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At comedy festival touched by harassment, panel of women looks for solutions

Susan Messing (left) and Ali Barthwell were among the panelists Saturday discussing issues facing women in comedy. | PROVIDED PHOTOS

Being funny while female can be harrowing. Ask the panelists (all of them female, with a combined total of nearly a century’s experience working in Chicago’s sketch, improv and stand-up scene) gathered Saturday at Stage 773 for a panel discussion on women in comedy. Roughly 80 people turned out for “The Future is Female,” hosted under the auspices of Sketchfest, an annual comedy festival that brings in performers from across the country.

Veteran iO and Second CIty writer-performer Susan Messing, 54, started in Chicago over 30 years ago. “Having a woman in the room was just bizarre back then,” she said, “I look back now at what went on, and what we dismissed as the awkward fumblings of 20-something guys was actually unconscionable. At the time, we [women] all had the attitude of, well, you’ve just gotta suck it up. It’s comedy. Anything goes.”

That’s an attitude that still often prevails, says writer-comic-Second City instructor Ali Barthwell, 29, especially among her male students. As a teacher, Barthwell said she spends significant time explaining that racism, sexism and homophobia are rarely funny or acceptable. She has a ready answer for students who inevitably insist that “it’s comedy” so nothing is off-limits. “People who say that are usually people who are bad at comedy. I tell them, sure, you can make a sandwich out of s—. Doesn’t make it a good sandwich,’ ” Barthwell said.

The 90-minute discussion painted a picture that was at once infuriating (four of Messing’s friends received death threats after reporting sexual harassment) and hopeful. Jay Steigmann, 41, is the head of the writing program at the Second City Training Center. For the first time, women outnumber men in the program, she said. “I believe representation is the thing that creates real change, so that‘s great.”

Brian Posen | FILE PHOTO, 2015

The panel itself came with what Messing deemed “the elephant in the room.” Sketchfest founder and former Second City instructor Brian Posen left both positions after being accused of harassment. Barthwell said her own comedy team pulled out of Sketchfest after the accusations against Posen surfaced.

Posen isn’t alone in being taken down by allegations of abuse. Panelists briefly addressed allegations against Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby, among others. For decades, panelists agreed, women had little recourse when it came to dealing with predators in the industry.

“But we’re finally putting systems in place so we won’t have a 20-year predator anymore,” said Messing, noting that after decades without one, Second City finally has a human resources department.

At the very least, panelists concurred, sexism in all its forms is finally being talked about rather than simply accepted as an occupational hazard. But words, including many apologies, are cheap, panelists agreed. “Don’t be sorry,” said Barthwell, “Be better.”