I’m a comedian. Stand-up is my animating force and greatest love. But above all of that, it’s a job. Many people seem to forget that.
The dismissal of my profession and livelihood is probably most clear when looking at the fall and comeback of Louis C.K. When C.K. finally confirmed a long-suspected rumor of sexual misconduct two years ago — that he’d masturbated in front of a number of female comics without their consent — some people jumped to defend him, insisting that what he did wasn’t “that bad,” or that an apology was all that was necessary to clear him of wrongdoing.
When he disappeared from the public eye, his defenders and fans wondered if his career was over. Then he began popping up on stages around New York City less than a year later. Often, he was not on the scheduled lineup, surprising audience members and club employees, some of whom saw his unannounced appearance as another violation of consent.
This past weekend, he received a standing ovation after another surprise set at Brooklyn Bazaar, part of a comedy festival called Skankfest. His return to the stage has provoked many conversations about censorship, contrition, and our ability to change. But to me, the central issue with Louis C.K.’s “comeback” is specific and practical: workplace safety. Comedy club owners allowing him to work their venues demonstrate a lack of interest in protecting their employees — especially women. You have a right not to be jerked off in front of at your job, no matter what your job is.
I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for nine years, the bulk of that time spent in comedy clubs. I started as weeknight open mic-er, hoping to get a coveted MC spot. MCs tell jokes to a cold crowd, warming them up for the more competent headliner and feature acts. Most comics will acknowledge it’s the toughest job in the show, and it’s the entry-level position for a new comedian. At the club where I started, MCs got paid $25 a show. It’s a pittance, but for aspiring comics, that first paycheck holds incredible symbolic value. You’re not just accosting a room of half-interested drunks. You were asked to be there. You had a job.
And that’s what comedy is: a job. It’s a very fun job, and at first, not a full-time one, but in the context of a comedy club, it’s a service provided in exchange for a fee.
But people don’t seem to see stand-up comedy as work, probably because when it’s done well, it doesn’t look much like much work at all. To the audience, this is not a studied and practiced skill honed over thousands of hours of performance, it’s just somebody standing there talking about their dick. When it’s done really well, stand-up suddenly becomes modern-day philosophy or great art in the eyes of the audience. This power dynamic, where C.K. is seen as a genius and comedy is his calling, is what he exploited when he called women into his dressing room and then started masturbating in front of them.
The perception that comedy is not a “real” job for anybody but the super successful doesn’t help the majority of us in comedy who aren’t absurdly famous. We mostly work for very little pay, and usually for ourselves. While in some ways that gives us the choice of where to work (a common argument I’ve seen from C.K.’s supporters — “if you don’t want to work with him, no one’s forcing you to”), for most of us, it means taking what you can get. Most comics are neither dilettantes or geniuses. They’re just people doing a (yes, very fun, very creatively fulfilling) job.
But, crucially, most people who work at comedy clubs aren’t even comedians. There’s the waitstaff, bartenders, and other employees, most of whom have no say over who does or doesn’t get booked. Club staff know that their workplace decorum is miles away from a traditional office setting, but whether you work at a desk or at a comedy club, you still have the right to protection against unsafe or inhumane conditions. A workplace committed to humane and safe treatment of its workers does not bring in a person who has previously made that workplace unsafe and inhumane.
I’m not calling for a comedy HR department. But there’s just no reason for a comedy club to have different rules than every other workplace about what constitutes nonconsensual sexual activity — and to not have punishments in place for those who break the rules.
Whether or not C.K. himself will ever abuse anyone again is also beside the point. He assaulted people in comedy clubs. He used his status in that world, along with his money and power, to abuse people working in those clubs with him and then to cover up that abuse. I would not trust a club owner who thinks it’s acceptable to bring him back into that same environment to advocate for or even believe me if something similar were to happen to me, or to anyone else under that person’s employ. A club owner welcoming C.K. back is a sign that they believe there are some things more important than protecting the people who work for them from potential harm.
When I was 23, for my second MC week ever, I worked with a rich, famous, and universally respected comedian who sexually harassed not only me but a number of waitresses working that week. The shows were great. Every single one was sold out. The club made money hand over fist. But when some of the waitresses complained to management — who, I should mention, were also women — about the comedian, he never worked the club again. And in the spirit of the casual workplace environment I spoke of earlier, everybody talked shit about what a creep he was over beers after closing.
Comedy clubs are special to me, but they’re not deserving of a special set of workplace rules. Club employees are entitled to the same level of dignity and respect as workers everywhere.
Editor’s note: Brooklyn Bazaar issued an apology about CK’s appearance on their Facebook page.
Kath Barbadoro is a comedian, writer, and podcaster based in Brooklyn. She has three podcasts, What A Time To Be Alive, Wrestlesplania, and Lie, Cheat and Steal, which can be found on iTunes and Spotify. She’s usually a lot funnier than she was in this article.