On Groundhog Day 2012, I did stand-up comedy for the first time at an open mic in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Technically, the open mic began the night before with sign-up at 7 p.m., but I was 38th on a list of 60 other comics and ended up performing well after midnight, so it counts! Groundhog Day is my favorite movie, and that tidbit was a neat little bow on the origin story I was vividly imagining for myself. Performing that night was a culmination of beating a three-year major depressive episode, transitioning from my life as a freelance writer and editor for comedy-focused publications, and achieving the dream of an obsessed little girl who’d often get in trouble for sneaking out of bed to watch ComicView on BET in the middle of the night. Even though I was tired and the wait that night was long, I felt honored to be there among comedians I loved.
It’s been almost six years since then, and comedy — unsurprisingly — has been very different from what I’d anticipated. (For one, the comedians I watched in fourth grade on BET and thought must be famous millionaires actually got paid $200 and a few drink tickets — and most likely still had day jobs at the time of their appearances.) I quickly learned that the road to professional comedic success is long and winding, the steps to building a career are ill-defined and nebulous, and the structure of the environment and community is chaotic and permissive. But I loved it — and still do. Interacting nightly with people who seemed as outwardly odd and displaced as I consistently felt was amazing. I’ve never felt more instantly at home with any group of people.
But in the wake of sexual misconduct claims against Bill Cosby and now Louis C.K., the fact that stand-up comedy has also been a haven for misogyny that enables predatory behavior must be talked about. It’s an industry dominated by men. Men mount most of big festivals that give comics exposure, men own the clubs, men are largely the ones who make decisions that can shape a career. Comics tend to brush off potential red flags as idiosyncratic personality quirks. And because a successful comic can develop a cult of personality, and because personal relationships are often also vital professional ones, we as a community have done a horrible job of holding problematic comics accountable. We have repeatedly demonstrated a preference for harboring successful predators over protecting their less powerful victims.
As a new comic, and a black queer woman at that, I tolerated a lot of behavior from more powerful male comedians that, in hindsight, I wish I’d addressed less ambiguously. In 2013, I joked in a social media post that I’d have to jump freight cars in order to afford traveling to perform at a comedy festival I had been invited to. That night, a man I trusted, and who’d positioned himself as an authority in the Chicago comedy scene, offered to help me with a plane ticket if I helped him with a sexual favor he left just vague enough to justify pretending I was crazy when I challenged him on his inappropriate proposition.
A few years ago, after getting booked as an opening act at a huge, traveling outdoor comedy festival, I watched and listened after my set as a comic I looked up to told graphic jokes about my body and about having sex with me onstage, in front of hundreds of people. I was out in the audience taking a picture of the crowd with my phone when I realized he was describing the dimensions and particulars of my body. Audience members near me who’d just respected and listened to me as a professional entertainer were now turning to look at me and laughing at the things he was saying, nodding in agreement. And I couldn’t go back onstage and roast him — which is what I would do when I’m on my home turf. Another comic told me to be calm and not to become confrontational because the same comic who made those infuriating and public sexual comments also said I was really funny and that he might book me in the future. At the time I listened, but now I realize that appeasing misogynists will never help my career. Men like that don’t book women like me, so earning irredeemable cool points with them is a waste of everyone’s time.
I wish the woman I’ve since grown into could go back to that festival and tell the girl I was at the time — the girl who awkwardly giggled backstage with a much more successful male comedian in mixed company about how big her ass was and panic-chuckled when he casually dropped the n-word (he’s not black) — that there’s no use tiptoeing around this stuff for the sake of my career. There’s no behavior I can exhibit that will convince him or men like him to respect me, so I may as well be myself.
I wish, as an open mic-er in Chicago, I’d known that the nice, initially helpful, more established comedian I hung out with outside of shows would harass me for years after I ended an extremely brief romantic dalliance with him after he began to show signs of the behavior to come — telling me not to dip my toe in the water if I wasn’t going to swim, and calling me “a traitor dating white boys” because of rumors he’d heard. That he’d follow me around house parties, yelling at me until male friends and comics had to intervene. That this would continue until my career surpassed his, the power dynamic shifted, and he realized he couldn’t get away with treating me this way with impunity. I wish I’d known that one night, after I thought I was past this, he’d show up drunk to the open mic I hosted and smack my butt multiple times, then yell at me to “keep it classy” when I had him thrown out and banned. That I’d be blamed for trying to ruin his career when I posted online about what happened at the mic that night, without even mentioning his name or the years of harassment that preceded that incident. That because people who were at the open mic that night and saw what he did themselves chose to unbook him from a handful of shows for about two weeks, I would earn a reputation as a trigger-happy feminist out to take down all men.
I wish I’d been more understanding of hilarious female comedians I believed were sequestering themselves from men — and therefore success — at all-female “safe space” shows and open mics. It boggled my mind that these talented women would choose to self-segregate and relegate themselves to comedic obscurity. I tried to spread the good news about popular open mics where they could perform more visibly and get more exposure and booking. And I remember being heartbroken, hearing woman after woman tell me there’s no way she’d set foot in that boy’s club. These women told me stories of harassment and intimidation, of sexual advances and threats of sexual and physical violence so intense it kept them away from the broader comedy scene.
I had experienced many of the same things but at the time, I judged these women for what I perceived as their lack of toughness. I found fault with women practicing self-preservation when I should have placed that scrutiny on the men who made them feel unsafe. The culture of sexism and harassment in comedy was so ingrained in my mind that I considered it a weakness to avoid sexist environments altogether if that avoidance hampered success.
I’ve had to make the morally and financially irreconcilable choice between paying my bills and having guaranteed work at a venue where the owner is a known abusive harasser. Was I, a survivor of abuse, a hypocrite for accepting these paychecks? Or was I a bad feminist for even considering losing money over the cruel behavior of a toxic man? In trying to make a living in comedy, you often find yourself in no-win situations, and face difficult choices as a woman, an ally, or a person with a functioning soul.
The added stressors of being a woman in comedy are compounded by some of the male comedians I consider peers, friends, and overall Good People just not getting it. Comics who don’t see that praising and absolving Louis C.K. after his apology and acknowledgement of his predatory behavior is hasty and irresponsible.
Male comics will routinely slip out of a venue’s side doors because things got heated with a heckler, yet those same men will argue with and dismiss women who feel threatened by aggressive men in the audience. In response to druggings in the Chicago comedy scene, I’ve heard “good guys” say that it can’t be true because female comedians aren’t attractive. I’ve been told by male comics that I only get opportunities because I’m a woman and black and I’m not straight. I’ve been told I should appreciate when guys sexually harass me because I’m not conventionally attractive. That I need to lose weight for my career — by a man in a dirty T-shirt on a show where I was in a dress and heels and full face of makeup. At a comedy club holiday party, a comedian joked that he could drug the punch and get away with it like Cosby because “there’s no HR in comedy.” I’ve been told that a comedian couldn’t have possibly sexually harassed me because he’s vocal about not being attracted to black women. I’ve been threatened with legal action for corroborating a male comedian’s social media post about a local comedy scene harasser while the male comedian who made the post was left unscathed. A male comic told me that, because my stalker — who I faced for 10 months in court who I left my hometown and moved across the country to escape — never hit me, I was going too far and “acting like a white girl” by filing for an order of protection — as if black women are defined by how much pain we can endure and all allegations by white women are overreactions.
Every female comedian has countless throwaway stories like this. We silently bear these things while listening to our male counterparts gush about how fun comedy is because they get to hang out at bars late at night and get drunk with their closest friends. But because there seems to be an upper limit on how many women or people of color or queer comics can be on a show (that’s not clearly labeled a women’s show or a black show or a gay show), talented, hardworking female comedians can effectively be ships passing in the night — performing at multiple shows a night and never running into one another. As a new female comic, I felt the party atmosphere of comedy was one I heard through the wall from another room — and telling this to my male counterparts, some of whom have since become my closest friends, consistently comes as a surprise to them. It begins to feel like your friends are just flatly refusing to acknowledge that female comedians pursue comedy in a parallel but wholly sovereign universe from their experience.
It’s heartbreaking to see a promising new female comic at an open mic, chat her up, tell her where the good mics are — only to hear a few weeks later that the creeps have scared her off. It’s heartbreaking to overhear a white male friend say the only way he’s going to make it in comedy is if he becomes a trans, female, gay asian, amputee — as if men aren’t still largely comedy’s gatekeepers and decision-makers — as if any time a woman or queer person or POC gets a comedic opportunity, it’s somehow been implicitly stolen from the white comic who truly deserved it. It’s heartbreaking to have to have the same Groundhog Day conversation over and over with male comics who think women are using accusations to further their careers instead of protect themselves from predators.
In an ideal world, I’d want comedy to be the thing I dreamed it could be before the first night I took the stage. But I’m encouraged by the bravery I’ve seen from survivors of harassment and abuse. I believe that the tide is changing. For every man who calls public predator outings a “witch hunt” there are many more survivors grateful and relieved that the men hurting them can no longer hide behind secrecy and their power or reputations. For every predator the world of comedy can excommunicate, there are countless women, people of color, and queer comedians who will feel more comfortable sharing their perspectives.
We already know what predators sound like. We’ve seen what they do. We’ve heard the messy lies they tell. We’ve protected them and their art. It’s time we hear some new voices and do our very best to protect them too. ●
Rebecca O'Neal is a stand up comedian, television host, and writer from Chicago living in Brooklyn.