No Funny Business — My Experience of Sexual Harassment as a Stand Up Comedian
I’ve spent countless hours of my adult life — not to mention money — crafting my sense of humor.
So after all the time, effort, and energy spent on my comedic voice and creating a comedy career, it’s strange to be told time and time again that I just don’t “get” something. Or that I need to just relax. Or that I need to learn how to take a joke. Or I need to learn how to recognize that if a man jokes about rape, he’s allowed to because he has a microphone and claims he’s doing “comedy.”
Plus, hey, he paused for laughter after he said something triggering and awful, so obviously there was a punchline involved that me and my uptight fallopian tubes just didn’t get it.
And yet, that’s exactly what happens whenever harassment or verbal violence are brought up in the comedy community.
Comedians are quick to defend themselves solely on the basis of trying to “make a joke” — a defense they spend more time crafting than they do their own punchlines. If they say or do something horrible, just chalk it up to “pushing the boundaries."
The Louis C.K. Revelation
Until, of course, recently, when Louis C.K., beloved and exalted king of the scene, was suddenly dethroned thanks to multiple women coming forward about his ongoing inappropriate behavior and — more importantly — people finally listening to them and believing them.
Between him and the crumbled legacy of pudding-loving (and by pudding I obviously mean drugging women and assaulting them) Bill Cosby, people are starting to realize that the comic idols that brought them so much happiness on screen may have been actively stealing joy from others off screen.
And I get it. It sucks to have your idols tarnished. But living in a culture that’s casually passive about assault sucks even more. Granted, there are more gray areas in comedy and entertainment than there are in life, which is already filled with all sorts of blurred lines. But at some point the gray area falls away and what’s left is damage and abuse.
Louie C.K. and Cosby crossed that line, as have countless lesser-known men who may never get the big headlines but are the comedic foot soldiers perpetuating a culture of degradation and abuse against women in my industry. This is my story of how sexual assault and harassment in my workplace — the stand up comedy scene — almost took away my career and my ambition.
My Assault, My Mistake
Years ago I broke the cardinal rule of the comedy community – which is never, ever, ever date a fellow comedian. There’s actually a fun term for it, a “chuckle f*cker.” A female comedian can quickly be relegated to “groupie status” if she consents to getting physical with any of her counterparts.
Despite the fact that we kept it quiet, and that our relationship was based on friendship, mutual respect and sense of humor, I apparently developed a reputation among my group of comics of being one of the “willing women.” Keep trying, fellas. It worked for that one dude, remember? It might just work for you.
So, when, a couple years later, another comedian who was a mutual friend assaulted me in my car, I wish I could say I was shocked, but I wasn’t. I actually found myself not completely blaming him for trying to feel me up without my consent. After all, I had already said “yes” one time to another guy in our community, so why not him, right?
A gray area.
When he offered to walk me to my car late at night after a comedy show we attended together, I accepted. I trusted him. We were not on a date. We were friends and I appreciated that he was looking out for my safety. He got in the car with me and I was a little hesitant. But, hey, we had often talked as buds and it was cold outside. So, sure, come on in.
We talked for a few minutes. I popped a piece of gum because I had a beer earlier in the night and my breath was rancid. I offered him some and he said he had a severe allergy to gum. I joked, “Well it’s not like we’re making out,” and popped a few more. He laughed. I trusted him.
Then his hands were on my body in places I only allowed boyfriends (and previous Tinder-based hookups that were for my own mental health and none-of-your-business thank-you-very-much) to touch. I laughed. I didn’t understand what was happening. We hadn’t been flirting. There was no hand holding. No lingering stares. No playful physical touching. No signals. No nothing. And now this.
But, I guess since he was a male friend I hung out with all night who was now sitting in my car, we were suddenly in a gray area. I laughed because I was surprised and confused. I laugh to cope. I laugh to heal. I laugh to diffuse tensions. I do comedy – I laugh a lot.
He kept going. Understandably, my laughing and yelling, “What the hell are you doing?,” wasn’t exactly the “HELL NO” most assaulters believe they have to hear before they stop. It wasn’t until I physically pushed him off of me and shouted, “NO. STOP. DON’T DO THAT,” that he got the hint, if you can even call it a hint at that point. Strangely, I felt lucky that he stopped at all. And in my relief that he stopped, the whole thing felt, at that moment, forgivable.
He stayed in the car. We laughed it off. I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do.
No Regular Line of Work
By its nature, the entertainment industry – especially comedy – isn’t a 9 to 5 job. We answer to nobody but the audience. There’s no H.R. department. There’s very little paperwork. And, aside from the adrenaline rush and whole-body thrill that making a room full of strangers laugh provides, there are no real benefits.
In a normal job setting, making jokes about your body, your sex life, or honestly the majority of what comedians joke about, would get you in hot water or even fired in very little time. Of course that doesn’t mean that, as a woman, I should give up the right to be treated with decency by those in the industry in which I work.
I’ll put up with all sorts of gray areas if it means I get to chase my dreams.
But I spend too much time dealing with male peers, bookers and patrons who seem to mostly half-listen to what I’m saying just so they can try to charm me into dating them after my set.
The Boys’ Club of Comedy
It’s widely known that the comedy circuit is a heavily male world. You want to know why more women aren’t in the stand up scene?
Consider the fact that in the first three years of my stand up career, I would often stay out past midnight in terrible and unsafe neighborhoods in Los Angeles and then sprint to my car alone hoping I wouldn’t become a victim or a “stupid girl who was asking for it” by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After the looks some of my fellow comedians would give me during the shows and passes they would make at me after, I often decided to take my chances with random people on the street than let a dude who can’t seem to figure out that my bra does not hold up my eyes to walk me to my car.
We’re told to have thick skin. All comedians develop it. But, like any muscle, it can get worn down. I already have to juggle the rejection and vulnerability that goes into constantly honing my comedic voice. That’s part of the job.
But I’m also expected to support the people around me, and as a woman in the comedy business, that also means stroking the gentle egos of male comics in my community after I’ve just eaten shit onstage. If I don’t, I’m considered standoffish and unlikeable. In a small community where you’re dependent on others to get stage time and pull favors for more reps, that’s a kiss of death for a woman. And that’s the most unwanted advance of them all.
Unwanted Dating Advice
Fun fact! I once headlined a show attended by Ron Jeremy (yes, that Ron Jeremy). Afterwards, we chatted and took a picture together, and he said to me, “You’re very funny. But you’ll have to watch that when you try and get with a guy. Men can’t laugh and get hard at the same time. So just don’t be funny if you want to have sex with the guy.”
I hadn’t asked for the advice. And I’m not denying that he’s undoubtedly put in his 10,000 hours of becoming an expert. I found it telling that he warned me that my sense of humor would be unattractive, as if somehow I needed to know that this strength of mine obviously hindered my real goal – which was, of course, snagging a man.
Men, it seems, are taught that humor is something that attracts women. And, as a result, they’re encouraged to let it shine. So, you know, there’s that.
Trying to Laugh It Off, Then Quitting
After I was assaulted by my friend in the car, I tried to make a joke out of it onstage. I wanted to take away its power, to laugh it off. I didn’t use his name because he was respected in our community. Nobody laughed. It just wasn’t as funny as I hoped it might be.
He apologized via text the day after the incident (is that the watered down terminology we use now to water down violent acts?). He was drunk. I’m not sure why several Jack and Cokes suddenly makes it okay to have free reign on someone else’s body without their consent, but I said we were cool.
And then I took a long break from stand up comedy for various reasons, which I now understand — hearing these other recent stories of harassment surface — was largely because I didn’t want to run into him or risk sharing a stage with him. He was a good guy, right? People liked him. I must have done something to bring out such a bad side of him. Or, maybe, I just didn’t even know if what happened was wrong. After all, we were friends. Sometimes miscommunication happens.
He was just a local Los Angeles comedian who’s making some inroads on the scene. He’s no Louis C.K. or Bill Cosby. My assaulter doesn’t have a TV show. I can’t imagine the situation the other women were in, where the power differential was massive and the assaulter was a beloved celebrity.
Finding a Way Back and Letting Go
After a hiatus in sketch comedy – which is by no means safer for women than stand up, though our numbers are at least a little stronger in that scene – I finally returned to the stand up world. A newfound confidence, a supportive significant other and a freshly grown-in spine all helped fuel that return.
I’ve seen him. I’ll see him again. And I’ll let it go.
Because that’s what women do. We let stuff go. But that doesn’t mean we forget it or pretend it didn’t happen. And it doesn’t mean letting it go is the right or best thing to do. It’s just the way for women to survive in an industry that isn’t built to look out for us.
I know good men are starting to feel pretty guilty about their past actions or attitudes towards women after the revelations of the past few weeks. I don’t blame them completely (usually). After all, our culture encourages aggression from men and coyness from women. It’s complicated. There are tons of gender expectations that we need to analyze and recognize before we can consider moving forward.
The State of Affairs
Sadly, I’ve heard many seemingly fine fellas bemoan how they’re not even sure how to talk to women anymore. Or how they’re worried their actions will lead to an allegation of assault. But let me assure you, it’s pretty easy.
Women are already accustomed to putting up with a lot. Honestly, we bleed out for a week every month and, though we might complain occasionally, we pretty much just suck it up and move on with our lives. That’s what we do.
So for those of you men who are wondering how to decipher the signals of the fairer race (and I don’t mean physically, I mean as in civil and unbiased), there are so many signals – clear, unquestionable, undeniable signals – that we send to denote attraction far before anyone’s genitalia or other body parts should be involved.
The Cheesecake Factory Test
Think about it like this: Your female friend agrees to go to The Cheesecake Factory with you. This outing could be one of two options. There are all sorts of clues she’ll give to you that will help you decipher how she feels about you. We’re not mysterious creatures that need to be decoded. We can be blunt, clear, and obvious when needed.
For example, if she’s sticking with water and a quick appetizer while scrolling her phone and getting down to business, this seems like more of a meeting rather than a date.
If, however, she’s ordering wine and finding excuses to be fascinated by the shape and feel of your hand while laughing at every one of your jokes and lingering at your gaze, you’re probably on a date. Now, just because you’re on a date, you don’t get to order for her. And at any point she can decide she’s over you, just like you can decide you’re over her if she eats her macaroni with chopsticks or whatever other reason might turn you off.
Either way, you certainly don’t have a right to order something not on the menu just because you want it. Stick to the menu. There are plenty of options on the menu. The Cheesecake Factory menus are basically small novels. Yet, serial assaulters keep ordering items that aren’t on the menu and then get angry at the woman they’re out with for thinking they’re assholes.
Stick with the menu or go to a place where your weird specialty food is plentiful. Stop ordering off the menu and then whining that the world won’t accommodate your special entitled needs.
Chasing Away the Shadows
Sure, it’s not a perfect metaphor. But I’m a comedian not a poet, or whatever profession is known for crafting metaphors. The point is, life is filled with gray areas.
The comedy world, though it brings light and laughter to the masses, has always been filled with just as many shadows as anywhere else – sometimes even more so.
Perhaps, the more light we shine over and over again by calling out those among us who revel in the darkness — who use their position and prestige to harass and assault women — the more we can create a world that’s a little bit brighter and hopeful than the one currently shattering around us.