“I Feel Like I’m Always Talking About Rape”
Not too far into our conversation about Asking for It–the straight-up stand-up show she’s presenting as part of Caden Manson’s Special Effects Festival over at the Wild Project this week–Adrienne Truscott seemed to pick up on the awkward vibe. I was in my my day-job office (this being a mid-afternoon quickie interview) and trying to be nonchalant about why I was on the phone over by the ping pong table–you know, away from people (medical test results? Lawyerly issues?). Point is, I was swallowing the word “rape” whenever it came up, and so was she (though I have no idea where she was during this call). So eventually, as though it came with a release, she just spat it out:
“I feel like I spend every day talking about rape!”
A few years ago, back in 2012, a controversy engulfed the comedy world in the US that proved timely–in a very beneficial fashion–for a project Truscott was working on. The long and the short of it is that Daniel Tosh–a comedian known for a hosting a TV show that involved making fun of YouTube videos–got into a tit-for-tat with an audience member at LA’s Laugh Factory on the subject of rape as employed as comedic material. He told a joke; she responded that “rape jokes are never funny”; and he in turn suggested (according to most accounts) that her being gang-raped onstage would, in fact, be quite funny.
A controversy emerged over whether “rape jokes” could ever be funny, with comedians crying free-speech and respectable people taking the high-road. It was, in other words, an Internet flame-war that accomplished little besides minimizing nuance (such as that shown by the always interesting Lindy West, one of the best and most insightful commentators on the subject). And, of course, Truscott, who for some months had been developing a new piece: an hour-long stand-up routine about rape jokes.
“I was already working on a show about rape on my own because I found these jokes funny and twisted and fucked and empowering,” she told me in our conversation, “before these mostly male comics started making mostly lame jokes about rape.”
The result was Asking for It, which started getting seen in WIP mode around New York around the same time. And got a lot of attention for the same. At the time, Truscott was looking to challenge herself by developing a stand-up routine, which would take her beyond both her performance art and neo-cabaret (with the Wau Wau Sisters) base–a show that could take her and her subtle, transgressive practice into a new realm, that of mainstream comedy clubs.
A few years later, she’s still struggling with that in the US. For the past 18 months she’s been touring Asking for It more or less constantly, around Britain and Australia and, more more minimally, in the US, where it’s been seen in Minneapolis and, for a three-week run, in Philadelphia.
“I didn’t want to take it to the usual venues that have supported me and my work,” she told me, “where the audience is highly curated. I didn’t want it to be seen as performance art—I wanted it to be seen as comedy and stand-up at more mainstream venues.” In Australia and the UK, she found that presenting opportunities were more open to diverse forms; in the US, breaking into the comedy club circuit has proved trickier.
Truscott’s fascination with the transgressive nature of the material developed over time. “These jokes feel funny and twisted and fucked and empowering,” she said. “Comedy is still the best way to to deal with the worst topics.”
Describing the routine as “the ladies locker room coming out onto the field,” for an hour, a naked-from-the-waist-down Truscott plows through a diverse field of jokes that push and cross boundaries. One of the trickiest sections, in her own reckoning, concerns her imagining date raping someone. It’s a tricky sequence in that it walks a line between subversive (a woman committing date rape?) and mockery (wait, is this making light of date rape?).
Asked what makes for a “good” rape joke, Truscott demurred. “You can never guarantee you’ll do it right,” she said, and furthermore: “There’s no accounting for taste.”
That being said, Asking for It is as much Truscott talking about, commenting on, and critiquing the rape joke as it her telling them. Not that it’s not comedy, it is–it’s just that it’s taking jokes about sexual violence against women and transforming them from a an act of misogynistic violence (as they became in Daniel Tosh’s hands) into a subversive assault on the values of the patriarchal society they reflect.
“I like to think of myself like the jester in the king’s court,” she told me, “questioning power in the world and the room.” She then launched into a series of attacks against those who actually endorse the rape culture that gives rise to this brand of humor. Politicians making rape gaffes (“Legitimate rape” anyone?) were described as the “people who would be stocking shelves on aisle four” in need of an “intervention by the family” outside “the weird, hyperbolic pantomime of politics.” As for rappers like Eminem whose work celebrates rape and violence, controversies they try to elide by claiming its “art” and not representative of their true opinions, they’re “pussies who apparently should sell any records because they’re not as real as they claim.”
But of course their records do sell, their songs perpetuate a rape culture, and ignorant politicians continue to make laws that govern how society deals with violence against women. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs, and that’s where work like Truscott’s comes in.
“Comedy lies in this thin membrane before insanity,” she said.
And her piece, despite its seemingly awkward topic, has served as a form of release for countless audience members. According to Truscott, over the past year and a half, she’s been thanked repeatedly afterwards by both women and men, some of whom directly (and some of whom used “coded language”) to express how her performance allowed them to deal with personal trauma in a wholly unexpected way.
She told me that not too long ago, “A woman came up to me who laughing and crying a little. She told me she was assaulted at 17, and that she never imagined I could have such a social and joyful release.”