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 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 hang-ups 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 offences. 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 in the wake of 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 their 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.”