CW: rape, sexual assault.
Mehran Khaghani, a comedian based in New York City, published a Facebook post today describing a pattern of homophobic, sexist, and racist behavior by Jeff Singer, longtime talent booker for Just For Laughs (and before that, a producer for Comedy Central and other networks):
This is probably nothing.
But the job I do, entertaining people with comedy, is a weird business with a million moving parts wherein who gets shine depends on a range of factors from talent to hard work to telegenics to what appears to be hot button casting based on social trends. Invariably, youthful good looks are preferred. I generally enjoy my job of live entertainment, giving people permission to party.
Accolades are nice, though. Auditioning for something and getting it- nice. For years now, I have watched the Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival cast its New Faces and general program in a curious fashion. Don't get me wrong, plenty of colleagues who I believe in completely have gotten into it. That said, a major player who determines the booking of the event, that used to be a defining badge in comedy, has said some crazy shit over the years that no one has really talked about and I don't see why on God's green earth anyone should be protecting him.
Years ago, when I auditioned for him- full disclosure, in my 13/14 years of comedy, I've auditioned for him 3 times, he said, "I've seen gay before." Like my perspective, my angle, any specificity to my person was lost on him. He's told female comedian friends of mine that they were too masculine. He's had "business dinners" with female comedian friends of mine and literally only talked to the former model at the table.
The stories about this douche go way back and there are #metoo stories lingering about him that I tend to only hear when drunk, so I can't really report on them.
I *can* say that he dropped the n-bomb, like, four times two nights ago at a club. He said he was just repeating, verbatim, the language of a poc he was talking to. People tried to stop and educate him and he just doubled and tripled down.
This guy is a taste-maker. This guy has, for the full span of my own career in comedy, gatekept a major showcase for talent in my industry. He doesn't see gays or women or pocs or any combination thereof in a progressive or even-handed way. He is ridiculously vulnerable to flattery and, like most goofballs running my business, needs his hair brushed so he'll be kind to you. (Comedy really is supposed to be subversive.)
He wears a stupid hat all the time. His name is Jeff Singer. He was never going to do a kind thing for me and I owe him no silence.
It takes real courage to speak out about abusive gatekeepers in comedy. Even in cases where the person is cartoonishly awful, the industry’s lopsided power structures and cop-like social norms threaten harsh penalties for whoever dares open the floodgates. (Hence all the cartoonishly awful gatekeepers.) Just For Laughs is a prime example of this dynamic: the festival has been toxic from the very beginning, but it’s still widely respected inside and outside the industry.
Here’s what you should know about Just For Laughs, the world’s largest comedy festival. A man named Gilbert Rozon founded it in 1983. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 19-year-old at a party. According to the CBC, he was spared jail time by a judge who found that “Rozon, whose comedy festival pulls in thousands of tourists and provides hundreds of jobs, should not be punished,” because “a criminal record for sexual assault might bar Rozon from entering the U.S., which would affect Rozon's businesses -- and therefore Montreal's economy.”
Rozon continued running Just For Laughs until 2017, when he stepped down after nine women accused him of sexual abuse dating back decades. One of them, according to the Toronto Star, said she was 14 years old when he “slipped his hands into her underwear and digitally penetrated her during a party” in 1990. A total of 14 women ended up filing complaints against him, only one of which resulted in prosecution: In 2018, Rozon was charged with raping and indecently assaulting a woman in 1980. He was acquitted last year by a judge who said the following, per the Montreal Gazette:
“Even if the court does not believe the version of facts given by Mr. Rozon, it does raise a reasonable doubt. To be clear, that reasonable doubt derives from both intrinsic qualities of the testimony given by Mr. Rozon and the weaknesses previously identified as to the reliability of the testimony of (plaintiff Annick Charette). Considering the existence of reasonable doubt, Mr. Rozon should be acquitted of the accusations against him,” Hébert said.
“An analysis of (Charette’s) testimony demonstrates that she is credible. (Charette) testified in a way that was honest, sincere without bias and without exaggeration. However, this analysis allowed (the court) to notice certain imprecisions existed in her testimony. Some pertained to peripheral elements, but some were difficult to explain.”
“To conclude,” Hébert said, “the court wants to underline the courage it took (Charette) in testifying. The court reminds (her) that the verdict of acquittal does not signify that the incidents did not happen. It simply signifies that there exists, in the spirit of the court, a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Mr. Rozon because the (prosecution) did not meet its burden.”
In 2017, a group of women attempted to bring a class action lawsuit against Rozon. A lower court authorized the suit, but a higher court ruled that their claims weren't similar enough to form a class. Canada's Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. Three plaintiffs have since filed individual lawsuits alleging that Rozon raped them.
So. As you can see, there are compelling reasons to believe Gilbert Rozon was a serial rapist for the entire time he was running JFL. After he resigned, he sold the festival to a group of buyers that included the talent agency ICM Partners, the media conglomerate Bell Media, and Howie Mandel. A few days after the new owners took over, they appointed Bruce Hills, "a 32-year-veteran of the festival," as JFL’s president. Hills had been the company’s Chief Operating Officer for the previous 19 years, which would mean he became Rozon’s deputy a year after Rozon pleaded guilty to sexual assault in 1998. Before that, he was the festival's Vice President of International Television and its Director of Programming. To my knowledge, Hills has never made any statement about the allegations against the man he worked with all those years.
And that’s what you should know about JFL. If you’re interested in reading further, I recommend this interview with DJ Mausner, who boycotted the festival in 2018, and this essay by Megan Koester, whose 2015 attempt to interview comics about the Louis CK allegations was stymied by JFL management.
Until next week,