For as long as there’s been comedy there has been a whisper network of comedians sharing stories of abusive behavior from their male peers. As many industries find themselves disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those within them are looking at how they work, and finding that for many, it doesn’t work at all. Games, comics, wrestling and more are finally digging up what’s rotten within them, and cutting it out. But comedy never wants to cut out its rot, so what we’re left with is deeply broken.
Last week, comedian Chris D’Elia was accused of sexual misconduct from multiple minors with the number of stories growing exponentially throughout the week. Within hours, another story was brought to life that accused Jeff Ross of having a relationship with a minor, accompanied with a string of videos in which his accuser shares many photographs and details from their relationship. Amidst the dust cloud, clips from an episode of Getting Doug with High made the rounds in which Brad Williams tells a story about raping a woman while on tour with Carlos Mencia (a story he claimed he made up in an apology issued in January). In a similar event, clips were shared of Joey Diaz boasting on Joe Rogan’s podcast that he would only let women on stage if they gave him a blowjob. In the later two, their fellow podcast guests and hosts treat these admissions as hilarious banter. Some laughter is uproarious, some hesitant, but in situations like these it’s all the same. Everyone on set chose to do nothing with this information after the mics were cut. Their publishing of these stories were tacit endorsements. The rot grows.
This isn’t a first for the industry, nor was Louis CK’s reckoning, yet nothing’s changed. That needs to stop. It’s time for no more whispering, no more talks of second chances. If comedy can’t address rape culture, it deserves to burn.
This isn’t a matter of separating the art from the artist, it’s a matter of separating a threat from the workplace. Comedy is a job. Clubs and shows are a place of employment. By continuing to employ a known abuser, you are putting every coworker and patron in danger. You are saying a man’s access to stage time is more important than a woman’s (or girl’s) safety. This is a tangible attack on comedians more than any discussion about offensive jokes could be.
The problem is old and pervasive enough that I’m no longer capable of being surprised by these men’s actions. Until the community starts prioritising justice, there can be no room for talks of redemption. I’m tired of watching others lament someone being faced with the consequences of their actions. You cannot tell me a handful of men’s careers are more valuable than hundreds of women’s. You cannot tell me their reputation is worth more than their victims’ pain. If we care about comedy, we cannot accept this.
The bottom line everyone must agree on is that trending on Twitter, changing careers, or retiring very comfortably is nowhere near as tragic as having your body and mind violated. It is always worse and their victims can see us as we do backflips to pretend that it’s not. It’s not just a problem when these attacks are against other comics. It’s not just when it’s against aspiring comics. It’s when anyone, anywhere, is subjected to them.
This is a problem that cannot be solved by big name comedians tweeting out notes app screenshots in vague solidarity with women. We know the names of individuals who have hurt people and we know the specifics on how they leveraged their power against them because of the brave women who have spoken up. So name names. Make note of those names. And keep those names off your shows, out of your projects, and out of comedy altogether. We have the ability to prevent high-risk situations by demanding direct action from our various employers. Anything less is “thoughts and prayers.”
I often wonder, when comedy does come back, who will return with it? I worry that it will be only the rich kids who can afford to side-step toxic gatekeepers or the scumbags embraced by them. Some comedians might not be able to financially afford to come back to this life after the pandemic subsides. Some in their forced moment of pause and reflection might find they can’t stand to shovel through the crap anymore.
I don’t know who will come back, but we all know who can’t.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.