Rape Culture In Comedy Is No Joke

In the wake of the New York Times revelations about Louis C.K., one comedian speaks out about the culture of misogyny and sexual misconduct in comedy.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but what they don’t tell you is that the reason could be far more insidious than you could have ever imagined. In the five years I’ve performed stand-up comedy, I learned that in the worst way. If you thought Hollywood was infested with sexual predators, then comedy clubs need to be tented and fumigated. Even worse, in the world of stand-up, we give these men a mic and a stage.

For these men, an unhealthy and toxic relationship with sex and women is practically a required skill for their chosen profession

Thanks to the New York Times, the rest of the world has discovered what people in the comedy community have known for a long time– the whispers about Louis C.K. are more than just rumors. For the record, I was not one of the women in front of whom Louis forcibly masturbated, and I do not know any of them personally. But I am absolutely certain that there are many more male comics just like Louis whose behavior is just as, if not more abhorrent. I’ve experienced it firsthand, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve foregone stage time in favor of writing jobs. Not to say that sexism and sexual predators don’t exist in the writers’ room– they do– but that’s another “bag of dicks,” entirely.

It’s news to no one that comedy is a boys’ club. And for these men, an unhealthy and toxic relationship with sex and women is practically a required skill for their chosen profession. (Same goes for women, by the way.) Add that to the fact that as a profession, comedy isn’t exactly a suit-and-tie situation– it’s an HR nightmare. And with women occupying a bleak minority of the stand-up population, both onstage and off, this culmination of factors has allowed a culture of aggravated and rampant misogyny to grow and fester. In fact, I’m pretty sure comedy clubs are the locker rooms 45 was talking about.

The more or less explicit bartering for stage time in exchange for your body

When I started performing stand-up, I knew what I was getting myself into. One of the first big shows I booked was at a highly-respected comedy club in Los Angeles. I drank (which as routine as checking your email in any other professional environment), did my set, and basked in the warm afterglow of being laughed at by 150 strangers­– comics, are a strange bunch, I told you. Afterward, I was approached by the club’s manager who told me that the owner’s son (another comic) loved my set and wanted to meet me. I did. We drank some more. He flattered me and gave me what I thought was sincere advice. He invited me to his house, and I obliged. I was green, I was drunk, and I did consent to what happened that night, but if you think that this man, who is nearly 20 years my senior, didn’t capitalize on his power to get a young and impressionable young woman into bed with him, you’re kidding yourself.

Before you write me off as some fame-hungry, starry-eyed idiot, consider my plight if it had taken place in a corporate setting. A female new-hire gets approached by the CEO’s son to go out for drinks to talk about what great job she’s doing and her bright future at the organization. He proceeds to invite her back to his place. Does she go? And if she doesn’t, will she get fired? Slap an office environment onto my story, and all the sudden, my character seems a whole lot more sympathetic, doesn’t she?

Comedy culture normalizes if not celebrates the flagrant misogyny and rape-adjacent behavior that makes more overt types of aggression much more likely to happen

At the end of the day, I took the bait and I regretted it, but it wasn’t until after years of fending off unwanted physical and verbal advances that I started to wise up to systemic patterns of aggression and sexual misconduct that female comedians face. The incessant slut-shaming. The presumption that because you slept with one comic, that surely you must be willing to sleep with all of them. The more or less explicit bartering for stage time in exchange for your body. It was at that point I realized that the only way that I could cope with this kind of behavior was to remove myself from the line of fire entirely.

What happened to me at that show is just one of too many stories. And while it wasn’t rape or even assault (and I say that as a survivor of both), and it may not be as “bad” as what Louis did to those women, does that really make it more acceptable? Both are symptoms of a toxic culture in which the sexual subjugation of women is considered par for the course. And in comedy, this cultural problem is even more subversive, since we routinely look to comedians not only for laughs but for truth. Despite what you may hear comics say on stage or on air about the Weinsteins and Spaceys of the world, they are much more resistant to brings these issues to light when the guilty is one of their own. (They were a little slow on the uptake with Cosby.) And comedy culture normalizes if not celebrates the flagrant misogyny and rape-adjacent behavior that makes more overt types of aggression much more likely to happen. What’s worse, some of the most egregious predators in comedy aren’t famous enough for the world to care.

I’m also scared. I’m still at the beginning of my career, and as I write this, it’s almost as if I can hear the doors of opportunity closing.

As a female comic (and this is the only instance in which I would use the word female before comic), I’ll admit that I’m torn. I think Louis is as much a genius as he is a perverted trash person, maybe even more so. I feel even worse for his two daughters, who I hope have been shielded from this as much as possible. I’m also scared. I’m still at the beginning of my career, and as I write this, it’s almost as if I can hear the doors of opportunity closing. But at the very least, I know for a fact that I am not alone.

Picture Courtesy of Russ Allison Loar (Flickr Creative Commons)

Julia Reiss is a Los Angeles-born writer and humorist alive and mostly well in New York City.
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