No Laughing Matter

Can a community that’s always joking take sexism and sexual harassment seriously?

February 10, 2016

By Stacey McLachlan

Last week, a blog post from Chicago’s Women in Comedy website made the rounds in Vancouver’s comedy scene, eventually sparking debate on the Vancouver Stand-Up Community Forum (clever title, you guys). It was an anonymous collection of stories from female comics, mostly from the great state of Illinois, sharing the ways—both innocuous and vicious—that they’d been belittled, harassed, or straight-up sexually abused during their time in comedy.

But judging by the local reactions to this post, being a woman in comedy is a universally uncomfortable experience. Here are just a few of the stories that Vancouver-area comedians decided to share:

I did a set where the host introduced me by asking the audience, ‘Isn’t she hot? I bet you all want to fuck her.”
Another comic once sent me a drawing of me having graphic sex with Hitler and the devil.”
During an improv class, I asked my scene partner to stop grinding up on me, and was then told off by the teacher for saying no to my scene partner.”
I had to go up twenty times as the host of an open mic to introduce another person who was going to joke about raping me and chopping me into little bits.”

There were numerous examples of explicit creepiness—the headliner who won’t stop touching your ass, the married comic who tries to hook up with you when you’re out together on the road, the guy who invites you to sit on his lap while watching the show—but plenty of subtle stings in there too. There are the introductions that focus on a female comedian’s appearance. There are the patronizing offers of better punchlines. There are the jokes (quote, unquote) backstage about drugging a female comic’s drink.

This grind can wear some people down. No matter how talented or tough you are, it’s hard to put up with the constant insinuation that you’re less than your peers. As one male comedian noted recently to a female comic, “In this scene, being around, I have seen great women leave and mediocre guys stay.” It’s a negative pattern, one that prioritizes the success of subpar men over talented young women who want to do comedy. And even those who do stick it out may find themselves avoiding the less-than-welcoming environments. “I had to learn to say no to shows where I’m not comfortable,” says Rebecca (not her real name), who has been doing comedy for a few years in Vancouver. But by turning down stage-time, women are losing performing opportunities and getting less experience than their male peers, thereby pushing themselves further onto the outskirts of the scene. “Vancouver is a special place that nurtures comedy,” says Michelle, another up-and-coming female comedian with another fake name. “But we’re not nurturing women in comedy at all.”

Many men in the comedy community say they find it frustrating that these women who have allegedly been harassed aren’t speaking up or going public with it. But that’s easier said than done. “You’re in this position where, when you’re a woman in comedy, you can’t lose your shit, because if you do, you’re noisy and complaining. There’s an unspoken aspect of having to be a cool girl: ‘I don’t get upset, things don’t bother me.’ Not everyone is going to be a cool girl, though, and if you aren’t one you risk alienating yourself,” says Michelle. “And when you don’t have the strength or backup when you speak up, other women might think it’s not worth it to support you. It’s a mindset of, if you rock the boat we both might sink.”

If you’re new to the scene it can be especially hard to speak up. There’s a power structure here. It’s about being funny, sure, but beyond that there are politics at play like in any community. Everyone’s hustling for stage time, and your reputation can push you to headliner status or relegate you to toiling in the open mic scene forever. So it’s no surprise that there’s a reluctance here to stir the pot, even when the alternative means putting up with sexist comments—or worse. Of course, any community where women are in the minority is bound, unfortunately, to suffer from this sort of thing. And compared to some other scenes we’ve got it pretty good: the majority of the headliners and powerful people are males, sure, but they’re primarily progressive, liberal guys who are doing their best to foster an inclusive environment.

We’re in a position where we have a lot of people who have status who are good people. Major male players in the scene have stepped up and pledged their support to female comics who find themselves in an uncomfortable situation, onstage or off. Improv school Blind Tiger recently opened up a webpage to anonymously report harassment in the comedy community. There are certainly kind, thoughtful people of any gender to be found at any show. For the most part, the stand-up community is made up of, ahem, stand-up young men. But there are bad apples in any group—and there are too many incidents involving them to ignore.

Because even with the existence of positive leadership, there’s something specific about the comedy community that helps this underlying sexism take some pretty firm roots: it’s hard to get anybody to take you seriously. When someone is a creep, there’s just an assumption that they’re kidding around. When someone touches you inappropriately during an improv scene, it’s chalked up to just being in character. “A lot of people get away with shit because it gets played off as, oh it’s a comedy show, we’re ‘on’ all the time,” says Rebecca. “People get away with stuff. If it was the normal world, or another art form, you wouldn’t get away with it. At a poetry slam or concert you wouldn’t be like ‘this next singer has amazing tits.’”

“If we want to make progress around harassment and assault of women in comedy, we have to spend less time reassuring dudes that they are good guys and more time figuring out how to really listen to people who have experienced this stuff,” says comedian Emma Cooper, who performs stand-up, sketch, and improv, and produces shows of her own, one inside of a crowd-built blanket fort. “Women often do not post on our comedy forum because it is a challenging place to talk about serious issues.” She’s been doing comedy for nine years, and has seen her fair share of “shitty, weird moments,” like a former Vancouver headliner who assumed she was a groupie when she introduced herself as a comedian and then literally suggested taking her back to his room to abuse her, or the performer who did a five-minute set of rape jokes and then yelled at her as she left the venue because she used her stage time to criticize his act.

For the joke-joke-joke crowd, there’s a general aversion to discussing the serious issues of sexism or safety. In the Facebook forum, earnest conversations about making the community better often get derailed quickly. “Everyone just wants to be comedians, 24/7,” Rebecca says. “As soon as you try to say, this is a hard, terrible thing that happened, they’re like ‘let’s move on, this is getting too real.’” Still, some good may yet come from something as negative as the Chicago article. There’s something about this post that hit close to home—possibly the mention in the blog of an incident that happened specifically here in Vancouver (anonymous entry #256). As it began circulating, prominent comedians made their feelings on the matter clear: this sort of behaviour is not tolerated here, and speaking up is welcome.

It’s a great starting point, says Cooper, but there’s still work to do. “My hope is that as a community we can get better at having hard conversations as we figure out how to make Vancouver the most inclusive scene possible. Most people have good intentions, but that still doesn’t make this stuff easy.” The key to change lies mostly with the people who have the power, or experience, or reputation, to use their influence for good—and to use that influence for something more than hollow statements about the importance of equality. “Male comics want to believe we can stand up for ourselves, but it’s a little bit stronger when a male’s opinion is in there,” says Michelle. “That shouldn’t be the case, but it sure as fuck is. No matter how loud I get as a woman, I’m still a woman.”

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