“U Triggered, Bro?”: Take It From A Comedian, Offence Isn’t Always As Edgy As You Think

"If a joke makes an audience member burst into tears, run into the bathroom and vomit, it probably isn’t a good joke."

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This post discusses sexual assault.

I recently performed at an open mic night at an American student bar in Rome where a comedian did a five-minute bit about molesting his unconscious girlfriend. Two girls got up and walked off. The comic laughed them away and chanted, “triggered! oh shit, bitches got triggered, haha!”. It got big yucks.

For those who don’t know, a psychological trigger is something that sets off a flashback or experience that transports the person back to the event of their trauma. Don’t just interpret that literally: it can be an overwhelming feeling of abject horror, a sense of discomfort stemming from an experience, or yes, a reliving of events.

“Triggered”, on the other hand, has become one of those malleable words that slips between shield and insult depending on how many turds you’re floating with. Somehow, a word designed to signify a very real physical and emotional reaction to trauma has been warped into an invective, signalled as a threat to ‘freedom of speech’, and the right to bad taste.

Offence Can Be Great! But It Should Probably Have A Point

As a comic, I’ve said and written some confronting things: that Rattus the Rat has died of a heroin overdose, that ISIS is the Jimmy Fallon of terrorism, that my son dressed as the head of Boko Haram for Book Week (I don’t have a son), that stand up comedy is just an acceptable form of self harm. I come from the Swiftian/Bruce school of satire, where warped ideas are extrapolated to confront an audience with their innate hypocrisy. In other words, I’m a wanker.

I believe whole-heartedly in the power of offence and its importance in comedy, but I also believe that, like any art, comedy doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it’s not apolitical nor is it impersonal. It’s a powerful means by which to draw out stupidity and bigotry; a great way to speak truth to power. But too often it’s overwhelmed by its inherent meanness: its reflexivity turning on the marginalised and the victimised to mock and ape their voices rather than lend strength to them.

This isn’t a highbrow concept; a fart joke and a polished pun can be as devastating and meaningful as the most fleshed out Carlinesque rant. My point is that, like it or not, the comic has great power, and with that, I believe, is a slight onus to do ‘good’. Or at least not actively do bad.

Comedy is a big tent. As it’s made for diverse groups of people, it comes in a bunch of styles, and covers different topics. But go to any open-mic and you’re guaranteed to see a bill that is at least 70 percent white men. They’re also white men of a particular stripe. Sometimes between drinks I forget if I’m at a comedy night or a meeting of 4Chans Greatest Neckbeards.

Men of a certain persuasion believe they have things to say and often don’t believe they need wit to say them. Because of this, you get a lot of rape jokes. Sometimes these jokes are delivered sheepishly, more often than not they are delivered like statements, barely jokes, malformed and empty.

I’ve complained about this publicly and with my fellow comics. In return I got the usual string of responses: ‘it wasn’t about rape’, ‘the audience laughed’, ‘it was just a joke’, ‘you hate free speech’ etc. Hilariously, time and time again, with the thinnest veil of passive aggression, I get asked this: “you triggered, bro?”

Say yes to that question and see how quickly they shut up. Their argument dies on its ass.

This Isn’t About A Vocal Minority

For sufferers of abuse, and those in proximity to that abuse, ‘triggers’ are very real. Not to sound too much like a GOP Senator, but the immediate reality of the hurt that content of this nature can cause became apparent to me as I realised how many of those close to me were survivors of sexual assault.

It’s worth noting that Australia has one of the highest rates of reported sexual assault in the world. When we talk about those susceptible to abuse triggers, we are not talking about a vocal minority or an invisible few. Statistically speaking — the numbers sit at about one in five Australian women — someone close to you is likely a victim of abuse or trauma.

I had a friend who would attend all my comedy performances. Even by open-mic standards, her laughter was pained. More often than not, at some point in the night, she’d start shaking and would get up and leave for the bathroom. On the drive home she was sullen. I pretended that I didn’t know what it was, because sometimes that mask is difficult to pull back.

Inevitably at one of these performances someone would say something flippant about rape: an aside, a bit, a brief pantomime. It could be a not too subtle hint or allusion, dropped casually in the hunt for a cheap laugh, it could be a hammerhead ‘RAPE…LOL’ type deal. The effect was always the same. Friend in tears. Friend in bathroom dry-heaving. Friend silent for hours after show.

Spoiler: You’re Not Bill Hicks

Comedians hate anything that can be perceived as a threat to their ‘right’ to free speech. It creates an odd little bubble, where comics — perhaps more than any other artistic community — are extremely averse to criticism. This sensitivity hides behind an exaggerated libertarian righteousness, brandished loudly by every would-be Bill Hicks.

It’d be wrong to imply that this attitude exists in a vacuum. There is an innate misogyny in the comedy community that often goes unchecked, and it keeps debates like this ill-formed and stunted.

Comics, and by extension society, have turned the idea of “trigger warnings” into an emblem of censorship and oppression. It’s sacrilege for a comic to forgo laughs for sensitivity, the idea goes, and that’s what a trigger warning is asking for. It signals a threat to the comedian’s idea of being. As a result, “triggered” has hijacked the intonation that used to be the exclusive realm of ‘pussy’ and ‘fag’ as insults. The implication being that the triggered are weak.

Perhaps that’s true. Abuse tends to weaken a person, and the strength and courage you can develop in fighting that weakness doesn’t always diminish the hurt. Survivors can struggle with the ways their trauma affects them and a “triggered” response does not have to be as small as the provocation that creates it. To the uninformed, the hurt can even be imperceptible. The champions of free expression put a lot of onus on the victims to justify the sincerity of their hurt.

Because of this, trauma sufferers have to exercise emotional judo when entering a conversation about their own trauma. They have to convince people that this is not oversensitivity, and that their sobbing is not an attack on your ability to goof off on whatever. They are tasked with reliving their horror so as to prove to you that they are not a threat to your ideas. They have to prove your improv sketch about Disney villains as rapists is not worth their agony.

I’ve been told by some comedians that if people get that upset they shouldn’t come to the show. This is crazy when you consider the prevalence of abuse — sexual or otherwise — in our community. Your Tinder jokes aren’t really pulling a packed house anyway, are you sure you want to tell a large chunk of the audience to get fucked? Diversify your material a bit and maybe you wont be MCing open-mic nights in North Perth at the age of 41.

Trigger warnings don’t exist to oppress you. They are not indicative of a hypersensitive generation looking for the new great offence. They’re a lighthouse warning of great pain and very real experience. They help you steer the boat away before you hit the rocks with your lazy and pointless rape jokes.

To me, if a joke makes an audience member burst into tears, run into the bathroom, and vomit, it probably isn’t a good joke. Comedians like to kvetch about getting no respect, but friends, respect is a two-way street.

Patrick Marlborough is a writer and comedian based out of Fremantle. He writes regularly for VICE magazine, and has maintained steady work as a bullshit artist for some time. He’s on Facebook here and tweets at @Cormac_McCafe.