Friday, 20 July 2012

My evening listening to rape jokes

“Are you married?” yelled an audience member to the cocky comic who’d just spent an hour spewing out rape jokes, an endless stream of misogyny and a smattering of casual racism aimed towards his mostly white audience. “That depends,” replied the comic. “On whether I want something from the kitchen, or whether it’s a hot girl asking.”

Amazingly, Imran Yusuf is married. I say “amazingly”, because it’s a brave woman who commits to a man who includes in his set a ‘gag’ about their recent trip to South Africa (of which Johannesburg is, in Yusuf’s words, “the rape capital of the world”), and how he explored the country’s shanty towns alone… because his wife was too scared to leave the hotel: the implication being that if she left the hotel, she would be raped. Ha ha ha.

Another reason I’m amazed Yusuf is married is that he uses the trick of telling “fuck me jokes”, as dissected by the fabulous comedian Danielle Ward in her Edinburgh preview last week. Danielle talked about the type of male comedian who goes on stage, performs a misogynistic set, and then drops in a few lines designed to make women feel he’s vulnerable – so much so that they’ll go backstage and have sex with him. Yusuf did this several times with no shame. Littered throughout his set were loaded lines about how he didn’t lose his virginity until he was 25, or about how very sensitive he was, and he pointedly addressed these lines to the “ladies”. Classy.

Now, you’d be forgiven for wondering what I was even doing at Yusuf’s gig. Well, I’d gone to a double-bill of Edinburgh previews at the Tobacco Factory because Lucy Porter was on the bill. The other act was someone I’d never previously heard of (Yusuf), but I thought since I was there I’d see what he was like. I wish I hadn’t. Yet I couldn’t get up and walk out because I was hemmed into a corner, and I also suspected Yusuf would pick on me if he saw me leave. So I stayed. And I survived his set by live-tweeting the second half of it.

Initially, I simply tweeted: “At Imran Yusuf ‘comedy’ gig. He thinks rape and misogyny are funny. So does much of his audience. I’m stuck in a corner and can’t leave.” The response was instant and huge – via retweets, supportive @ comments, new followers… So I sent a second tweet: “Such a hostile crowd to be with. What’s worse? The man with the mic telling rape jokes? Or the audience laughing at him. This is shit.” The support from Twitter grew further.

But what was Yusuf saying that was so terrible? Surely it was just a bit of harmless ‘banter’? It’s depressing that so many people (although I didn’t see many women laughing) were bellowing at gags about spiking drinks with Rohypnol, or how men are ruling the world while women read Heat magazine. It was an oppressive and nasty atmosphere to be in. The overweight and sweaty man beside me, for instance, was roaring with laughter the whole time, shaking his plastic beer mug like an over-excited toddler with a rattle, and pressing his huge sweaty frame against me, while snorting with laughter all over my arm that was squashed against him. Yuck. I couldn’t escape (but I did shower when I got home).

Placed in a wider context, Yusuf’s jokes are not imaginative, new or exclusive to him. There are a lot of comedians who think rape is a suitable topic for comedy, and who think nothing of filling their set with casual misogyny (just look at Daniel Tosh for a recent example). They’re often young, male comedians, who play to an audience of young men who, terrifyingly, might look up to the person on the stage with the microphone and think, ‘Well, if he’s saying it, then it must be true’, and the situation worsens.

The argument against rape jokes is not new and I’m not going to patronise you to explain why they’re not funny. But what I wonder is why nothing is done to penalise those comedians who persist in making jokes about (and money from) rape and misogyny? Yusuf, for instance, has been on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, which is broadcast on BBC1, and he now has his own show on BBC3. The BBC penalised Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand for their Andrew Sachs ‘prank’, and Angus Deayton was sacked from the BBC after his cocaine and prostitute scandal. Yet apparently the BBC has no problem giving airtime to a comedian who tells rape jokes (NB: Yusuf may not have made rape jokes on TV, but the fact remains he still makes them in his solo show).

Statistics tell us that one in four women will experience rape. The unpleasant conclusion is there were women in Yusuf’s audience last night who had survived rape. I wonder what they felt about his jokes? I wish the atmosphere had been less aggressive and testosterone fuelled so that we could have challenged him – but of course, you can’t do that to a misogynist with a mic who’s standing in front of a room filled with his hyped-up allies, because you’ll get bullied en masse. Aka: silenced.

To make matters worse, Yusuf rounded up his set (before a quick quip about honour killings – another obvious topic for comedy) saying: “If you were offended by anything I said tonight, don’t be offended. It’s just a joke. We’re all the same underneath.” Woah! Let’s just take a moment to think about that. Saying “we’re all the same underneath” implies that Yusuf only thought people might have been offended by his racist jokes (not covered in this post). And didn’t give any indication that he thought his misogynistic jokes were offensive.

Worse, saying “It’s just a joke” is as much of a cop out as ending a crap story saying “It was just a dream”. And the only response to such a weak and pathetic defence is to direct him to Stewart Lee’s Top Gear sketch: “It’s just a joke, like on Top Gear. So when I said I wished Richard Hammond had been killed and decapitated, like when they do their jokes on Top Gear, it’s just a joke.”

I accept that Yusuf is not the only comedian to think rape and misogyny are hilarious, and the reason I’m using him to illustrate my points is that I had the bad luck of seeing his show. I love live comedy (and I run my own comedy nights), but last night was the fist time I’d had first-hand experience of such a hateful set.

Why is there is no moderation in what comedians are permitted to make jokes about? I support free speech and I’m not advocating censorship, but jokes that rile several hundred people to laugh at a violent and degrading sexual assault are deplorable. Rape is often used as a tool to silence the perpetrator’s victim – and if a comedian makes jokes about rape, they’re further silencing that victim by denying them the respect they deserve for surviving the assault. What’s worse is the underhand way the comedians can do it. Yusuf, for instance, isn’t so crass as to use the word “rape” (except in reference to his wife in South Africa), but his intention is clear on numerous occasions.

It’s time the casual misogynists spewing rape jokes were called to account.

Note: I tweeted Yusuf to tell him I was writing this and asked if he’d like to comment. As yet, I’ve had no reply. I’ve also emailed the Tobacco Factory and promoter, but as yet I’ve also had no reply. Should any of the three answer, I’ll add their comment at the end of this piece.


  1. Powerful blog. Depressing. I'm sorry you and many other women and possible rape survivors had to endure that evening. It just keeps on perpetrating those myths. Thank you for sharing this and challenging these attitudes.

  2. As a bloke I find this kind of 'comedy' offensive in so many ways. The obvious ones - rape isn't funny it's a horrific, demeaning crime, misogyny is just as bad as racism, again, not funny - but also in that it differentiates me from others of my gender, isolating me. It also gives the impression that this is typical male behaviour and viewpoint - dear God, let's hope it isn't. How have we gone backwards from the 80's 'alternative' comedy to the days of The Wheel Tappers & Shunters. Plus, the irony of misogynistic nonsense being peddled by a man who would have been the target of Manning an Co. I've got two daughters and this stuff makes me shudder for their futures. Keep up the good work, great blog.

  3. I've only ever seen Yusuf once (on TV) I remember finding him painfully unfunny and embarrassingly outdated in his comedy. So I feel that if I were at that same gig, I would have felt similarly angry and uncomfortable. (Although not having heard this actual material, I'll stop short of condemning it). I'm sorry that you had such a horrible night.


    There should be NO SUBJECT that is off limits to comedy, so it irks me some when people say things like 'rape jokes are never funny'. I assume I don't have to clarify that rape is the most hideous, disgusting act a person can inflict on another, but part of comedy's job is to find humour in all the shit bits of life, to say the unsaid. Just because there is nothing funny about rape, doesn't mean you can't have a comedy routine including rape that is funny. I would draw your attention to Louis C.K. YouTube 'Louis C.K rape' and you will find an example of what I'm talking about. The main and important distinction for me is 'who is the butt of the joke and why'.

    You say that you 'support free speech', but then say that there should be 'moderation in what comedians are permitted to talk about'. EVERYONE has the right to say whatever they like and EVERYONE has the right to find it deplorable/funny/moving/nonsensical.

    I just want to repeat, this is NOT about me supporting Yusef. From what I've seen of him, he's appalling. But that's just my opinion. He has every right to be appalling and I have every right to find him as such.

    So, in answer to one of your tweets it's definitely more worrying to me that a roomful of people found it funny than it is that one guy said it.

    Thank you for blogging, it's an interesting and worthwhile debate.

    Yours, Geff.