I’m a stand-up comedian. I went to the open mic at Acme Comedy Co in downtown Minneapolis on Monday, May 6, 2019. I was there because that is where I go to practice my craft on Mondays. I was not there to make some kind of statement — but as a woman in comedy, apparently, a statement was made.
I know because two men commented on my decision to try to get on the open mic list and joked that I might “get in trouble.”
Women (and some men) in the Minneapolis comedy scene were boycotting the open mic at Acme after the club had announced a surprise four-night residency by Louis C.K. that week. The intent was to demonstrate disapproval of the club and C.K. and to show solidarity with victims of sexual assault.
It’s not that I’m insensitive to any of those issues. I don’t like that comedy clubs hire sexual predators. I find C.K.’s crimes repulsive. I stand in solidarity with victims of sexual assault.
In a press release statement published in The New York Times, C.K. admitted to sexual misconduct. He said he was guilty of “wielding his power irresponsibly” and claimed he understood “the extent to which [he] left these women ... feeling badly about themselves.”
I don’t think he will ever understand the extent of the damage he has done. But I know it firsthand.
I was only 15 when a grown man masturbated in front of me without my consent and against my will. That one act disrupted my life in a million ways.
I was on my way home from the grocery store with my best friend. We were going to make spaghetti for dinner. A guy in a parked car manipulated us into approaching the vehicle. He asked us for directions to the freeway. She and I gestured to the stoplights a half mile in either direction to indicate streets he could take to get on the interstate. At some point, he took out his penis and started masturbating.
My friend saw it before I did, and she took off in full-on, lizard-brain, flight mode as soon as she could get her little legs to work. I was mad that she left me behind and I yelled at her for crying and “acting like a victim” (something my father had scolded me for more than once).
“I thought you saw!” she cried later when we fought about it. “I thought you were right behind me!”
“I was only 15 when a grown man masturbated in front of me without my consent and against my will. That one act disrupted my life in a million ways.”
Afterward, I was so angry. I was angry with the guy for the way he kept thanking us after we ran away. “Thank you!” he called for at least a block, “Hey! Thanks, girls! Hey, girls! Thank you!” (I can still hear him in my head.) I was angry that he got off on our fear. Angry that he saw how scared we were. Angry that I didn’t stand up for myself. Angry that I didn’t say anything. Angry that I didn’t do anything. Angry that he’d taken from me the right to choose when I saw a penis for the first time. Angry at myself for wearing that stupid sundress (read: “asking for it”). I just took it, and then I “let” him thank me? What was wrong with me?
I stopped flirting with boys. I was scared to leave my house. I almost lost my best friend because I blamed her and yelled at her for crying. I jumped every time a car pulled up behind me. I stopped walking to the grocery store. (It’s been 20 years, and I still fight the urge to run screaming when somebody shouts at me from a car window.) My life got smaller and smaller. I tried to erase myself in the hopes that if I couldn’t be seen, maybe that wouldn’t happen again.
On Monday, May 6, I wanted to get on the open mic list and I didn’t want to get on the list. The general rule with a club like Acme is: When you’re lucky enough to get a three-minute slot, you do your tightest, most polished three-minute set and hope you get noticed by the People Who Matter. (In this case, Acme club owner Louis Lee.)
Two years into my career, I have a few “tight threes” I can confidently bank on to get a laugh. I don’t do anything divisive, political or raunchy. Most of my sets are about navigating parenting and marriage. I could have done one of those sets. But I didn’t feel like I could get up there and not at least address the controversy over Louis C.K. headlining this week. And I didn’t have a tight three on Louis. I was torn.
Mel Brooks once said that the best way to take away a tyrant’s power is to turn them into a joke.
I wanted to do my best set, I wanted to rip Louis C.K. apart with a killer joke – and I couldn’t do both. I wanted to rob C.K. of his power. But I worried no female producers in Minneapolis would hire me later since I didn’t toe the line with them that night. When I didn’t end up making the list, I was both sad and relieved.
“Boycotting only works if the boycotting party has something to leverage. Right now, women in stand-up do not have the means or the numbers for our absence to effect a change. By staying away, the only thing we hurt is our own chance at exposure and success.”
I feel like I’m being forced to pick a side in an unwinnable battle. I want my name in lights. I want my own Netflix special. I want to headline at the best clubs in the country. And the only way to get there is to be the funniest comedian I can be – which means I need to practice at open mics. The worst part about the divisiveness among women over C.K.’s stint at Acme last week is the ironic double standard: that because I’m a woman, I’m expected to forfeit mic time. And because I continue to go to Acme, I might not get work from other women.
I don’t believe that women boycotting Acme when Louis C.K. comes to town hits anybody where it hurts. Boycotting only works if the boycotting party has something to leverage. Right now, women in stand-up do not have the means or the numbers for our absence to effect a change. By staying away, the only thing we hurt is our own chance at exposure and success.
I didn’t go to Acme because I approve of Louis C.K.’s actions. I wasn’t trying to earn brownie points with the club or thumb my nose at anyone who boycotted. And yet, my colleagues may label me traitor.
But for me, the act of walking through those doors, knowing that club hired a guy who committed the very same crime that was perpetrated against me as a young girl, was a way of saying, “I will not be paralyzed, shut up, manipulated, or ignored. I am here to do a job that I know I can do, and I want my shot.” I will not let the Louis C.K.s of the world keep me from knocking it out of the park, and I hope to have a cohort of fierce, funny women alongside me while I swing away.
I went back to Acme on May 13 and made the list. It wasn’t tight, but I did a solid three minutes on Louis C.K. and what “sexual misconduct” really means. People laughed. And I finally felt one step closer to shifting the balance of power.
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Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.