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How to Laugh in the #MeToo Era

Six Chicago comedians walk into a bar ... and have a frank (and funny) discussion about harassment, patriarchy, creepy men, and other things no one’s supposed to joke about.

Moderated by Brianna Wellen
Photography by Clayton Hauck

Shelby Plummer

24, improviser, creative director of iO Theater, where she hosts the weekly improv show Girl Gang

David Pasquesi

57, improviser, appears on HBO’s Veep, the Dave of the long-running improv show TJ & Dave at iO Theater

Eunji
Kim

35, standup and improviser, hosts the podcast The Ajumma Show, writes for Cards Against Humanity

Odinaka Ezeokoli

34, standup, appeared in season 2 of Netflix’s Easy, hosts Congrats on Your Success at Uncharted Books

Shannon Noll

30, standup and improviser, produces the live show and podcast We Still Like You, performs in Baby Wine at the Annoyance

Sean Flannery

42, standup, seen on Comedy Central’s This Is Not Happening, hosts The Blackout Diaries at Under the Gun Theater

Shelby Plummer, 24, improviser, creative director of iO Theater, where she hosts the weekly improv show Girl Gang

David Pasquesi,57, improviser, appears on HBO’s Veep, the Dave of the long-running improv show TJ & Dave at iO Theater

Eunji Kim, 35, standup and improviser, hosts the podcast The Ajumma Show, writes for Cards Against Humanity

Odinaka Ezeokoli, 34, standup, appeared in season 2 of Netflix’s Easy, hosts Congrats on Your Success at Uncharted Books

Shannon Noll, 30, standup and improviser, produces the live show and podcast We Still Like You, performs in Baby Wine at the Annoyance

Sean Flannery, 42, standup, seen on Comedy Central’s This Is Not Happening, hosts The Blackout Diaries at Under the Gun Theater

The comedy world has had its share of #MeToo moments. Louis C.K. admitted to being a predatory exhibitionist, of course. Among incidents closer to home, SketchFest organizer Brian Posen resigned from Stage 773, the theater he founded, after he was accused of making inappropriate remarks to students. What does all this mean for the local scene? What’s still funny in this climate? We convened a roundtable at the Hideout to find answers—and a few laughs.

What were your first experiences of hearing #MeToo stories about people in the comedy community, and how did you react?


Flannery:I run a show called Blackout Diaries, and there were at least two people [involved with it] who were revealed to be sexual predators. I had no idea. I’ve always seen misogyny and sexism in standup, but you don’t realize that there are other things going on. One of those people—I thought he would’ve been the last person to do anything like that. That was really eye-opening to me.

Plummer:At least from my perspective, it’s like, “Duh, this has been happening for a long time.” As women in comedy, we would talk, we knew who to look out for, who had stories out there about them, and then, with the flourishing of online forums, that information was made a lot more accessible.

Kim:If you talk to any woman in comedy, I don’t think any of us were surprised. I was like, “Oh shit! I should be outraged by that.” But I’ve never [had that reaction].

Noll:I’ve probably experienced it before and just didn’t know what was happening. It was like, “Oh, that’s just how it goes.” I thought that you were supposed to just put up with it.

Ezeokoli:Often it’s surprising because we’re dealing with manipulative people. You might hear somebody say, “Oh yeah, this guy’s kind of weirding me out.” And you’re like, “Oh really? Him? He seems so charming.” And we’re comedians, so everybody’s funny, charismatic. I mean, Louis C.K. is fucking hilarious. Everybody loved that guy. These people, they know they’re doing some fucked-up shit. But they’re really good at hiding it.

Pasquesi:It’s true that these people hide themselves, and it’s also true that this has been going on forever. Also, I don’t think it’s limited to sexism and racism. These are shitheads. They’re just fucking creepy people. Some of them were really surprising. “Oh, I know that guy. Wow.” I don’t doubt the accusations, because if 30 women say something, there’s a lot more who didn’t say something.

Noll:I quit drinking three years ago, but certainly before that I was a piece of shit at times, and I’ve definitely been like, “I’m not completely without fault in my own life.”

Flannery:One of the things I find ironic is the corporate world: We’re going to live in salt water and fight in a tribal dystopia one day because of corporations, but they are better at handling sexual assault than us. Like the Louis C.K. story. If there were two employees on the road, and one masturbated in front of the other, and then he sort of talked to other people to discourage her from going to HR, he would be fired. He would be escorted out of the building that day. But in comedy we’re just like, “Well, weird people do it.”

Plummer:The good thing about this community, if somebody does something shitty, there’s 1,000 other people who are just as talented and deserve that slot more than they do. It’s not a great loss artistically to not have them in an institution.

Candid photo of the roundtable comedy discussion

Is the #MeToo movement changing how you’re interacting with other comics? Has it affected your own work?


Plummer:One cool thing, at least artistically, that’s come out of the movement is the idea of identity shows or showcases [like all-female lineups], which can be really awesome and celebratory.

Noll:The best thing about the identity shows is that at some point, hopefully, we won’t need them anymore. It’s a way to get people in the door of the theater and show we can do as good of work.

Kim:If you’re a person in an audience and you don’t see anyone who looks like you, or even talks like you, or even coming from the same perspective, it’s almost impossible to see yourself up there—unless you’re a remarkable person like me! If you just think about women in comedy, period, if you think back to vaudeville, I’m sure there were so many ladies who fucking died in childbirth who were very funny and just never got the shot.

Pasquesi:I see that as changed. There’s just more opportunity for more kinds of people, which is great.

Do you think the #MeToo movement and being more PC will make it harder to push boundaries in comedy?


Ezeokoli:Anybody saying that, they don’t like the idea that they can’t just say directly racist or sexist things.

Kim:If it’s going to be funny, it’s going to be funny, but it’s never funny if it’s any of that.

Pasquesi:I think you just have to listen to what you’re saying. There was this one joke that I used to do that was sexist, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic. I thought it was hilarious, just the absurdity of it. But then I hear people laughing, like …

Ezeokoli:… That’s not the laughter I want to hear!

Pasquesi:Right, and I have to stop saying it.

Have you worked with people who have said offensive things and then, when you objected, told you that you just can’t take a joke?


Ezeokoli:Comedy is a sword, and it can be used for good and evil. Oftentimes people have not discerned between when a joke is just a joke and when a joke has a mean point, or somebody’s trying to cover up some dirty shit behind comedy. Often these covert, manipulative people, these predators, are like, “Oh, I’m just being funny.” And I think those kinds of people don’t like the fact that people are saying, “We’re not standing for that anymore.”

Plummer:At a point, it’s lazy. Especially in improv, why be a sexist when you could be an alien? You could make literally any other choice for yourself.

Noll:You could be a sexist alien.

Flannery:When someone says, “Oh, it was just a joke,” if you say, “Well, it’s not funny,” you’ve actually bought into their argument that it’s a joke. So I like to say, “That’s not a joke.”

Pasquesi:It’s like the “No offense, but ….” Offense was intended.

Ezeokoli:All that being said, comedy is kind of reckless. One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, he says, “Art is doing something that might fail, that might not work.” And I think that is comedy: going onstage and doing something that might not work. We’re trying to see something funny for the first time, so it can be messy doing that.

Candid photo of the roundtable comedy discussion

What are the next steps you think need to be taken to make the comedy scene a safer place?


Kim:There are some dudes who are taking some stock of their shit, and that’s good. And if that means you don’t grab a titty or you don’t try, that’s just the reality, that’s the patriarchy shit that they’ve got to deal with.

Pasquesi:No! I don’t think that is just merely patriarchy shit. That’s creepy behavior that’s outside of any norm.

Ezeokoli:That is a symptom of patriarchy.

Pasquesi:How so?

Ezeokoli:Because if men as a whole—

Pasquesi:OK, but we’re not talking about men as a whole. Men as a whole don’t do that.

Ezeokoli:We are talking about men as a whole.

Pasquesi:Those are specific individuals who do that, which is outside of the norm of behavior of all men.

Ezeokoli:Well, there are degrees to it, and these guys are to the nth degree, they’re to the extreme. It was normal to me, the way I was raised, that if an older guy points at a girl walking down the street and says, “Hey, nice whatever,” I’m like, “Oh, this is just how young men and old men bond.” That is a larger symptom of just how men are socialized. Guys think it’s cool that if you go to a bar trying to get laid, you should keep trying, keep pestering women. And the fact that most men don’t know that that’s not OK is a problem. And that is a symptom of patriarchy.

Plummer:The lines get blurred a lot in this community because it is a professional setting but also a social setting. You get the level of “Oh, this is clearly an assault, there is something wrong with you.” But you also get the “Oh, you’re my friend onstage, you’re on my team, I perform with you regularly, and now we’re also hanging out after hours, but now something’s different, and now you’re turning on me in some way.” That happens on all levels and probably across genders.

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Do you think male comedians are trying to change their behavior?


Kim:It’s not the pursuit. Oftentimes it’s the pestering, like—what’s the bit? The Chappelle thing about Pepé Le Pew?

Ezeokoli:Pepé Le Pew’s a rapist.

Kim:As the mother of a son, I genuinely hope that the patriarchy fucking dies. The patriarchy’s bad for dudes. You guys should be able to cry more often than when your dad dies. It would probably make most men less rapey and murdery.

Pasquesi:That presupposes all men are rapey.

Kim:These are outliers, certainly, but the ubiquity of the stories among women who’ve experienced something like that is a testament to the fact that the issue is not just about the outliers who are outright raping, but everything along that spectrum.

Ezeokoli:“Microaggressions”? Is that the word to use? The things that happen every day that make it easier for these big things to seem normal.

Pasquesi:You’re talking about this interaction like, “Hey, check her out.”

Ezeokoli:Yeah, you’re not going to write a blog about that per se. Well, a woman would, actually. It might not seem like a big deal. But that actually is a bigger deal than it seems.

Plummer:Some of my male friends, every week they were asking out a new female comedian, so it got to the point that my female friends were like, “I don’t like to be in a room with them because I don’t feel like I’m being held as an equal. I feel like I am an opportunity for them to do something.”

Noll:When I was taking classes, I wasn’t there to get asked out. I didn’t know I was gay yet, but I certainly didn’t want dudes hitting on me. So I got a boyfriend just to keep the dudes away for four years, like, “This’ll do it.” Then when I broke up with him, I was trying to come out, and all these dudes came out of the woodwork: “We’ve been your friend the whole time, we knew that you’d break up with him eventually.” And I’m like, “That was why we worked together?”

Do you feel like the #MeToo conversation is allowing you to explore being a woman or your gender in a different way?


Kim:It never occurred to me, the microaggression shit; it never occurred to me a lot of the sexist shit. It never occurred to me, you know, the tyrannical hole that taller people have had in my life. Just kidding, I’m a height enthusiast.

Plummer:At least in comedy, this moment in time, now that there’s something to talk about, I see a lot of comedians who are doing some of their best work because they’re critically thinking through these ideas. What’s interesting about improv is that they’re normalizing certain things. When I was first engaging with improv, it’s like the butt of the joke would be homosexual relationships, whereas now I see a lot of people who are in homosexual relationships in a scene, but they’re fully developed, realized characters, and then they’re also crazy and goofy. I love comedy when at its best it’s revolutionary, and I think we’re at a moment where we have the capacity to do that.

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What do you think the purpose of comedy is in a movement like this? What’s a comedian’s responsibility?


Flannery:A comedian’s only job is to make people laugh. I mean, my show is drinking stories, my whole laugh is drinking stories. It doesn’t help anyone if I am trying to crowbar [politics] in there to just be like, “Look, I’m not an asshole, and for the next five minutes I’m not going to be funny. I’m just going to be a good person. Tip the bartender well.”

Plummer:Maybe “revolutionary” is too big of a word to digest, but to me that’s what [great comedy] is: a space where people can go in, and they don’t have to think about their race, their gender, their sexuality. They can just go and have fun because they know it’s being curated well.

Ezeokoli:Yeah, comedy is a very powerful tool. But also it’s got to be funny: How am I being funny, how am I saying my point, and also how am I not being a dick? That’s a cocktail that you’re mixing together in being truthful.

Kim:I don’t want to make comedy all political. My set is mostly blowjobs and pubes.

Plummer:I’m excited for more people to be dealing with these things so that more folks can feel comfortable in this community and we can see how far this art form can go. Because once we start having these conversations and know how to deal with them, we’re just going to get an influx of different people from different walks of life. Having variety in comedy is incredible.

Noll:I think for me [the movement] made me reflect on myself and also has given me a lot of catharsis to be able to go back to my past self and be like, “Hey, those weird feelings you had about comedians doing that, that was right.”

Plummer:I have a friend who’s had what I would consider potentially problematic views on some things. But after this stuff has come to light, he has seen how it has affected a lot of his friends. Watching him onstage, he’s just getting better as an improviser: I’ve noticed him making more sophisticated choices. I’m proud in the sense that he’s noticing this about other people and engaging it on a personal level, but enacting it onstage is something that empowers him as a performer, too. This isn’t bad for anybody. You can use this truly as a tool for your craft to get better.

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