In the light of recent allegations against Russell Brand, Metro are re-sharing this article from 2020.
Newsflash: comedy, as an industry, has a problem with how men behave towards women.
That’s right, us – the comedians! The beta-males and bullied-at-school, the snowflake leftist ally gang! Who would have possibly thought it?
Well, no s**t. All industries have problems with how men behave towards women. However, in light of the Russell Brand Dispatches documentary, there has been testimony after testimony circulating on social media about the behaviour of men on the comedy circuit.
The ‘circuit’ here is essentially our workplace, but there is no organisation behind it – it is an organic collection of rooms, promoters, pubs, clubs and theatres that range from The Hammersmith Apollo to the Edinburgh Fringe to 20 chairs above a pub in Carlisle.
Its underground word of mouth existence and weird ramshackle history makes it a strange and exciting place. But it also means that anyone who can put up a sign and take cash on a door has power.
As a new act, the idea of getting £20 to stand on stage and make people laugh blew my mind. The very first time, a fire was lit in my belly. I wanted to know every gig, every promoter, every nook and cranny of this hidden world.
I’ve had life-changing experiences, mostly good, some bad. But even in the darker times, the dead ends and crappy nights on smelly sofas of odd men, I never once felt afraid for my own safety, or that my future career might rest on anything more than my performance on stage.
This is not a story shared by the women in comedy. For many their route to a career in this industry is an obstacle course of overcoming the rampant sexism of audience members, promoters and other acts, as well as suffering the comedians who try it on, the isolation of being the only woman on the bill, the nights where ‘accommodation included’ turns out to be a sofa bed in a strange man’s house, and in some cases, sexual assault and rape.
As someone who was once in a relationship with a comedian I will always value the insight it gave me into just how different things are for my female peers – the abuse online, the comments about their appearance, the derogatory remarks made before they were brought onstage, the endless references to having sex with them, the groping (and infinite attempts made).
But I also remember the guilt at how little I had known about it, how blind I had been to the problem. If, as a man, you’re sitting there thinking ,‘We don’t have this problem in my office/warehouse/annual beekeepers convention!’, speak to your female colleagues.
Ask if they’ve ever been made to feel uncomfortable, or had unwanted physical contact from a co-worker, or been pressured into sex, or ever felt that their gender came before their job?
‘What? Nigel in accounts?! Surely not?! He seems like such a nice guy!’. Or – more likely – comes the fear, the nauseating shame that it wasn’t Nigel at all. It was you.
That fear and shame beats around our guts and it stops us speaking out, changing our own behaviour and, worst of all, intervening to interrupt the behaviour of male colleagues we know to be abusive.
I feel that fear and shame, too, so let’s give it a voice, because it has one in my head – and we may as well go with Nigel.
Whenever I’ve tried to articulate something about other men’s behaviour, Nigel pops up and says, ‘But you’re no better! You’ve had drunken sex! You’ve woken up in a stranger’s bed! You’ve tried to wangle one more drink back at yours! You’re the worst!
‘And if you so much as draft that tweet you’ll be cancelled faster than “Ben Elton Live From Planet Earth”‘(seriously, check it out).
As men it is our duty not to ignore that voice and stay silent in fear of our own clumsiness being exposed, but to listen to it then go back through the Rolodex of flings, flirtations, parties and one night stands and ask where our behaviour has been found wanting.
Was she too drunk? Was I too drunk? What was the dynamic that evening? Did I pester? Did I engineer a situation where it was ‘easier’ for her to have sex with me than it was to arrange transport home, or to find her friends?
As embarrassing as this self-examination may be, we must accept the difference between how we behaved privately and how we present ourselves publicly.
We must commune with our own sense of shame. Only then will we have the confidence to speak out against sexual assault. There are men in our industry raping women and it has to stop.
There are things we can do that go beyond introspection. If you have power and are a ‘gate-keeper’ for your industry, how does gender affect the operation of said gate? Do you expect something from women you wouldn’t expect from men, or see your status as a right to be accommodated by women?
Do you touch the women you work with more than the men? At all? Why? What might that feel like? What is it like to be touched, even just on the arm, by a man who is responsible for whether you get paid? It must feel f**king horrible, right?
‘Oh you can’t even bloody look at a woman without being hauled in front of the courts these days!’I hear you cry. Quite the opposite.
In 2019, it was revealed that only 1.7% of rapes in England and Wales were prosecuted. Sit with that statistic for a while, the full brutality of it.
If your immediate reaction to an allegation of rape is, ‘Well why aren’t the police involved?!’ or ,‘Where’s the evidence?!’ – it’s right there, 98.3%.
You may think your hand on the shoulder is fine (and it may well be!) but the woman you flirt with knows, that if you were to threaten her and force yourself on her, then 99 times out of 100 you would get away with it.
We all need to take responsibility for that complete failure of basic justice and human rights.
On a brighter note, there are also proactive things we can do to make our workplaces better. For example, flood the place with women. In comedy, the shift in atmosphere backstage is remarkable when instead of one woman (or none) there are two, or three, or, God forbid FOUR.
Suddenly that one woman doesn’t represent all women, she has support, confidantes, shared experiences – some of the many things men take for granted and exist wherever we go. And the gig is better for it. It’s more interesting, it feels more energetic and connects with more people in the audience. And, somewhat crucially for comedy shows, it’s funnier.
On the rare occasions I’ve been in writers rooms with a woman (and it’s never been more than one) you would not believe the difference it made – the topics that opened up, the jokes that came from nowhere, the experience of 50% of the population suddenly having a voice in a television show. And, yep, funnier.
Comedy needs more female acts, producers, promoters, writers, all-female line-ups and all-female writers rooms. But this won’t happen unless our industry becomes a safer place.
We have lost too much talent, brilliant women who could not tolerate another comment, another sleazy guy, another assault. Comedy is a bleaker place for their absence.
More from Platform
Platform is the home of Metro.co.uk’s first-person and opinion pieces, devoted to giving a platform to underheard and underrepresented voices in the media.
Find some of our best reads of the week below:
Emily Bashforth explains that, even though Katy Perry was married to Russell Brand, she doesn’t owe anyone a response.
A mum to a 15-year-old vaper shares her concerns about the proposed ban on single-use vapes and how it might impact addicted teens like her own daughter.
An uplifting piece from Emily Powell, who ran away to Vegas with her groom and got married in a 15-minute-long, $150 ceremony officiated by Elvis.
And Pranjal Jain made us all cringe when she shared that she accidentally said ‘I love you’ on a first date after a language translation error. Her date’s reply left her gob-smacked.
Men need to stop accommodating other men we know to be a threat. I’m speaking directly to the male comedians in my industry now. You know all the rumours, the stories that nearly came out, the names mentioned backstage – onstage, even – as well as the injunctions taken out, the NDAs signed.
Of course there must be opportunity for people to address their behaviour, to make direct apologies to those they have mistreated and space for them to change. But until they do, don’t work with them. Don’t write for them. Don’t gig with them or appear on the same platform as them. If your agent represents them, have a word.
This advice isn’t just for comedians, either – anyone can confront bad behaviour when you see it. I don’t mean getting into a fist fight in a bar with an a**hole but saying to friends, ‘I don’t like the way you talk about her’. Stepping in when your friend is pestering someone in a pub, or a club, or at work.
Don’t leave and roll your eyes. Give women a way out. Be a spare wheel. Call a cab. Be active in this. Starve this behaviour of oxygen.
And, finally, if someone speaks up, or shares their story, contact them, reach out and most importantly, believe them.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected].
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