Yes, and ... that joke is sexist: Improv troupes, unchecked creepiness and the toll that being "cool with it" takes

The #MadFunnyWomen are right—improv scenes are full of people and situations that smash comedy's needed safe zones

By Arthur Chu

Published February 12, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

 (<a href=''>knape</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(knape via iStock)

So where are the funny women? That’s an easy question to answer today--they’re everywhere, they’re headlining shows like "Inside Amy Schumer" and starring in sitcoms like "Broad City" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and running publications like The Toast. They’re even, finally, hosting late-night talk shows after years of paying their dues for male hosts (even if, somehow, the Muppet universe broke that barrier before the real world did).

But not that long ago--by which I mean when I was in college, an eternity in Internet time but in reality about a decade ago--this was still a controversial question. Luminaries like Christopher Hitchens were giving pompous “scientific” explanations for why women just aren’t funny. Hell, in the long ago days of 2013 you had Norm MacDonald and Colin Quinn casually riffing on Sarah Silverman as the singular ur-female comic and all other women in comedy as imitations of her. Even though women have been behind some of the biggest comedy hits in history--going as far back, at least, as Gracie Allen and Lucille Ball in the Golden Age of TV--this question of “why aren’t women funny” is a persistent, undying meme.

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s the fault of people like Jerry Seinfeld who talk about comedy and “safe spaces” to be opposed concepts--the obnoxious are misguided. Comedy is about safe spaces, it depends on safe spaces, which is exactly why comics have an unwritten code about treating workshopping material in small venues as a “safe space” and see taking that material out of context for a YouTube audience as a betrayal.

There’s the saying that “comedy is tragedy plus time,” but that’s oversimplifying it--I’ve laughed about tragedies that happened to me just yesterday and gotten deeply pissed off at insensitive, shitty remarks about stuff that happened decades ago. What it really is is “comedy is tragedy plus safety.” That safety can be time, or distance, or being in the right venue with the right people--but a big part of the release of laughter comes from the feeling of relief at a shared perspective, at being able to reveal something about yourself or your world that’s deeply fucked up to people who will agree with you that it’s fucked up rather than use it against you.

It has to do with who feels safe.

I remember “RapeJokeGate” a few years ago with Daniel Tosh becoming the cause célèbre for the right to joke about sexual assault and whether rape jokes are ever funny, the endlessly repeated talking point about why jokes about violent and gruesome murder are OK but jokes about a different kind of violence aren’t.

To me, it boils down to something simple--the perception (not the reality, but the perception) of rape in our society is asymmetrical. It’s something we think of as something men do to women. For a guy, rape jokes are about the fear of being accused of rape or thought of as a rapist, not about being raped.

This is what I had buzzing through my mind when reading social media comments about the #MadFunnyWomen hashtag last week. Chicago, the nation’s improv comedy capital, has been rocked by women in the comedy scene coming out and saying that a ton of what’s been happening in said scene is, in fact, not very funny. That “joking” sexual harassment shades into real sexual harassment, that women are treated as props and accessories, that a lot of women get emotionally ground down by the experience and burn out before they ever make it professionally. 

I am not (despite still having “comedian” in my Twitter bio) a comic by trade. I haven’t performed stand-up or improv for a long time. I’ve never done it at the level of the #MadFunnyWomen at UCB or Second City, two institutions that feed the high-profile sketch comedies we watch on TV, from "Saturday Night Live" to "Broad City."

But for a couple years when I lived in D.C. improv was a huge part of my life. It was the anchor of my social network and it was what I spent most of my spare time doing. It played a huge role in shaping my personality and my willingness to put myself out there publicly. I’ve had former troupe mates write about me back when I was on TV.

And, well, the #MadFunnyWomen are right. Even at the best of times, in the best of situations, shit is fucked up.

Improv is supposed to be, after all, the ultimate safe space, a judgment-free zone. It is, after all, incredibly difficult to ask people to go up in front of an audience without a script, reveal the unrehearsed thoughts that are passing through their minds at that moment, and do it in a way that people will find amusing. The “rules” of improvisation that have been set down over time involve constant affirmation--improvisation can only work if everyone says “Yes, and” to each other’s ideas rather than shutting them down.

It’s fun. It’s therapeutic. And among performers who really trust and understand each other it’s transcendent.

But it’s also a path that leads into some predictable ruts. One of which is that men who are in scenes with women--and I should own up to being a serious repeat offender when I was onstage--will default to playing “creepy pervert hitting on unwilling target” with depressing regularity.

Why not? It’s an easy way to grab an audience’s attention and it’s an easy laugh. It’s an easy boundary to transgress, and--most important--it’s the kind of self-deprecating humor male comics love because it’s confronting a negative experience in a safe space. It’s taking something guys are afraid of being--repulsive, unwanted, gross--and taking power over it, embodying the negative image in order to show it has no power over you.

The downside, of course, is that to do that you have to make women into a prop for your own empowerment. Which, in turn, is a trope that’s so well worn it’s spawned an entire genre of genres (from Apatow-style touching dramedies to Andrew Dice Clay-style nihilistic wallowing). Which, at best, gives the women you work with in scenes a boring, crappy role to play and, at worst, smashes their safe space to smithereens for the sake of yours.

Because, after all, women’s issue with dark sexual shit isn’t being thought of as creepy or perverted--it’s being afraid of actually being assaulted. The “joke”--the catharsis, the feeling of relief--when dudes joke about rape is, or at least is supposed to be, from that feeling of safety: ”I wouldn’t actually do this, I think this is as horrible as you do, I’m satirizing how awful people like this are by embodying one of them.”

The reality is that you may know or believe that about yourself, but women in your life have no reason to take your word for it. The reality is that creepy shit happens to women in the comedy scene all the time--that not only are survivors of sexual assault guaranteed to be in the audience of your shows, as people pointed out during the Daniel Tosh controversy, but they probably exist among your colleagues as well.

When Beth Stelling came out and said she’d been in a physically and sexually abusive relationship it was a big damn deal because she was breaking an old, unwritten rule in comedy, that women who work in comedy have to be “cool with it,” that they have to make the guys they work with feel comfortable by not dragging in that scary, heavy shit about sexism and abuse into their world, that they have to preserve the unspoken consensus that we’re all good people here and we can all joke about rape and abuse because we’re all too decent to ever actually do anything like that, because things like that only happen to other people.

In other words, she breached what has, historically, been a safe space for male comedians.

It’s been gratifying to see how well the comedy world of 2016 has handled Stelling opening up about her experience. It doesn’t always turn out so well. One of the hardest things I ever had to hear was a Cleveland-area actress talking about leaving stand-up because she spoke up about being assaulted by a fellow comic and, as a result, got frozen out by her community--not as an act of open retaliation or a show of allegiance to her assailant but just because people weren’t “comfortable” booking her anymore.

I never directly dealt with that situation in my time doing comedy. I did hear the behind-the-scenes whispers about which girls were “cool” and which ones less “cool” and therefore less fun to work with--and heard women I knew echo those assessments, sometimes bitterly dissecting whether their mishandling of a specific incident was what got them on the “uncool” list and made them less of a hot commodity than some other woman.

I got to observe women actually being a majority among entry-level students in improv classes and the ratio slowly-but-surely shift as people worked their way up until the “advanced” troupes that were performing regularly were mostly guys--and, among the minority of women who remained, a few women getting the lion’s share of the guest spots.

And, in an incident I remember vividly, a friend of mine burst into tears and stormed out in the middle of an improv class. Nothing about the scene was overtly sexual or sexist--but it did involve an escalating series of put-downs and insults about our characters blaming each other for being comically useless at their jobs.

She came back after just a few seconds. She apologized repeatedly and fervently for being disruptive. She went on to a successful career doing improv onstage--longer than mine was. But I still remember her terse explanation for why she suddenly couldn’t handle that scene anymore: “It just reminded me too strongly of how people had treated me at work that day.”

Yes, guys get put down in the workplace too. No, being patronized and underestimated and systematically having credit stolen isn’t something that only happens to women--and yes, when it does, laughing about it is a way to cope with it.

But the ability to laugh about it, to make it funny, the difference between genuinely making humor out of it and just bullying someone over it--that requires a certain degree of awareness and empathy, of getting why some jokes might strike a rawer nerve for one person than another. Awareness that I remember I didn’t have at that time--I remember, in fact, wondering when my friend had suddenly become so “fragile”--and that I wouldn’t really have until many long talks over many years about casual sexism in the workplace.

I don’t want to leave a purely negative impression. Most of the women I met doing improv loved it--in fact the class instructor who convinced me to stick with it by telling me how it changed her life was a woman.

Nor is it just an issue of gender. I can speak to the deflation of tension in a room--the palpable sense of relief--when I’m the first one to tell a joke about being Asian to a group of mostly white people. Just like Key and Peele clearly know the feeling of putting everyone in the improv troupe at ease that they’re cool with “black” jokes. I know the complicated double-consciousness feeling of putting on an accent and obsessing over how authentic I’m really being, if my sense of “how Chinese people talk” is influenced more by childhood or Hollywood, and if I’m subverting racism or just buying acceptance by giving people permission to be racist.

It’s hard. It’s not impossibly hard. It is, indeed, possible to negotiate all of that and still be a damn funny comedian. People are doing it on TV right now.

But it takes up extra brain cycles to deal with all that--to have to deal with a more complex idea of responsibility and safety than your colleagues seem to worry about. It’s an extra burden to have to deal with the ugly reality of gender, or race, or class in a much more personal way than people who, from their safe vantage point, can treat those issues as abstract.

It’s work--emotional labor--that, until recently, has been invisibly done by everyone else for the sake of the “default” “normal” people in the community, the ones you can’t piss off or make uncomfortable lest you stop getting called back for auditions. It’s the active effort required to maintain a safe space--for straight white men.

All “p.c. culture” really asks is acknowledgment that this work is hard. Comedy is hard. Creating the feeling of safety that allows barriers to come down enough to look at ugly truths without flinching and accept them, laugh at them, rather than be repulsed by them--that’s hard work. And “political correctness”--asking guys to be the ones uncomfortable sometimes about “bringing up gender issues,” asking white people to be the ones uncomfortable about “bringing up race”--is just about spreading that burden a little more evenly.

Arthur Chu

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Comedy Improv Sexism