My life as a female comedian feels marked by warnings. Often these alarms have been for no great danger — another comic nudging me in the rib to point out a heckler in the crowd, a host giving me a heads up that a certain club still smells like cigarettes – even though smoking indoors has been banned in New York City since 2003.
But sometimes, these warnings are more of the flashing red siren type — like when I first started out in comedy and mentioned the name Louis C.K., and another female comic grabbed my arm and said, “That’s the guy who, like, jerks off in front of women.”
Despite years of unsavoury whisperings about C.K., he’s remained a pillar for comedians who wished to mimic his storytelling style of relatable, honest standup. And it was almost a tacit understanding that the price we all paid for his comic genius was that we had to either pretend he wasn’t some kind of perv or, at the very least, be willing to overlook it. In recent years, comedians Jen Kirkman and Tig Notaro have hazarded vague references to rumours that he’s forced women to watch him masturbate. But today, in a scathing report from The New York Times where five women describe how C.K. forcibly masturbated in front of them, this overdue conversation has gone from murmurs among friends to a national conversation. And though he’s the first comedian to be named in a formal report, he won’t be the last.
Ever since Ashley Judd and several other women accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, the media and entertainment industry has had a reckoning about how it treats women. Kevin Spacey is accused of assaulting a male minor. James Toback is accused by 38 women of sexual assault.
Now we have Louis C.K., a comedian that the feminist blogosphere often held up as a beacon for how male comedians should treat their female counterparts; as well as a guy who represented a more sensitive, more feminine style of humour being revealed as a deviant.
But Louis C.K. is a guy who once joked on his comedy album Hilarious that, when you’re first talking to a girl, “the most honest thing you could say to her is, ‘I wanna fuck your face.’” He’s a guy who has a bit where he manages to paint female consent — a yes or no question — as some sort of confusing grey area. In it, he says, “I don’t know how I ever got laid,” citing his lack of confidence. Then he walks us through how he once met a waitress in his 20s and brought her up to a hotel room. They’re making out. “I put my hand up her shirt, and she stops me.” They make out more. “I put my hand on her ass, and she stops me.” And the next night she asks him, “How come we didn’t have sex?” And he explains, “Because you didn’t want to.” And the waitress apparently says, “I wanted you to just go for it.” He was incredulous. “You think I’m just gonna rape you on the off chance you’re into that shit?” On the surface, it sounds like C.K. is explaining the importance of consent. But what’s really happening in this bit is that he’s painting an all-too familiar yet inaccurate portrait of the idea that women always want a man to force themselves on them, even when they say no. It's C.K.’s faux feminism in a nutshell.
For me – and likely for many comics – the allegations against C.K. probably don’t come as a surprise. And that’s because while comedy has been a home to important, influential, artistic voices, it’s also become something of a haven for dicks.
I don’t mean people who act like jerks — I mean actual dicks. It even has a name: the dick joke. For some male standups, the stage has become a safe space to discuss where their dick’s been, where they wish it would be, where they plan on placing it without anyone’s permission, and, almost always, a tired wondering aloud of whether Caitlyn Jenner still has one. In early 2016, during my set in a Los Angeles club, a male comic waiting in the wings made eye contact with me, cupped his penis, and mouthed, “Do you like that?”
Reader, I did not. But I tell you this not to shock you, but to illustrate that you don’t need to have had an encounter with the famous comedian in question to know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the type of actions he has been accused of. This type of behaviour remained unchecked for a long time in the comedy industry, and as a result, it's been replicated everywhere. And because it’s done under the umbrella of “comedy,” it’s all supposed to be considered a joke.
Sometimes people consider comics as a separate entity from Hollywood, with the idea that perhaps we're allowed to live by different rules. But what the report on C.K. has exposed is that comedy has the same sickness, just with different symptoms. Yes, part of the problem is that aspiring men and women feel the need to get in front of the right and powerful people, build relationships, and get booked the way a budding actor might. But in comedy specifically, it seems to be required for women to endure the male at his worst. We’re expected to never be offended by or frightened of our peers who joke about rape. We’re expected to play along and prove that we can hang with the guys, to whatever extent they decide that means. And we’re expect to endure behaviour that, until now, has been met with a shrug — a behaviour that can be as small as an uncomfortable comment or as extreme as sexual assault.
And I know for male comedians the inappropriate actions of their peers is probably frustrating, too. For every predatory male comic, there are dozens of good guys to counteract him. These are men who don’t give unsolicited critiques of my material. Men who show up for women and people of colour. Men who hire me when they could so easily hire any dude from their inner circle. Yet, the behaviour of a few becomes folklore for how “men in comedy are.” And that just feels unfair.
And that’s why I think we’re about to witness a change — because it’s not just women feeling victimised. It’s the men of comedy who are fed up, too. The comedy community will now have no choice but to address and oust the offenders whom we’ve all understood to be a danger. Perhaps standup was once an old boy’s club where men reviewed the minutiae of their lives and did whatever they wanted under the guise of “this is a safe space because nothing I do should be taken seriously.” That’s out the window, buddy. Women in comedy won’t be on the receiving end of warnings anymore — they’ll be handing them out like Halloween candy.
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