ENOUGH

Never ‘Another Cosby’: How New York’s Comedy Scene Is Fighting Back Against Sexual Assault and Harassment

For years, victims of harassment and assault in the New York comedy world were shamed into silence. Then Aaron Glaser was banned from UCB—and all hell broke loose.

via Shutterstock

Last week, the news of a male performer’s ban from the Upright Citizens Brigade theater burst through the bubble of the New York comedy community and entered the public conversation. And while some comics seem shocked by the allegations and UCB’s strong response, others argue that the venue’s ban is a step in the right direction.

In 2016, the comedy world is still reckoning with the fallout of several high-profile abuse cases. Once-beloved comic Bill Cosby stands accused of sexually assaulting over 60 women. And Louis C.K., another well-respected male comedian, has been accused of sexually harassing female comics. Both cases and more have raised questions about whether comedy culture caters to male privilege, empowers abusers, and shames victims into silence. The stakes are high. Still, it’s not every day that a comedy venue bans a performer.

The details of last week’s widely publicized ban remain murky. Last Saturday, a woman posted in a private Facebook group for female comedians a warning for others about Aaron Glaser, a New York comic who hosted a monthly stand-up showcase at UCB. “Posting this on behalf of a woman in the community, who would like to remain anonymous, but wants to warn other women and let other women who may have been raped by this man know that they’re not alone,” the post begins. It proceeds to outline how multiple women came to UCB with allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Glaser, prompting an internal investigation. Subsequently, Glaser was “permanently banned” from UCB for “raping women in the comedy community for years.”

As news of Glaser’s ban reverberated throughout the community, the comic denied the accusations and condemned their dissemination as a “witch-hunt.” In a lengthy, since-deleted Facebook post, he wrote, “Let me be clear: I have not sexually assaulted anyone. My reputation, my only asset as a performer, is being dragged through the mud because UCB did some sort of back-room, kangaroo court investigation and then decided to publicly ban and shame me.”

Conversations surrounding sexual assault in the comedy world have become increasingly open in recent months. Many cite comic Beth Stelling’s story as a catalyst. Last December, Stelling posted a groundbreaking series of “Year in Review” Instagram posts—photos of her bruised arms and thighs, alongside recollections of rape and verbal and physical abuse. She referred to her abuser only as her ex, a fellow performer in the L.A. comedy circuit. And three days later, sketch comic Courtney Pauroso told her podcast listeners that she had also been abused by the same man.

“I don’t want him here, I don’t want him around me, I don’t want him to have the chance to work in the community,” Pauroso said, without naming her abuser. “I think it is an appropriate punishment for him to be ostracized.”

Pauroso’s and Stelling’s stories resonated. “When there are known predators in the community, people don’t usually call it out for any number of reasons, including everything from fear for their safety to a desire to stay on this person’s good side if you view them as successful,” explains Jasmine Pierce, a New York comic who’s been involved with UCB for years. “When Beth Stelling spoke out about her trauma last year, I think it made it seem more possible to stand up against those in our community who are harming others.”

Stelling and Pauroso brought a new tactic to a national stage: a method of speaking out in solidarity that didn’t necessitate going to the police—whom many women don’t trust with accusations of rape or intimate partner violence—or appealing directly to venues. The two women initially considered taking their allegations straight to UCB, where their mutual ex performed, but were afraid that they would be ignored and ultimately ostracized.

“I think the pressures that keep women from speaking up in the comedy community are similar to those that prevent victims from coming forward all over,” says Chicago-based comic Kristin Clifford. “Being raped or assaulted is incredibly traumatic, especially if you’re at all aware of how most victims are treated. Couple that with a fear of losing status in your chosen career, and it’s not hard to see why many victims might be afraid to speak up.”

New York stand-up Maria Wojciechowski recalls a friend who recently came forward with allegations and was “exposed to her abuser because the club owner wanted to handle the problem ‘internally.’ It traumatized her on a whole new level. Her story was spread around, opening it up to speculation by third parties who had no business weighing in on her experience.”

In this climate of suppression and fear, Stelling and Pauroso started a powerful social media movement. At least three men accused of abuse or harassment in private Facebook groups were later banned from some of Los Angeles’s most prominent theaters. In addition to putting pressure on individual cases, this social media vigilantism triggered structural change: Last year, Los Angeles’s UCB and iO West instated new misconduct policies and hired new staffers to execute their new protocols. iO West confirmed that its initiatives were a direct result of the cluster of Facebook allegations that Stelling and Pauroso inspired.

“The private Facebook groups in which these topics are being discussed may not seem like the perfect place to everyone in which to talk about things like sexual harassment and rape and abuse, but unfortunately, right now, it’s the best option women have,” explains Gina Ippolito, a Los Angeles-based comic who serves as administrator for multiple Facebook groups geared toward women in comedy. She points out that “time and time again, the groups have connected women with the same abuser and made it possible to see a pattern of violence that would otherwise have remained invisible for who knows how long.”

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Social media vigilantism is a flawed system, but it can be an effective one. In late January, Chicago nonprofit Women in Comedy pulled together a Google Form called “Gross Things That Happened to Me As A Woman in Comedy.” The responses, which Women in Comedy posted anonymously to its blog, detailed ubiquitous allegations of misogyny—a litany of endured injustices. Anecdotes included reportedly being non-consensually slapped and fondled in the middle of an improv scene and being called a “cum-guzzling cunt” by a club owner.

One anonymous comic wrote, “My experiences range from a simple assumption that I was backstage because I was someone’s girlfriend even though I was the headlining act to being violently sexually assaulted then shunned because I refused to sit down and have a chat with my attacker and another comedian so we could ‘work it out.’”

This virtual safe space inspired Chicago comic Caroline Sabatier to go public with her own story. Sabatier revealed she had been harassed and assaulted by a respected authority figure in the improv world. She subsequently called for a “blackout” boycott of theaters, classes, and shows in Chicago where female comics have felt unsafe.

After L.A. and Chicago, it was only a matter of time before the New York scene witnessed a similar call to action, sparked most recently by Glaser’s ban from UCB.

New York-based Reductress editor Beth Newell, who has performed at comedy venues in New York, tells The Daily Beast, “Pretty much all of us women in the community have experienced some type of sexual assault or harassment at some point in our careers, with varying degrees of severity.” Mo Fry Pasic, a comic who describes herself as a “student, performer, and supporter” of UCB, agrees, adding that thus far, “silence” has been the default handling of abuse cases.

“I don’t think it’s for a lack of institutional ears,” she says, “but due to cultural practices that cater to male dominance and stop a conversation from ever starting.”

Glaser, meanwhile, has said he will not passively accept UCB’s verdict, pledging, “I’ll be seeking both informal and formal action to clear my name against the people who made these statements, because they are defamatory and destroying my career.” Glaser declined to comment for this story, instead directing The Daily Beast to his legal representation, Byron A. Divins Jr. According to Divins, Glaser was entirely unaware of the allegations and of UCB’s subsequent investigation. The theater informed Glaser of the ban, he says, at a meeting that was devoid of “the things you would hope [for],” a chance for Glaser to hear the accusations or respond to them.

“At this point, he doesn’t know who the accusers are, what the accusations are, the dates, or where they’re alleged to have occurred,” Divins says. As he understands it, UCB will eventually “present that investigation to my client…Clearly, he wants to learn more so that he can prove his innocence.” When asked what “informal and formal action” Glaser might pursue, Divins explained that they would wait for UCB to detail the accusations and investigation, after which the comic will “avail himself of whatever processes are available to him.”

UCB declined to comment on Glaser’s ban, saying only in a statement: “UCB has always had an open door policy and encourages anyone with a complaint or concern regarding sexual harassment to report it immediately to any of our Directors of Student Affairs, who are trained professionals. Any such complaints are always taken very seriously.”

Newell is less reserved, writing in a post-ban Facebook post, “The guy we’re referring to didn’t just ‘slip up’ and he wasn’t just ‘making a joke.’ That’s how he behaves towards women. That’s how he thinks about women.”

In the wake of Glaser’s ban, both male and female comics have taken to social media to raise awareness and support survivors. Jordan Carlos, a writer for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, asked his Facebook friends an uncomfortable rhetorical question: “How hard is it to get behind the notion that a woman should feel safe in the comedy community?” In a strongly worded post, he urged men to “stop blowing off and diminishing women’s feelings and understand that your mothers, your girlfriends, sisters, wives, daughters, and female friends face dangers you don’t ever know as [a] man.”

Carlos told The Daily Beast that he was prompted to speak up by a female comic and felt he “couldn’t keep her hanging.” He believes that social media is, at its best, “a tool of organization that can galvanize action and shine a light on an important issue like this one. It’s especially useful to victims who need support and encouragement and who might otherwise feel ashamed, isolated, and alone.”

“I also disagree with those who have called the online movement to keep up the pressure on this case a ‘witch-hunt,’” he adds. “In my opinion, this move smacks of obvious defensiveness and fear, and implies that if women take up a cause like this that they’re somehow a wrong-headed rabble out for blood. And to disqualify a movement, particularly this one, as a ‘witch-hunt’ is to say that its motives are irrational—’cause that’s what women are, right?!”

But according to one male comic, who asked to remain anonymous, some performers have been caught off guard by the perceived trial-by-social media. “A lot of people I think are rattled by how easily everyone took it for granted that the guy was guilty,” he says. “Even though he probably is, people are turned off by how quick to judgment everyone was.”

Glaser echoed that complaint on social media, condemning UCB’s investigation as “not official” and “not legal.” But many performers have applauded the ban, or at least acknowledged the venue’s ability to regulate its own roster. According to Kristin Clifford, a comic based in Chicago, “The police don't have to be involved for a person to be banned from performing at a privately owned theater. It’s a privilege, not a right.”

Carlos agreed that, as a private company, UCB “can book whoever they want!”

“If they weren’t doing business with a comic on the grounds that he was overweight or disabled, that would be a different story,” he says. “But I’m pretty sure ‘possible sexual predator’ isn’t exactly a marginalized group that needs special protections.”

Newell agrees that bans can be effective, but offers a crucial caveat: “I don’t think bans are fully effective if they aren’t common knowledge, as they can have the effect of pushing the person in question into another unsuspecting community. But I understand there may be legal ramifications for a theater to release information of who they’re banning.”

No comedian has attracted more attention for their reaction to Glaser’s ban than Kurt Metzger, the former Inside Amy Schumer writer who seemingly committed career suicide with his response to Glaser’s fall. “Hey [Glaser]’s guilty let’s start with that! What happens when the next guy isn’t?” Metzger wrote in one Facebook post. “Is that just worth it to get rapist [sic]? So sometimes we gotta break a few eggs is that the argument? I know it is. And you think I’m supposed to not have a massive fucking problem with this? You disgust me. And what you want to establish is WORSE than actual rape. Please quote that last line angrily to other imbeciles. Because I so mean it.”

Metzger’s tireless trolling has had the unintended effect of further publicizing the allegations against Aaron Glaser. Since Metzger refused to stop talking, Schumer herself was eventually forced to publicly condemn him, even going so far as to tweet, “Kurt does not work for me. He is not a writer on my show. Please stop asking me about it. His words are not mine.”

Metzger’s “humor,” when placed under a media microscope, crosses the line from cringe comedy to blatant misogyny. But Metzger’s response to Glaser’s ban sheds light on larger issues crowding the intersection of comedy, sexual assault, male privilege, and rape culture. The majority of comics The Daily Beast contacted described Glaser as symptomatic of a bigger story: a toxic culture that venue bans alone can’t combat. Ippolito explains, “Everyone in comedy wants the same thing: to do comedy and feel safe doing comedy and safe to be creative. Up until recently, men have enjoyed that feeling of safety at vastly disproportionate rates than women, while women just hope they can make it through an improv class without a relative stranger pimping her into a scene in which he gets to grab her butt or fake rape her.”

“People attempt to separate work from personal life, but in comedy, your work is your personal life. And vice versa,” says Pierce. In a community where the roles of romantic partner, friend, colleague, and boss often blur, trying to fight rape culture and out abusers can feel like an uphill battle. “I hear stories from women often about the horrible things they’ve gone through and how they don’t want to come forward because they don’t feel safe from that person they still had to see all the time, because they are too hurt to talk about it, or because they don’t feel protected by the community like they should be,” Pierce continues. “I know women who have spoken against their accuser privately and have friends and peers that will still knowingly work with them. And that’s a really tough betrayal to handle because we all want to work together and we all want to feel safe together.”

While the comedy world’s problem with sexual assault and harassment has no easy solution, Carlos offers a possible first step: “Another way to combat misogyny is for us guy comics to try not being total dickbags. I think that would go a long way.”

And bans like UCB’s might prove to be an important tool for change. “I think UCB’s ban is unique but is hopefully becoming part of the new normal,” says Clifford.

Pierce describes the effect Glaser’s widely publicized ban has had throughout the comedy world: “The day of, people were posting about dropping him from their shows, not going to shows he booked them on, etc.,” she says.

Rebecca Trent, who owns and operates Long Island City’s The Creek and The Cave, bolstered Glaser’s ban on Facebook, posting, “If you have been banned from a comedy venue in NYC for rape, you are also banned from my venue… I will not participate in the creation of another Cosby.”

Still, female comics told The Daily Beast that widely respected comedians often continue to be enabled by the comedy community in the wake of harassment allegations. While Pierce thinks that Glaser’s outing could very well sabotage his career, she also says she “wouldn’t be surprised if things settle and we don’t hear about it again.” It remains to be seen if online displays of male allyship will result in real-life actions, like refusing to perform alongside an accused comic. Carlos, for one, thinks that this case will “make you think twice about who you associate yourself with. Period.”

As for Aaron Glaser, his profile may have been erased from UCB’s website, but his story, and the complicated legacy it leaves behind, is far from settled.