Alibi V.23 No.51 • Dec 18-24, 2014 

Opinion

Silence and Jokes

Bill Cosby and the culture of complicity

Jesse Schulz
[click to enlarge]

When I started comedy, one of the first things that I noticed was that I was vastly outnumbered by men. The second thing was that other female comics would tell me which man to avoid in a show. I've had plenty of female comics say, “Don't stay in the green room alone with that guy. He gets handsy.” It floors me every single damn time, and yet it’s become so frequent I find myself passing on that knowledge to the next gal. I don’t want to call comedy a boys club because it isn’t. I’m a comic, and it belongs to me just as much as it belongs to my male peers. What I will say is that in the entertainment industry, powerful men get away with sexual assault at alarming rates, and the comedy world is no different. In a culture of silence that protects powerful male comics, predatory behavior flourishes.

On Oct.16 something incredible happened. A voice was given to the voiceless. Comedian Hannibal Buress did a few jokes about Bill Cosby, noting that although Cosby has frequently critiqued the black community, he has a troubled history: More than a dozen women have accused him of drugging them and assaulting them over the past 30 years. The video of Buress’ set went viral and more women have come forward in the following weeks. The fallout for Cosby has been nuclear. Venues canceled his live shows, NBC stopped development on a sitcom, and TV Land canceled syndication on the “The Cosby Show.”

Cosby’s victims have been trying to prosecute him since the '80s and to no avail. His lawyers protected him, and his fan base didn't know about it. Since there wasn't any public pressure, he continued to work and also, allegedly, prey on women. Repeatedly, women would complain and come forward. Yet their voices were either ignored or intentionally silenced. It took Buress—a male comedian with TV credits, a weekly, sold-out show in New York and a certain amount of fame—finally proclaiming that, yes indeed, Cosby has a shady past, for the general public to take notice. Buress' refusal to remain silent about Cosby gave a voice to the victims.

I've had plenty of female comics say, “Don't stay in the green room alone with that guy. He gets handsy.” It floors me every single damn time.

This isn’t a unique story. Many powerful men are able to put mechanisms in place to hide their sexual violence in the male-dominated comedy industry. About two years ago, Gawker published a blind item saying a very well-known and famous comedian forcefully kept two female comics in his hotel room and made them watch him masturbate. Gawker was looking for similar stories before they wrote a full-length article exposing it. They tried to gather evidence, but no one would come forward, and the alleged victims refused to pursue it. Why? Gawker claims the two women were told by the male comedian’s powerful manager to stop if they valued their careers.

In comedy, like other institutions, women are told to be quiet, to not be alone with some men and most of all that if you talk, your career will be ruined. Powerful men like Cosby are given free rein. The comedy world hid these allegations and protected Cosby for so long, and yet it was a joke that revealed it and exposed this alleged monster to the world.

I think about being in that green room in any venue in Albuquerque with that male comic who may get “handsy”—or something worse—and it angers me more than anything. The only way to decimate systemic misogyny and a culture of abuse is for bookers and all comics, male and female, to give no reverence to fame or talent when we know assault is occurring. Do not remain publicly silent while privately warning women to avoid certain men. That solves nothing. Instead, speak out, refuse to book, and stop predators from finding sanctuary in the comedy scene.