How the Tulsa comedy scene policed itself when one joke crossed a line
Last month, Facebook feeds were universally flooded with people (mostly women) joining in the #metoo campaign. Some shared personal stories of being sexually abused and harassed, while others simply typed “#metoo” to highlight the prevalence of sexual abuse in our society. One Tulsa comedian decided to weigh in with a purported joke on Facebook, which incensed the local comedy scene and reignited the debate over how far is too far in comedy.
The comic (whom we have chosen not to name) wrote: “the #metoo posts remind me that the ugly ones always end up alive.”
A screencap and denunciation of the status were circulated by Channel Four and a Half network members Michael Zampino and Andrew Deacon. The backlash was swift, with nearly every promoter in town banning the man from their shows.
A second camp emerged, labeling Zampino and Deacon as “white knights” who police an art form known for pushing limits.
“It’s been really enlightening that the two sides here are essentially people that think rape is bad versus people that love talking about rape,” Deacon said. “You have to establish what is just in bad taste and what is actually dangerous … and if a person’s behavior is dangerous, the most we can do is have an understanding that we’re not going to put them on any of our shows and warn others about that person’s behavior.”
The offending joke underscored the intent of the #metoo campaign by perpetuating the way claims of sexual abuse are often mocked or outright dismissed. It suggests that not even a scene built on laughter is safe for women.
“As a victim of sexual assault … [that post] brought up a lot of feelings [for me],” said a local female comic who wished to remain anonymous. “I’m glad the scene reacted in a way that let people know shit like that isn’t okay.”
“It often feels like nothing can be done,” another anonymous female comic said. “Because this culture seems to let guys get away with doing and saying whatever they want to women with little to no repercussions, and when someone or some group steps up to say, ‘no, this is not going to be tolerated,’ I find that really hopeful.”
Katie Van Patten, comedian and Tulsa native turned recent New Yorker, applauded the response but believes the scandal should be a starting point for a larger discussion within Tulsa’s male-dominated comedy scene.
“I do think it’s nice when male comics say ‘this isn’t cool; we need to stop this man from being anywhere near a microphone,’” she said. “But it doesn’t excuse them from the low-key misogyny.”
Van Patten says that pervasive “low-key misogyny” is as simple as men calling women “bitches” and bristling when they’re asked to correct themselves.
“One thing that bothered me about the scene’s reaction were the men talking about it,” said one of the anonymous female comics. “Saying things like ‘that’s someone’s daughter, or sister, or mother he’s talking about.’ As if a woman’s value is tied solely to her relationship to men. It shouldn’t matter that she’s someone’s daughter. It matters that she’s a person.”
Comedian Lauren Turner said she doesn’t see herself as “traditionally beautiful” and felt she had to work harder than other women to first prove herself in the comedy scene. “I want to create a space where that shit doesn’t matter. You just need to be funny,” she said.
To that end, she and Laura Cook have created several new monthly shows.*
“I know that several women have had experiences with men in the comedy scene that were uncomfortable, inappropriate, or straight-up abusive. The benefit of having women [booking] shows … is we are very aware of those things.”
All of the comics I spoke to insisted they do not desire squeaky-clean comedy. The anti-censorship crowd consistently point to Anthony Jeselnik as a savior of “edgy” comedy.
Jeselnik joked about his girlfriend losing her religion: “When she was a kid, like 12 years old, her parents nailed a 25-pound crucifix to the wall right above her bed. About two weeks later, in the middle of the night, the crucifix falls off the wall and leaves a two-inch gash in the back of her dad’s head.”
Yes, that’s a pedophilic incest joke. Clutched pearls aside, it works as a commentary on hypocrisy—it doesn’t condone rape or abuse. The local #metoo Facebook joke seemed to do just that, while implying “all these women sharing their traumatic stories are ugly.” No zing, and certainly no value.
“You can do that kind of material, but it either takes years of performing comedy that isn’t shocking and disgusting or a way to be likeable and endearing,” Deacon said.
“It’s hard for me to say that a joke can cross any sort of line because funny is just funny,” said one of the anonymous comics. “That being said, if you choose to consistently write jokes that diminish certain groups of people, you have to understand that there may be repercussions to those choices.”
One repercussion is being denied access to stages across an entire city.
Even the “king” of edgy comedy, Louis C.K.—who built a career endearing himself to crowds while candidly speaking of his shortcomings and perversions—is having his dodgier material re-examined in light of sexual misconduct revelations.
Now, as always, is a good time to listen to women and leave the rape “jokes” off the notepad.
*For Turner: Mainline Art Bar every third Wednesday of the month, and Bamboo Lounge the second Friday of every month. For Cook: Beehive Lounge every second Thursday and The Starlite every third Friday.