Toward A More Perfect Comedian Union

If you had told me 10 years ago, when I launched The Comic’s Comic from a hotel room in Las Vegas during the HBO Comedy Festival, that I’d be writing about sex offenders and Russian agents today, would I still be here?

Before you attempt to answer that rhetorical, let me let you know what happened last summer first.

A comedian reached out to me, sliding into my DMs, to sound the alarm about a newly named New Face at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival who seemed to rely much too often on other comedian’s routines. The evidence: clear-cut. One of the questionable bits even had surfaced in a previous joke theft case that had made TV headlines and caused international embarrassment for the previous comedy thief. Incredible, right? Did I want to ruin this young man before, or even during Montreal, make him the buzziest story at JFL, and run him out of Canada? I decided to wait and see if he would use stolen jokes in his New Faces set. He did not. So now what?

As I mulled whether to write about him or not, I discussed the case with several comedians (without mentioning the perpetrator’s name). What would you do?

Of course, joke theft is nothing compared to comedians who physically abuse other comedians, or the outright embezzlement of your funds, or bookers who never pay you, or comedy clubs that mistreat the features and MCs, or comedians who need to launch GoFundMe campaigns when they fall ill since they cannot afford health insurance. The Comic’s Comic has covered some of these cases individually in the past. But what if we could expand the mission of the site, and much like local TV news stations (in New York City, we have 7 On Your Side, Better Get Baquero) with investigative or consumer-oriented I-team units, establish a space that would invite comedians to file grievances and have a support system that would fight for them?

For the vast majority of us in the comedy community, working as independent contractors, it’s a need that has gone largely unfilled for decades.

The fortunate few gain access to labor support when their success in acting or writing allows them entry to SAG-AFTRA or the WGA. But even then, it’s an uphill battle. The mere hint of unionization may draw pre-emptive attacks on your livelihood. In journalism, the billionaire owner of Gothamist, LAist, DNAinfo and other sites just shut them all down, rather than allow them to have protected labor conditions. In comedy, E!’s Fashion Police with Joan Rivers hired scabs when the writers struck, and never settled. So much other work bypasses union regulations (Laughs, anyone?) and/or offers comedians the chance at “potential exposure” instead of “actual compensation,” knowing that for every comedian who stands up for his or her worth, there will be others, lesser in quality perhaps, but much more willing to sell themselves out and their brethren for even the remotest chance at stardom.

How many times have comedians pointed out the lack of representation by women in TV writers’ rooms, onstage at comedy clubs and bar shows, or onscreen, only to see no substantive change in the gender ratios?

How many times, before and even after the Affordable Care Act, have you heard a comedian complain about the lack of basic health insurance?

And then there’s the gross mistreatment of women and minorities offstage. The #MeToo hashtag on Twitter and Facebook this fall has empowered more women to speak up about their experiences, literally at the hands of men abusing their real and perceived power. We’re now listening, and more importantly, believing and then reacting appropriately to restore some semblance of balance. Harvey Weinstein. James Toback. Kevin Spacey. Showrunners and comedians alike. Louis CK and Al Franken may not have committed the same exact abuses as Weinstein, Toback and Spacey, but they crossed the line. In CK’s case, criminally. Their abuses affect not only their victims directly, but also others indirectly, and all women now must relive their experiences as we’re all reckoning with the past.

These are just a few of the thousands of stories that could be written, and must be told. Please take some time to read them, to let them sink in, to realize what we need to do moving forward.

Sarah Silverman addressed it this week on her new Hulu series, I Love You, America. “This recent calling-out of sexual assault has been a long time coming. It’s good. It’s like cutting out tumors. It’s messy and it’s complicated, and it is gonna hurt. But it’s necessary. And we’ll all be healthier for it. And it sucks and some of our heroes will be taken down, and we will discover bad things about people we like, or in some cases, people we love. Let’s just say it. I’m talking about Louis. And I’ve, of course, been asked to comment, and in full honesty, I really, I really really really don’t want to. I wish I could sit this one out. But then I remembered something I said on this very show, that if it’s mentionable, it’s manageable. So I’m gonna address the elephant masturbating in the room. And, full disclosure, I’m still processing all this shit, but here’s where I’m at on it as of this moment. It could change tomorrow and if it does, I will keep you posted. One of my best friends of over 25 years, Louis CK, masturbated in front of women. He wielded his power with women in fucked-up ways. Sometimes to the point where they left comedy entirely. I could couch this with heartwarming stories of our friendship and what a great dad he is, but that’s totally irrelevant, isn’t it? Yes, it is. It’s a real mind-fuck, you know, because I love Louis. But Louis did these things. Both of those statements are true. So I just keep asking myself, Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them? I can mull that over later, certainly, because the only people that matter right now are the victims. They are victims, and they’re victims because of something he did. So I hope it’s OK if I am at once very angry for the women he wronged and the culture that enabled it, and also sad because he’s my friend. But I believe with all my heart that this moment in time is essential. It’s vital that people are held accountable for their actions, no matter who they are. We need to be better. We will be better. I can’t fucking wait to be better.”

Yes, the victims. This is about them. Not the men we admired or adored who done wrong.

What can we do not only to help the victims, but to protect each other from future victimization?

As Marc Maron, another longtime friend of CK, said in his monologue for Episode 863 of WTF, men need to empathize with women who deal with toxic male work environments every day. “And when you talk about comedy, that world is a god-damned free for all. It’s a Wild West show. Is it a boys club? Yeah, I guess it is,” Maron said. “There was no safe space created for women. There was no special treatment for women and then it was just sort of like, ‘If you can cut it, if you can make it, if you can rise up out of this garbage that is the comedy scene of what I came up in, then you deserve it.'”

That’s not right. Maron continued: “There’s just no HR department for comedy. There’s no place to go to have grievances. It’s stacked against you. If you have a male  club owner and you’ve got a dude that they’re trying to make into a big comic, and you know, he says something or does something or assaults somebody, it’s always brushed under the rug.”

Bob Saget admitted as much in his brand-new stand-up hour Zero to Sixty, out this week, recounting an incident when he was 24, where a comedy club owner in Cleveland gave him two ‘ludes (quaaludes: Bill Cosby’s drug of choice as admitted in a court deposition for one of so many rape allegations against him) and told him to slip them into a waitress’s drink to have his way with her. Fortunately for that waitress in Cleveland, at least that night, Saget didn’t take the club owner’s advice.

Too many other women haven’t been so lucky. Too many other comedians have been taken advantage of, whether physically or financially.

Would a comedian union protect them? We could’ve found out back in 1979, but the famous and infamous strike by stand-up comedians outside The Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip ended before the comics ever could formally unionize.

A quarter-century later, Ted Alexandro helped lead the New York Comedians Coalition to demand better wages from 11 comedy clubs across New York City. Alexandro told the New York Times in December 2004: “Comics have been making the same wage essentially since 1985, and the revenue being created is outrageous.” Of course, ask any feature/middle or host/MC what they make now, and compare it to what club owners paid on average in 2005, then gasp. The tide of this digital comedy boom has not lifted all boats.

I asked Alexandro this past week about the Comedians Coalition, and whether it could or should be resurrected. He told me that NYC comics discussed unionizing a decade ago, and explored operating as a branch of AFTRA, but couldn’t come to a consensus, so they focused just on achieving pay raises at the clubs. Which they accomplished.

“Organizing would depend on the will of comedians to do so. I do think certain aspects would be easier to organize now due to social media. When we were doing it social media was in its infancy. There was some interest from some LA comics to piggyback on our efforts and organize back then but ultimately the scenes are so different and operate within their own parameters that we focused on New York,” Alexandro told me. “Having done it, I can say that organizing requires a lot of sustained effort and focus. Being a comedian is a difficult enough job and taking on organizing is it’s own full time job. Often what happens is at certain moments there is a will to organize around an issue but that dissipates rather quickly once the issue fades a bit.”

What can we do? What should we do to protect each other, if we don’t unionize?

“I think we are all responsible for the environments in which we work,” Alexandro told me. “Women should feel safe and protected in the workplace, as they should in all spaces. I think there should be a zero tolerance policy towards harassment, sexual misconduct, assault or rape. This should apply to comedy clubs, comedy festivals, agencies, management companies and any space within the comedy world, as it should in any environment, work or otherwise.”

The Upright Citizens Brigade theaters have partnered with Callisto to create a safe space for people to report assaults at and within the UCB. We need more places where victims can feel safe coming forward, knowing they’ll be heard, knowing that those listening will take action.

When CK propositioned Rebecca Corry on the set of a TV pilot in 2005, she informed her bosses (Courteney Cox and David Arquette) but didn’t want to make waves. Corry told ABC News this week: “If I could do anything differently, it would be that day. I would’ve shut down production. I would’ve confronted it. And I would’ve dealt with it then, because I have learned that doing nothing, saying nothing, that is not helpful.”

It’s unfortunate and unconscionable that Corry, having been victimized once already, felt the burden of production fall upon her for wanting to report the misconduct.

We need to stand up for each other, protect each other. We need to stand up to other men, too, to not let them get away with hurting anyone else. We need to somehow prevent them from acting on their overtly imperious urges or their subtle and casual racism and sexism. Whether it’s a blind spot or an outright void, we need to make them see it until they stop it.

At least one comedian, Jasper Redd, already announced to friends and colleagues this fall that he wanted to call out offenders in the comedy community. He began his focus on clubs and bookers, but made an addendum Oct. 13, writing:

“In my attempt to bring awareness to the bullshit in comedy & encourage all comics to speak up & take action, quite a few women have hit me up addressing their issues within comedy & I really wanna encourage those who reached out to me & all women in comedy to fight back against the bullshit that they experience on a consistent basis. Because honestly, nobody has more dirt on what really goes down on the darkside of comedy than women, especially the harassment shit. And just like with Harvey Weinstein, women know all of the scumbag weirdo creepy perverted comics, managers & bookers who prey on them with every encounter & only outta fear of being ridiculed & losing opportunities, never say anything & suffer in silence. My sistren, I beg of yall to not be afraid & hold these clowns accountable. No person or entity in this industry can make or break you. None. And I realized it was hypocritical of me to go hard on comedy clubs & bookers, then ignore all of the bullshit that comics do, especially toward women. Real talk, there’s a thousand little Bill Cosbys in this business. In fact, I bet half of the comics that supported me putting clubs & bookers on blast won’t be cosigning this post because of all of the skeletons in their closet that they pray dont jump out. And yall know who you are. So shout out to all you socially awkward, thirsty, no game having, pull your dick out in the car ass comics, who make women comics so uncomfortable that they go outta their way to avoid being on the same show as your monkey ass, because you cant handle rejection, so now you act childish & have a vendetta every time you see her & make things difficult. You’s a bitch & your parents need to be contacted.”

Yes. Yes to all of it.

But people in power, of privilege, need to stand up and demand positive changes. It’s not enough for those fighting for their rights on the front lines for us to amplify their voices. Because if we don’t back them up, if we don’t follow up that amplification with action, then it’s just as effective as giving our thoughts and prayers to the victims in our midst.

What are we doing on a daily basis to make things better?

We all knew and heard the stories about Bill Cosby in some form, but not until an audience member surreptitiously videotaped Hannibal Buress calling out Cosby in Cosby’s hometown did women everywhere hear that call to action once more.

The CBS Diversity Showcase was a shitshow for more than a decade until Rachel Bloom, the award-winning white woman who stars on a CBS-owned network series, confronted network executives and then steered diversity alums to people who could and would hear their stories of abuse.

Every march forward in civil rights has required those of us already privileged and empowered by society’s structure to not only hear them out, but also help them tear down the walls of oppression. We’re the ones with the power to effect the changes we need to see in the world. We must reckon with that power, and we must stop abusing it for our own selfish gains.

The #MeToo movement, like #BlackLivesMatter before it, served as clarion calls for change. They’ve given hope, no matter how small, to victims who now feel emboldened to share their stories with us. Will we hear them? Once hearing them, will we believe them enough to help them?

2017 is a wake-up call for all of us. Don’t hit the snooze button.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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