Chicago is the best city for comedy, but men are fucking it up | Bleader

Chicago is the best city for comedy, but men are fucking it up

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Beth Stelling is one of the female comics who has spoken out about abuse and assault. - ERIN NEKERVIS
  • Erin Nekervis
  • Beth Stelling is one of the female comics who has spoken out about abuse and assault.

Dear men of the Chicago comedy scene,

Chicago is the best city in the country to do comedy, and we are fucking it up.

Chicago’s strength has always been its lack of showbiz industry. Comedians have historically been free to take risks here and bomb spectacularly without ruining their chances at a career. In 2005, I witnessed Kumail Nanjiani perform at Weeds Tavern, where the stage was a pool table and you couldn’t hear unless you were standing right next to him. These unfortunate circumstances didn’t benefit his tepid set. Now he’s a dynamic stand-up comic who stars in Silicon Valley and The Big Sick, but before that, there were countless flops at DIY Chicago shows.

The city is a safe space artistically, but multiple women recently came forward with stories about how that space has never felt safe to them. Brian Posen, the creator of the annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival (SketchFest) and former head of Second City’s training center, allegedly made countless lewd comments about the women in his classes and took photos of their butts and cleavage. Then Ex Fest, ostensibly an alternative to SketchFest, was abruptly canceled the day it was scheduled to begin due to sexual misconduct accusations against its founder Matthew Payne. Women in comedy have resorted to creating secret Facebook groups to discuss their disgust with men’s rape jokes and unwanted advances.


Our comedy institutions aren’t helping by segregating women into separate shows. Second City is currently running a “mimosa-and-madness-fueled” all-women sketch show entitled She the People: Girlfriends’ Guide to Sisters Doing it For Themselves. The iO Theater hosts the excellent improv group Virgin Daiquiri but bills it as an "all-women ensemble." When will female comedians be known simply as “comedians?”

Ironically these are two of the few shows that pass the Bechdel test, which means at least two named female characters have a conversation about something besides men. These are also two of the few shows where women play roles other than prostitutes, nagging housewives, or nagging prostitutes.

Whenever a new allegation comes to light concerning a comedian here or on a national level, I think, “Where are the good guys?” How is it possible that a comic can be lauded for his ability to read an audience from the stage when he can’t pick up on a woman’s body language or social cues offstage? (The recent accusations against Aziz Ansari demonstrate the persistence of this particular problem.) I’m finding it hard to watch my beloved Chicago comedians knowing they may be “bad guys.”

It’s up to us to course correct what has become normalized behavior toward women in this town because we are responsible. Men have the luxury of creating art appreciated for its merit, whereas women, like other marginalized groups, are forced to become mouthpieces for all females. Sure, you might claim to dismiss the flippant statement, “Women aren’t funny,” but who said that in the first place? Probably a man. And I doubt anyone’s actively asking the question, “Are men funny?” We have the privilege of being praised for our jokes without anyone adding a qualifier about our gender.

“But how can I change anything?" you may ask. "I’m just one man!” Guess what? As long as you get to tag in a female scene partner or schedule a lineup for a standup showcase, then—surprise!—you have power.

So the next time you improvise, introduce your female scene partner as an architect or a senator. Make zero comments about her appearance and display zero romantic intentions. Or, when booking a lineup, include many different voices—men, women, LGBTQ performers, and people of color. Have the host introduce a female stand-up comic as a stand-up comic and replace the qualifier “lovely and talented” with “talented.” Take those extra two seconds to be mindful of the obstacles women face in our community. And I know you feel pressure to be “on” all the time, but maybe shut up and listen to stories about lecherous producers or the time a male comic whipped out his dong backstage.

We need to do better. We need to do more. Every comedian in Chicago should feel safe to bomb spectacularly.