Not long after she started performing her stand-up routine in Chicago, Erica Clark learned some very unfunny things about life in the comedy business.
Clark started her stand-up career six years ago, with material that included bits about her famous dad, Mr. T, and some sexual “blue” content that apparently struck a chord with her male colleagues. After a show, a male acquaintance — unsolicited, texted her pictures of his penis.
“I remember being so blown away,” Clark said. “The more comics I met the more I got. . . . I could do a calendar of these unwanted pictures from comics, like a two-year calendar.
“I used to wonder, ‘Is it because of my jokes?’ But I think in comedy, even with someone like Louis C.K., [men] do things like that, and embarrass themselves, and then they can try to pull it back [by saying], ‘I was just joking.’”
The comedy world has in recent months seen the downfall of icon Bill Cosby and, last week, one of the industry’s top performers, Louis C.K., with both men felled by accusations of rampant sexual misconduct and assault. Five comediennes revealed in a New York Times expose last week that C.K. masturbated in front of them without consent, allegations that the superstar comic acknowledged as true.
Three of the women named in the Times story previously worked in Chicago, and the revelations about C.K. reverberated for many comediennes working in a comedy mecca that draws young, aspiring comics from across the continent. While performers interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times in recent days all have said the majority of their male peers are supportive and non-threatening, many, like Clark, have stories of unsolicited come-ons, gross behavior, and worse.
“I would hate for young women to be afraid to do comedy because they’re afraid of all these predators,” said Kelsie Huff, a Chicago comedy veteran of nearly two decades and producer of The Kates comedy show, an all-female showcase.
“There is this idea [in comedy] that you’re supposed to push boundaries on stage… and that can spill over into bad stuff off-stage,” Huff said. “But, having said that, I have worked in finance, and some of those dudes didn’t really get it either.”
While Chicago’s global cachet as a comedy capital is based largely on the reputations of ensembles at The Second City and The iO Theater, most local comics are grinding out performances in far smaller venues, gigging as free agents for little or no money, at shows put together by fellow comics, said local stand-up Meredith Kachel.
“All of us are just trying to have fun and make people laugh, but there’s no Human Resources in comedy. There’s no one to report things to,” said Kachel, a co-founder of the Hoo HA Comedy show, which features female comics. “People feel they have to police themselves.”
And the close-knit community of comics can be helpful. Two years ago, performers were put on edge when comics — male and female — apparently were drugged with spiked drinks during several open-mic nights at different spots in the city.
Social media back-and-forth prompted performers to organize a “town hall meeting,” that included presentations from a rape counselor, an attorney and a Chicago Police officers, Kachel said.
Allegations of abuse or just plain creepy behavior are more common than actual police reports or restraining orders, but the informal complaints shared among female comics can effectively see performers barred from finding work — a system that Kachel admits is far from perfect.
Established venues, such as The Second City, do have policies against sexual harassment, but performers have told Kachel those formal guidelines don’t seem to be completely effective, either.
Charna Halpern, co-founder of The iO, said in an email: “We have an HR department with complete confidentiality and a zero-tolerance policy that enables us to create a safe space.”
James Kamp, who produces the weekly Comedy Cocktail at House of Blues and blogs about the Chicago comedy scene at ComedyofChicago.com, said he largely books national touring performers, and avoids local comics who have bad reputations. Chicago, unlike other major comedy destinations like New York and Los Angeles, has a lot of shows that are run by women, Kamp said.
“If you’re some kind of creep, you’re not going to get booked by them. Especially on the open-mic scene, if you’re a problem, it comes out real fast,” Kamp said.
Huff said that because Chicago is where comics make their name before moving on to New York or L.A, the close-knit scene might be somewhat safer.
“I always tell young comics, you have a community here, you have this little anchor,” Huff said. “Go out and do your work. Don’t let anyone anyone keep you from doing what you love.”