The Subtle Harassment in Comedy No One's Talking About

June 3rd 2015

While there have always been a few female comedy superstars, comedy has only recently started to even slightly approach gender parity. With the influx of women in comedy, viewers -- whether they're watching a hit TV program, classic comedy remakes like "Ghostbusters," the White House Correspondents Dinner, or even a local standup or improv show -- are seeing more and more female comedians than they ever did before. For many this change is seen as natural, or even positive, but there exists a minority who take offense at seeing women enter the "man's world" that comedy used to be.

Being a comedian is one of the few jobs where people feel comfortable coming up to you at work and yelling directly at you that they don't like the way that you are doing your job. And while workplace harassment is endured in many professions -- and at epidemic levels for servers -- comedy's public arena can make some people think it's acceptable.

There is a a stark difference between heckling and harassment. Recent headlines are bringing that distinction to the forefront, as female comedians are standing up against the harassment they face in the workplace. Toronto comedian Jen Grant was sexual harassed while onstage at a corporate event. She reported the harassment and the man was suspended with pay. The problem is that some people (including the the male anchor in the clip) don't know the difference between heckling and harassment. So they respond to women's harassment complaints as if they are complaints about heckling. 

Heckling is fairly common in comedy. And while it does often ruin the flow of a comedy routine -- and the rest of the audiences' experience -- its generally socially acceptable. Heckling, I've observed, generally falls into three categories: expressing dislike for the comedy, trying to be funnier than the comedian, or just being disruptive during the show. I've have seen audience members take out their phones and start loudly discussing the score of a basketball game during a show; I've seen people turn their back to the stage and hold entire conversations with their friends during shows. I have also seen lots of audience members yell out punch lines to a comedian's joke before they got the chance to, answer rhetorical questions, or just yell out jokes of their own that they think are funnier than the comedian's.  All of these things are rude, but they can be done equally to men and to women. They aren't personal attacks so they are heckling, and are unfortunately a somewhat normal part of a comedian's life. 

However, I've also seen comedians be harassed onstage, and that behavior is very different from heckling. It is not an audience member either attempting to be part of the show, or ignoring the show because they aren't enjoying it. It is an audience member attempting to stop a comedian from expressing themselves because of their gender. It's threatening language that include issues such as sexual violence or rape, and it's gendered attacks. I've seen audience members yell things about a comedian's appearance, and weight and make rape threats while she's onstage. What is it that makes people think its ok to yell out a desire to commit a violent crime in public? But at comedy shows it happens all the time. 

Often women are told to "just get over it" because heckling is part of a comedian's job. But harassment and heckling are different, and comedy is a job. Harassment onstage is a form of workplace harassment. And no one should have to put up with that.

Another line of thought is the myth that that "professional" comedians know how to deal with harassment, so any woman who gets harassed and speaks out about it must not be a professional. Not only is that blaming the victim of harassment, it is also a false line of thought. 

Last month, the Hollywood Reporter did its annual roundtable interview of comedy Emmy contenders. This year's list included Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Gina Rodriguez, Ellie Kemper, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Kate McKinnon. All of these women are incredibly talented and successful, and all of them revealed that they still deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Though it's not specifically being harassed during a standup or improv show, they all recounted having to put up with sexist comments, aggression, threats on social media, and a lack of work opportunities because of the gender. Even Lena Dunham, who is the boss on her HBO show "GIRLS," was harassed by a male actor she hired. Even professionals at the top of their game still have to deal with harassment. Maybe its time to stop blaming the victims, and start telling the perpetrators that gender-based harassment has no place in comedy. 

Share your opinion

Have you ever been harassed?

No 15%Yes 85%