Aaron Glaser's abuse scandal has cracked open a conversation about rape culture in comedy
When the comedy world first learned that New York-based comic Aaron Glaser had been banned from performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in August, it might have been news, but it wasn't surprising to many women in the comedy scene.
The details were first shared in a private Facebook group for female comics: Glaser, who hosted a monthly stand-up showcase, had been barred from UCB — a well-known comedy venue and training center in New York and Los Angeles, where the bulk of the cities' aspiring comedians first get their feet wet — over reports he raped and harassed multiple women.
When the story hit the mainstream media, several male comics, like Kurt Metzger and Michael Che, sparked controversy by dismissing the allegations, issuing statements that were seen as tone deaf at best and misogynistic at worst. That controversy has since receded from the mainstream dialogue. In the New York comedy world, though, it's cracked open a conversation about sexism and rape culture the community has long needed to have.
"The comedy community's conversation sparked the mainstream one, so to have it bounce back greenhouse gas-style seems like we're then being smothered with our own words and feelings," said Mo Fry Pasic, a Brooklyn-based comic who still performs at UCB on occasion. "That means it has to be addressed. It's magnificent and painful, and also exciting."
While reports of rape and sexual assault have circulated among members of the comedy community in the past — which, for amateurs working their way into the industry, is often anchored by UCB — physical violence isn't the singular manifestation of sexism in comedy, nor is it the most common. As is the case generally, rape culture in comedy is reinforced in ways big and small, on stage and off.
"[Rape culture in comedy] can be as simple as you're on the lineup and introduced as 'the beautiful' or 'the lovely' where men are introduced as 'the funny' or 'the talented,'" Fry Pasic said. "You're a sexual object, where a man is judged by his talent."
As Fry Pasic and other comics have begun to speak out against the spectrum of misogynistic actions prevalent in the community, institutions like UCB have also started trying to figure out what their role in addressing sexism might be. Even before the allegations against Glaser came to light, UCB instituted a "director of student affairs" role at its New York and Los Angeles theaters, hiring licensed psychologists to help theater members with issues ranging from substance abuse and relationship issues to harassment and sexual assault.
At the request of its comics, the theater held a panel on sexual violence on a recent Saturday afternoon, comprised of sexual assault survivors, a legal expert and a mental health expert discussing rape and harassment in the comedy community. The conversation was neither the first nor last on the topic, according to New York UCB director of student affairs Marissa Tunis. Last summer, the theater held two talks on sexism and sexual harassment during a UCB training forum and its teacher training, and plans to have another panel on sex abuse this fall.
"[Sexism and sexual harassment] is not a new topic, but one we will continue to address with hopes to improve the experience and increase participation of all people who want to learn and perform comedy at UCB," Tunis said in an email.
Tunis explained UCB wants to create a "safe environment" for members to learn and perform comedy, which includes encouraging people who have been victimized to reach out to the theater for support.
But the victim-blaming and misogyny that emerged in the wake of the UCB/Glaser debacle confirmed fears among female comics who say they've always had to worry about being labeled "difficult" and blacklisted professionally if they attempt to do something about harassment or abuse.
"An institution can only do so much if the culture isn't letting people come forward. [UCB] is taking an opportunity when the culture is saying 'listen,'" Fry Pasic said. "I think a lot of people use institutions as a scapegoat for fostering rape culture and sexism, but it needs to be looked at much more personally."
Many in the comedy community say that until recently, speaking out has been easier said than done, largely because of the way personal relationships inform professional success. In comedy, amateurs work their way to success primarily through personal relationships. Similar dynamics are at play in other industries, but the comedy world is arguably more sequestered.
"At the end of the day, you have to decide in entertainment what's more important to you sometimes: [your career or] morals and not having monsters walking around continuously doing things," said Corinne Fisher, a comic and host of the anti-slut-shaming podcast Guys We Fucked. "It's this weird responsibility: No one wants to get raped, but once you do, do you speak out?"
And when you speak out, will you be heard? Concerns about being listened to are what have kept many of the conversations about misogyny in comedy behind closed doors, Fisher added. But cloistered dialogue isn't likely to force institutions to take action or to result in cultural change.
"I think it's nice for women who need that to have a support group, but I wonder why we aren't having these conversations publicly," Fisher said. "We know we shouldn't be molested, but talking about it amongst ourselves isn't doing shit but making us feel better."
"I think it comes down to communication and being brave — people being brave who would be silenced otherwise."
It comes down to everyone in the scene being more vocal — and giving fewer fucks about the consequences. That's easier said than done, sure. According to Fry Pasic, though, in many of the common situations that reinforce rape culture — like when a comic is cast with a performer who made one of their friends uneasy — it's as simple as raising the issue in casual conversation.
"What people can be doing in these specific situations is making space in which people can say something," Fry Pasic said. "Creating an environment through action, personal dialogue — not trying to change the world, but making people feel safe, and making people feel like they can come forward and say, 'This person made me feel unsafe' no matter what they do or how they can help you professionally.
"I think it comes down to communication and being brave," she added. "People being brave who would be silenced otherwise."
There's no dearth of bravery involved when survivors and bystanders talk about their experiences in private Facebook groups — even if, as Fisher and others have argued, it doesn't do much to push the public dialogue forward. But within the smaller circles where female comedians, in particular, have been speaking out, there's been an upswell of support for those who challenge sexism in the community, which is certainly a departure from the norm.
"On a woman's level, there are these shows of support and understanding that have not been activated previously because [we've been in] survival mode," Fry Pasic said. "When you're a minority in a group of men, the natural instinct is to survive."
But, she added, neither institutional action nor women speaking up are sufficient to address the problem. Men in comedy have to start listening as well. "On a community level, right now what's happening is men are asking how they can help and learning that a lot of what they can do is listen," Fry Pasic said. "There's not been active listening, because they haven't had to ever listen."
There are, of course, men in comedy and at UCB who not only recognize the dual problems of sexism and abuse in the community, but want to overcome their own ignorance about their female peers' experiences. Listening might not feel like the most proactive way to be an ally, says Tim Platt, a comic who trained at UCB and performs with Fry Pasic.
"I feel like this is a time for men to listen," Platt said. "I can only talk about my personal perspective, where I am listening to friends, online and in person, investigating where my personal action or inaction have contributed to negative or harmful environments, and trying to keep my eyes and ears open in the spaces I perform and ask others to perform."
Fisher also agrees that men need to "shut the fuck up and listen for once," but believes the problem is "much larger than we can solve with discussions at UCB." Instead, the issues at hand might be better addressed by focusing on why female comics rely so heavily on private online groups to talk about what they hear, see and experience in comedy — turnong to Facebook instead of the institutions meant to protect them, from comedy theaters to law enforcement.
"I think the main problem here and why people have gone to announcing allegations on social media is because the police and anyone who could actually do something and help people don't do anything," Fisher said. "Facebook doesn't feel like the right way to handle it. But ... you can't just have a rapist walking around."