Stand-up comedian Mona Shaikh’s voice still quavers as she recalls what happened after her set in August 2018 at the Foxfire Room in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Valley Village. A prominent actor who also had performed that night wouldn’t let up after she declined his pass at her. Shaikh, uninterested, noted it was getting late and she was preparing to head home. The man, who had memorable supporting roles on hit sitcoms and movies, walked out the front door in a huff.
When she, too, left the Foxfire Room, he was outside and began following her as she walked to her car, still attempting conversation. Once inside, she locked the doors just as his hand gripped the handle.
“He goes, ‘Can you roll the window down a little bit?’ I was thinking, ‘If I drive off, and his foot is underneath [the wheel], he’ll call the cops.’ So I do, and he moves his fingers into the window, gets really emotional — tears down his eyes — and starts telling me about how things aren’t going well with his wife. I go, ‘Sorry to hear that.’ Then he calls me a shithead and asks to hang out.”
She offered her number if he’d back off. He agreed but made sure her phone lit up — that she hadn’t given him a fake number — before he would let her go. Shaikh peeled out as the actor shouted: “How about a goodnight kiss?” Insistent calls and texts soon swarmed.
This and other experiences galvanized Shaikh to pursue a documentary about the prevalent, persistent harassment and objectification of female comedians within the American stand-up scene. From private Facebook groups, group texts and other industry whisper networks, she knew she wasn’t alone.
Shaikh — a Pakistani American performer who’s developed a reputation for promoting diverse talent as the host of her live showcase series Minority Reportz (Margaret Cho and Tiffany Haddish have participated) — contacted more than 50 women and began shooting interviews at the beginning of 2021. But it was foiled by what she contends turned out to be a toxic relationship with her male producing partner, who she alleges made undercutting remarks about her in front of the documentary’s subjects. (He counters that she’s mischaracterized their mutually caustic banter yet acknowledges their overall disagreements have put the project at a standstill while their lawyers seek a resolution.)
THR spoke to a group of comedians whom Shaikh had planned to include in her documentary, as well as other performers. They tell of a bleak, seemingly intractable side of their work — from microaggressions to assault, the unfunny business behind a career dedicated to making people laugh. These woman say the problems have been only further complicated, rather than alleviated, by the #MeToo reckoning and its accompanying battles over notions of free speech, fairness, identity and accountability. Stand-up, says Israeli American comedian Alex Powers, remains “a vestige of blatant misogyny.”
The world in which these women plug away isn’t the pinnacle of packed arenas or Netflix specials (though that, too, is an almost exclusively male preserve: Forbes‘ 2019 list of the 10 top-grossing stand-ups, the last before the pandemic torpedoed touring, featured just one woman, at No. 7: Amy Schumer). It’s what happens further down the ladder at the stand-up clubs and bars across the country that cultivate talent.
These female comedians, with no recourse of a union or corporate management, let alone a human resources department, are freelance contractors in a realm that, with notable exceptions, remains a boys’ club, one in which “ladies’ nights” still tokenize performers. They’re working rooms where colleagues are also competitors, and audiences, by their nature, largely care more about letting off steam than fostering civility. “There’s no protection,” says San Francisco-based performer Dhaya Lakshminarayanan.
The #MeToo movement, they observe, has been met with mixed results. While plenty of men within the scene have become more conscious about their words and actions, others have lashed out. Performer Jenny Saldaña, who organizes stand-up fundraisers for breast cancer research, sees this reaction as rooted in defensiveness and a sense of loss. “These men are now an ‘other,’ ” she explains. “Suddenly they get what we get: ‘You’re too this, you’re too that.’ The pass that they’ve been given for so long, it’s been revoked. They’re threatened and they attack.”
Meanwhile, meaningful structural reform has been grudging, at best. “Now I’ll see two women on a lineup where I used to see one,” says Zoe Rogers, whose material often revolves around the travails of motherhood, “and I’ll think: ‘Oh, well, that’s progress!‘ ” They believe this is due to the same problem that plagues other troubled sectors of the entertainment industry. “In order to have more female comedians getting good slots — succeeding, headlining — you need more female bookers; in order to have more female bookers, you need more female club owners,” says Lakshminarayanan. “Certain kinds of gatekeepers are primed to only find certain kinds of comedy funny.”
They point out that while disgraced stars like Jeremy Piven and T.J. Miller have found safe harbor on the club circuit performing to friendly crowds, the movement itself has been reliably mocked since its inception. “The counter-reaction was quick,” says Jeena Bloom, who speaks of her life experience as a trans woman onstage. “As soon as people said Louis C.K. shouldn’t be a big comedian anymore, the victim-blaming sprung up immediately.”
These female comedians say they often are confronted with male colleagues who rationalize misbehavior or police their responses to wrongdoing. “There’s a level of gaslighting,” explains L.A.-based comedian Kelsey Lane, “which makes you feel like you can’t stand up for yourself in a real way.” Ally Leftridge, who’s based in New York City, agrees: “It’s crazy how [some men] will tell you how to respond to being sexually harassed — what you should think and what you should say.”
Those who have accused high-profile performers of abuses note that the stand-up community has been largely consequence-free. “#MeToo has become a joke because so few people have suffered serious repercussions,” says self-styled “momic” Tiffany King, one of four women to levy claims of sexual misconduct in a 2020 Los Angeles Times story against comic and The Goldbergs actor Bryan Callen, which he has denied. “Bryan Callen is still getting booked. Nobody cares.”
For all the perpetual gripes over so-called cancel culture, female stand-ups contend that they’re the ones most likely to experience wanton punishment, in lost bookings as well as more opaque forms of retaliation, if they speak out about these issues onstage or irritate certain male gatekeepers — let alone end up branded as troublemakers for lodging a specific accusation that may harm a man’s professional reputation.
“If you’re a woman who’s been harassed in comedy — even if you just talk about what happened —people perceive you as being some ‘cancel culture’ advocate,” explains performer Kate Willett, who this year published a book about modern masculinity, Dirtbag Anthropology. She notes that even the personal decision to withdraw from lineups featuring suspected predators is, effectively, a self-own: “The choice is deciding to remove ourselves from opportunities.”
Some of the women who spoke to THR worried that their mere presence in this story could make them a target for blackballing. “My first thought when I was approached for this was, ‘Will I work again if my name is in this article?’ ” says bicoastal Sonya Vai. “A lot of men will think, ‘She’s the enemy.’ ” Like her fellow performers, Vai grew up inspired by the trinity of Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and Moms Mabley but expected that by the time those among her own generation made it big, they’d be on far more equal footing.
Many describe a milieu of latent, casual, pervasive chauvinism — and believe it stems, at least in part, from the sadness and anger that inform their craft. In much stand-up, “There’s an element of hating yourself,” explains SunShine McWane, who self-identifies as a stripper-comedian. “What I see with men is that they’re projecting that [self-loathing] out more onto female comics. I see a lot of rage-hate.” Concurs Reyna Amaya, for whom such toxicity was a consequential factor in her own decision to quit the scene: “It’s unprocessed trauma. Who’s drawn to stand-up? People who should be in therapy.”
While much of the sexism is atmospheric (unsolicited green room commentary, for instance, about erotic achievements or misadventures), the most consequential is being undermined in front of the audience. “When hosts introduce the men, they stick to the credentials: ‘You’ve seen him on ABC; he’s performed with the troops overseas,’ ” says Danielle Arce. “I’ve had a lot of sexual remarks. ‘She’s got a rocking body.’ What’s worse is, right after a killer set, as you’re walking off, the host will say, ‘Take a look at that ass!’ ”
Juanita Lolita, a comedian who performs a clean act, intentionally wears baggy clothing, little makeup and her hair in a braid. “I’d love to be able to dress up and be gorgeous, but they don’t focus on what you’re saying,” she says. Lolita receives compliments from audience members, which unintentionally reveal a limited allowance for feminine expression. “People will say, ‘I don’t like women comics — but I like you.’ “
Says Shaikh, “If you have a structure that’s created for and by only one gender, and then the other comes in, it creates a struggle. If you’ve not had to share your power, it’s jarring.” Seventeen-year veteran Renee Santos agrees. “There’s still a stigma in our society that if a woman speaks her mind, she’s a bitch — it clouds what we do. In stand-up, when you speak, it’s the most relevant, dominant voice in the room. Some people just don’t like that.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.