Elephant in the Room

I went on record with Vulture about Louis CK…

They said only 17 comedy bookers went on record but they didn’t include anything from my interview so I’ll include myself. Maybe because I’m not so much a comedy booker anymore? Well, ok! Probably for the best! ha ha.

I have been performing, hosting, producing, teaching, and booking comedy for many years (IO, UCB, founder of the Magnet Theater, independent weeklies and showcases, comedy festivals, pilots, and a recent three years as Talent Buyer at Union Hall), so have been dealing with these issues personally and professionally for ages, not just in the wake of Louis CK and #metoo. 

The question Vulture asked was whether a comic’s “reputation was really a deal breaker.”

I think reputation is more important than even talent. We are not just making deals, not just looking for profit opportunities and weighing the consumer marketplace like other businesses, but we are truly building communities, amplifying voices and cultures, supporting people we believe in, and by extension endorsing their actions, onstage and off. So these issues are the heart of the integrity we should have as artists, gatekeepers, institutions. When the gates are small, it’s even more important. That’s where you can nip shit in the bud so people can learn and grow, and if they don’t want to grow, you get to close those little gates and keep out the jerks. As I got bigger opportunities, I saw personal accountability lowering, and when agents, managers, bookers, venues, audiences, other artists, keep letting things slide, no one wants to be the person to say anything, and comics fail upward and the silencing increases.

But gatekeepers especially are supposed to be keeping the gates. Sometimes I have done it quietly, like not hiring a comic with sexist, ageist, or anti-Asian material…the last bastions of acceptable humor so I still had to be quiet or else I am the “bitch.” Eh, whatever. Everyone knows I was never quiet just not public because I’m profesh. I always said, to much disbelief and mockery by others in the industry, that I would not book Louis CK, and a long list of many of your favs, because of all kinds of behavior which I had experienced decades ago or yesterday, first or second hand. If I heard a story with some shitty personal behavior à la Aziz, I’d either talk to the parties if I knew them, or take the word of the complainer, because I personally know how hard it is to complain, and I would probably just not work with them again. Of course, this isn’t Madison Square Garden $ at stake-my max has been 3000– and when I got to book Aziz it was for free shows in backs of bars when no one knew who he was and my experience with him was always positive. If I had a chance to book him again, I’d start there and would not be shy to ask if his friends have helped him figure out what he did wrong with that personal issue made public. I’d ask him more because I care about his growth as a person and artist, even though I haven’t seen him in years, than about whatever gig it would be. On the upside we had a nice national discussion about informed ongoing enthusiastic consent from all of that, didn’t we? And we all get it now, right? Hello?

If I have a choice—and I make it my life’s goal to always have a choice—I’d rather work with people who lift other people up than those who belittle, abuse, and silence others, onstage or off. It didn’t take a New York Times article to bring me to that conclusion. But it did take that for some male industry peers to finally say, oh hey you were right! Now we believe you! (About this one at least, you seem to just have personal issues about the others.)

The thing that pissed me off most about the LCK Aspen Comedy Festival story, from the very beginning, when I first heard it, is the way he and his 3 Arts manager silenced the Chicago improvisers who, like LCK, have only their ideas and life experiences as their material. If he thought nothing was wrong with what he did, why not just let them tell their story! It wasn’t like he was a GOP candidate….this behavior was not inconsistent with his stage and bar personality. But only he was allowed to tell these stories? And since these women were often so open with their sexuality in their comedy, too, the vibe they got from the comedy community wasn’t supportive.

And that was the common reaction when the NYT story came out so many years later, too: “Why did they go back to his hotel?” I know what it’s like to be a drinker wanting to keep drinking and hanging out with cool people. You’re at a festival in a small town and the bars close early so you go to the biggest hotel room. And if that’s our lifestyle—this job that sometimes comes with this lifestyle, as a performer, writer, producer, agent, manager—isn’t an unconsented penis the least we should expect? This is a #metoo for sure but I’m still not as brave as these women and sometimes I think I still want to work here.

As to “the moral outrage cancelling out giving them another chance,” another question Vulture asked, I truly believe every person is redeemable. I even sometimes fantasize about Trump having some overwhelming trauma or Dickensian haunting that awakens his humanity, even knowing he has a severe mental disorder which prevents that. I know I have sometimes behaved poorly in the past, and am so grateful I have had the opportunity to set these things right and repair relationships. It’s part of growing as a mature person. It’s actually a pretty amazing thing, and I’m sad more people don’t embark on both the lifestyle of mistakes and also the difficult learning from those mistakes. It’s not a matter of “if audiences have forgiven and forgotten,” that is so cynical and opportunistic. It’s whether the offender has truly listened, understood, been honest, accepted the consequences, and changed their behavior. Then I would wholeheartedly stand behind them, if I believed it. If not, I have no interest in listening to them, especially if their job involves the truth. There was an artist who had issued a non-apology apology for something they did that was pretty egregious to the NPR set, so when I was offered the chance to book them years later I went online to see if they had ever figured it out. They had. They had written about it. I enthusiastically booked them. 

Shit happens. But you own it. Especially in comedy where you can’t walk around afraid to make a mistake. But when you make the mistake you own it. I am repeating myself because it’s really the only point here. You own and own up to your words, your work, your actions. And the sooner the better. And try to minimize the damage to others. Personally I prefer the kind of mistakes that hurt me and not others. I promise I will make it up to me one day.

In Louis CK’s case, he and his manager at 3 Arts were still denying the women’s accounts right up until the NYT publication, trying to continue the silence, continuing to harm the victims. The quick “I didn’t know how much POWER I had over these women I am so POWERFUL” was awful and becomes one of those “sorry to those I offended (but some women were cool with it so how could I know ugh!?)” apology which does not display any of the things, honesty, openness, humility, that show that a person, or a society, has done the work, any work, to figure it out.

As to the Vulture’s question about the Comedy Cellar “Swim at Your Own Risk” bullshit audience warning: this shows how little this venue cares about this issue that they are willing to make it into a lame punchline. What if we instead recreated the conditions we are actually talking about, have men masturbating in front of cis het men in the audience without consent, or do it at their jobs, maybe these men might start to understand. And make those men know they can’t even discuss it without being labeled a troublemaker. Sorry, you showed up, you consented, says so on your ticket. You went to a hotel room *gasp*, you consented. You chose to work in a field dominated by men. You really want to say something and risk not being hired again? Also this isn’t a big deal, get over it.

What Comedy Cellar and these other venues are saying, as the industry says, as society says, if you have an issue, just don’t come. Stay home. And all of the other comedians have no choice but to consent to be on the lineup or lose the gig, which is, of course, not actually consent if not informed, ongoing, enthusiastic….remember?

And the worst part is that we are still talking about this. Good and funny women are wasting time and still losing spaces over this and we are not getting to hear from them. I just wasted time writing this which I probably won’t send. [I did send but they didn’t quote me.] And now there’s another venue I can’t go to, though I want to support the comics I have been supporting my whole life. 

My good friend Emily Flake said it all in an illustration which has LCK taking the mic away from the female comic on stage and using it to masturbate while she helplessly tries to get the attention that has been taken from her. Because that’s the hardest part. It was so hard to get here in the first place, and now how do we take the mic back and get him off the stage?

This is of course a white male privilege and power issue. I’ve become obsessed with problematic fav Latino rapper 6ix9ine (who incidentally is funnier than any of these comedians!) He did something really stupid a few years ago when he was 17 or 18, was present dancing around, not participating, when sex acts were performed by others with a minor, then he reposted on social media the video “the grown men” had uploaded. I find his story kinda believable, that the girl had asked him how old he was, which made him think she was worried about him being underage (he’s a babyface.) But whatever the truth, he showed up at court, went to jail, was on probation, (now in jail on other non-sexual charges. Free 6ix9ine!) Despite his tremendous fan base, most of the online commenters call him (maybe inaccurately) a pedophile, (inaccurately) a rapist, wishing him prison and death. He knows it was wrong and why, apologized to the mother and the girl, but that community isn’t having it. And meanwhile LCK, a grown grown grown white man with predominantly white man fans, admitted criminal sexual assault on multiple women over many years, traumatized them, silenced them, hurt their careers, continued to deny and obfuscate with the help of some of the most powerful people in comedy, and the whole white male world just wants to keep minimizing this, saying “it’s not like he raped anyone,” wants to get back to normal so we can laugh and go back to thinking that this is ok behavior. I mean the white male president of the US did worse than both of them and he’s the white male president of the US, right?

…Just a lil coda since I wrote this Nov 14 and since then the genius everyone was mourning came back repressed repressive oldmanning it about Parkland survivors and gender queer kids which inspired this wonderful rant by a person I don’t know. Is “oldmanning” ageist? Don’t answer that- I don’t think I care this time. Love ya and this crazy biz! ha ha ha ha ha.

Elephant in the Room

Just don’t call it feminism

In honor of International Women’s Day, a story:

Sometime in my college years of 1987-1991, I got in a kitchen fight with the Baffler’s Tom Frank about Madonna. I have been fighting in kitchens at parties since way back. I was and am that girl. In high school, I talked politics in the kitchen of Articles of Faith’s big blue house in Chicago, wearing stylish vintage men’s clothes while other kids were having sex in other rooms. I had started to adopt that look in sixth grade in Hermosa Beach when someone from Black Flag said I looked cool when I showed up to rescue my friend from her big brother’s party, and I was wearing my southern private school uniform, (button down shirt and loafers) because that’s all I had. Most people thought I was more weird than cool but that kept me going. When preppy became fashionable I started wearing more black and sparkles. I danced all night to sexy but sometimes sexist house music and fancied myself more a gay male British pop star than what society called a “girl.” I went to prom in drag in a shiny tux, more to be incognito than making any sort of point. But I knew gender was a fluid and societal construct before I knew what those words meant.

But that night in college, I was defending Madonna because—and it’s hard to overstate what a new phenomenon she represented–I found it refreshing to see a woman being powerful, controlling her career and sexuality, wearing, doing, saying, what she wanted. All of my female heroes had been out of view: intellectuals, musicians, scientists, who like me mostly just grooved along in a man’s world wearing mostly men’s clothes doing man things. Or they did their own thing so therefore were regarded as insane and they were my heroes, too. Kate Chopin, Gena Rowlands, Jessica Lange…Ok I see these are all artists and why not add some imaginary characters: Nancy Drew, Betty not Veronica, Jules y Jim’s Catherine (sorry, no room for the central woman’s name in the title). Sanity is also a societal construct, ever more problematic in an insane society. That’s why so many of these real and fictional women kill themselves when they can’t fit in.

So Madonna: I thought it was great that there was this mainstream pop star doing what she wanted and that young women (I was 20 but thinking about the young’uns!) would be inspired to also be powerful, lift one another up, reject what the patriarchal society was telling them, reject their perfect Republican hairstyles, foundation, mascara, lives. In the 80s it was an act of rebellion in middle class Chicago suburbs to wear black in the sea of bright colors, to not brush your hair, to not wear makeup, to wear the wrong kind of makeup, to wear something too sexy (for me, only at Rocky Horror!), to wear something not sexy enough. I was sent to the counsellor and put on the drug watch list just because of the way I dressed which was merely different from others. (I DID need counseling and DID do drugs but that wasn’t the point and conforming wasn’t the solution.) In 1991 on a cross-country road trip with my sister, I knotted my long (from neglect) hair on top of my head like all the popular girls do now and gas station clerks acted like I was about to rob them. Thelma and Louise had just come out and no one did that then.

Well, maybe I did overstate the Madonna phenomenon. Anyway, Tom Frank’s counter point about Madonna was: “yeah yeah fine but how does this help working class women.” 

He may not have said quite that, or anything close to that, but he was right. Let Madonna do what she wants, but that’s not a life of service and trying to lift others up. It might be empowering TO HER but it shouldn’t be confused with Feminism, which I understand as working for equal rights and opportunities under the law and out from under the many other means of control. Maybe her music did lift people up, but her wearing a bra instead of a shirt didn’t. That just sold records using the sexual language and currency that has always proven successful in these endeavors. 

And somewhere along the line: I DO WHAT I WANT became the mantra of many of these young women’s lower case feminism. And I agree, seriously, DO WHAT YOU WANT (sure, like the men, but within reason and the law….unless the laws need to be changed and then maybe work to change that for yourself, and also others?) And also while you are DOING WHAT YOU WANT, try not to hurt others or yourself, and also accept the consequences of your actions instead of blaming others? But yeah, DO WHAT YOU WANT, but please fucking stop calling it Feminism because that’s not what it is.

In my 30s sometime I wrote and performed a piece as Hillary Clinton in which she asserted herself as a smart progressive woman and ALSO a sexual being, something she was not being allowed to do or be in those years. Or now. It was, I thought, provocative and funny in a not-funny but making a point kinda way. I was not defending her as a person as much as condemning the roles male-run society proscribes for women. If you’re going to be powerful, you can’t be a sexual being. If you’re going to be a sexual being, you can’t be powerful. I performed it at my aunt’s condo at Thanksgiving that year, at UCB, and insanely I put it into my writing packet for all to see and not hire me. 

Now, I’m a woman in my 40s doing my best in my career and art to elevate the playing field, the dialogue. I take this service seriously. My idea of myself as a woman and person has never been and will not be solely defined by my sex or sexuality or what I wear or the color of my skin, but my ideas about things, and how hard I’m willing to work for what I believe. And I encourage all people to broaden their own self-definition. I’m not qualified to think about issues of gender, race, sexuality, art, because of who I am but because I’ve spent much of my life asking, listening, reading, and thinking out these issues. I’m not always right but I’d rather be wrong and be someone who is at least asking questions, challenging the status quo, asking for better. I try to keep my thoughts and actions on the lines of: “what’s best for all of us,” not “what’s best for me.”

And I’m back in wonderful art and entertainment and comedy which is an exciting platform for exchanging and mixing ideas and putting light on injustice and prejudices but then always in danger of sliding into showbiz which builds forcefields of silence as the higher the stakes, the less people call each other on their shit. As I’ve gained my teeny bit of power and status and I feel more silenced than ever before. From the girl who once submitted that not-really-funny-but making-a-point pro-anal sex Hillary Clinton sketch to SNL.

So I just wanted to shout, one day only, for lady day, because I’d rather be wrong and loud than quiet and right:


Feminism doesn’t work for the benefit of the self, but for shared benefits for everyone.
Feminism tries to build others up.
Feminism doesn’t shame others for voting for the candidate of their own brain’s choice, for voting based on ideas not gender.
Feminism doesn’t shame others for following boys around or not following boys around.
Feminism doesn’t shame others for not being sex-positive enough.
Feminism doesn’t shame older women for daring to be sexual or for aging.
Feminism doesn’t shame men for calling themselves Feminist.
Feminism doesn’t answer objectification and denigration with the objectification and denigration of others.
Feminism doesn’t meet hatred with hatred.
Feminism recognizes and accepts the value of a variety of expressions and beliefs and experience.
Feminism works for freedom from sexual discrimination more than freedom of personal sexual expression 
Feminism recognizes that perhaps personally empowering sexual expression can sometimes reinforce sexual discrimination of those with less power.
Feminism isn’t gonna cosign the idea that it’s empowering to use sex to sell yourself or your ideas. That’s a DO WHAT YOU WANT but don’t call it Feminism.
Feminism would rather fix the societal inequalities that allow sex industry to flourish than theorize about whether selling your sexual self ought to be considered empowering.

Feminism is empowerment through service to others, especially other women.

Ok I wore myself out.
Did I wear you out?
As Robert Reich always says, what do you think?

Originally posted to Facebook March 2016