Following the cancellation of ITV’s “Dapper Laughs: On the Pull” in November 2014, comedian Daniel O’Reilly seemed to vanish from the mainstream media, leaving many of us to hope that he had finally decided to shut up. The demise of the show and its creator has, admittedly, been written about at length, but when I saw O’Reilly back in the news this week (much to my disappointment), it got me thinking about sexism and comedy.
O’Reilly, who is currently on tour as “Dapper Laughs”, is currently facing accusations of plagiarism, which seems in-keeping with his dependence on sexist jokes of the nastiest kind. You would think that having the same old punchlines about doing vile things to women would get pretty old pretty quickly, and that this imitative, lazy comedy would have been done to death by now. And yet O’Reilly’s “career”, although derided by many, is not without its supporters, and his story proves that misogyny – even in its most vicious form – is still marketable when categorised as comedy.
Following the TV show’s cancellation, O’Reilly was interviewed on Newsnight and claimed that his brand of comedy was not meant to be taken seriously. However, “Dapper Laughs: On the Pull” operated in the same way as a reality show. We can all recognise the format:
1. Person (often sobbing) explains that they are very unhappy with an aspect of their life
2. Person is visited by confident TV Person who changes their life
3. Person implements their advice in their real life
4. Person (often sobbing) explains how happy they are now and how much they want to thank TV Person for changing their life and solving all their problems.
You can apply it to a variety of reality TV shows on a range of topics: weight loss, home renovation, child raising. You can also apply it to “Dapper Laughs: On the Pull” (minus the sobbing), which disproves any claims that O’Reilly was being ironic. The show had a direct link with real people and real situations, while the practical tips in the show turned it into a “rapist’s almanac”. It is terrifying that O’Reilly – a man who gleefully advocates and trivializes sexual abuse with lines like “By the end of the night she’ll need a wheelchair” – was allowed such a platform by ITV.
Meanwhile his brand of comedy poses more subtle dangers. According to a study by Dr Thomas Ford, misogynistic jokes cannot make people sexist – but it can exacerbate pre-existing misogynistic attitudes. In the BBC documentary “Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes”, Ford explains how jokes made at women’s expense create “a new norm, a new standard of appropriate conduct”, which misogynists feel legitimises their feelings – feelings which they usually suppress due to societal pressures. Ford found that men with misogynistic attitudes would be more likely to act on them after hearing sexist jokes, and would feel justified when implementing sexism in their daily lives and in society. Indeed, O’Reilly says his work “does allow me to do things that I wouldn’t normally do and blame it on him. I’ve always been Dapper Laughs, it was just a matter of putting it into videos and stuff.” The last thing we need is misogynists “putting it into videos and stuff” – because according to Dr Ford’s study, it would have real-life implications for women and society.
Comedians often use “saying the unsayable” as a comic device – but it becomes problematic in cases like O’Reilly’s, where the speaker’s identity clearly represents a group that is (or has previously been) oppressive or powerful, and the “unsayable” references the domain of the (currently or previously) oppressed. This is simply power, being exercised in the guise of humour, and it is used to exclude people from the conversation on the grounds of “not having a sense of humour”. Being able to speak about one’s experiences of oppression is one of few privileges available to victims; although we can hardly refer to it as privilege, given that it is borne from such a negative experience, and the fact that the oppressed are rarely given any kind of platform in society from which to speak. It is more likely that a white, straight man like O’Reilly is given the stage – a position of authority from which one can pick out a woman in the audience and tell her, and the audience, that she is “gagging for a rape”.
I know that some people will defend O’Reilly, and claim that his rapey comedy is satirical and not meant to be taken seriously – but on what evidence can anyone make that claim? Who are you to predict how people might respond to a comedian saying “Show her your penis. If she cries, she’s just playing hard to get.” Meanwhile, statistical evidence – such as the low rapist conviction rate – speaks for itself, and shows that sexual violence is a real problem for a lot of real people. Freedom of speech does not mean you can pump poison into the public sphere and act surprised when bad things happen, and continue to happen. In the current climate, anyone who is given a public voice has a responsibility to consider their audience, their context and their culture – and the vulnerable people within. If there is even a remote possibility that it could combat the pervasiveness of rape culture and its potential to ruin real people’s lives, it seems a small sacrifice to make. There is a whole world of comedy out there, waiting to be discovered and developed – and I assure you that all of it is funnier than Dapper Laughs.