This article was originally published on Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in comedy. Subscribe here to get posts like this in your inbox.
Here’s how it happened. The pandemic hit, comedy shut down, a couple months went by, it reopened. One of the first comics to venture back out on the road, Jeff Dye, didn’t hesitate. “I’m not afraid, I wanna go tell jokes,” he told Theo Von last May. “The people that come to my shows obviously don’t seem to care either. So if they get me sick or I get them sick, fuck ‘em.” This every-man-for-himself attitude soon became gospel for the small army of comedians who spent the entire pandemic touring the country performing unmasked indoor shows. Let everyone take their own risks, they said. People need to laugh. Or as Dye put it, “I’m so tired of being at my house with my dog. I need to flirt with girls. I need to tell jokes.”
What was the cost of reopening? Disease, of course. Comic after comic tested positive for Covid-19, took a break, and then went right back to it. Bryan Callen, Brendan Schaub, Dave Chappelle, Brian Regan, Yannis Pappas, D.L. Hughley, others who didn’t make the news and surely others who never make the news: bartenders, servers, hosts, busboys, cooks, all the unrecognized workers who went back not because they were bored but because they had no other choice. If comics stayed home, maybe they could have too.
Then, yes, there were those who dutifully rode out the pandemic making comedy online or not at all. For them, the ones who gave a shit, the industry is only now reopening. For many of their coworkers, it’s been open the whole time. What this means is there are now two types of comedian: those who placed others’ lives above their own short-term interests, and those who very publicly said Fuck ‘em.
How is it possible to work with someone who doesn’t care if you live or die? The same way it’s possible to work with bigots, abusers, and every other flavor of scum who finds sanctuary in comedy, an industry that routinely makes a gruesome display of punishing its own workers for trying to enforce basic social norms. It’s always been every man for himself. All the pandemic exposed was how far some comics will go when no one’s allowed to criticize them for getting paid.
This is the deadly endpoint of comedy’s peculiar brand of individualism, a philosophy whose aggregate effect is to prevent comedians from prospering by promising them prosperity. The idea that comedy is a meritocracy, that you’ll succeed if you work hard enough, that it’s worth sacrificing your dignity and integrity now for the potential payoffs later—these all hinge on the lie that your fortunes are determined solely by your actions, and the lie in reverse, that your actions determine solely your fortunes. These lies are quite powerful. They’ve atomized the comedy workforce into a sea of individuals primed to do whatever it takes—work for nothing, climb over their peers, keep quiet about abuse in their midst, do unmasked indoor shows during a pandemic—to win not even the lottery but a lottery ticket. It’s a neat system. Most never stand a chance, one or two occasionally hit the jackpot, and their bosses win every time.
The alternative to individualism, collectivism, requires comedy workers to accept that their own fates are linked to the fates of others. No one exists in an isolated career path where their actions affect only themselves. When you perform indoors during an airborne pandemic, you put countless lives at risk. When you work with an abuser, you give them power to keep abusing your coworkers. When you cozy up to a scummy club owner, you give them cover to keep exploiting your coworkers. When you accept low or no pay, you accept it on behalf of every comic who follows you. When you recognize that you are not an individual but instead a small piece of a massive collective, suddenly you gain considerable leverage over the abusers and the exploiters, the venue owners reopening their clubs instead of pursuing non-lethal (and potentially highly profitable) alternatives. This is basic stuff, but the cult of individualism is so powerful in comedy, the promise of meritocracy so intoxicating, that the basics struggle to gain any purchase. The lessons of the Comedy Store strike—that comedy’s power centers will bend to its workers if and only if they are forced to—have long gone forgotten.
No one is immune to the cult of individualism; everyone is harmed by it. In arguing that comedians should refuse to work with clubs that platform bigots and abusers, I often encounter the response that it’s actually anti-worker to demand someone sacrifice their own paycheck when they haven’t done anything wrong. They’re the good guys, after all! It’s for the best that they make money which might otherwise go to bad guys, and that they use any platform they can to put good comedy into the world. This, again, is rooted in the lie that one’s actions affect only oneself. In reality, the progressive comic who works at (oh, let’s just say) The Creek and The Cave gives it authority to keep booking racist comics under the cover of platform neutrality. But there’s nothing neutral about platforming hate speech; the cost it inevitably exacts is neither negated nor justified by one’s own personal advancement. It’s delusional to believe otherwise. Some will say they have no power over a club’s booking decisions and therefore no responsibility. As part of a collective, they have both. The point of exercising that power is that if you get what you want, you won’t actually have to sacrifice the paycheck. If you don’t, you won’t be sacrificing it alone.
A collective outlook would recognize that it’s to all comedy’s detriment when any comedian turns a blind eye toward bigotry and abuse. One thing that happens whenever I write about certain comedians is that I hear from people who worked with or around them. The stories are consistent. They fuck over their employees; they fill clubs with unsavory crowds who get wasted, harass waitstaff, and pick fights. If that weren’t bad enough, many of these comedians are wittingly or unwittingly engaged in a long-term project to legitimize bigotry in the public sphere, a project that makes them ideological foot soldiers in the broader Republican effort to cement permanent right-wing rule. As hard as it is to make a living in comedy now, it will be much harder if this effort succeeds.
Is it fair that destroying the cult of individualism will require comedy’s good actors to start policing its bad actors? No, but comedy was never fair. The only way to nudge it closer towards fairness is for comedy workers to establish some sort of collective moral code—surely there’s a model out there, somewhere—and make it their problem when people violate it. Will they be mocked and attacked for daring to bring morality into comedy? Yes, by people who are already enforcing their own moral code, one that glorifies racism and sexism and never having to apologize for hurting people. Louis CK going back on tour, his ex-fixer running a powerful management firm, entire venues devoted to racist jokes, clubs that disproportionately book men, clubs that don’t pay, clubs that give shelter to abusers and fascists, unmasked indoor pandemic shows—these are everyone’s problem. Under the cult of individualism, the rare comic who criticizes even the most unambiguous transgressions gets blasted into silence by the only side willing to fight collectively for the individual’s right to impunity. Imagine if the other side fought back.
Seth Simons is the writer of Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in the comedy industry. He’s on Twitter @sasimons. Subscribe to Humorism to get articles like this in your inbox.