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This article contains spoilers through the entirety of Daniel Sloss: X.

Daniel Sloss is a 29-year-old Scotsman with the kind of malleable features that allow him to pivot, disconcertingly, between modes of earnest perplexity and diabolical evil. He commits to both in Daniel Sloss: X, a comedy special that recently aired on HBO. Early on, Sloss does a bit about his 2-year-old niece, Ava, whom he obviously loves to death despite the fact that she is, by his description, “a fucking moron” intent on running full speed into anything that might hurt her. He imitates himself pretending to be a funny monster to make her laugh. Then he pretends to be an actual human monster, the kind of person who really does terrorize children. It struck me, thinking about X later, that the pretend space is where we first figure things out as nascent humans—where we first establish that there’s a difference between genuine threats and silly masquerades, a significant gap between funny scary and plain scary.

Sloss’s comedy lives in the space of the masquerade, until it doesn’t. Early on, he establishes that he’s a good man who has a vicious sense of humor (one of his earlier Netflix specials is titled Dark), and this positioning allows him to make jokes that feel funnier than is always comfortable. I laughed so hard when he joked about telling a child to shut her “whore mouth” that I felt bad about myself. And this is the point of Sloss’s most provocative stand-up—making space for his audience to figure out what’s a real transgression and what’s a fake one.

Which brings me to the rape joke in the final third of X. This section, as is typical in Sloss’s shows, is what you might call the “serious part.” In his words, if you buy a ticket to watch his comedy, you get 70 to 75 minutes of jokes, “and then I do a sad 15-minute TED Talk.” He does this, he explains, because “it does feel disingenuous to not talk about things that are on my mind.” And what’s been on his mind recently is sexual assault, both as a phenomenon looming over the culture like a mephitic cloud, and as a very real blight on the lives of people he knows and cares about.

In Sloss’s routine, the rape jokes come not directly from him, but from a woman he’s friends with. By Sloss’s account, she went out with him and two of his other friends one night while Sloss was touring. The next day, at breakfast, the woman told Sloss that one of the men they’d been out with, someone he’d known for eight years, had raped her. “Did you say no?” Sloss asked her. “She said, ‘Yeah,’” he tells the audience. “More times than the 2 Unlimited song.”

This was, Sloss recognized even in his shock and fury in that moment, “a stunning joke.” And it worked because both the woman who was telling it and the person she was telling it to could recognize its intention—to refuse to let an ugly and traumatic event “have an all-consuming power” over either of them. In his telling, Sloss asked his friend whether he could tell her story onstage. “Yes,” she told him. “But when has my permission ever been needed for anything?” Every time he recounts one of her jokes in X, he grimaces afterward and lets his body crumple slightly, as if he’s in physical pain, underlining how uncomfortable the jokes made him, and how uncomfortable they should make us, even as we’re laughing at them.

Over the past decade, the rape joke has become the third rail of comedy. On one side of the debate are people, predominantly comedians, who insist that nothing is too dark to be repurposed into a routine. On the other are those who counter that sexual assault isn’t funny, period. The conflict crested in 2012, when the comedian Daniel Tosh, during a routine at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, was heckled by a woman who objected to the idea that rape jokes might be funny. Tosh bristled at the challenge. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” he reportedly asked the audience, “if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?” As responses go, it wasn’t the sharpest verbal epée in the armory. As a hypothetical, it launched a flood of think pieces that seemed to last for years. Tosh was excoriated by some of his peers. He was vigorously defended by others, including Louis C.K., who hadn’t yet been publicly accused of—or admitted to—masturbating in front of women without their consent.

Tosh’s defenders used the same arguments that tend to be dispatched whenever a high-profile comedian says something offensive: Comedy is provocative; comedy comes from pushing boundaries; comedians have to be free not only to go up to the line, but also to occasionally go over it. In September, when Saturday Night Live hired a comedian named Shane Gillis only to fire him after news surfaced that he’d made flagrantly racist jokes on his podcast in 2018, Gillis’s mealy-mouthed self-defense was that comedy “requires risk,” as though he’d been fearlessly treading new ground instead of rehashing the tired ethnic stereotypes that Bernard Manning spun into bigoted gold in the 1970s.

I thought about Gillis—something I’d generally prefer not to do—while watching X. Not because what I’d seen of his work was at all similar to what Sloss is doing, but because it’s so profoundly different. In incorporating assault into his act, Sloss is trying to correct an imbalance of power, not reinforce it. The function of the rape joke, he knows, is to make people uncomfortable, but the art of it is in picking targets judiciously. In the joke Tosh told in 2012, the target was women, and the point was that women get raped and sometimes even deserve it. There’s no imagination within a setup like that, no surprise, no challenge to the status quo. A year later, Patricia Lockwood published “Rape Joke”—a poem that inverts jokes about assault to expose how pitiful they are—and reinvented the form in a way that gives power to the person who has previously had none.

This is what good rape jokes do. When Tina Fey and Amy Poehler made a joke about Bill Cosby being a rapist at the 2015 Golden Globes, they weren’t satirizing the women Cosby victimized, or even the comedian himself. They were puncturing an industry that had allowed a man to inflate a bumptious, genial caricature of himself for profit, while being something totally different when the cameras weren’t rolling. In her 2018 show, Rape Jokes, the comedian Cameron Esposito uses the story of her own assault to illuminate how turning assault into comedy only works if you’re willing to really interrogate your impulses in doing so. “I used to tell this story at parties,” she says. “It was a funny thing that happened to me.” Or at least it was, until someone she told her joke to pointed out that it wasn’t actually funny at all.

Sloss—wide-eyed, elastic-faced, alternately innocent and ferocious—eases his audience into things. He tells jokes that are transgressive, that are shocking, that are dark enough to emphasize that he’s not some kind of pious, soggy, joyless hector. He creates an onstage persona that functions as a funny monster, and he exposes someone who was truly monstrous, so that we can discern the difference. He lets his friend control what he shares, giving her agency and a voice. And then, like Hannah Gadsby in Nanette, he explains how his show is engineered to provoke the specific kind of response he wants. The curtain is pulled back just enough to expose the work Sloss has put in to get to this point.

The artist and attorney Vanessa Place, writing for ArtForum in 2017, explained that the stakes for rape jokes are actually fairly low. “Nobody’s going to end up dead in a ditch,” she writes. “A rape joke isn’t a rape. But in another sense the stakes end up being very high, because it’s a confrontation with oneself all the time.” Sloss knows that these confrontations are necessary, tedious, and painful. Rarely are they funny at all. That he manages to make X consistently so is a remarkable feat.

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