Friday, May 31, 2013

Portrait of a Feminist Comedian

After getting such a positive response to my piece “The Subtle Oppression of Women by Comedy”  by female and male comics and engaging in so many interesting discussions with male comics afterward, I realized that more needed to be said about this subject. (If you haven’t read the piece, please do. I bring up things in it that I don’t address here as so not to repeat). I realized that while all female comics know what happens to us on a regular basis, many men have no idea what is going on. So, I thought I would share a small example of things that I have faced as a woman in comedy that you may or may not be shocked to read (or give a shit about).

Being a feminist is hard. Being a comedian is harder. Being a feminist comedian is almost fucking impossible. Louis CK said that feminists and comedians are natural enemies, which I guess means I don't exist. Damn it, Louis. I was sure I existed.

A lot of comics have pet subjects they like to address. A lot of comics are political like I am sometimes. I have a friend who is very interested in the Fed (Federal Reserve) and he talks about it a lot in his act because it is important to him and he wants to educate people while making them laugh. Feminism, fighting for the rights of women and all people, is important to me and is my pet subject because of what I have experienced in my life. I am pro-woman. I am NOT anti-man. Don’t take it so personally. It’s not about you. It’s about the struggle.

Comedy is different. When women in comedy get sexually harassed, groped, attacked, discriminated against, we have no HR we can report it to. We can’t cry “hostile work environment,” get someone fired or sue anyone for mistreatment, nor do we want to. Female comics get that this is not a normal business. We have to roll with the punches, and, damn it, we do. But, just like men don’t want to be silenced, women do not want to be silenced either. Free speech goes both ways. I, in no way, claim to speak for all women. Women are very different, just as all people are different. A lot of women completely disagree with the things I say and write. That’s ok. I get that. This is about my experience.

Here is my story…

I started doing stand-up comedy when I was 19 years old in college on a theatre scholarship (25 years ago). After I graduated, I did comedy on the road full-time for about seven years up and down the East Coast, in about 14 states regularly. It was seven years of sharing comedy condos in unsafe neighborhoods (and sharing bathrooms) with two men I had never met before in my life (I know of no other profession where that would happen). Seven years of having gigs canceled at the last minute because “We already have a chick. We don’t want two chicks in one week.” Seven years of being sexually harassed by club owners and other comics at the gig or in the condo. Only once did I perform with two women (even one woman was rare), and one of them told me about being attacked in a comedy condo by the headliner. She had the whole thing on tape because she was working on her set and her recorder was on. Like the woman in my other piece, she never reported it. I bought a gun.

Three different times while I was on the road, I was attacked on stage by a man in the audience. All three times the man ran on stage and grabbed my boobs and crotch in front of the whole room. All three times, the comedy clubs did NOTHING. The third time, the man was wearing a gorilla suit (which was scary as fuck for me) and the audience thought it was part of my act. Because why wouldn’t it be? At first, when I was very young, I waited for the club to do something. I thought surely they would not tolerate me being assaulted in their club as their employee. I thought wrong. I punched the gorilla in the face as hard as I could and he ran away, screaming. The audience was wondering where the funny part was. So was I. Unfortunately, that happened at the beginning of my set and I had to do about ½ hour of jokes after a strange man groped me in front of everyone in a crowded room. I was 25.

I moved to Los Angeles from Athens, GA in 1998 because I couldn’t take being on the road anymore. Living in one place was weird for a while, but I became immersed in the comedy scene in LA. The numbers were better here; about 25% of comics are female. But still, it’s not uncommon to be the only girl in a show (or in the room period during an open mic). I got used to being the lone girl in the room with about 20 men with guy after guy going on stage and telling jokes about rape, violence against women, “ugly girls,” “fat chicks,” “bitches” and “whores.” Then I would walk to my car in the dark after, wondering why I kept going. But I kept going. (There are lots of great male comics out there who make jokes about none of those things. It can just feel overwhelming sometimes)

Last year, I was approached online by a male comedy club owner and manager of a famous comedian. He asked to see my comedy. I was excited. I directed him to a ton of video and audio on me. He said he didn't want that, but wanted to Skype with me. I told him I was unable to do that. He said he was in search of the world's "funniest shaved vagina" and asked me if I shave. I refused to answer. I tried to keep the conversation about comedy because I thought he really did want to book me, and was just the usual crude booker with no class. When I continued to refuse to Skype with him (in the middle of the damn night), he began to go on a two hour Twitter rant about me, publicly calling me hack. I have been called a lot of things in my life, but never a hack. I blocked him on Twitter and literally cried all night. The next day, he went on Facebook and posted about me, saying he had offered to give me advice on my comedy and that he had called me a hack and that I had freaked out on him because I could not take criticism. I sent him a private message that read: “Perhaps I should post our entire Twitter private message exchange on your Facebook wall so your wife and everyone else can read it.” Surprise surprise: he took down the post. (Both my husband and another comic who was with us read the entire “shaved vagina” private message exchange)

When Daniel Tosh had his incident at the Laugh Factory with the female heckler in which he said something to the effect of, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” I wrote about it because I felt it was important to not only shine a light on rape jokes in general (I feel that rape jokes perpetuate the dismissal of violence against women in our culture and make the brutal act of rape literally a joke), but also to point out that this particular response felt like an incitement to violence. Whereas so many male and female comics came out against Michael Richards calling a heckler a “nigger” and saying that “40 years ago we would have strung you up in a tree,” that did not happen with Tosh. I was attacked online and called a “cunt” and a “feminazi” by strangers and men I knew for my comments because allegedly, I, who make my living telling jokes, am against free speech. That’s ok. I’m a comic. I can take it. The point is that NO ONE, BUT NO ONE ever suggested censoring jokes. No one. We aren’t trying to censor you. We are just asking you to think. Just because you CAN say anything you want, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. By the way, there are rape jokes out there that shine light on the subject, do not victim-blame and do not condone rape. Those are not the ones I am talking about. Some jokes slay demons. Some feed them. A bully wrapped in rubber chicken is still a bully.

Then I decided to share my own rape story online because, after watching Joe Rogan and Jamie Kilstein on Rogan’s podcast, I felt that men will never believe the 1-in-4 rape statistic if more women don’t speak up to their male friends and share their experiences. So, terrified, I tweeted about being raped when I was very young and told everyone my horror on Twitter. The tweet was clearly not a joke. Then, much to my surprise, a male comic I sort of knew replied to my tweet: “Bobbie, rape is not about sex. It’s about 5 minutes.”

It’s hard to express what I felt. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t sleep for days. In fact, when I typed that sentence above (his joke) a year after the fact, I got so upset, I had to get up from my computer for several hours before I could come back to this blog post. 5 minutes?! 5 minutes?! I can not conceive children because I was raped, and doctors believe that if I did, I would not be able to carry the baby to term. I have wanted a baby my entire life and I can’t have one. When is my 5 minutes up?? And, yes, I know. It was a joke. A rape joke told to a known rape victim. If you write and post rape jokes as a response to rape victims expressing how rape jokes make them feel, is it really about free speech at that point? Seriously, ask yourself: What is my investment in rape culture? Why does telling rape jokes in the face of rape victims mean so much to me? You may think to yourself that you would never do that. But Comics, ONE IN FOUR WOMEN IN YOUR AUDIENCE HAS BEEN SEXUALLY ASSAULTED. Count the female faces. 1 in 4 of them picture their rape when you tell a rape joke and feel diminished and trivialized by you in front of a room full of people and may be less likely to report their attack if they feel they are scrutinized or a joke. The Stubenville boys felt validated by rape jokes.

I hear a lot of guys like Eddie Brill and Adam Carolla say that women aren’t funny. Eddie Brill said that women aren’t authentic and go on stage and act like men. Carolla said that women have mediocre senses of humor and are the least funny in the writer’s room. I have spoken out against them both publicly (and had a very lengthy private discussion with Eddie Brill who asked that I not print his comments here in this blog) and the idea that there is “female comedy” or “male comedy.” Individuals express themselves on stage and their genitalia has nothing to do with it. Hitler was not a white male mass murderer that all white males are to be compared to. Neither is Dane Cook. They are individuals. This topic is important to me to speak out on because it hurts women in the industry in our already limited role. Also, I feel that as an elder female comic in the biz, it is my job to stand up for women and be a mentor for young female comics, some who are considering giving up comedy or afraid to pick up a mic to begin with. Many young female comics have come to me and said they felt empowered by me fighting for the cause. To me, that makes it all worth it.

Recently, I saw that a funny male comic I followed on Twitter tweeted that he did not find women funny at the same rate as men. Actually, he tweeted a joke that a woman said if he didn’t find women funny, he must be dumb and he said she must be a whore or something like that. I was not offended by the joke at all, but curious if he really felt that about female comics. I engaged him (because I am a glutton for punishment, I guess) and the discussion quickly escalated into a huge argument. I felt I was being civil. I’m sure he felt the same. Probably neither of us were. I said something to the effect of: Women aren’t funny? Are Mexicans lazy and will black people rob you? Maybe that doesn’t seem civil, but I made the comparison of sexism to racism because I believe they are similar and often people can more easily recognize racism as wrong. That comparison made him really mad. After having a long discussion that just went around in circles, I tried several times to disengage, saying things like “we can agree to disagree” but he was relentless. Finally, in my frustration, I tweeted: “In conclusion, fuck you” and I blocked him. Then it occurred to me a few minutes later that he probably never saw that last tweet because I blocked him and that it was basically bravado on my part and would look like me trying to be tough to someone who couldn’t even read the tweet which didn’t seem fair. So I deleted it. He, evidently, did see the tweet and because I had tweeted afterward that “No matter how civil a woman is in an argument, she is the one who is called crazy” (or something like that), it infuriated him that I had deleted the “fuck you” tweet. In hindsight, I completely understand that.

What happened next is important in this tale of women in comedy. The next day, I woke up to a tag from him on Facebook (and a comic friend of mine writing to alert me to the post) and a ton of comments on a status he had posted about me. He was livid and he was taking it to Facebook. Fine, whatever. I can deal. I’m a comic. His friends starting calling me a “dumb cunt.” I insisted I am a smart cunt! Then, I was called a “whore.” I replied, “Just ask me out already! The sexual tension is killing me!” They were dissing me for teaching comedy (I am used to that from people who have NO idea what I do in my workshops) and then male comics who have sent me pics of their dicks before went on to comment things like “Don’t get me started on comedy teachers!” The comic in question said I was unfunny and then several people came to my defense, including a friend of his who had Googled my videos. Then they decided I was a funny cunt. Small victories.

Hours later, it got worse. A friend of the comic posted my phone number on the Facebook post (he had gotten it from my resume) and told the guy he should find me and go fuck me. The comic replied, “If I fuck her do you think I can get a discount on her comedy class?” If you are a man reading this, you may not think much of it. But, to a woman, this reads: let’s shut this woman up and give her what’s coming to her for daring to speak up. That’s when I had Facebook take the post down. I can handle being called a dumb cunt, but posting my personal information and telling people to go find me and fuck me is terrifying and over the fucking line. (Maybe posting this here is starting more shit with him, but he posted about me on his blog and called me out by name. I am not doing that to him.)

Am I really afraid? You’re damn right I am. Why? I have been attacked by many men in my life, in and out of comedy… by strangers, friends, audience members and comics. Not only have I been raped more than once, I have been beaten up by a boyfriend and witnessed my sister in an extremely physically abusive marriage (in which one day she called the cops and they told her to “make him dinner.” That man is now in prison for murdering his 3rd wife – not my sister- while their child played video games in the next room. He got 15 years. Some drug dealers get more than that. I raised the child my sister had with him).

I have had a few stalkers in my life as a comic. I have a guy on Twitter who keeps creating new pages with different names, pics, bios, etc and poses as different people, sometimes male, sometimes female. I block him and then he follows me as someone else and then when I develop and online “friendship” aka Twitter exchange, he reveals himself to be my stalker and freaks me out again. I have no idea what city or state he lives in. For all I know, he is my next door neighbor. I have a male comic stalker who is mentally ill and dislikes taking his meds. He attacked me verbally a few times at shows (Whatever. I can deal. I’m a comic) and then tried to attack me physically at an open mic. He began by yelling, “Bobbie, it’s me! I just want to talk to you.” When I backed away and he lunged at me, three male comics stepped in and held him back as he still kept trying to get to me, pushing and yelling “Bobbie is a fucking cunt! Bobbie is a fucking cunt!” I ran out the back door and drove home. Not only did the open mic not throw him out, they served him a cup of coffee! ‘Cause, you know, psychos need more caffeine. He has shown up at my gigs and stood by my car staring at me until I was so afraid to get out of my car, I just drove away. I went to the LA County Courthouse to get a restraining order and found out they were $400 and took all day. At the end of the day with mountains of paperwork in hand and my $400, the restraining order was denied because the coffee house did not call the police. When I left crying, a Sherriff came out to the hall and trying to comfort me said, “The LAPD never responds to restraining order calls anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.” Wow. I feel better. I bought mace, a knife and a baseball bat.

These are just a few examples of things I have experienced that I felt should be shared. The stories are not atypical. They are not mine alone. I have more stories like this and so do all female comics. Men have their stories, too, and those should be shared, as well. This was mine.

So, you keep talking and writing about things that matter to you, and I will do the same. I get feedback when I put something out there and you should expect to, as well. Let’s challenge each other to think about what we are saying and let’s try to have some empathy for other people’s experiences. And, if you use comedy to bully victims, I will check you on it. ‘Cause that’s my job.


Rudy Martinez said...

The hardest part about all of the recent flap about rape jokes and female comedians being indignant vs free speech is that, as a comedian I kinda feel like nothing is off limits (not to say that there will not be consequences if you take on a particular subject), and as a husband/son/brother/friend I feel like screaming "OUR WOMEN DESERVE BETTER FROM US!"

I've heard rape jokes from both sexes that are hilarious. I've heard some that are uncomfortable and others that are downright mean. In every case I feel the same way - if you are going to tell a rape joke and you are in possession of a cock you better be damn funny. And even then, you better be ready to handle the backlash. Because that's the thing about free speech. I have every right to tell whatever joke I want on stage and the world has every right to voice that displeasure. I think a lot of us forget that.

As for the actual threats that women comedians face I go back to my "OUR WOMEN DESERVE BETTER US!" thought. Because that is what you are. You are all our women. Not in an old timey chattel sort of way. In a very real way. You are our sisters, our lovers, our wives, our moms, our friends.

One other thing - when you make a joke about men you learn really quickly how easy it is to hurt a mangina. So fucking hypocritical. I am a man who made a joke about men and came under fire from men's rights groups. I can't imagine the shit women hear when they upset a man and his fragile ego.

One last thing: you are absolutely a funny cunt.

Bobbie Oliver said...

Thanks Rudy! Oh god don't get me started on those MRA's. They are terrifying and dumb. Sorry you had to deal with that. Thanks for reading and commenting. You are a funny cunt, too. :)

SHANE said...

Enlightening and inspiring as always.
I don't know why it's so difficult for those guys to just stop and imagine theirselves in another person's shoes. I hope that some of these discrete details will drill some perspective into their brains.
Keep kicking ass Bobbie!

Ian Lasky said...

The problem with rape culture and rape jokes in general Is that they don't let society move on to something better. It keeps our thinking in yesterday when we are living in tomorrow. Also, this culture hurts men. Because in a society like this, no one gives a fuck about anyone else. Rather, we should spend more time thinking how we can help people be a tad bit happier in this messed up shitty world.