Trigger warning: This article contains discussion of sexual assault.
Last Sunday, I laughed at a rape joke. At several rape jokes, actually. I was also fighting tears and swearing to myself, but mostly I was laughing.
I’m talking, of course, about the complicated, heartfelt humour of the Rape Is Real & Everywhere comedy show, which kicked off its national tour with a packed house at the Rickshaw Theatre.
If the title of the show puts you off, it’s because you’ve only ever heard the wrong kind of rape jokes: the kind told by callous comedians vying for attention at an open mic. As co-producer and host Emma Helsinki Cooper puts it, these “punch down” at rape survivors by making them the butt of the joke.
The RIR&E show is a far more evolved animal: It’s a comedy show produced and performed by local comedians who are rape survivors themselves.
RIR&E’s powerful co-ed cast, which included Vanessa Woznow, Amanda Rae Smith, Ryan Lachance, Mark B. Hughes, Shane Clark and co-producer Heather Jordan Ross, with headliners Kathleen McGee and Jane Stanton, delivered raw, hilarious and insightful material that “punched up” at both their rapists and the ubiquitous rape culture that simultaneously normalizes and denies the reality of sexual assault.
“As a comedian, you want people to joke about [rape] because nothing should be taboo,” Emma said in our phone interview. “But if you’re not being thoughtful, you’re adding onto someone else’s challenges and perpetuating the status quo, when the status quo is violent.”
Vanessa agreed. “I was loving comedy, but to be kind of immersed in this weird netherworld where I was like, I can’t handle another 20 year old dude-bro in a plaid shirt telling me rape or abortion jokes,” she told me, explaining the mixed feelings she has about some of the default jokes on the local circuit. “But when I say that I would do this show every night for the rest of my life, I would. The honesty, vulnerability and just incredible conversation of these individuals, who have undergone something that should never be experienced by anyone, who take that, own it, and create something funny that can resonate with people but also acknowledge the insanity of the world that we live in; that’s so impactful to me.”
Vanessa, who has been a Big Sister for eight years and hosts The Storytelling Show on Coop Radio, was violently assaulted as a teenager on a family holiday in Mexico, by an attacker who used his fingers rather than his genitals for penetration.
“Some people say I was ‘digitally raped’,” she said during her set. “which makes it sound like I was raped by the Internet. Hmm.” The crowd roared.
When I asked Emma about how quickly it all came together, she expressed gratitude for the immense public support she and Heather have received and said, “This is a show that was waiting to explode.” The first show sold out just three weeks after she and Heather Jordan Ross first talked about it. Four months and two more sold-out shows later, it’s being welcomed into venues across the country. “I think in Canada, the Jian Ghomeshi thing for a lot of people was this wake up call. It’s this allegory for how so many people experience sexual assault. You think you trust, and you think you know, and then you don’t understand what’s happening.”
According to Emma, RIR&E is a way to revolutionize the way survivors’ stories are dealt with in the media, reclaiming ownership of the narrative that is so often dominated by the attacker. She cited the example of Woody Allen, who is “so powerful that he just gets to say ‘I don’t read the news’, and that’s it. Are you kidding? [In RIR&E], the survivors are controlling the narrative. So now I’m telling my story, and if my guy, my rapist, wants to come out and make his case, he would have to out himself and then deal with the scrutiny that would come with that before he could tell his story.”
“As a human being, I wish I didn’t love all the people who are on the show. I wish none of them were on the show. We shouldn’t have to be on the show…I hope we never have to have this show in the future. Really it’s this whole situation where it’s like, Well it’s happened, and now the best possible thing is to go forward and be open and laughing.”
It’s been almost a week since the Rickshaw. I’m still working through the emotional hangover, but I would go again in a heartbeat and invite everyone I know. I can think of no other show so uplifting and unsettling, so raw, so cathartic, and so incredibly funny.