Beth Stelling and the Right To Make You Uncomfortable

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Beth Stelling and the Right To Make You Uncomfortable

It would be better for comedy as an institution if all its participants were just loveable scamps, but my friend told me a story after he heard I was going to be writing about Beth Stelling’s Instagram post about being abused by her ex. He told me there was a guy, a little bit ago, that had been caught installing cameras in the bathroom of a big deal comedy club in L.A. I hadn’t heard it before. He wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard. It’s a totally unverified story, of course—he told me that I wouldn’t have heard about it because this club is terrified of getting sued and hushed it up. To me it almost does not matter if this particular story is true. It is all too similar, for me, to the story about the bar owner who had a two way mirror in the women’s bathroom of a comedy club, which a female comedian discovered while performing there. I have heard a lot of stories from female comedians about men to stay away from, clubs that get sketchy, where not to perform alone. Because the truth is, while some people in comedy are just loveable scamps, some of us are much worse, or come in contact with those that are much worse, and no one has any desire to talk about that fact.

Beth Stelling does not want her rape and abuse to be the story of her life, just as I don’t want my rape or abuse to be the story of mine. I think that’s fair, I think that’s fine, I know that I rarely talk about the trauma I have endured as a way to hold onto myself and my identity. Nothing would be worse for Beth Stelling’s career than to become the Comedian Who Was Raped by Her Boyfriend. What woman wants to be known for the worst thing that has happened to her?

But it’s not as if she didn’t say anything entirely on her own volition. On Instagram, accompanied by photos of her bruised legs and arms, Ms. Stelling wrote, “After I broke up with him he said, ‘You’re very open and honest in your stand-up, and I just ask that you consider me when you talk about your ex because everyone knows who you’re talking about.’ And I abided. I wrote vague jokes because we both live in L.A. and I didn’t want to hurt him, start a war, press charges, be interrogated or harassed by him or his friends and family. I wanted to move on and forget because I didn’t understand.”

Ms. Stelling was told, by her ex no less, not to talk about it—a fact both profoundly disturbing and familiar. She was told not to use it in her material. For a while, she didn’t. She abided, as she says. She didn’t understand. Comedy, as an institution, likes to insist that no topic is too gauche, no rock should be unturned. Simultaneously, it would be inappropriate for Beth Stelling, as a comedian, to talk explicitly about her ex, because she didn’t want to “start a war.” The bruises on her legs were too much, I guess, even when Richard Pryor can make you laugh about the time he ran down the street, high out of his mind and on fire. When Anthony Jeselnik follows up three jokes about dead babies with a joke about animal abuse. They make you uncomfortable in the right way. Ms. Stelling’s bruises make you uncomfortable in the wrong way. Ms. Stelling’s bruises, I suppose, serve not just as an indicator of her pain—once called attention to, they’re a reminder that someone caused that pain. Someone in the community. Someone you might know.

It isn’t as if I dislike Richard Pryor or Anthony Jeselnik—I like them both very much. I just wish the right to make you uncomfortable was distributed evenly, that there weren’t right or wrong ways to make people uncomfortable. If comedy is going to push your buttons, everyone needs a finger with which to press. Everyone needs the right to confess, to potentially humiliate themselves. Rape victims need to be able to tell rape jokes too.

For a hot minute in 2012, I thought about being a stand-up comic. I don’t think I was all that bad at it—not all that good either. I had one night where I absolutely killed, telling jokes about my breasts and Demi Lovato, made friends that I still have now. But the more open mics I went to the less I believed in the idea that comedians are all precious little scamps. They’re hard drinkers, they’re angry, they’re bitter, they’re forgotten people. This is what makes them funny, a lot of the time. But it’s also what makes them uncomfortable to be around.

At one comedy show I went to, I remember a man telling another man that Ray Rice’s wife deserved it. He was not on stage—he had been earlier—he was just talking to another man. I later found out that he made the discount code for his comedy album, “Hitler.” Now, I don’t think it’s wrong or entirely inappropriate to tell jokes about Hitler or the Nazis. One of my comedy friends at the time had a great joke about going on a date with someone who was descended from a Nazi who fell off his guard tower, “not even one of the good ones.” This same friend had an idea for a web series called “Tiny Himmler,” where he would be roommates with Tiny Himmler. That friend understood the point isn’t just discomfort, but, well, laughs. It’s not just “LOL Nazi’s,” but the absurdity of living with a five inch high Heinrich Himmler, or being a gay man on a date with another man who has Nazis in his family tree. Comedy, as an institution, allows for all jokes to be told, but often only the simplest version of that joke. The easiest, cheapest laugh. The most boring joke possible. The joke that makes you least uncomfortable. The joke that does not “start a war.” Did you get it, I said “Hitler.”

The environment that encourages you to make your fans type “Hitler” and giggle about a naughty word is not one that makes people consider what happened to Ray Rice’s wife in the elevator. That makes people consider that their friends might be bad people. That their friends might be putting cameras in the bathrooms in UCB. That their friends might abuse their girlfriends. This is the same environment that made Beth Stelling think that by writing material about what happened to her, she was going to be crossing a line.

I am glad that Beth Stelling is going to write and perform material about her ex, and I hope she fucking kills it. If comedy, as an institution, is actually the freest possible artform, then we need to pay attention to her when she’s posting pictures of her bruised legs and arms, and when she’s making you laugh about them. I don’t think anyone really wants a more coddled comedy, comedy without bite, but instead comedy that is actually edgy. Ms. Stelling isn’t seeking revenge or retribution. She says, “I don’t want … to hurt him now, but it’s unhealthy to keep this inside because my stand-up is pulled directly from my life. It’s how I make my living. My personal is my professional. That is how I’ve always been; I make dark, funny. So now I’m allowing this to be part of my story. It’s not my only story, so please don’t let it be.”

If comedy, as an institution, is going to make good on that, we need to both not gawp at Beth Stelling when she’s at her most vulnerable, and also to just let her write the jokes she wants to write. That’s what comedians are always asking for, right? To just be able to write the jokes they want to write? From here, that sometimes seems like we only want to let them do this when their arms and legs aren’t covered in bruises. We let people write what they want to write when they think Ray Rice’s wife deserved it. When they think saying “Hitler” is a good joke. When they’re quietly installing cameras in bathrooms. When they’re the man who put the bruises there in the first place.

Assistant comedy editor Gita Jackson has dedicated her entire adult life to wading through the marginalia of popular culture and finding gold.