- 26 Jun 20
A major controversy has erupted in recent weeks on the Irish comedy scene, with women comedians sharing stories of widespread unpleasantness and sexual harassment. The solution, being proposed by a number of women on the scene, is a binding Code of Conduct that would be backed up by effective procedures…
The Irish comedy scene has been plunged into turmoil, with a bitter controversy erupting online over the past few weeks around the issue of harassment. Female comedians have been venting their grievances online, laying down a catalogue of accusations of sexual and emotional trauma – with a number of male comedians joining in to express their support. Almost three years after the ascent of the #MeToo movement, Irish comedy is having its moment.
The issue came to a head last weekend, with tweets from several women, accusing David Reilly – who books the acts for Ireland’s most enduring club in Dublin, The Comedy Cellar – of harassment, emotional manipulation and worse. He is not alone. Others have been named too, in what is a sustained blitz on the reputations of the individuals accused.
Reilly is also the resident MC at the Comedy Cellar. Regardless of their gender, comics have looked up to Reilly and been eager to approach him for a chance to gig at the Cellar. On a small scene, personal connections often shape career opportunities. Now, for some at least, that has changed dramatically.
In response, David Reilly has openly acknowledged the accusations on Twitter and issued an apology.
“There’s a huge amount of truth in it,” he said in a tweet. “Every day I regret my actions. Embarrassed and remorseful for the pain caused.”
He stated that, for the past number of months, he has been receiving addiction therapy and attending online meetings to address his ‘behaviours’.
“Far too late I know,” he added, continuing later in the message, “Held others accountable but not myself. Manipulation, hypocrisy and cowardice, reckless disregard for the health of others. Behaviours that I saw in peers that I was vocally critical of, but ignoring in myself. I would love to say that I didn’t intend to harm anyone, but I did hurt them so ultimately those intentions were/are a part of me. It’s no way to treat anyone at all. I’m sorry.”
What the future holds for David Reilly remains to be seen. The controversy dragged on, however, as more women gave disturbing accounts of workplace harassment on the comedy scene – from verbal humiliation to sexual assault. These experiences, they said, had forced them out of stand-up. It seems that, as the American comic Shane Gillis has suggested, being occupationally funny has been a ‘privilege’ enjoyed mostly by white men.
“So many would-be-comics – women, people of colour, other marginalised groups – are silenced from the beginning of their careers,” Gillis wrote in The New York Times, last year. “Despite their talent and work ethic, they leave the industry and take their brilliance elsewhere, or perhaps nowhere.”
Meanwhile, some Irish comedians engaged in a war of words online, accusing each other of hypocrisy for ‘staying silent’. Several prominent female comics, including Julie Jay and Alison Spittle tweeted in solidarity with their peers who were speaking out, tweeting #Ibelieveher.
It was noticeable that most of those making the complaints were from the ranks of the relatively unknown. In many ways they see themselves as underdogs who have had to endure abuse while trying to make a name, and a living, in a male-dominated realm.
On the flip side, it was striking that some well-known female comics declined to comment, when asked by Hot Press. By some, an unwillingness to speak is seen as a kind of complicity. That is rejected by others, who say privately that they are uncomfortable with trial by Twitter.
Emma Doran struck a slightly different tone, throwing the net wider. It isn’t only, she seemed to be saying, about male comedians.
“When I started comedy I was silently bullied by a more experienced comedian who, at the time, it felt had an army of right-on disciples,” she said in a tweet. “I don't blame her really. She was a product of her environment and used to female comedians being pitted against each other. She's cooled the jets in recent years. It was just disappointing.
“Getting gigs was often a psychological mind field. One of the gatekeepers would engage in endless unwelcomed flirty and inappropriate messaging before eventually booking you (when all you wanted was just to gig). It was just disappointing.”
What she experienced was a general, and as her post repeats, disappointing, malaise.
“I quickly learnt to put my blinkers and ear muffs on and just focus on my jokes. I was never part of the social scene. I had a young family. I went to gigs, did my set and went home. I didn't have comedy friends. It was full of cliques and people who looked down on you anyway. There was always whispers of stuff and everyone carried on. It was just disappointing.
“When I was pregnant and gigging I was kind of surprised how badly I was treated by many on the circuit. It was just disappointing.”
But she also had harsh words specifically for the dinosaurs among the males. Her statement went on to mention men cadging lifts from her, and talking about porn. And then, responding to current controversies, she had this to say.
“I'm lucky that I only have a list of disappointing experiences. I have met some fantastic men and women, comedians and promoters through comedy as well though. But I have to take off my blinkers and ear muffs now and think about the comedians coming up that are/ could experience more than just disappointments.
“So to the comedy circuit…
“When I overhear demeaning conversations about women on the stairs I won't be rolling my eyes, I will be calling it out and I'm asking you to support me.
“When I see silent bullying happening, I will be calling it out and asking you to support me.
“The gigging for dicks has to stop and I'm asking you to support me and do the same.
“Love to all who have shared their stories and those who haven't been able to.”
ASKING FOR IT… NOT
Meanwhile, the female comedians who spoke to Hot Press are determined to have a transparent anti-harassment policy adopted by venues. The unionisation of the sector is another demand.
Therese Cahill is a Dublin-based comedian with her roots in the world of theatre. She used to be an accountant, many years ago, but sought a new life on stage, like a mad number freed from a spreadsheet.
Cahill's comedy is a fusion of song and satire. An accident in 2012, led to lifetime disability. These days, she needs the assistance of a walking stick or a wheelchair to find her way onto the stage.
Cahill’s hair is short, her laughter, warm and ready. She wears makeup on stage "because it helps the audience to see my facial expressions better."
She says that her experiences in the comedy scene have led her to believe that although the word comedian does not specify a gender, the field remains synonymous with masculinity. Some, she adds, like it that way.
She says safety issues are an ever-present concern for female comics. Some women think it's not worth the trouble and quit. Cahill’s love of comedy, she says, is what stops her from leaving. Her quirky sonnets are often loaded with sexually explicit verses, similar to what we might expect to hear from the ‘bad boys’ of stand-up. However, a woman who writes raunchy jokes, she observes, is considered to be ‘fair game’.
“When you’re a woman, and you have dirty material, they would think you're asking for it. I have lost count of the number of drunken men that have come up to me saying, 'Ah, you’re gas’ putting their arms around me,” she said, “I’m like, ‘you can just tell me I’m gas, you don’t have to put your hands on me’.”
THE ROLE OF CATHOLIC SHAME
Ruth Hunter, who describes herself as an ‘ex-comedian’ agrees.
A Dubliner, who now lives in Glasgow, Hunter was forced to quit stand-up, early on.
“I definitely quit comedy due to the toxicity of the scene,” she told Hot Press, “I have been sexually harassed by some creeps in comedy especially when I was younger and newer to the scene.”
Hunter said some bookers and promoters assumed that sexually-charged riffs in her routine meant she was green-lighting their sexual advances.
"I can remember being the only woman on a line-up in a certain venue. It was just after I did a set, it had gone well, and I was feeling chuffed," she recalled, " I talk about sex in my set, and the booker seemed to think this was an invitation to start speculating to me in graphic details about what kind of kinky sexual stuff I was into."
After calling Hunter 'a dirty bitch', the individual offered to buy her a drink ‘six times’, she told Hot Press.
"He bought me one anyway and kept sliding up to me. I was surrounded by male comedians who watched how uncomfortable he was making me. They did and said nothing," she added. "He was much older than me and was the person who booked the acts. I was afraid of him. Instead of hanging out after a gig, where social connections are made in comedy, I sat waiting alone in a McDonalds till the next bus home."
Hunter believes that growing up in Ireland in the 90s – when the Catholic Church and the associated phenomenon of Catholic shame still had an insidious influence over Irish life – robbed girls of the opportunity to discover and explore their own sexuality, let alone learning how to reject threatening advances.
"There was no vocabulary or education on how to describe harassment or assault,” Hunter explained. “And anytime I ever complained growing up, I would be chastised, vilified. You start to just kind of feel like, ‘Well, I guess, this is what life is like’ and you become numb.”
COMEDY IS AN ART
In a scene for which no clear code of conduct has been established – and where there’s no organising body that might process sexual harassment complaints – Cahill said, women often feel less than safe travelling across the country to perform.
“Would you feel comfortable getting a lift at 2am with somebody you don’t know?” she asked. “People are like, ‘You can stay at my friend’s’. I’m like, ‘Who is your friend?’ How am I supposed to get home?’ So straight away, you are limited as a female act.”
Therese Cahill describes stand-up comedy as the 'ignored stepchild' of the art world, arguing that if the Arts Council allocated specific funding for the sector, it would pave the way for its unionisation – which in turn would increase safety and improve pay.
It is still common for comedians to receive their wages in the form of pints. Club owners often argue that the business is not profitable enough for steady pay. Stand-up is considered to be an avocation. As a vocation, it is expensive and unfair.
“I have had people tell me,'Well, it's not an art form, anyone can tell a joke’,” Therese Cahill told Hot Press. “I'm like, 'in what way is it not an art form?'. You give a gorilla a piece of paper and a pen, and it might draw you something, but is it art? Comedy is absolutely an art. It is performance art, and the persona we bring onto the stage is an amplified version of who we are, and the stories we have. So, the Government needs to recognise that it is an art by funding it."
Cahill thinks a union for the sector can also act as a “governing body that could process complaints.”
Meanwhile, Hunter and two comics based in Dublin are now actively campaigning for the establishment of a clear and unequivocal code of conduct, to be binding on all Irish comics.
A PRO-ACTIVE APPROACH
Hunter said all venues must have a ‘clearly visible grievance procedure’ that would bolster safety.
"It is important that victims feel like they have a safe channel of recourse if they need to lodge a complaint," she said. “Most [businesses] have some sort of grievance lodging process.”
In the meantime, Hunter has created a conduit through which Irish and British stand-up comics can lodge any grievances they have anonymously. There is a concern that the anonymous aspect might become a recipe for mounting a hostile campaign against an individual, a club or a venue. Hunter believes otherwise.
“I will offer advice and steps the club can undertake to update their safety standards, and grievances policies,” she said. “So many cases have come out about sexual harassment and assault, and often it was an 'open secret'."
Hunter has dedicated time and resources to examining the law, hoping to adopt a legally robust grievance procedure policy.
Meanwhile, Ailish McCarthy and Kate Feeney, two young comedians in Dublin, are going door-to-door, exhorting venues to have a code of conduct ready and attached to the wall, before they re-open.
McCarthy and Feeney have approached famous venues in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.
“If they don’t have it, I’m bringing one,” McCarthy told Hot Press. “I’m stamping one on the wall. It should be there, right next to Covid-19 guidelines. I've already spoken to promoters, and they think it's a great idea."
The idea was Kate Feeney's. She said that, in any business, having a formal grievance procedure and a code of conduct, ‘Is an absolute standard thing’.
"I work in organisational development,” she added, “and if you need to set a culture up, you must have clarity around what are your values, what are the behaviours that are explicitly unacceptable. You need to communicate that: there is no point in allowing this stuff to fester and not having a proactive approach around what could be done to improve it.”
Ruth Hunter hopes that comics – male and female – will stop turning a blind eye to abuse, in the way that Emma Doran has outlined. She is worried, she explained, that people often disregard complaints about abusive behaviour, based on their own positive experiences of dealing with someone.
“I recently found out someone I thought was sound turned out to be a predator,” she said. “I thought I could tell who was a predator and warn people and keep myself away from them. I feel like: if I can be duped by those predators then I can’t be part of the scene anymore – because that just makes me complicit. I won’t be a complicit anymore.”
• Ruth Hunter can be contacted at [email protected]
• Main image shows (top l to r) Ailish McCarthy, Therese Cahill (bottom l to r), Ruth Hunter, Kate Feeney.