Friday November 17, 2017

'It's not a joke. It's not OK': Female comics speak out against sexual harassment

Aisha Alfa, who works as a female comedian in a job that often trades in raunchy talk and crossed lines, pointed to the 'culture of pushing boundaries with people.'

Aisha Alfa, who works as a female comedian in a job that often trades in raunchy talk and crossed lines, pointed to the 'culture of pushing boundaries with people.' (Diana King)

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U.S. senator and former comedian Al Franken is the latest public figure to be accused of sexual misconduct, just days following allegations against comic Louis C.K.

'Their first defence is: 'We're all comics. It's a joke.' - Michelle Shaughnessy

"They can say whatever they want and then just try to hide it under the guise of 'Oh, it's a joke. We're all comics," said Michelle Shaughnessy, a stand-up comic and writer, about her experience with sexual harassment in the comedy scene.

She joined two other Canadian comics, Rebecca Kohler and Aisha Alfa, to talk to The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay, about working as a female comedian in a job that often trades in raunchy talk and crossed lines.

Michelle Shaughnessy

'You can mention it to these guys, and their first defence is: 'We're all comics. It's a joke,'' said Michelle Shaughnessy, a stand-up comic and writer, about sexual harassment in the comedy business. (michellesfunny.com/)

Shaughnessy said a colleague of hers sent her and other women comedians  "a picture of their penis."

"You can mention it to these guys, and their first defence is: 'We're all comics. It's a joke.'"

'No, it's not a joke. It's not OK.' - Rebecca Kohler

Kohler called it a "tricky" situation when female comics complain about sexual misconduct.

"No, it's not a joke. It's not OK. But up until very recently … you just sounded like a 'whiny Wendy' or you sounded like a troublemaker or complainer — you know, people wouldn't want to work you with you if you cause trouble."

Rebecca Kohler

'Sexual harassment has been an open secret in society,' said comic Rebecca Kohler. 'Now we can we have the language and the strength to call it for what it is.' (Rebecca Kohler)

Pushing boundaries

Los Angeles-based Aisha Alfa pointed to a business where comedians in their job are encouraged to push boundaries and the difficulty for many on where to draw the line.

"It's very important in comedy for people to be able to say offensive things, and, you know, say things that are unexpected and we all fight for that on a daily basis to have that freedom."

But she said that trickles down as well into a "culture of pushing boundaries with people as well and with actions."

"We have to choose … Are we going to call them out and stop this — like sort of a thorn in the side of the system that we're trying to encourage should be boundary-pushing and to be, you know, really calling people out; and then are we going to be the person who stops that system from rolling forward."

'Sexual harassment has been an open secret in society.' - Rebecca Kohler

Kohler said the culture is changing with the allegations against prominent figures opening up conversations about sexual misconduct.

"Sexual harassment has been an open secret in society … So I think now it's not a secret anymore … And now we can we have the language and the strength to call it for what it is."

Handling sexual harassment complaints

Shaughnessy called for a better system for dealing with harassment complaints in the comedy business, "The way it's set up now ... You don't have nobody to talk to. There's nobody to voice your complaint to."

"The chains of comedy clubs —  they need to have a better system in place for people that do complain and take it a bit more seriously."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman and Ines Colabrese.