- Gary Musgrave
On the November 2015 night that Jill says she was drugged, she was one of nearly 60 people packed into a makeshift living room theater for a night of open-mike comedy. The monthly event, All Effin' Night, was billed as "comics only"—a chance for stand-ups to try out new material on each other. As usual, the Roscoe Village apartment was lined with rows of couches, stools, and folding chairs. The fridge was full of beer for the taking. Open bottles of liquor circulated freely. The stage was hung with bedsheets, and the four hosts were dressed in pajamas; they were prepared for a long night.
Jill, 26, was relatively new to Chicago's comedy scene, although it wasn't her first time at All Effin' Night. A petite sci-fi and video-game nerd with short-cropped brown hair, Jill (who asked to be identified by her middle name) had moved to Chicago from Indianapolis after graduating college in 2013. She started work at a local financial consulting firm, and in February 2015 became interested in comedy. She decided to try her hand at stand-up after realizing how few women there were—by her count only about one in five, "a terrible ratio," she says. By July of that year she was performing at open mikes three nights a week.
As Jill scanned the room, she recognized several other comics she knew, including 26-year-old cohost Sam Gordon and 30-year-old Kahlil Wilson, a tall, brawny dude with a bushy mustache and big grin. But there were people there that night she didn't recognize—the scene is abundant with newcomers and drop-ins.
Jill grabbed a cold PBR from a 30-rack and took a small sip. She'd already had one drink at another open mike earlier that evening, and she didn't want to get too drunk—she wanted to be relatively sober while trying out her new jokes. She nursed her beer for the next few hours, setting it down occasionally as she watched other people perform. Yet when Jill went up for her set around 1 AM, she stumbled over her jokes—and the stage itself—causing the hosts and partygoers to write her off as drunk.
"I remember doing my set, and after that I can't remember anything," she says. "I remember my set was not great." When she was done she stumbled from the stage to a couch. A friend deemed her too drunk to stay at the party and put her in an Uber home to Logan Square.
A tipsy comic at a casual open mike isn't unusual. But when Jill woke up the next morning she was practically paralyzed in her bed, unable to move and barely able to speak. Even rolling out of bed to go to the bathroom was too much for her body to handle. She soiled herself, and remained frozen in place for nearly 18 hours. Jill knew this wasn't a typical hangover—"I only had two beers, I don't understand why I woke up feeling like I was dead," she says. She came to the conclusion that she'd been drugged.
She didn't appear to have been assaulted, however. Nor did she seem to be otherwise injured. So instead of going to the hospital or calling the police, she decided to sleep it off, hoping that would be her best option for a quick recovery. By Monday morning Jill was feeling back to normal. But the effects of that strange Saturday night would linger, sending shockwaves through the comedy scene she'd come to love. This incident—and others like it—would ultimately push local female comics together to confront the sexism, harassment, and assault they say has plagued their community for years. Their efforts are ongoing—even though the mystery of who might be drugging comics and why remains unsolved.
“We can’t blame some creep at the bar because the creep appears to be among our own community.”
—Comic Sam Gordon in a December 2015 Facebook post
A few days later, Jill told Wilson about what had happened at the open mike. Wilson, it turned out, had had a similar experience. He arrived at the house party around midnight, and grabbed a beer from the same case in the kitchen. He had drunk two beers at another open mike right before, and as the night went on he had two more. He also took sips here and there from other comics' drinks—including Jill's beer. And like Jill, Wilson went up on stage, did a less than stellar set, and blacked out.
When Wilson came to he was still sitting in the audience. The show was winding down, and the party's hosts asked him to leave. But when he tried to stand up, he couldn't move. "It was really weird," he says. But he reacted to the suspicion that he'd been drugged differently than Jill had. "It was a little bit less scary for me. I'm a big dude. I wasn't scared—I almost thought it was funny."
Eventually the hosts helped Wilson to the bathroom, where he made himself throw up. He instantly felt better—a sign to him that something bad had been in his system—and got a ride home to Pilsen from a fellow comic. The next morning he felt fine. He never considered reporting the incident to the police or getting checked out by a doctor.
When Jill heard Wilson's story, she says she thought, "It's not a stranger in a bar following drunk comedians, it's someone in the scene."
Jill also told Gordon, one of the show's cohosts, what had happened. Gordon, a veteran of the scene, agreed that something had likely happened to Jill. "I know what she's like when she's drunk, and she usually can handle herself, so this was very out of character," Gordon says. The possibility that Wilson had been drugged too "made us think that something was tainted in the common space."
Gordon went to Facebook and wrote a post about what had happened to Wilson and Jill. "I sincerely hope that it was only these two people," she wrote, "but if you were there and think you may have also been drugged, please, please talk to one of us." She asked anyone who had noticed anything suspicious that night to reach out to her. And she issued a stern rebuke: "Having this at All Effin' Night is particularly disturbing since it is a house show that generally only has Chicago comedians and people we personally know there. We can't blame some creep at the bar because the creep appears to be among our own community."
- Gary Musgrave
Other people chimed in: this wasn't the first time comics had suspected they'd been drugged.
Two months earlier a female comic had allegedly been drugged at a stand-up night at Cole's Bar in Logan Square, wrote the event's organizer.
The woman was a 24-year-old comic named Kendall—also a petite brunette, who asked to be identified by her first name. The bar was crowded that night, and she left her drink unattended when she went out for a smoke. She'd been drugged a year earlier, at a Fourth of July party, she told the Reader. So when she blacked out after two beers at Cole's, then woke up the next day with a raging hangover, she says she knew what had happened.
"Honestly, when I woke up and put the pieces together, I was mostly just mad that I probably had a really bad set," she says. "I was just angry because people who didn't know me probably just thought I was just a drunk idiot, and that made me very sad. I was bothered that I seemed so unprofessional.
"I'm lucky that that's what I get to be upset about, because the situation doesn't pan out like that for so many people," she adds. Like Jill, Kendall made it home to Logan Square safely and showed no signs of having been assaulted. Gordon and the other open-mike hosts began speculating about who might be responsible for these two incidents, cross-referencing their guest lists in an attempt to narrow down the suspects. The All Effin' Night show had been videotaped by a stationary camera set up at the back of the living room, so there was a record of every performance—and every guest who walked in that night. The hosts pored over the footage, digging into each attendee's whereabouts, even creating a time line of the night's events.
The only person who stood out, according to Gordon, was a guy in a blue hoodie who sat in the kitchen and instructed partygoers on which beers to grab because "they were the coldest." ("That's not how a 30-rack of beer works," Gordon says.) The man in the hoodie was one of few people multiple partygoers couldn't identify, and according to those present, he never went up to perform a set. But because of the way the camera was positioned, the "party space"—the kitchen, porch, and back side of the living room—was off camera, and multiple viewings of the video revealed no such mysterious man, as far as Gordon could tell.
Ultimately the hosts came up empty-handed. The only other constant between the two events was a large group of drunk comics.
But a few weeks later, rumors of another incident began to circulate. A male comic had shown signs of being drugged at iO's annual holiday party in Lincoln Park, people said, after sharing drinks with a group of female improvisers. But attendees also say that everyone at the party was so intoxicated that it was unclear whether anyone had really been drugged or not. (And after months of searching, the Reader was unable to identify this man, or any of the women he was reportedly drinking with.) Still, rumors about the iO party, plus the conversation about what had happened to Kendall, Jill, and Wilson, began to crystallize into a shared sense of fear, anger, and frustration—especially among the scene's female comics.
- Gary Musgrave
After the alleged drugging at Cole's, female stand-ups and improvisers created a private Facebook group where they could air their grievances about men they say had been harassing or assaulting them. After the incident at All Effin' Night they took the private online conversations public, meeting in person with law enforcement, rape advocacy groups, and each other to share stories and learn how to report incidents to police and higher-ups at comedy theaters and clubs.
Victoria Elena Nones, a local musical comedian, launched a group called Women in Comedy in response to the problem. "This organization is not just to help end sexual harassment," Nones told the Reader in January. "We want to address the issues of our community; we also want to empower women. It's also about coming together as a community and supporting each other."
The group held its first event at the Laugh Factory in Lakeview on December 6, just one week after Jill was allegedly drugged. Nones asked Alex Kumin, a scene veteran who also does training and outreach work with sexual assault victims for the YWCA, to facilitate the meeting and counsel any women in need. "As a comedian with a background in this, my main concern was making sure everyone was feeling safe," Kumin says. But providing this kind of care to her fellow comics was difficult even for her. "It was really disappointing for me in the sense that comedy was sort of the place that I didn't have to think about rape crisis work," Kumin says. "It was my place that I had established outside of my work that helped me with my self-care. To have those worlds collide so suddenly and so strongly was tough."
The meeting was billed as a "speed networking" event for women in comedy to casually meet each other and discuss shared experiences in the scene. Every woman who attended was asked to write a Post-it note about something that bothered them about the scene. "That someone is drugging ladies at open mics," read one Post-it hanging in the center of the wall.
Women in Comedy and other independent gatherings of female comics planned several other events in December and January, including a panel discussion about antiharassment guidelines and reporting assault, and women-only performances at the Laugh Factory, Under the Gun Theater, and ComedySportz. The group also organized an industry blackout on January 31, when female comics were asked to boycott theaters, clubs, classes, and shows where they'd been made to feel unsafe by men and instead gather at a networking event led by Women in Comedy.
Some of these efforts were met with a backlash: many male comics complained that the women were making accusations behind their backs without giving them a chance to respond; some women saw the female-only shows as a form of harmful self-segregation, especially when female comics have worked so hard to get equal billing to their male counterparts; others resented the way that the alleged druggings were conflated with more routine forms of harassment and inequality.
Jill also faced a backlash of sorts. While women believed her story, she found male comics much less sympathetic. None of them "really wanted to talk about it," she says.
And although Jill's situation had helped bring about this nascent movement, the advocacy yielded her mixed results. At a meeting in mid-December, a few weeks after her experience, she decided to file a police report. "I was encouraged by the group to take action, so I did," Jill says. But because she hadn't gone to the hospital directly after the incident, there was no physical evidence—"It is undetermined if victim was drugged," the report reads. Police also asked her to accompany them back to the apartment to go over the night in more detail, but Jill didn't want to. "The idea of going back to the scene gives me the willies," she says.
Still, Jill reached out to Wilson and Kendall, asking if they would consider filing their own police reports—she thought that perhaps a greater number of similar complaints would warrant a larger investigation—but that was futile. So much time had passed that Kendall felt a report would do little to help, and she wanted to move on with her life. "It's always like, 'Why didn't she get checked out?' " she says. "I have things to do. I can't be fucking derailed by this. Obviously if someone had attacked me, I would have gone to the hospital and gotten a [rape] kit or gone to the police." Wilson wasn't interested because his own experience didn't negatively affect him as Jill's had.
Jill was disappointed by their response. "If I'm the only one going through the effort then it's not really worth it," she says.
Ultimately CPD didn't investigate Jill's case, a department spokesperson says, because of the lack of evidence. And despite community scrutiny, the motivation behind the apparent druggings remains unclear—as far as anyone knows, no one was assaulted and no one appeared to be a direct target.
Today, Wilson feels unscathed by what happened to him in November. He hosts multiple regularly occurring comedy shows and attends an open mike almost every night. "I never felt fear," he says. "I have seen other people drugged out at a bar, and when I see people acting superdrunk, I think, 'Good for them!' I didn't feel bad or anything until I knew they were drugged."
But Gordon has since stopped running All Effin' Night, to prevent any new incidents from occurring on her watch. And Jill was traumatized—she says the incident has affected her job, her relationships, and her trust in others. The lack of closure left her feeling that her only choice was to drop comedy. "I miss stand-up so much," she says. "I just don't feel safe." v