The story published after years of rumors, after C.K.’s place within comedy as one of the greats had been cemented, and after several stories of sexual misconduct in entertainment, media and politics were no longer open secrets but headlines. Across industries, allegations of harassment and assault have sparked a public reckoning. How could this have persisted for so long? What is to be done from here?
Answering those questions is long overdue within comedy. Stand-up is hard for anyone who does it — dealing with tough crowds, slogging along for years before getting even minimal success, competing for limited spots — but it’s also long been a boys’ club, with extra obstacles for women.
“The overwhelming thought I keep going back to is: These men get off putting women in uncomfortable situations they obviously don’t want to be in, and they already have power,” Gold continues. “They already have power in their work.”
“Every single person, male or female, has an uphill battle of trying to figure out how to make a living doing comedy,” says stand-up comic Sara Schaefer. “But for women, there’s this added thing, which is the knowledge that sometimes you show up for an opportunity thinking that it means something — like I’m on my way, I’m climbing that ladder — and something will happen that’ll make you realize, oh, you were just a piece of meat.”
As Marc Maron explained on the latest episode of his “WTF” podcast, male comics sometimes point to a successful female comic to show that the industry must not be uniquely hard for women. But “what we don’t really know is just how much bulls— they have to deal with, on top of just figuring out how to get on stage and do comedy.”
“They have to deal with all of us, all of the male bulls— every woman has to deal with in every work environment,” he continued. “There’s just no HR department in comedy. There’s no place to go to have grievances — it’s stacked against you.”
The increased visibility of female stand-ups, writers and TV executive producers in recent years has helped chip away at prejudices. And plenty of men in the business are advocates of their female counterparts, performers say (yes, yes, #NotAllMen).
But even focusing on women in comedy as a subset could contribute to the notion that a woman who does this is an outlier, a novelty, or that a woman comic is somehow fundamentally different than just a comic.
Tokenism has long been an issue within comedy.
“They’ll put you on with two other guys, but never two other women, like you can’t possibly have three women on the bill,” says Joy Behar of her stand-up days. The thinking was, “Oh you’ll just talk about the same thing — well, the boys are all talking about the same thing!”
Being the only woman on a show full of men can make you feel like the side of chips to the sandwich, explains another longtime performer, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject matter. “The thing guys get is they only have to represent themselves on stage,” she continues. “If you’re a woman and the only woman on stage, it’s a bigger burden. It’s so much more fun to represent yourself.”
When Gold started in the ’80s and booked clubs herself, she’d call up club owners and they’d say “we had a woman a couple months ago and she didn’t do well, so we’re not booking any female comics. … Did you ever say that about a white guy?”
Women sometimes also face subtle sexism from the crowd. Plenty of women comics have heard from an audience member some variation of, “I don’t normally like female comics but I liked you.” Even their appearance and age get scrutinized in ways men’s don’t.
Gold recalls starting out and “these guys could go on stage unbathed, with sweatpants on and they’re the funniest [expletive] thing in the world, but if a woman did that, it’s like, ‘She’s disgusting!’ ”
Before the Internet and social media, a “whisper network” — prevalent in other industries, where women could warn each other of predatory men — would be difficult to tap into if you were booked on shows with no other women.
When Schaefer started out 15 years ago, “a lot of times you wouldn’t even see a lot of the female comics around and if you did you may not get into that level of conversation.”
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Now, the boundless nature of the Internet has opened up new, yet unwieldy, possibilities. A Google form that collected stories of harassment and assault in comedy went viral a few years ago. Several local comedy scenes have private Facebook groups for women. Social media posts about harassment intended for a select few to see could end up published more widely (sort of like a recent list about men in media). It can get messy.
Following the headlines about sexual misconduct, the nonprofit advocacy group Women in Comedy started the “No Laughing Matter” campaign, asking venues and comedy producers across the country to enforce and publicly post a zero-tolerance policy and create anonymous hotlines for comics to report unsavory behavior.
“Just doing that, and giving them an anonymous line to call, empowers people to have space to come forward,” says the group’s executive director, Victoria Elena Nones. “Oftentimes when something happens to a woman, or a man, in our community, they don’t feel like they have a place to go.”
Stand-up isn’t a normal job. Comedy club bars, green rooms and festivals are your office. There’s a lot of alcohol, a lot of lewd conversation. Saying shocking things can been be treated like a virtue. The after-show hang is your networking opportunity.
Comedy is also insular. Being well-connected and liked can boost your career (your friend gets a show? Then maybe you’ll get hired to write on that show!). But running afoul of a powerful comic, agent or booker, could damage it. “I can’t fathom the bravery it takes to speak out against someone like Louis C.K.,” says Schaefer.
Dave Becky, who manages megastar comics like Kevin Hart, used to represent C.K. and was accused of threatening some of the women who spoke publicly against him. He initially told the Times that he “never threatened anyone,” and after his company dropped the comic as a client, he said, “I now comprehend that my response was perceived as a threat to cover-up sexual misconduct. This is not an excuse. What I did was wrong.”
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Onstage and offstage, comedians will experiment with inappropriate, risky jokes, the sort of stuff that could get you in trouble at a regular job. Some will try to abuse that loose environment by excusing their messed-up behavior towards women as “it’s just a joke.”
“Where is the line? People always talk about that with comics,” says Gold. Comics can tell each other horribly offensive jokes about a national tragedy that would never fly on stage “because that’s how we think. We do talk about things people don’t talk about or say things people don’t say.”
But acting upon those worst comedic impulses, lacking “self-control or knowledge — actions speak louder than words,” she adds.
As comedic actor Jason Alexander put it, comedy “is sometimes daring and audacious and shocking. But our behavior, in the real world, toward women — that doesn’t get a pass on inappropriate.”
Years ago, a peer of Schaefer’s told her never to complain about sexism in green rooms and other comedy spaces, that “you’ll be ostracized.”
“It’s very severe, but it’s true,” she says. If you were the woman in the green room talking about it, you get labeled a killjoy, as if you’re “ruining the mood or you’re so uptight.”
“I’ve worked on TV shows and in writers’ rooms that are predominately male and white, and there’s conversations at times where you have to decide if you have the emotional energy at the moment to stand up to it,” she adds. “And there’s times you go, I’m going to let this go because I can’t do it today.”
So where to go from here?
Some quick answers: Have more women in positions of power. “We need people who are not just on stage, but who are backstage and enabling this type of behavior, to stop it,” Behar says.
Also: Hire more female comics. Give them specials. Offer them opportunities.
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“We’ve heard the white male point of view — we’ve heard it, we know it, we got it,” Gold says. “It’s time to look at the world through other people’s eyes because you might learn something you didn’t know, or treat someone a little nicer. Or give someone credit where it’s due.”
And many hope, as Shaefer puts it, that it can “get to a point where women and men respect everybody as human beings, and don’t play this boys’ club game.”