Comedy Clubs Don't Care About Free Speech, Exhibit 10,000

On "Stand Up for Israel."

Comedy Clubs Don't Care About Free Speech, Exhibit 10,000
Photo by Janne Leimola / Unsplash

What do you get when you combine journalistic conventions around standup comedy with journalistic conventions around protests? One of the laziest hit jobs I’ve seen in some time, from Thursday’s Toronto Sun

The funny business is supposed to go on inside a comedy club and not outside of it.
But that’s exactly what happened Wednesday night at Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club on Richmond St., where pro-Hamas supporters did their best to shut down the touring Stand Up for Israel comedy show.

The show in question was produced by perennial Humorism subjects Stand Up NY and Dani Zoldan, who are currently touring it across North America with a rotating cast of comics that includes Judy Gold, Aaron Berg, Rich Vos, and Olga Namer. What you will not learn from the Sun, unless you zoom in on an embedded tweet, is that the tour is raising money for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, a US-based nonprofit that provides “empowering educational, financial, well-being, and cultural initiatives” to members of the IDF. This omission is just one technique the article uses to paint the event’s protesters as antisemites targeting a Jewish-owned business. Most of the other techniques aren’t so subtle, as you may gather from that completely unsupported descriptor “pro-Hamas,” and most are in fact debunked by the article itself. Here’s the next paragraph:

They didn’t succeed, but they did manage to impede people from getting in, including the club’s owner, Mark Breslin, who was seen on video being accosted as he tried to enter his establishment. One woman reached her arm out toward the comedy legend as police tried to escort him in.

Oh no, she reached out towards him! That must have been terrifying:

“She was grabbing my arm like she was trying to rip my clothes off,” Breslin said in an interview. “I felt like I was the rock star I always wanted to be.”
Breslin, who’s Jewish, admitted he uses comedy in many situations and doesn’t want to oversell what transpired there. However, he said, it’s one thing to protest an event and another thing to crowd and touch people as they’re trying to enter.

Oh, okay, I guess not. Unmentioned here is that Breslin was not successfully “impeded” from entering his establishment. As video footage of the event clearly shows, police officers smoothly escorted him past a line of demonstrators, where he briefly waited for someone to let him inside. Nor did they keep out audiences. As the article notes, the show was packed.

Later, the Sun allows Breslin to make even more unsupported allegations about the protesters—

Breslin wants people to laugh in a difficult world that needs laughter sometimes. It’s the same thing he has been trying to achieve for 50 years, whether as a comic or providing a stage for future stars like Jim Carrey, Russell Peters, Shaun Majumder, Mike Bullard and Norm Macdonald.
But it was no laughing matter Wednesday when people allegedly used nails to try to break the back door lock. “Who brings nails to a comedy club?” Breslin said, adding that the night before someone filled a toilet with “rocks and sand,” which resulted in a bathroom flooded with feces.
Breslin, 72, said when he was young, he remembers protesting the Vietnam War “by singing songs” and being peaceful, but never getting up into somebody’s space.

Then, as evidence of the demonstration’s violent tenor, it cites a text he sent—

Things have changed, especially in Toronto when it comes to Jewish-owned businesses. They’re targeted now. Like Cafe Landwer, Aroma Cafe or International Delicatessen Foods, it was Yuk Yuk’s turn at experiencing disturbing anti-Semitism.
“Almost a riot outside,” Breslin texted to staff and friends. “They tried to rip off my clothing and tip Karina’s car over. Fifteen police cars. Madness.”

—before immediately qualifying that the text wasn’t accurate:

Reflecting after the heat of the moment, he said he may have “exaggerated” the attempted tipping of his wife’s car and amended it to people getting up close to it. But he said he was still surprised people would take it to the level that police were needed to clear a path into a comedy club.
Some in the crowd were even invoking Hitler in their anti-Israel harassment. B’nai Brith said there was no humour in what transpired outside of the club.

Invoking Hitler, eh? That sounds pretty antisemitic. Let’s click on the link and see what exactly these harassers were saying:

“Hitler’s so proud. Good job, you make Hitler so proud. He is a happy man in his grave.”

Like other attempts to smear pro-Palestine demonstrations as ipso facto antisemitic, this one requires us to pretend they occur in a vacuum. In addition to leaving out that "Stand Up for Israel" was literally a fundraiser for the IDF, the article does not contain a single word about Israel’s assault on Gaza. Hell, it doesn’t even contain the word “Gaza.” Instead, it cites a research director at Jewish advocacy organization B’Nai Brith who situates the protest in the context of… other protests: 

“Last night’s protest at Yuk Yuk’s is yet another concerning example of the continued targeting of Jewish-owned Canadian businesses,” said Richard Robertson, director of research and advocacy for B’nai Brith. “The harassing of private establishments and their patrons serves only to intimidate innocent Canadians. If individuals wish to voice concerns over the conduct of a foreign state, they should do so at that state’s embassy or consulate.”

Then, in its final paragraphs, the Sun seems to yearn for some sort of punitive action against the protesters: 

In the meantime, Toronto Police have indicated that, “although it was loud, there have been no reports made about violence or assaults” out of the 120-person protest, but they’ve shown that “we can always commence an investigation after the event and lay charges later if appropriate.”
So who knows? Just like we saw with the Indigo 11 or the charges in the alleged vandalism at a Starbucks, there just may be an encore police performance to come.

Now, look, I’m not just here to scold a tabloid for doing tabloid journalism. What interests me is how handily this story dismantles any pretense that the comedy industry values quote-unquote free speech or pluralism. The protest was by all accounts peaceful, and still Mark Breslin complains, ahistorically, that it wasn’t even more peaceful, like the cheery Vietnam War protests of his youth. He also offers this:

“It was fantastic,” Breslin said. “This was not my show, but a show out of New York, but I wanted to do something for my community and I should be allowed to.”
Breslin said that if someone wants to hold a “Palestinian comedy night” and if it was “a good show,” there is no question “we would do it.”
No joke. Comedy is for everyone, said Breslin, who added that Yuk Yuk’s held a Muslim comedy show just after 9/11.

To be blunt, the idea is astonishingly racist: that it is somehow equitable to lend one’s platform both to the oppressor and the oppressed. What he doesn't seem to realize is that the other side has already spoken. It was right there outside his club, calling him an accomplice to genocide. As is typical for people in Breslin’s position, the only voices that register are the ones that engage on terms of his choosing. He's happy to hear what Palestinians have to say, provided they say it in the form of a good comedy show on a stage he owns.

Granted, Breslin’s behavior is no more surprising that the Sun’s. Talk to any Canadian comedian and you’ll quickly learn that he’s viewed as something of a robber baron, his chain of clubs operating in tandem with Just For Laughs to wield a monopolistic control over the nation’s comedy industry. You may remember a column he wrote in 2019 justifying his decision to book Louis CK. Like his comments to the Sun last week, it was full of lies and exaggerations:

Rattling the cage of polite society is part of the job of comics, onstage and off. In case you’re not aware, C.K. was one of the most successful comedians of our time until two years ago, when four women accused him of indecent exposure and C.K. was swept up into the #MeToo movement.
C.K. admitted that he exposed himself to the women, on separate occasions, back in 2005, and swiftly apologized, noting that it was done with their consent, which the women agreed was the case. But they regretted letting him do it, as they were working with him as opening acts on a tour and felt he was taking advantage of his position.
But the reaction in the comedy world was severe. Netflix cancelled his planned comedy special. His new movie, I Love You Daddy, was dropped by its distributor (and C.K. was forced to buy it back, for $5 million). His live bookings dried up instantly. He estimated he has lost $60 million in the last two years.
[…] His shows were brilliant. The protesters never showed up. Negative press was met with overwhelming disagreement by those on social media. After his shows in Toronto, C.K. listed a series of concert venues he would be playing, including a big one in Tel Aviv. I’d played my part in his career resurgence, and felt great about it.
In his show, C.K. revealed that his grandfather was a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Nazis and was the only one in his family to do so. Everyone else was wiped out. He made his way to Mexico and, eventually, his offspring made it to the United States.
When I heard about C.K.’s history, I felt even better about my decision to book him.

As Julia Wolov soon responded, she hadn’t in fact consented to CK’s “indecent exposure.” (I’ve written before about his argument that CK lost millions after the Times exposé—an oft-cited talking point for which CK has never offered any evidence.) She also argued, as one of four Jewish women who came forward to the Times, that she found it shameful for Breslin to invoke CK's family’s persecution by Nazi Germany. That passage looks even more cynical in retrospect, now that Breslin has used his club to benefit an army that’s killed tens of thousands of people in four months (and injured tens of thousands more), a rate of 250 people per day

I would be remiss if I did not mention that it was not only the Sun that described the protesters outside Yuk Yuk’s as pro-Hamas. Self-styled free speech champion Dani Zoldan, who a few years ago made himself the face of protests against New York’s Covid health restrictions, also used the same term on Instagram last week, while on Twitter he simply called them “Hamas” itself. (In a separate tweet he wished for my death, but that’s neither here nor there.) It needs to be said that this is incredibly racist, as is his continued association with Aaron Berg, who has spent years trafficking in straightforward, slur-laden Islamophobia. 

I think it’s also worth dwelling on a more fundamental absurdity at the heart of this story: a comedy club is raising money for an army. Set aside the IDF’s annual budget of more than $23 billion, set aside US aid to Israel, set aside the specifics of what Israel’s been doing with all that money for the last four months, whether in Gaza (slaughtering Palestinians) or on the home front (arresting Israelis for Facebook posts). As a simple matter of principle, this is a completely abnormal thing for any arts organization to do. I know it won’t, but it should really give pause to anyone considering working with Stand Up NY in the future. 

In a broader sense, this whole affair gives lie to the idea that comedy is ever divorced from politics. As I’ve written many times, comedy is speech, and speech is by nature political. Comedy workers are human beings, and human beings live in a world governed by politics. When they insist they’re apolitical, we should understand this as a confession that their politics are unpopular. When they tell us they’re committed to free speech, we should take this to mean that they wish to say something reprehensible, for instance that peaceful antiwar protesters are terrorists. And when club owners tell us anything, perhaps the best course of action is simply not to listen at all. 

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