. And as far as women, if they’ve had an experience like that, just being able to understand it’s not something they should be ashamed of—that’s the biggest thing—it’s embarrassing for a woman to say that happened to her.
VICE: Was sex abuse something you had always joked about?
Shane Clark: Never. No. It happened over a couple years when I was eight or nine… It was just something I wanted to keep bottled up, I guess. I wasn’t at a point in my life where I wanted to talk about it. I was always getting notes and cards from my abuser, my dad, asking if I wanted to talk about it. That turned me off talking about it because I don’t owe that person that conversation. But then I realized there’s an outlet for it in comedy, doing something I love, feeling the catharsis and finding I’m not alone.
When did you decide to try it on stage?
Last year I did The Tragedy Show in Vancouver—they were looking for comedians to share something tragic, not necessarily abuse. “We’re OK, it’s funny now” was the tagline. It’s like, you know I am OK, so why don’t we talk about this? It’s honest, it’s vulnerable, already it’s cathartic. It was kind of what I expected. I was terrified to talk about it with anybody except maybe my mom, sister, and girlfriend—it was that few people in the world who knew—so just putting myself out there, I was really shaking a lot.
Do you ever get pushback for sharing your story? Or feel not welcome?
That’s a really good point. With this show, when I first walk up, it’s like I want to explain why I’m not just a white man trying to get in on female empowerment. But because of the way [this show] is presented, the audience knows we’re all victims of it, even though we’ve all gone through something different. I think my story, even though it’s a tough story, is easier to tell than stories women have gone through. For one thing, the justice system doesn’t fail children as much as it fails women. I feel like awareness can always be raised more. Especially with how the justice system handles abuse cases.