Like many of my male peers in comedy and television writing, I grew up awkward, insecure and unable to talk to girls I was attracted to. Fortunately, I was blessed with a quick wit and could find comfort in the world of smartass and inappropriate comments where, if I offended someone, I could shield myself from blame by saying the magic words: “I’m just joking.”
As an adult, in countless writers’ rooms and comedy clubs, I’ve too often witnessed peers going well past inappropriate with hyper-sexual comments or actions, then falling back on “I’m just joking.” Sometimes I spoke up, more often, I did not. Occasionally, I called someone out, especially if they worked under me, but even then I felt that I was somehow betraying the comedian’s code. That code not only granted immunity for comments or unsolicited touches so long as the perpetrator was joking, but also required the target to be “cool” or “one of the guys.” Ninety-nine percent of the time the aggressor was a man and the receiver a woman, but every now and then the roles were switched. I know, because I was caught up in one of those instances.
My story, however creepy and unwanted, is minor compared to what most women in comedy are subjected to on a regular basis.
First, let me be clear: My story, however creepy and unwanted, is minor compared to what most women in comedy are subjected to on a regular basis.
At 36 (well past when most writers get their first break), I landed a network writing job after years on the road as a standup comic. It was on a hit show, “Grace Under Fire,” on a writing staff populated by some of the best writers in the business. The job was a dream come true.
The star of the show was a rough-edged comedian who turned her life as an abused wife and mother into a stellar career in standup and eventually her own show. I was aware of her reputation for harassing staff so, on the day we met when she showed off her new boob job and invited me to “Touch them, they feel real,” I laughed and joked, “My dad told me, never touch the boss’ tits.” I figured she was just hazing the new guy.
Days later, when my wallet and keys went missing from my desk and a production assistant told me I could retrieve them from the star’s trailer, I started to get creeped out. Then came weeks of weird comments in front of the other writers and phone calls in the middle of the night to “come on over, I’m in the hot tub.” I hesitantly mentioned it to my agent, who brought it to the attention of the studio. The following Tuesday, at a taping in front of an audience, some of the executives were there to witness in public what I’d been dealing with for months in private. The star, addressing the fans waiting to see the show, pointed to me down on the stage and said, “That’s Mike Larsen, our newest writer. He’s gonna f**k me or he’s fired.” The audience was stunned. I could only force a weak smile and a wave. Then she made it all okay by adding, “I’m just joking.”
I didn’t want to be known as the writer who may or may not be sleeping with the star, or even worse -- as the writer who accused her of sexual harassment.
I only tell my story so I can say this: No one asks to be targeted. I worked my whole career for this opportunity, and damn it, I was good at it. I had a shot at a career in television! I wanted to be known for writing great scripts and pitching killer jokes and being a pleasant person to work with. I didn’t want to be known as the writer who may or may not be sleeping with the star, or even worse ― as the writer who accused her of sexual harassment.
When I hear people say women who’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted have an obligation to immediately name their offender, my blood boils. You’re telling me a woman who works her whole life to land a job as a television writer, or a comic who finally gets her big break, only to be arbitrarily targeted by a man who never got over his adolescent insecurities… she’s now required to jeopardize her career?
Here’s my take: If a woman says she was harassed or assaulted, err on the side of believing her. If she confided in someone at the time it occurred, and other people have similar stories, assume it’s true. Let’s cut the victims some slack and let them get on with their careers. The comedy world can always use more truth tellers.
Mike Larsen is a 30-year veteran of the comedy industry. He’s an Emmy-nominated television writer and a standup comic who made multiple appearances on ‘The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @writemikelarsen