An Open Letter to White Male Comedians

Hey guys*: Listen, I know you're mad at me. I mean, maybe not me specifically, but a figurative "me"—the type of woman who thinks she's funny, who thinks she understands comedy, who has opinions (and shares them) about what kinds of jokes comics "should" or "should not" tell.

I speak up for women, which sometimes involves criticizing men. I don't believe that "rape jokes" should be a completely unregulated market. And I understand that, to you, criticizing a comedian's execution on certain subject matters can seem indistinguishable from censorship and conservatism. So I know you're mad at me and I know why.

But comedy has a serious gender problem, and I really can't stop complaining about it until it's fucking fixed. Comedy clubs are an overtly hostile space for women. Even just presuming we can talk about comedy gets women ripped to shreds by territorial dudes desperate to defend their authority over what's funny. "Jokes" about rape and gendered violence are treated like an inevitability instead of a choice; like they're beyond questioning; like they're somehow equally sacred alongside women's actual humanity and physical sanctity. When women complain, however civilly, they're met with condescension, dismissal, and the tacit (or, often, explicit) message that this is not yours, you are not welcome here. It's fucked up, you guys. And I'm saying that as a friend with the best intentions.

Comedy has always been my go-to art form—it's been more valuable to me, in terms of emotional solace, than film or music, and it's certainly on par with literature. I know a lot of you can relate to that feeling. That doesn't mean I have the same perspective as, say, a hardened road comic, but I get paid to perform on stages, in various contexts, all the time. I've done stand-up in a brightly-lit pizzeria at 6 pm in front of four people who were not informed that there would be comedy (try it, it's great). I've written a weekly comedy column in the newspaper. Most of my friends are comics (many of them are white males!) and my boyfriend is a comic. But I get that there's no amount of experience that could give me "cred" with every single one of you, and anyway, these goal posts are easy to move—even if I were a full-time comic, you could always say I wasn't "good enough" for my opinion to matter. (Plus, it's no secret that plenty of people don't think female comics count as comics at all.) So fuck it. Whatever. What I'm saying here is that I'm not a fucking tourist. I'm not a bachelorette party. And if you're not performing for people like me—discerning lifelong comedy fans—then I don't know why you're doing comedy at all.

More importantly, though:

I have more experience doing comedy than you have being a woman.

And I want to try and convey to you, broadly, how you are hurting women and hurting your own art form, and how easy it would be to stop. Because right now you're coming across like a bunch of entitled babies terrified of a few girls in your clubhouse—demanding that women be thick-skinned about their own rapes while you're too thin-skinned to handle even mild criticism. It's embarrassing.

Listen. Being a woman is a bitch. Not only does everyone treat you like a fucking idiot all of the time, being a woman can be scary! Not scary in a big, obvious, goofy way—it's less like a horrible slavering dog running toward your face (except for when it is like that) and more like when you can't find that huge spider you saw on your bed earlier (if spiders also had the capacity to transform into slavering face-hungry dogs). We're not walking around actively terrified in the middle of the afternoon, but there's always a small awareness that we are vulnerable simply because we are women. Cavalier jokes about domestic violence and rape (jokes that target victims, not perpetrators) feed that aura of feeling unsafe and unwelcome—not just in the comedy club, but in the world.

Women are 50% of the population, but when it comes to our interests and grievances we're treated like a niche group. Think about how crazy that is. You don't know what it feels like to be a part of the group that has never gotten to be the president. You don't know what it feels like to get up to do your set and hear, "Here's your obligatory girl comic for the night." You might not relate to any of that, but you can perceive why it's bad, right? How it puts damaging limits on women's lives?

That's hard to live with, but it's especially hard—as a comedy fan and a woman who writes jokes for a living—to watch that paradigm being perpetuated by people I look up to as bastions of sanity on pretty much every other social issue. It sucks to hear your heroes telling you to sit down and know your place. Molly Knefel has an impeccable piece in Salon today about the disparity between male comics' reactions to rape and their reactions to other types of violence:

As eloquent as Oswalt’s message about Boston was, it is not particularly challenging to side with the victims of a horrible act of violence committed against civilians. Americans are united in their desire to condemn such atrocities. Many comedians, including Oswalt, also condemned the Aurora theater shooting and made an explicit point not to joke about it. None of this is to compare these different types of violence, but to offer an observation on the types of violence that are universally condemned as opposed to culturally sanctioned. The consensus formed by the majority-male comedy population is that sexual violence is not just OK to joke about, but joke about with extraordinary frequency and viciousness, where the targets of the jokes are the victims, not the perpetrators.

Knefel, of course, is currently being lambasted by aggrieved male comedians. So aggrieved, you guys! Always so aggrieved! But why? What did she really say that's so outrageous? That the oft-silenced victims of sexual assault and domestic violence (which includes men and boys, by the way) deserve as much respect and care as the victims of gun violence? If basic compassion is such anathema to you, but only when it comes to "women's issues"—if you're determined to go down with the Good Ship Rape—then you have issues with women. And that's not women's fault—it's yours.

If you just don't care, that's fine—that's your choice—but understand this: I know you think you're being transgressive and edgy and bad-in-the-cool-way when you are careless with the trauma of strangers, but you're not. You are being conservative. You are a conservative comedian. You are moving your art form backwards, you are a bully (a bully who has likely experienced bullying himself, which is the worst kind), and you are propping up the status quo in the most boring way possible. If that's what you want, at least have the grace to own it.

Comedy and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive. Comedy and empathy are not enemies. And no subject matters or words are off limits, in the abstract. (Though, as I've written before, I'm pretty sure there are literally hundreds of things to joke about that don't involve the violent invasion of my vagina!) You do not have to stop talking about rape. I've made my feelings clear on that matter and won't be wasting much time on specifics here. You do not have to stop talking about your bitchy ex-girlfriend. You do not have to stop talking about race or class or midgets or whatever the fuck you think is worth talking about (though you should probably stop talking about midgets, seriously). But you do have to live with the consequences of what you say, and how your words color people's perceptions of what kind of human being you are. If you do nothing but shower your audiences with hate and garbage, they're going to start thinking of you as a hate and garbage machine.

To paraphrase white male comic Derek Sheen (who was kind enough to let me pick his white male brain in the course of writing this article—big ups also to Guy Branum), you are more than welcome to style yourself the bloody, shit-covered G.G. Allin of comedy. But when people get mad at you for smearing feces on them, you don't get to feign outrage at those people, because FECES IS DISGUSTING. Are you seriously trying to sit there and tell me that feces isn't disgusting? IT'S FECES.

Now. You can talk about controversial subjects—in fact, you should talk about controversial subjects, because comedy is an incredibly powerful subversive tool—but if you want people like me to stop bitching at you (a dream we share, I promise!), you need to stop using your comedy to make those things worse. You don't have to make things better—you are under no obligation to save the world—but if you are actively making things worse for people, especially when you are not a member of the group whose existence you are worsening, don't be surprised when people complain.

If you're an able-bodied straight white male, you are by definition a member of the least number of systemically oppressed groups. It takes an entire blog post for me to make you feel diminished and misunderstood (my bad)—but you could do that to me or a gay person or a trans person or a person of color or a disabled person with just a word. Because you get to live your life on the firm ground of being a human being first and a man/white person/comedian second. I don't get to do that. I'm not a person, I'm a woman, which is something I'm reminded of incessantly any time I enter a male-dominated space like a comedy club.

Having had approximately one million conversations like this before, I'm pretty sure I'm familiar with all of the things you have to say to me in response. (For a case study in how these "dialogues" nearly invariably play out, this is a must-read: Sady Doyle's measured, impassioned, well-researched plea about rape jokes, and comedian Sam Morril's prototypical response.) So just to save time, let's go through them one by one.

1. But [members of x group] make jokes about [xyz subject] too.

Sure they do. Some women make smart, constructive jokes about rape culture on stage. That's great. Some women make lazy, shitty, harmful rape jokes on stage. That's less great. Some women also marry Donald Trump, but that doesn't make marrying Donald Trump a great plan for women. And regardless, surely you're caught up on how context and reclamation work. A person making fun of issues within their own cultural group—issues that they intimately and viscerally understand and are affected by—is not the same as you making fun of a cultural group in whose oppression your cultural group is complicit. Basically, be careful when you're handling other people's valuables.

2. But comedy is trial-and-error. I need this stage time to perfect my act.

It's the process. It's how comedy works. Sure. But here's the thing. I write jokes every day. Every day I write a bunch of jokes about very serious subjects, as quickly as I can (blogs move fast), and then two minutes later they go up on the internet where millions of people read them. I don't have the luxury of workshopping a joke for months. So don't tell me that it's impossible for you to discern in advance what will be genuinely harmful and what won't. If you actually give a shit, you can take the time to craft something that doesn't throw exploited and marginalized people under the bus for a cheap laugh.

We all make mistakes. I am not angry at you for your mistakes. I've written plenty of things I regret, and we all say unthinking, clumsy things in off-the-cuff moments. But part of being a human being who's committed to craft, novelty, and the evolution of ideas is owning your mistakes. If you begin hearing from a lot of people that a joke is hurtful or regressive (beyond just "I don't like that joke"), especially if they are all members of a group whose experience you do not share, how hard is it to just listen? If you're really committed to "workshopping" your shit, you owe it to yourself to hear them, assess your responsibility, and have enough humility to accept that you might be wrong.

3. But it's just a joke. Calm down.

Yeah, dude, but this shit isn't magic. It's not a game. It's not like you get to declare the comedy stage "base" and the rest of the world "hot lava" (spewing from the vaginas of feminazi gargoyles, I'm sure) and everything you say on the stage exists in some sacred loophole that's exempt from criticism and the expectation of hard work. Rape, domestic violence, brutalization, marginalization, the struggle to make yourself heard—all of this shit is REAL to a lot of people. They're not cute little thought experiments for you to mess around with without pushback. You can lie to yourself all you want, but if you say something awful to somebody in the course of your regular day, it is exactly the same as if you say it on stage. If anything, its emotional impact is magnified.

And anyway, anyone who says "but it's just a joke" has never had their life profoundly changed by a joke.

4. But Louis CK!

Ugh, this part is so boring. Okay. Do you know what else Louis CK does? He changes. He evolves. He thinks. And when he fucks up, he gets criticized like crazy, and some of that criticism makes it into his brain—and, eventually, his act. Also, just because one of comedy's sacred god-kings manages to be funny and smart when broaching certain sensitive topics doesn't mean they can't also be harmful. You know, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Etc. Just because Jeffrey Ross can (debatably) pull off a "haha, faggot" once in a while doesn't mean that identical "haha, faggot"s aren't actively moving gay kids to kill themselves all over the fucking country. It's real, and it deserves critical thought, not kneejerk defensiveness.

Also, you're not Louis CK. Maybe don't invite the comparison.

5. But comedy is subjective—lots of people do laugh.

So? People are terrible. At least, like, half of people are terrible. And beyond that, people laugh for all kinds of reasons. People will laugh to cover up the fact that they don't get a joke, people will laugh at shock-value buzzwords like "rape" and "midget," and people will laugh to fill silence if the night turns awkward. If that's enough for you—cobbling together your validation from whatever misguided laughs you can drag out of your audience—then I question your commitment to this art form. Don't you want to make something? Something that comes from inside of you—that's a creation rather than just a reflection?

If you really think comedy is entirely subjective, then there's no such thing as a "bad room." Any time you don't get a laugh, it's 100% on you. Enjoy that, if that's what you want.

6. Stop being so sensitive. If you don't like it, don't listen.

Nope. I have as much of a right to be here as you do and I will not be elbowed out of this space anymore without complaint. I also have a right to go out and do my job (sometimes my job takes place inside a comedy club or theater) without being reminded that I'm just a bag of disposable fuck-holes taking up space that isn't mine. Nope.

Women are already excluded from this boys' club. Telling us to get the fuck out if we don't like being excluded is the opposite of a solution. I also have the right to complain about odious shit that marginalizes human beings I care about. Nope nope nope.

7. Stop silencing me.

Please. You are not being silenced. There is no "thought police." Your freedom of speech is firmly intact. You are a member of the single most powerful political bloc on earth. Your voices and your perspectives saturate nearly all media. You are fine. We are just having a conversation about your art, and your art is what you care about the most, right? Right?

I know I just wrote 8 trillion fucking words about it, but really, this whole mess is simple. You get to choose what kind of a person you want to be. Do you want to cause pain or release tension? Do you want to be careful or careless? Do you want to confront hard things or take easy outs? Do you want to connect with other human beings about the shared horrors of the world or do you want to feed into a culture that perpetuates those horrors? You can do whatever you want, but you can't stop me and everyone else who hears you from telling you when you're full of shit. Comedy isn't yours. It's ours.

Love (really),

Lindy

*No, not all guys. The end.