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Comedy Is a Safe Space for Abuse

Some thoughts about what's happening.


Seth Simons

Aug 07 2021

8 mins read


Four years ago Louis CK confessed to a series of sexual abuses one cannot refer to as assaults without incurring the indignity of comedy workers and fans eager to proclaim that CK asked his targets, one of whom said he mistakenly apologized to her for an act of physical violence he must have committed on someone else, for consent, which several of them gave. Louis CK’s only crime, his defenders will tell you, was misunderstanding the way consent, a frequent subject of his artistic output, functions when one party is more powerful than the other. CK also admitted that his manager, 3 Arts partner Dave Becky, took unspecified steps to keep these women quiet. Becky did not deny this, but insisted he merely asked discretion of women with whom he naively believed CK had a consensual affair. CK declared he would take some time to listen and reflect, returning to the stage a year later to mock trans children and another year later to remind everyone his victims said "yes." He toured before the pandemic and performed regularly during it, appearing with comedy veterans like Dave Chappelle, Michelle Wolf, Joe List, Adrienne Iappalucci, Keith Robinson, and Sean Donnelly. He’s launching another world tour next week, his first stop at Madison Square Garden. CK has never apologized to the women he assaulted; the systems he worked within have not changed; Dave Becky represents Kevin Hart, Bill Burr, Amy Poehler, Issa Rae, Natasha Lyonne, Maya Rudolph, and Hannibal Buress; neither party has ever accounted for the years spent lying about rumors that somehow kept resurfacing. The common wisdom among CK’s contemporaries from the Cellar to the Store is that he was unfairly maligned, he suffered immensely, and he possesses a genius too great to be kept from the audiences hungry for his return. The backlash lost; the backlash to the backlash won. The moral of the story? Comedy is a safe space for abuse. 


One year has passed since Vulture’s heartbreakingly detailed report on Jessica Radtke, who provided extensive documentation of the relationship she had with Jeff Ross when she was a teenager and he was in his early 30s. Her allegations were corroborated by her father, who said he was contemporaneously aware of their relationship and visited Ross’s apartment on several occasions, and her former coworker, who said he knew about the relationship and that Radtke also took him to Ross’s apartment, to which she had a set of keys. Ross’s peers, some of whom acknowledged Ross was known for his dalliances with younger women, leapt to his defense in much the same way Louis CK’s did, arguing that it wasn’t actually so bad: He had a relationship with Radtke, don’t you see, he didn’t just assault her and walk away. Ross himself took a rather different tactic, suing Radtke for defamation in a lawsuit that alleged they only had a relationship after she came of age. In his defense he cited her father, who said Radtke forced him to lie to Vulture from a script she prepared; two friends who attested that they were with Ross at some point or another on the night he allegedly first took Radtke home, had sex with her, and told her to leave; and several other “witnesses” who stressed that the two did not have any sexual relationship until Radtke was of age. Ross, Comedy Central’s longtime “Roastmaster General,” was conspicuously absent from the network’s “Hall of Flame” Roast retrospective hosted by Nikki Glaser earlier this year. But his career has not ended; the industry has not turned its back on him. He remains a fixture at the Comedy Store, just headlined with Dave Chappelle in Yellow Springs and Vegas, and currently has dates scheduled in San Antonio and New York City. I’m tempted to say “It’s as if nothing ever happened,” but the truth is worse. It happened, everyone knows it, and nobody minds. Comedy is a safe space for abuse. 


Last year four women accused Bryan Callen of rape and other acts of sexual abuse. His agents dropped him; Netflix axed the prank show he was making with Chris D’Elia. Callen, denying the allegations, took a break from his podcast and sued the husband of the woman who said he raped her. A few months later he was back on the road. Over the last 12 months he’s headlined in Cincinnati, Dallas, Kansas City, Miami, Indianapolis, Phoenix, Orlando, Nashville, the list goes on. Here we begin to see why they fought so hard for Louis CK. If a man can lose his career because he forced women to watch him masturbate, why, then anyone can go down for anything—grooming and assaulting a teenage girl, rape, pressuring a younger comic to trade sex for stage time, where will it end? It’s almost quaint how desperately they argued CK is too great a talent to lose. What would be lost if insult extraordinaire Jeff Ross quietly retired? What does Bryan Callen bring to the table, exactly? No one bothered to make the case, but then again no one had to. Comedy is a safe space for abuse. 


You would be forgiven for forgetting that six women accused Jeremy Piven of sexual assault in 2017 and 2018. I’ll give you the rundown: He denied it all, took a lie detector test to prove his innocence, and pivoted to standup, where he’s been working steadily ever since. He knew comedy is a safe space for abuse. 


One thing to understand is that while industry power brokers like agents and managers are essential to finding work in TV and film, it’s negligible for comics of a certain stature to book their own tours. Comedy venues are relatively immune to the social pressures on Hollywood decision-making because they don’t serve advertisers and/or shareholders wary of negative brand associations. Instead they serve local and/or tourist audiences who trust them to provide a good show no matter who’s on the lineup. Celebrity comedians with devoted fanbases spread across the country are especially attractive to clubs, which generally have high operating costs and fairly thin margins. So while it may not seem logical that a man like TJ Miller can attack an Uber driver, victim-blame his way through sexual assault allegations, send a cartoonishly transphobic email to a critic, get arrested on federal charges for making a bomb threat on an Amtrak train, bully his way out of a starring role on Silicon Valley, and continue performing in just about every major club in the US and beyond, what you have to remember is that comedy is a safe space for abuse. 


It seems a fair rule that someone who uses power to hurt people should be kept from power. This has never been the way of the world, let alone comedy. When Just For Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 19-year-old in 1983, a judge decided his comedy festival was too important for him to go to prison. None of the men around him were bothered enough to do anything, and Rozon went on to assault many more women in the decades before his actions caught up with him. These assaults are inextricably tied to everything good about Just For Laughs; the fortunes it generated are what made them possible. Here I am inclined to wonder how different comedy would look today if Rozon had been canceled by the Canadian criminal justice system all those years ago, but the truth is that whoever emerged in his place would have emerged under all the same rules encouraging all the same ferocities. That was then, though. In theory—in theory—we now live in a world more attuned to the ways powerful people abuse their power, a world less interested in sacrificing their victims for an evening of entertainment. The wonderful promise of this world is that soon we won’t have to ponder how different things would look, because soon they’ll finally look different. The entire industry is involved in a concerted effort to undermine this promise by dragging us back to the age of impunity. We know what's at stake here because it's already happened. We know what comedy's disgraced men will do with their power because they've already done it. If their effort succeeds—if it's allowed to succeed—comedy will always be a safe space for abuse. 

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