This week, men in comedy have been called out over systemic abuse and sexism towards women in the industry. Former professional comedian Ruth Spencer takes the mic.
To perform stand-up is to accept a degree of risk. The work is all your own and can publicly, humiliatingly fail on any given weekend. That's part of the fun of it. But if performing comedy is a risky business, should it follow that the risks extend offstage, to the greenrooms, bars, tour vans, phones and booking sheets of the industry? For too many comics the risks are greater offstage than on.
The Irish comedy scene is currently outing its abusers on social media, with comics citing sexual misconduct and career sabotage by more established comics and bookers. The accusers are mostly (though certainly not all) women, the accused mostly unnamed men. Unusually, Davey Reilly, one of the accused, has come forward to identify himself and admit the behaviour. Most are protected by the usual difficulties of reporting sexual misconduct: if she names him he'll deny it, she'll be mocked and ostracised, he'll continue to headline shows, nothing will change except now her colleagues won't look her in the face and her career mysteriously fails to advance. Her mistake, for letting her pain ruin everyone's fun.
It's not just Ireland, of course. Louis CK, known for exposing himself to female colleagues, has finished his comedically short time in exile and is back on the club circuit. Podcaster Joe Rogan is under fire for a 2011 interview with a friend and fellow comedian, where the friend admits forcing young female comics to perform sexual favours in return for stage time. Rogan laughs hysterically, throwing his head back and clapping. Rogan just signed a $100 million deal with Spotify.
Part of the problem, it's clear, is audiences willing to overlook and forgive, as long as the guy makes them laugh. Louis CK couldn't perform to an empty club and he doesn't have to. His audience doesn't think sexual assault and abuse of power are any barrier to a good time.
For the women of the comedy industry, those things are a barrier to the whole profession. They're compounded by that old chestnut that women aren't funny, that they have no place in comedy and, if a few of them are allowed to have a go, they should just shut up about its dark side. Some, including the late, grating pontificator, Christopher Hitchens, claim men are inherently funnier thanks to evolution and the biological imperative – men need to be funny to seduce women, whereas women, though sad handbrakes to a good laugh, have boobs. Perhaps funny women are just one of evolution's quirky mutations, like hitch-hiker's thumb.
As Rose Matafeo pointed out this week on Twitter, unquantifiable numbers of women avoid the comedy industry entirely due to these belittling attitudes, meaning their voices are not available to prove Hitchens wrong: "RIP to the funny women who never tried stand up bc they watched their heroes be asked in every single interview 'can u even do your job???'" (sic, @Rose_Matafeo)
Abuse isn't unique to comedy. Professional wrestling and the gaming industry are blowing up on Twitter for similar reasons right now. If you want to find an abuser in almost any environment, throw a brick. Hard, please. One of the observations online is that comedy has no HR department - there's no oversight and no one to go to if there's a problem. That's not quite the case in New Zealand. A guild run by elected members of the industry fields and manages complaints, and a Comedy Trust board oversees issues relating to the festival, including any untoward behaviour by international acts. Various private online groups provide forums to raise concerns, warn about dodgy promotors or seek advice. There's an initiative to ensure comics get home safely after gigs. New Zealand's comedy scene is uniquely diverse and also very small, which helps. Is it perfect? No and there's increasing awareness among bookers and comics that more can be done to insist on the safety of all comics and improve the underlying culture.
Throughout the industry worldwide, comedians are demanding a safe workplace, something they've traditionally not been assured of. Some seem to think comedians have no right to expect one, because of the nature of the beast: comedy is cis-het-male dominated and interwoven with drinking culture, late nights, and adrenalin. You play with fire, you might get burned. It's the "what was she wearing" argument in a clown suit.
The comedy stage is not different from an office job or a hospo job or a labouring job. It should be subject to the same legal protections from harassment, the same goals of inclusivity and safety, with clear expectations of conduct, paths to mediation, and penalties for abuse.
The industry is in the midst of shedding its skin, sloughing off a layer of silence that has covered its private side up until now. As always with a process like this, the shedding will reveal both tender new skin, in terms of fresh talent suddenly able to emerge into the light and a gross, pale underbelly shuddering in the glare. Once it's all out in the open, the audience gets to choose which they want to see more of.