Standing Up In The World Of Stand-Up: When 'Open Secrets' Finally Go Public

Nov 10, 2017
Originally published on November 11, 2017 10:12 am

Allegations about sexual misconduct, including harassment and assault, have come to light in many industries over the past few weeks: food service, politics, entertainment ... and journalism, including here at NPR.

Now, one of the most powerful figures in comedy — Louis C.K. — has been accused of, and admitted to, sexual misconduct. Five women spoke to the New York Times with consistent stories: The comedian steered professional conversations into frankly sexual areas and, in some cases, ask if he could expose himself to them, and proceed to masturbate.

In a statement on Friday, Louis C.K. admitted that the women's allegations were true, and he expressed remorse.

The revelations underscored the fact that the world of stand-up comedy is unique. It's an environment in which success is defined, by many comics and their audiences, by the degree to which one pushes against — or past — polite societal norms in search of darker, universal truths. Backstage at a comedy club, sexually explicit conversations of a kind that would likely trigger disciplinary action in any other workplace are par for the course.

Indeed, Louis C.K. has attained his status at the top of the comedy world as a result of his willingness to make himself appear damaged and vulnerable, building stand-up sets around the frank discussion of his sexual hangups and basest urges.

In a world where sex is a go-to comedy topic, women who find themselves the objects of sexual misconduct have little recourse. Comics, after all, are essentially freelancers; no professional infrastructure exists to redress sexual offenses. Several of the women who talked to the Times about Louis C.K. spoke of the tremendous power differential they felt as comics just embarking upon a career, in contrast to a hugely successful comedian, who abused his status as potential mentor.

Speaking to All Things Considered, NPR reporter Elizabeth Blair said there's something about the comedy industry that puts young female comedians at risk.

"It's very difficult for somebody just getting started to take on a giant," she said. "And for young comedians, they have to do a lot of touring of small clubs around the country. They can find themselves alone in some pretty sketchy situations late at night."

Blair also noted that another important way to advance a comedy career is to attend comedy festivals, frequented by agents and networks. But festivals also mean after-parties and late nights at the hotel bar, which are not the safest spaces for networking. Just last month, the head of Montreal's Just For Laughs Festival resigned following abuse allegations.

For years, women have responded to sexual misconduct in the comedy world by creating whisper campaigns to warn other women about sexual predators. This is how the actions of comedians like Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby could attain the status of "open secrets" for years — stories kept within the industry, addressed publicly only obliquely, if at all, out of fear of professional or legal reprisal.

Now, Blair said, a younger generation of comedians — male and female — is speaking up about the behavior of its elders. When allegations against Bill Cosby began to surface, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler addressed them — sort of — in an SNL Weekend Update segment in 2005. In 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress more directly "outed" Cosby onstage, emboldening others.

"It's still a very male-dominated field," Blair said, "but as more and more women are given the opportunity to hone their craft and land specials, they will probably feel more empowered to speak out."

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In the past few weeks, we have heard stories of sexual harassment in just about every industry from Hollywood to politics to journalism, including here at NPR. The senior vice president of news resigned after harassment allegations. Now one of the most powerful figures in comedy, Louis C.K., has admitted to sexual misconduct against five women. Rumors about the comedian have circulated for years, but comedy is an industry where victims of harassment are essentially freelancers with little to no protection if they come forward.

Here to talk more about this is NPR's Elizabeth Blair. Hi there.


MCEVERS: So let's start with this Louis C.K. story. Five women talked to The New York Times about this. We should warn listeners their descriptions are graphic. These women were all in or around the comedy world, and the behavior they describe is pretty consistent. An interaction starts out professionally or collegially, Louis C.K. abruptly steers the encounters into sexual territory, and in some instances he masturbates in front of them, right?

BLAIR: That's right. And these stories have been out there for a long time. It was one of those open secrets. So it's interesting that he's admitting to the allegations. In a statement today he says he's remorseful and that he learned too late the power I had over these women is that they admired me, and I wielded that power irresponsibly.

MCEVERS: Is there something about the comedy industry in particular that puts young women at risk?

BLAIR: It's not for the meek. You know, comedy, you have to be intellectually aggressive, if you will. And you find yourself out on the road, touring these small clubs. You may find yourself in some sketchy situations. You go to these big festivals, and it's sort of understood that you'll go to these after-parties to network or to the hotel bar late at night. One of those festivals is the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. And it's a great festival, but, in fact, the founder of that festival had to resign recently because of allegations of sexual misconduct.

MCEVERS: And, you know, Louis C.K. was well known for his sexually explicit, like, stand-up routine. I mean, he joked about masturbation and he joked about his own perversion. Let's listen to a clip from one of his shows in 2011.


LOUIS C K: It's really a male problem not being able to control your constant sexual impulses. Women try to compete. They're like, well, I'm a pervert. You don't know. I have really sick sexual thoughts. No, you have no idea.


C K: You have no idea 'cause see; you get to have those thoughts. I have to have them.


C K: You're a tourist in sexual perversion. I'm a prisoner there.

MCEVERS: So interesting to hear that now in light of the allegations against Louis C.K. But, I mean, this is what he was known for - right? - going into the dark recesses of his own mind. Are comedians talking now about how to walk that line of being yourself without, you know, being offensive?

BLAIR: That's right. I mean, and you heard people were howling at those jokes. And, yes, lots of comedians get their best material from the dark recesses of their mind. And that's kind of a comedian's job, to push the envelope whether it's politics or sex. You know, actually, many comedians joke about masturbation, not just Louis C.K. The problem is when a powerful comedian says that to somehow mask really inappropriate behavior, which is what he did for a long time.

MCEVERS: What are other comedians saying about this issue in the industry now?

BLAIR: Well, so as we're seeing in other industries, comedians are coming forward. And there is a new, a younger generation, male and female, who are doing less sexually explicit material. And comedians who want sexual misconduct to stop, they get the word out from the stage. In fact, you know, Bill Cosby, another comedian that was revered and who has had many, many allegations against him for sexual assault, it was a comedian - Hannibal Buress - who mentioned it in one of his stand-up shows. And when he mentioned it, that went viral. And before you know it, it was making headlines everywhere. So it's still a very male-dominated field. But as more and more women are given opportunities to hone their craft and land specials, they will probably feel more empowered to speak out.

MCEVERS: NPR's Elizabeth Blair, thank you so much.

BLAIR: Thank you, Kelly.