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Even as a smart writer and performer who is one of the best at what she does, Sarah Silverman has been guilty of telling mean-spirited jokes.Gary Miller/Getty Images

'Rape, obviously, the most heinous crime imaginable. Rape jokes are great," Sarah Silverman says in her Emmy-winning stand-up special, We Are Miracles, which came out in album form this week.

"No, because they make a comic seem so edgy and so dangerous. And the truth is, it's like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Because who's gonna complain about a rape joke? I mean, I would say rape victims, but they're traditionally not complainers."

Two years ago, when comedian Daniel Tosh suggested it would be funny if a female heckler "got raped by, like, five guys right now," he was lambasted by commentators, some of whom questioned (as the heckler had) whether rape could ever be funny. Silverman, of course, would answer that anything can be.

"At some point," she writes in her 2010 memoir, The Bedwetter, "I figured that it would be more effective and far funnier to embrace the ugliest, most terrifying things in the world – the Holocaust, racism, rape, et cetera."

Given the outrage and debate that Tosh's joke spawned, you'd think that Silverman would be less relevant now than in 2005 (the year she released her concert film, Jesus Is Magic), when people were slightly less decent, at least in public.

But Silverman, who hosts Saturday Night Live next week, is still relevant, and she gets away with what Tosh could not: For one thing, she's a smart writer and performer who is one of the best at what she does; for another, she's obviously the opposite of the character she plays, meaning that her offensive jokes are normally meant to encourage the opposite view.

("Those who know of me know that I love doody jokes," she writes, forcing me to type that word with my own hands, "but that is very different than loving doody.")

It's often said that ugly jokes are acceptable when they "punch up" rather than down, using humour as a force for good – to shed light, for instance, on an insidious attitude that contributes to a social problem.

And sometimes they have no higher purpose whatsoever, because funny is good enough, because the world is full of horrible things that are the opposite of funny.

Humour lets us regain some power over, say, the dehumanizing threat of sexual violence and the trauma that we and/or our loved ones have to live with in the aftermath. It's also a garburetor for the worst of our natures, the stuff that has no business in social life. All in all, the more decent we strive to be, the more we need the space to make light of the awful.

Consider the Australian comic Jim Jefferies, whose fifth special, Bare, debuted on Netflix last month.

His material is seldom violent, more generally hateful: "It really bothers me when she talks," he says of his girlfriend, a former model and the mother of his young son, whose vagina, he suggests, is not to his liking. His bits about women reveal no sign of a conscience – he does show a little empathy for heterosexual men – and if he is only playing an arrogant, drunken schlub with a chip on his shoulder, he does so remarkably well.

"There's a formula in stand-up comedy," he told the online humour magazine Splitsider earlier this month: "The more offensive the joke, the funnier it has to be."

Whether an offensive joke works or not boils down to two factors: whether it makes you want to laugh; and whether you respect the teller enough to do so.

The comic Anthony Jeselnik has built a career on unconscionable one-liners, but while, unlike Silverman, he's never been known as an activist for women's reproductive rights, he plays such an over-the-top psychopath that I assume, maybe wrongly, that he's fine in real life (he also dated Amy Schumer, which speaks well of him).

Jefferies strikes me as, if not a total "misanthrope" (I hate that word, because they like it), then at least a didactic whiner who doesn't seem to think of women as full people. But when he's funny, he's funny enough that I let it slide.

I've thought at length about why I find him funny, and besides his dry, pace-perfect delivery, I think it's because deep down I know where he's coming from – a rancid, boggy place that stagnates in each of us no matter how good we try to be.

Like Jefferies, I think some terrible thoughts when I'm angry; I think terrible thoughts while waiting for the streetcar, or eating a muffin on a bench, or curled over my desk with my hands at my ears, trying desperately not to think terrible thoughts.

So while, as a woman, I'm often the target of his jokes – and I do resent them – I know that voice of the angry id, and I need somewhere to park the evil.

I watch Jefferies for the same reasons I watch scary movies. Like horror flicks, or porn, comedy is a body genre. Its effect is sometimes involuntary – things are funny that aren't supposed to be – and it transmogrifies the terrible into something perversely appealing.

Like porn, there are times when the disgust overrides the pleasure. Usually it happens when the joke is worthless, which tends to happen when the comedian demonstrates no sign of conscientiousness or wit – because the thing is, being funny requires smarts, or rather being funny is a form of smart.

There is nothing clever about cruelty for cruelty's sake, or about falling back on your power, as Tosh did when he made his rape joke. (Even Silverman has slipped, as when, in Jesus Is Magic, she did a mean-spirited and poorly considered bit at the expense of porn actresses.)

I would rather laugh with Louis C.K. than with Jefferies: There's less guilt involved, yes, but C.K. is also more reflective and genuinely self-critical, which leads to a better understanding of how power structures disadvantage and dehumanize people, and how they turn up in our own words and behaviours.

All of this helps to make you a better person, and leads to better jokes.

As much delight as there is in dirty humour, it's no coincidence that some of the most relevant comics today are also the most acutely aware of how power operates and the damage it does: Hari Kondabolu, W. Kamau Bell, feminist writers such as Mallory Ortberg at The Toast and Anna Fitzpatrick at The Hairpin.

They see more, and they're funnier for it.

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