Shock Value

"You know the power of shock. It's an amazing thing. But anybody can do it. Like, any person can do it. You don't have to have a skilled person or an artist to shock anybody. So when you make jokes about abortion, or you even say the word 'abortion,' you get people's attention in a way that's just — any person can do that. I don't have a political issue with it, I just think it's not my cup of tea." — Mindy Kaling

In the wake of comedian Daniel Tosh's p.r. nightmare following some ill-advised jokes about rape, a number of people have written columns trying to untangle the cultural knot Tosh seems to have so gleefully tied around himself. Tosh's routine and non-apology apology have been great conversation starters when it comes to gender, politics, and the issue of whether anything can/should ever be off-limits in comedy, but I think it's important to talk about something else, too: namely, that Tosh's routine was done for shock value, and shock is the cheapest, laziest form of comedy there is.

Daniel Tosh is 37, which puts him just a slight comic generation behind alt-comedy names like Patton Oswalt (43), Louis C.K. (44), Marc Maron (48), and more. He's more in line with guys like Kyle Kinane (35) and Anthony Jeselnik (33), who veer away from the more confessional or observational humor of their elders and blend it with more absurd or deconstructive ideas. Tosh's humor defines his persona, but it's never about who he really is. He's pure performance. You can watch his specials or any dozen episodes of "Tosh.0" — his Comedy Central show in which he replays and mocks viral videos — and come away with nothing more than a vague impression of what's happening behind the punch lines. He's all surface.

The things he so casually said about how hilarious it would be if his recent female heckler were raped were awful, no doubt about it. But they weren't awful because they expressed a worldview, or because he actually thought this would or should happen. They were awful because they were cheap, easy lines designed to do nothing but hit a few uncomfortable buzzwords.

Trotting out rape jokes is disgusting, tiring, offensive, dull, but worst of all, it's lazy. It's the hack comic's way of getting a crowd's attention, of tricking you into conflating shock with substance. There's no insight to be had in Tosh's bit, no window into his world or light shed upon a common problem. It's not funny, or interesting, or entertaining. It's revealing not of any sexual predilection on Tosh's part but merely of the depths to which he will stoop to manipulate an audience into thinking they're watching an entertainer instead of a child. He's not taking heat for making a stand; he's getting beat up for mouthing off. His bits and TV series are pissy and uninspired, devoid of any of the artistic merit people seem to think he has. His rape jokes are a great place to start a conversation, but only if we realize how little effort Tosh has put into what he says.

A lot of the feedback aimed at Tosh in this has been about his right to say what he did. Even Tosh's tweet about the debacle cast him as some kind of noble warrior for the First Amendment. But I don't have any problem with Tosh's right to say what he did, and I'm not about to advocate legally censoring certain topics from routines. The issue, rather, is that by exercising his freedom to say those things, Tosh declared himself to be the worst kind of comic. He's about nothing more than button-pushing, derisive asides, and unfunny ideas. I'm irritated by what he said, but I'm more distressed to see so many people giving him far more credit than he deserves.