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“And the Grammy Award for best comedy album goes to … public masturbator Louis C.K.!”
Wait. Let’s back up.
It was November 2021. While I was in New York City for the NY Comedy Festival, I was invited by a comedian friend to the Comedy Cellar. So there I was, part of the inner circle, claiming a coveted spot among comedians mingling with other comedians … and sitting across from Louis C.K.
I thought, “How is this guy allowed at the club after his five-finger shuffle in front of unsuspecting innocent women?”
In my many years working as a comic, I understood the business to be a boys’ club: men favoring other men. And yet I was surprised to learn that the booker of the club was a woman. I also learned that, in a 2019 interview, she referred to accusations against Louis C.K. as “unfortunate” and to offended comedians as “holier than thou.” This is the kind of all-too-common mentality female comedians must battle when dealing with bookers. It started to come together: The boys’ club isn’t a club of boys. It’s a club of people — male and female — who favor boys.
Fast-forward to today. Since 1959, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has awarded best comedy album to only five women. As a female comedian who’s experienced her share of misogyny and sexual harassment in this business, I cannot imagine how Louis C.K.’s victims must be feeling at this moment. This is the epitome of a straight man failing up. C.K. faced backlash in 2017 for masturbating in front of multiple women without their consent. His unwilling audience members, who were less powerful colleagues in the industry, spoke out about his sexual misconduct, and several felt that their comedy careers were stymied by his protectors as a direct consequence. Some left the business in discouragement altogether. While everyone immediately concerned themselves with questions about a possible comeback for C.K., where are the gigs for the comedians — including Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov — who were forced to watch him jerk off? Meanwhile, Louis C.K. was performing again by 2018, announcing an international tour in 2019 and winning a Grammy in 2022.
In comedy, it’s still a good time to be a sexual abuser.
The message this award sends to C.K.’s victims and other female comics and comedy writers is that their cries will fall on deaf ears — and might well backfire. Not just because men in the industry are supporting other men, but because the system is broken. The comedy establishment sends a dog whistle to sexual predators, forgiving their abusive actions as long as they offer a superficial apology (often drafted by their publicists) and go underground for a year or so. After that, they can emerge and revive their careers. It’s assumed they’ve changed, even though there’s no evidence of change.
Meanwhile, female comics are rarely given such breaks. It’s a slap in the face of all the brave women who came forward, risking their careers and reputations to rid the industry of toxic behavior.
Why is Louis C.K. given a pass while many women comics aren’t even let in the door? What exactly is wrong with the system?
It all boils down to the gatekeepers.
In comedy, to be given opportunities, you need to perform at clubs. To perform at clubs, you have to be selected. Bookers decide who gets exposure. They decide who gets to work their material in front of live crowds. And because of this, they’re ultimately the ones determining who’ll eventually get considered for a Grammy. By allowing Louis C.K. to continue performing at their clubs, they are essentially enabling him to have a chance at success, no matter how many sexual abuses of power he commits. And by neglecting to nurture female comedians, the bookers have a dampening effect on the number of women who go on to have successful careers.
The opportunities you get at the bottom are the ones that really count. We need comedy clubs to give more space to female comedians to catch up to their male counterparts. If the very first doorway to winning a Grammy is closed to female comedians, then how can we ever make our mark? When budding female comedians come forward and name their tormentors, and are not believed, accused of seeking publicity or barred from working in entertainment, how can we summon the courage to call out the abuses of a system that’s stacked against us?
The gatekeepers aren’t just the bookers, but also agents, managers, publicists, representatives and executives that are part of an enabling culture focused on the fame and the dollars and cents.
We need to fix this broken system. We need gatekeepers with priorities other than the bottom line. We need the men and women who run the comedy pipeline to either adjust their attitudes or face being named and shamed in order to make way for better gatekeepers.
When I sat across from Louis C.K. at the Comedy Cellar, I thought to myself, “This guy has two daughters.” His lack of empathy is pretty jarring if that alone doesn’t open his eyes. But when I think about how the world he works in — the world that supports and nurtures him — carries that same lack of empathy, then it makes sense. In life, you get what you tolerate, and we don’t want to tolerate this anymore.
If the industry doesn’t step up, female comics won’t stand a chance. And the public won’t ever realize that you don’t need men like Louis C.K. to fill seats and make people laugh. Good people can make great comedy too. Women can draw plenty of laughs too. They just need a fighting chance.
Mona Shaikh is a comedian, producer and actor based in Los Angeles. She was the first Pakistani female comedian to headline Hollywood Improv, has appeared on ABC’s The Rookie and Apple TV’s Helpsters and currently opens for Jay Leno at Flappers Comedy Club. Her live showcase series Minority Reportz appeared at the NY Comedy Festival last November with a sold-out all-South Asian/Middle Eastern female comedian lineup.
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