Five Nights At The Comedy Cellar, Where A #MeToo Battle Rages

It’s been one year since the New York Times and New Yorker investigation into the sexual misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein unleashed the #MeToo movement and a courageous fury over the ways women are mistreated. We look back at the movement that has completely reshaped the way we think of men, women, sex, and power.
On a Tuesday in August at 11:30 p.m., about 100 people in New York City were laughing at a rape joke. Comedian Sam Morril had taken the stage at the Comedy Cellar, and was lamenting how #MeToo changed the way he watched porn. Since the New York Times’ initial reporting on Harvey Weinstein, and the wave of accusations against powerful men that followed, he couldn’t watch a fake businessman have sex with his fake secretary in the same light.
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“He probably shouldn’t be doing that,” Morril quipped, and everyone, including myself, laughed, personally at the relief that the joke punched up, not down — because the same could not be said for the rest of my time at the Comedy Cellar. I spent five nights there during the final gasps of another sweaty New York City summer. I wanted to see if #MeToo changed how comedians joked about sex and dating, and if comedy, which found itself under the microscope following allegations of sexual misconduct against Louis C.K. and an anonymous report of an uncomfortable sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, was making an effort to right its wrongs.
The Comedy Cellar is somehow both a New York comedy institution and a place with an audience of almost exclusively out-of-towners. Most recently, it’s become the place where comedians on the outs because of #MeToo have made their comeback. First Ansari in May, who reemerged to perform a set after an allegation reported by Babe.net sent him to the shadows. Louis C.K. (to much online backlash) would follow Ansari's emergence in August and then again this past week. In the aftermath of C.K.’s first reappearance, Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman lamented the reputation this gave the club, but seems to have later changed his tune.
“I am a free speech absolutist,” he told Refinery29 in response to whether or not a comic’s actions had disqualified them from future shows. “I think the uncensored battle of ideas is the best way to find out the truth. I want a place where everybody speaks their minds — even about me.”
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“Battle” is the perfect word to describe what goes down every night at the Comedy Cellar, and the Village Underground, which is under the same management. During my five days observing the comedians (recording is not allowed in the Cellar, nor is taking notes) they ranged across the board in age (but were generally mostly male comedians with the requisite one or so woman each night — although it’s worth noting the Comedy Cellar’s longtime booker is woman). A clear divide emerged between up-and-coming, younger comedians whose performances were diverse, thoughtful, and well-received, and the older, more established comedians whose determination to perform offensive and outlandish material repeatedly divided the room.

I think the uncensored battle of ideas is the best way to find out the truth.

These comics addressed #MeToo (categorising it as “women screaming out of their vaginas”), rape (Bill Cosby using his lazy eye as a lookout), and survivors (casting doubt on women who came forward based on their appearance) head-on, but if they took pause to question whether they needed to reframe their material in light of the recent news, it wasn’t evident. I was given a true tasting menu of everything New York City comedy had to offer, witnessing sets from people Aziz Ansari, Michelle Wolf, Chris Gethard, Artie Lange, Dave Attell, and Lynne Koplitz, and found that while rape jokes were abundant, a new class of comics was coming to change the status quo.
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Saturday, August 25, 6 p.m. show at The Village Underground
I went into the first night raring to go. Above ground, #MeToo chatter was in full swing after the allegations of sexual assault against Asia Argento brought the conversation into a new and complicated light. With its new relevance, I expected the Village Underground, where comedians go to work out new material, would be ground zero for some fresh takes on the subject. However, I waited an hour before sexual assault was even mildly broached, and it was a lackluster joke at that.
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During a quip about “the news recently,” the older male comedian expressed confusion on why women didn’t want to be catcalled. He added that George H.W. Bush shouldn’t have come under fire for groping a woman because, if this comic was 90, he’d be grabbing all the asses he could.
It was disappointing to kick the week off with a joke that could have been made 10, 20 years ago, but this night gave no indication of what I was truly in for.
Sunday, August 26, 1:30 p.m show at the Comedy Cellar
I expected brunch at the Comedy Cellar to be even more tame. Couples eating waffles and bacon filled the audience, and the comics for that afternoon couldn’t stop remarking on the fact that we chose to watch comedy, at brunch, the most innocuous of meals — except for the comic on stage who insinuated I was “watching my figure” because I chose the omelet over the pancakes.
I would say the most memorable comedian that day was Matteo Lane, a young comic whose material about growing up and his sexuality and the show Ghost Adventures garnered the most laughs. I would say that, had Aziz Ansari not dropped by unexpectedly.
It had already been reported that Ansari was making his way back onto the comedy scene, but he was still met with surprise and applause, and it didn’t appear that anyone was uncomfortable with his return. The couple I was sitting with made excited eye contact, in a way that seemed like they were hoping this would happen.
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Ansari’s new material doesn’t touch on the allegation reported by Babe.net about a sexual encounter with a woman that’s inspired rigorous debate. He didn’t necessarily seem uncomfortable as he stood in front of the crowd sipping a mimosa, but he wasn’t exactly Tom Haverford from Parks & Recreation either. Instead, his energy was low, and it really seemed like he was at work. He would often take 30-second pauses to scroll through his phone and figure out what joke he was going to try next, prepping for his inevitable full-blown return that he’s already promoting on Instagram.
Of the 10 minutes or so the Emmy-winning comedian was on stage, he joked about all the controversies that keep happening in the world (notably, not his), including one about Pizza Hut and a swastika that he later revealed was made up, but that we all believed (and some people in the audience even claimed to have heard about). He riffed on being an Indian man who frequently dates white women, and also spoke about his Netflix show, Master Of None. Specifically, he did a bit about casting child actors and how difficult it’s been to find someone young who looks like him and is still talented. It was normal and funny, and gave me the same uncomfortable aura of confusion that overcame me when the allegation first broke: How am I supposed to feel about this?
Monday, August 27, 11:30 p.m. at the Comedy Cellar
This was the night I figured would be my first real taste of what the scene is really like due to its late hour. I suspected that as the nights went on, things got much more unfiltered. I also ended up having the added horror of being seated in the very front row.
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Audience participation is a huge part of going to the Comedy Cellar, and a big reason why people show up. There’s a thrill to being included in the show, even if that inclusion is just as a point of reference for the startling number of Asian jokes that were made during my five days in the audience. But any minority is at risk. If you are a woman, you will be called on. And if you’re not laughing? The comic will put you on blast in front of the whole room.
For instance, after I failed to laugh at an older male comic’s jokes about clown pedophilia and his belief that women are trying to trick him into sexually harassing them, I was pointed out in front the crowd.
“Why did you come to a comedy show if you’re not going to laugh?” he asked.
“Are you,” the host added, piling on, “going to go home and blog about this?”
I quickly learned if a comedian’s joke about sexual assault or racism didn’t do well, the older generation of comedians blamed the audience for not being game enough. The idea that a joke about sexual assault was lazy or bad or offensive was not in the realm of possibility.

Why did you come to a comedy show if you’re not going to laugh?

My hope was only restored by Sam Morril, who told the #MeToo joke I found myself actually enjoying, as well as other material involving controversial subjects like rape and abortion that similarly put the punchlines in the appropriate places, getting louder laughs than the older comedian before him attempting similar subject matter.
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As I left the show at 2 a.m., I promised myself this industry wasn’t ruined. Maybe the older generation needs work, but the younger comics, the future of comedy, don’t hate women. Maybe this is the start of change. Things are getting better, in fact — never mind.
On Sunday, hours after brunch, Louis C.K. had made his return to the Comedy Cellar. Eight months ago, the comic admitted to accusations of sexual misconduct from five different women, and on August 26 at around 11 p.m., the New York Times reported that he took the stage to a standing ovation.
The comic reportedly performed around 15 minutes of “typical Louis C.K. stuff,” more specifically, racism, parades, and tipping waitresses. He did not address his admission that he had non-consensually masturbated in front of five women — and the crowd didn’t seem to require him to. However, an audience member apparently called the Comedy Cellar on Monday to express their disappointment that they weren’t given a heads up that Louis C.K. was on the lineup. Dworman appeared to have taken their concerns, and the backlash, to heart — but then allowed him back on stage a month later.
Tuesday, August 28, 11:30 p.m. at the Comedy Cellar
Monday night’s news signalled a definitive mood shift. On Tuesday, it felt like there was a reignited energy in the patrons, who chatted before the show about how Louis C.K. was the reason they decided to stop by.
“See, women don’t mind!” a man at my table declared after a woman and her boyfriend said they were hoping to see Louis C.K. that night. “When he comes out we’re gonna chant ‘whip it out!’” He later added, “It’s not that fucked up. He didn’t even rape anyone. It’s not assault, it’s just creepy.”
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I was surprised at how unsafe I immediately felt once I realised I was surrounded by people who could also so comfortably joke about sexual assault. It’s one thing to have a single person on stage saying something offensive, but now I knew that they had an emerging army of allies in the audience. And to top it all off, that night I might see Louis C.K.
The comic who had called me out for not laughing the night before was back on stage tonight, telling the same joke about how when a woman said hello to him, he wasn’t going to “fall for it” in light of #MeToo. An established and inexplicably revered older comic dropped by for a surprise set and opened one joke with a topical “Bruce Jenner has a pussy now.” He went on to say that Monica Lewinsky was too fat to give Bill Clinton a blow job, and that Bill Cosby has a lazy eye so he can keep an eye on the door while he is raping someone. Like clockwork, when these jokes didn’t get the laughs the comic thought they deserved, he turned on the audience for being too uptight. “Who comes to a comedy show not to laugh?” he echoed.
Louis C.K. ultimately didn’t show up, and none of the comedians on stage addressed his return. The backlash had likely caused him to retreat back into the shadows once again. Instead, he was going to wait another month before giving it another go.
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It’s not that fucked up. He didn’t even rape anyone. It’s not assault, it’s just creepy.

Wednesday, August 29, 8 p.m. at the Village Underground
By my last night at the Underground, I was feeling manic. I had been here for five days, was running on coffee and fries, and was worried we would never live in a world when women would be fully believed or respected. I stayed silent, my eyes fully glazed-over until an older male comic I had never heard of got on stage.
He began his set by referring to everyone in the audience as “fags,” and said he had already given up on his set because he was sure he voted differently than everyone in the room. He said he voted for Trump, and the nervous laughter soon ground to silence as the room realised this wasn’t a schtick. He meant it when he said #MeToo is women “screaming out of their vaginas,” that it’s only because women wouldn’t talk to Louis C.K. that he masturbated in front of them, that people like Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah were too fat to rape.
At one point, a woman yelled “shut the fuck up!” A waitress told her that heckling was not allowed.
“One second,” the woman said, before yelling it one more time.
She should be president.
The comic left the stage to no applause, the silence only more deafening in comparison to the warm welcome then given to Michelle Wolf, whose surprise appearance felt like a gift from above to reward my five gruelling days. She was received with possibly the most excitement from the audience out of anyone during my stint. Her recent gig at the White House Correspondents Dinner catapulted her to fame, largely in thanks to the backlash she received when she joked about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She gave a cheeky nod to this up top, and continued her set with some of her typical jokes about being a woman and dating and the sound of her voice. She even had a quick #MeToo reference, joking that JFK was lucky to not be around for this era, because he was a #MeToo waiting to happen. Everybody laughed.
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Despite ending the five days feeling tired, sad, and hopeless, I don’t actually despair for the future of comedy. What I was watching those nights was not the future. I was watching the past desperately holding on for relevance. It was heartening to hear the undeniably louder laughs for the comedians who were younger, more diverse, and more thoughtful, but it’s not enough– because the Cellar does not make as much room for this younger generation. But comedy exists outside of two venues in the West Village, and maybe with time the Comedy Cellar will catch up. White men who refuse to accept sexual assault as a problem and treat women’s pain as a punchline will soon no longer be the status quo. They can yell about it night after night it in a dimly lit basement at 1 a.m. as much as they want, but above ground, a new generation has better things to laugh about.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
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