Burning Down The Boys Club, According to Kelsey Caine
Making fun of sex offenders is just the start!
written by Maria Serra
Every day, New York City comedians create their perfect outfit for each set by pairing a laid-back bomber jacket with black skinny jeans or squeezing into a tight dress and heels perfect for the spotlight or via Zoom. However, writer, producer and comedian Kelsey Caine sports a plain black t-shirt, blue jeans, a bright orange wig and beard with a tiny, plastic penis. It might sound strange, but this is comedy and activism merging together at its finest. This is, in fact, her costume to parody veteran comedian and alleged sex offender Louis C.K.
Her character named “Penis C.K.” would hop on the stage and discuss how much money he lost in a “woe is me” tone and excitedly share how he loved masturbating in front of friends and coworkers.
Louis C.K. is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexually exploitative men in comedy. Bryan Callen is the latest comedian making the rounds on Twitter and in the news for being an alleged rapist. Chris D’Elia, Jeff Ross, Mark Normand, Joey Diaz and a myriad of other male comics have been exposed as being toxic in their industry and toward women. Countless articles and Twitter threads share similar stories from individuals across the country.
Unfortunately, many of these men are still allowed to perform on stages and continue their careers despite abusing power dynamics with fans and fellow performers for years. Once C.K. started taking the stage again, many comedy fans seemed to forget what he did that was so wrong.
Caine used this ignorance to shape her perfect set. “That’s when I was like ‘I know what he did, I’ll show you exactly what he did,’” she shared.
Her act was booked on 40-50 shows with some audience members who didn’t know what to expect. “I went in male-dominated spaces and gave them the female experience and it made men angry, who had felt few experiences like this.”
Obviously, pushback is to be expected when you make fun of an entertainer with an unwavering fan base and whip out a phallic prop in front of an audience. They were not this upset when the comedian did it for real, however. Her YouTube comments will show an array of viewers who are defending C.K. and claiming “women aren’t funny.” Fellow comics weren’t too accepting of this style right away either, and some even took to Instagram to speak poorly of Caine’s set. This combination of outrage was admittedly “exhausting” and put her in a depressed state.
“His victims, in many ways, I relate to. They are me,” she says. “They were women who were just in comedy trying really hard to do their best and be funny. I really identified with them.”
She wanted to use this as an education tool. After all, she is a survivor of sexual assault herself, with her story about assault education published in TIME. Though mimicking C.K.’s actions were hard to watch for some, she never mocked survivors. In fact, all the money she made from playing the character was donated to RAINN, a national sexual violence organization. (You can donate, too!)
Additionally, Caine was taught another lesson during her show.
“I want to get so much consent,” she says. “At some of the shows I did, I asked everyone in the audience if they were okay with me doing my character Penis C.K. and I would make them all say “yes” and then I’d say ‘Hey even though you said yes now, there’s a chance you might feel uncomfortable when it’s happening. You still get to leave during that time...because that’s what this is all about.’”
Despite the negativity, she came around to learn this is how she copes with sexual assault stories. “Yeah, maybe this isn’t the right way to do anything, this is my comedy, this is just what I’m doing,” she says.
Caine will be the first one to proclaim that she hates sex offenders and will share that she is a survivor. When news of Chris D’Elia’s pedophilia broke in June, she tweeted day and night about sexual assault and abuse in the comedy scene. In fact, she is still tweeting and retweeting her own thoughts.
“The best thing I feel like I’ve ever done with sexual assault is just say the same things over and over again and slowly people hear it,” she says. It may seem like a small feat to simply tweet, but few others are as tenacious about their hatred of abusers and systemic allowance of assault to permeate comedy. One thing that influences her vocality is the fact that, “I don’t know a single female comedian who hasn’t been sexually harassed.”
“I don’t know a single female comedian who hasn’t been sexually harassed.”
To say this is unacceptable is an understatement. Many women and marginalized voices have left comedy altogether due to a historically patriarchal climate, or predatory fellow comedians. Some may confuse this as trying to make comedy a “politically correct safe space.” Certainly, that’s not the case. The simple fact is, no one should ever expect abuse in any form when they are doing their job.
“A lot of women reach out to me and say, ‘I love that you do stand up, I love that you do comedy because I just didn’t feel comfortable in those spaces and I didn’t want to be around them anymore,’” Caine shared.
It’s clear that comedy is still a boys club, more specifically, a heterosexual white boys club. So, what can we as comedy fans and comics do to make a safer environment? Caine offered several suggestions from her personal experiences.
For example, when she moved to New York as a graduate student, she produced her own shows, ran three open mics and would always let the ladies go first.
“That was a way for me to be in control of the situation a little bit,” she says. “If you just go to an open mic, there’s a lot of pressure there, there’s a lot of everyone already knowing each other, there’s already all this stuff.”
She acknowledged that doing stand-up in NYC is daunting and that she sees “running open mics like community service. I like this community and I can help in this way.”
Creating and producing your own shows may just be the way to make the comedy scene more inviting. For example, many spaces have been created for marginalized voices, such as Babe Roar in Columbus, OH, Snowflake Comedy Club in Akron, OH and The Ruby LA. Additionally, the Belladonna is a site that exclusively publishes female and nonbinary satire pieces.
Think of it as, “If you can’t join them, beat them.”
Even if you don’t have access to a friendly comedy club, Caine encourages putting out your work by any avenues possible and not caring which gatekeeper may not approve of it, whether that be a comedy club booker or popular stand-up comic.
“In this industry, people are so worried someone is not going to like them and then it’s a bunch of boys,” she says. “I’m very mouthy, I say whatever I want, I’m not really a pleaser. There are lots of reasons these dudes wouldn’t like me anyway, so I might as well just stick to my guns.” Another suggestion she offers is encouraging men in comedy to scope out any problematic actions by fellow comics.
“I like to see feminist dudes. Say stuff to your friends,” she says. “You’re someone who can really do something. Just asking ‘Hey, why are you talking like that?’ or saying ‘Hey, that woman is blackout drunk, please stop trying to attack her.’”
If there’s one thing Caine learned to navigate, it’s the Twitter trolls. She does not let anyone stop her mission of educating about sexual assault on and offstage by using that block button often.
“I love to make fun of sex offenders, it’s something I do well,” she says. “I think I make it easy for other people to understand.”
Clearly, the future of live comedy is uncertain. Though Caine retired Penis C.K. in 2019, she is excited to see what she will do next. Surely, there is a laundry list of industry-approved sex offenders to make fun of now and new topics in comedy to explore. She leaves us with this piece of advice: “You just have to put your neck out there and try to put on your own thing, make your own fans, work on your own craft and make it there in your own way.”
Stay up to date with Kelsey’s activism and comedy at her Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Plus– check out her favorite funny friends who are making comedy clubs funnier and safer, too: Subhah Agarwal, Pallavi Gunalan, Abby Govindan,
If you or anyone you know has been assaulted and is looking for resources, refer to RAINN. You can talk to a trained staff member for free 24/7 via a chat feature or by calling 1(800)-656-4673. You can also use the Crisis Text Hotline. All you need to do is text “HOME” to 741-741 and a crisis counselor will respond.
You can also support marginalized voices in comedy by supporting Babe Roar. Check out our social media pages and show your Babe spirit with a “More Female Headliners” or “Burn Down The Boys Club” shirt.
About The Author: Maria Serra is a senior journalism student at Kent Student University focusing on sexual health and women’s issues. Outside of school, she performs with the Black Squirrel Improv Troupe and on stand-up stages in northeast Ohio. Twitter: @MaSerra8