We Need to Dismantle Comedy as We Know It

Read by Christine Horvath

If you follow any female comics on social media, you know that there is an upheaval taking place. We're putting our foot down against the deplorable ways in which women and other marginalized folks have been treated in comedy since its inception. Bad men and “do-nothings” (those who remain silent about the plight of the marginalized comic) are not the only ones to blame for the current poisonous culture in comedy.

Racism and sexism are deeply embedded into stand-up comedy culture; these are two heads of a monster which must be taken down together (per Evita Lavitaloca Sawyers, Facebook Status, June 8, 2020). In order to set women in comedy free, we have to set everyone free in comedy, which means dismantling the system as we know it. What follows is an examination of some of the flaws in comedy's current system, how the current system embodies those flaws, and what we can do about it.

Before I get started, here are a few disclaimers:

1. My intention is not to get on the internet and trash my local comedy scene. I believe that my sentiments about my own scene would be echoed by other marginalized comics in every comedy corner of the world when I say that I deeply love my scene, and I am simultaneously deeply disappointed in it. Everything I have ever advocated for, whether it was more female headliners, diversifying lineups, or pay transparency has been out of love. One of my goals is to put our scene on the map by making it a better place for all comics to visit. Unfortunately, I have been met with aggressive, dismissive, and ignorant responses from many of the male comics here, which I believe is an attempt to protect the status quo. Those who fight against progressive and inclusive action are likely benefitting from its current flaws.

2. I am going to be talking about racism and sexism in this piece and will occasionally refer to them as “white supremacy” and “patriarchy.” Please know that if you exhibit behaviors that uphold these systems, it doesn’t mean that you might as well be an evil, confederate flag-waving bigot. I’m going to direct you to the words of Walta Yoseph, a Black female comic in Columbus a few times throughout this piece, starting now: “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person [if you are upholding unconscious racial and gender biases in comedy], it just means you were raised in an environment that prioritized some people over others. Part of abolishing the culture of white supremacy is recognizing that you were brought up in it and it permeates your thoughts and shapes your opinions without you even realizing. That is not a slight on you as a person, but it is a fact about the world we live in. Now, armed with this knowledge, you have work to do in order to move forward and make comedy a welcoming place for marginalized voices that you otherwise wouldn't have because of this unconscious bias.”

3. Throughout this piece, I will refer to comedians as “co-workers.” For anyone who may not be familiar, many people, even people whose names haven’t yet made it to your Netflix queue, are making their living doing comedy across the country. That means that all kinds of people are working together in theatres, bars, and comedy clubs as co-workers, not as friends goofing around. The issues that plague marginalized comedians are not only interpersonal issues; they’re workplace safety issues.

Cool? Okay. Let's talk about the current flaws in comedy:

1. Faces on a Poster

This global moment is teaching us that racism lives in every corner of our brains, and in order to stamp it out entirely, we must be constantly vigilant about un-learning our inner white supremacist. (Oop! There’s that phrase! It’s okay, just a reminder that it doesn’t inherently make you a bad person.) In comedy, white supremacy looks like all-white lineups or lineups with a token person of color, and can even be embodied by scenes that are primarily white. In order to transcend white supremacy in comedy, we must always be checking ourselves.

You can do this by asking yourself when booking your next show, "what will the poster for this show look like? How many Black and Brown faces will be on this poster?", "Who is the audience I'm trying to serve: will only white people feel represented in the crowd, or will everyone feel excited and safe to watch the show?" Keep in mind that this is not merely a ratio exercise to hide behind to absolve yourself of white guilt. This is intentional work that you have to do to ensure that a) you're giving everyone in your scene a fair chance at stage time and b) you're serving all audiences, not just the ones that look like you.

Comics always say that the best way to improve is to get on stage. If comics of color are booked less frequently than white folks in comedy, they will not have the same opportunity for success as their white counterparts, thus perpetuating white supremacy in comedy. If you're only serving white audiences, then you're excluding the most marginalized folks who also love to laugh along with experiences similar to theirs. Why would you deprive someone of laughter? You're a comedian! Again, you don't have to be proudly waving a confederate flag in order to uphold white supremacy, you just have to act without challenging your inner conditioning to uphold it, also known as, your unconscious or implicit bias.

One counterpoint I have seen pop up for this kind of inclusion work in comedy is that many of us live in small markets where there might not be very many comics of color. To that, I propose this question:

  • Are you doing the work? That means, are you actively challenging yourself to go beyond the tokenized model of one POC per lineup? Are you looking at other nearby scenes for comics of color who are crushing it in their towns? Comics like to travel. They want to get out of their towns and get in front of new audiences. Have you booked any out of town comics? Are you following comics of color on your social media feeds? Bottom line: are you going out of your way to build a candidate pool for bookings that goes outside of your comfortable social circle? If the answer is no to any of these, then you have more work to do.

Another counterpoint to this kind of inclusion work was brought up to me by Walta. She says:

"Some comedians might say they are simply booking good comedians and not necessarily upholding the status quo. However, have those people considered that one of the reasons there aren’t as many POC comedians to choose from is because the open mic spaces, where we all go to practice and get better, are also primarily white male dominated spaces? Show lineups are a reflection of the diversity in the scene. If the lineup is mostly straight white male voices, that means the open mic scene is dominated by straight white male voices. To say there aren’t as many good POC comedians is missing the forest for the trees, they just haven’t been afforded the same opportunities at open mics in order to flourish into good comedians worth booking."

2. The Boys Club

Everyone who knows anything about comedy will tell you that comedy is one of the most enduring boys clubs. Let me be clear that white supremacy and patriarchy work together. One cannot be taken down without the other: they must both fall at once. That is why Black women in the world (and in this case, comedy) are, to paraphrase Malcom X, the most disrespected group on the planet. It is hard enough to be a white woman in comedy, but to be a black woman in comedy, makes you "invisible," according to legendary Black, female comic Luenell.

Black women have never been given the respect they have earned in comedy. That's why Black women have taken it upon themselves to create the Black Women in Comedy Festival and Black Girl Giggles, among countless other organizations. These spaces are specifically designed to give Black women their fair shot at resume builders they need to advance to the next stage of their careers including headlining credits, acceptance to festivals, and regular bookings.

(Adding a parenthetical here to mention that I could say all the same things about white women in comedy, because historically, white women have also been denied these resume-building roles. However, our white privilege has extended us invitations into spaces that Black and Brown women and queer folks have not been invited. Thus, I am called to advocate for the most marginalized of us.)

The way that I have personally been treated by men (and some women who have internalized our culture’s misogyny) in comedy has been mostly negative. I have been gaslighted for pointing out abusers in comedy. I have been dismissed for pointing out that my scene, and comedy and general, has not yet grappled with its sexism and racism. I have been ridiculed for asking for the men in my scene to stand up to comics who tell violent "jokes" about women that make us feel unsafe. More insidiously, I have often been ignored, passed over for opportunities, and felt excluded from social circles because of the intimidating predominance of men in my scene. Many bookers will say "I want to book more female comics, but I just don't know many." To that point, I will direct you to these questions:

  • Are you doing the work? That means, are you actively challenging yourself to go beyond the tokenized model of one woman per lineup? Are you looking at other nearby scenes for female comics who are crushing it in their towns? Comics like to travel. They want to get out of their towns and get in front of new audiences. Have you booked any out of town comics? Are you following female comics on your social media feeds? Bottom line: are you going out of your way to build a candidate pool for bookings that goes outside of your comfortable social circle? If the answer is no to any of these, then you have more work to do.

  • Do you think there might be a reason there aren't very many female comics in your scene? Perhaps they have been intimidated by the prevalence of male comics in their scene and decided not to bother. Perhaps women have attempted comedy in your scene but found it to be an unsafe place for them, so they quit. And perhaps they saw that regardless of how many open mics they attended, they weren't going to be treated the same as their male counterparts because of bookers' implicit biases.

Whether you like it or not, right now, comedy is not a meritocracy.

On a more sinister note, women also have to constantly worry about their personal safety at every single gig. The system is set up for us to fail at our job. We don't feel safe around a lot of male comics and bookers, because comedy is the Wild West. We have no HR department. We have no set of universal standards that one must agree to follow before entering the scene. Additionally, Walta points out, many comedy venues happen to be places where alcohol is served, thus complicating the social dynamics of the comic’s work environment.

Because of this, if women get sexually assaulted or harassed, when powerful men use their power to coerce women to sleep with them, or when we are subject to any racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist or any bigoted treatment, we are often blamed or dismissed. Men rush to stick up for other men when women come forward with accusations about being abused or preyed upon because it protects their ability to work, while hurting ours. We're gaslighted and interrogated about it; it's painful. It makes us feel even more othered than we already feel and serves to uphold patriarchy and keep female comics oppressed.

Turning back to Walta’s words, “when male comics remain silent or refuse to take sides on the issues that plague women in comedy, they contribute to the status quo. Inaction from men makes it even more difficult for their female counterparts’ voices to be heard. It shouldn’t be men versus women but encouraging a safe work environment versus allowing a hostile work environment.

That’s why silence is violence, guys.

Wow. This has been super dark. What can we do about it?

Answer: We start over.

In order to dismantle the current system in comedy, we have to look toward what the most marginalized of us have been doing all along. That means following the lead of BLM activists, the Black and Brown women, non-binary, and trans folks who have been fighting for their lives and liberties for generations. We have a lot of momentum with BLM; don't let up. Stay on track with liberating Black and Brown women and trans individuals. When the most marginalized of us in our society are free, we will all be free.

Additionally, we have to apply the same BLM principles to our own communities and behaviors. While they have been magnificent thought leaders in this area, Dave Chappelle and Hannah Gadsby cannot do this work for us. We have to dig out the poisoned root of stand-up: its enduring white supremacist, patriarchal attitudes. That means you have to look into your heart and ask yourself how you book your shows, how you build your list of candidates for booking, whether you go out of your way to represent experiences that are different from yours, if your venue and stage is accessible for disabled comics.

Do you challenge other male comics when they do or say disgusting things to or about your female co-workers? Do you get in the way if you see bad behavior occurring (see Cameron Esposito’s special Rape Jokes for more context on ‘getting in the way’)? Or do you just let it slide so that you don't have to feel uncomfortable? Imagine how much more uncomfortable or unsafe the marginalized comic must feel about the harassment than you would feel standing up to it. Have compassion. Don't be a dick. I shouldn't have to tell you this.

This is not merely an exercise in inclusion and diversity, it is about creating an environment that feels safe and inclusive for all. By safe, I mean that every person who wants to get on your stage, regardless of identity markers, should feel empowered and supported, from open mics all the way up to headliners at clubs, and if they encounter any kind of bad behavior, there are consequences for those at fault. By inclusive, I mean that you, a small indie booker in your local scene, are actively looking for diverse voices for your lineups. As far as clubs go, as my friend and fellow comic Natalie Bainter says, “In general, for a place to be doing things right, there has to be good representation at every level of the organization, or at least in decision-making roles, that makes the space safe, welcoming, and fun. A place where growth can happen for marginalized performers, and that goes for audience members too.”

This is the conversation we’re having now. We are designing the future of stand-up comedy. We’re no longer trying to see eye-to-eye with those who oppose these ideas. If you think that a workplace for comedians should be anything but equitable and mentally and physically safe for every person who wants to do stand-up, you’re going to be left behind. There is no middle ground.

Speaking from experience, increasing your awareness of the representation on your shows and communities will lead to bigger audiences, more ticket sales, more diverse audiences, and a more robust, very funny social circle. Don't do it for any of those reasons. Do it because it's the right thing to do. Do this work because your inner white supremacist patriarch, that exists in all of us, including myself, has been trained to oppress other human beings: whether you're conscious of it or not. Do it because doing this work will lead to a better future for all of us.

If you’d like to help spread the message of dismantling comedy as we know it, you can purchase a “Burn Down the Boys Club” t-shirt now through our Bonfire campaign; 100% of the profits will benefit the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts Collective. If you want more resources, you can reach out to me on social media @baberoar.

Special thanks to Walta Yoseph, Natalie Bainter, Bianca Moore, Sarah J. Storer, and Griffin Browning for providing feedback and crucial additional thoughts to this piece.