If Your Free Speech Brought You To This, Of What Use Was Your Free Speech?

The thundering silence about Jeff Ross.

If Your Free Speech Brought You To This, Of What Use Was Your Free Speech?

CW: child sex abuse.

“Jeff gets really hot girls… How do you get tens? Teens—I’m sorry, I read that wrong… You have the sex appeal of a gymnastics doctor, I just don’t understand.” That’s Nikki Glaser at The Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin last year. “Jeff Ross, you’re a staple on the roasting circuit and a predator at high-school dances.” That’s Caroline Rhea in the same roast. “Jeff is someone I consider a good friend, and I love him, but to be honest, he always has alarmingly young-looking girlfriends… Never one I have known to be underage, but alarmingly young-looking just the same.” That’s Amy Schumer in Vulture this week. Here’s another comedian quoted anonymously in that article: “Jeff Ross was always with a young girl—that was his girlfriend ‘type’… Were his girlfriends 18 and over that I saw him with? Probably. But he was still considerably older. He has that reputation.”

These are the words of comedians, some of them very famous comedians, all members of a professional class that routinely insists on its sacred right to say whatever it wants and offend whomever it pleases. They are talking about one of their colleagues, a man accused of sexually abusing a teenage girl. Two of them acknowledge, in a context where no one will think too hard about it, that he sure seems to have a thing for young women. The other two admit their suspicions after the fact, hedged with reasonable doubt, when it’s much too late to help anyone in harm’s way.

There are many things to say about the Ross revelations, most of them upsettingly cliché. I hope Jessica Radke’s courage does not go ignored, and that Ross faces the reckoning he deserves. His enablers in comedy, like Barry Katz and Gina Savage, must answer for their role in his abuses. So should the institutions, like Comedy Central, that looked the other way. This can all be said as well for last week’s outing of actor, podcaster, and Comedy Store regular Bryan Callen. It is long past time for the comedy business to admit that it remains the boys’ club described in Vulture—a breeding ground for abuse whose most beloved veterans are also some of its most dangerous predators—and to begin the process of complete, systemic reform. It’s been nearly three years since the Louis CK exposé. How many more survivors have to bare their trauma to the entire world before anyone in power says “Enough”?

I would just like to point out one small takeaway from this story. You may have noticed that with one years-old exception, comedians never seem to use their vaunted freedom of speech to call out the rapists and pedophiles infesting their ranks. I will venture three reasons for this. One is familiar enough: the people who harp on freedom of speech are usually just asking for license to punch down. This overlaps with the second reason, which is that lots of comics just don’t care. Ross’s behavior is normal to them, and perhaps even why they got into standup, a business still dominated by rape culture. The comedian Luis Gomez said in a recent podcast about Chris D’Elia, “I've been calling for a drop of the age of consent for a very long time, nationwide.”

The third reason is that most comedians do not actually have freedom of speech. Like you and I, they have the freedom to say whatever does not offend the people signing their paychecks. Most comics don’t particularly care to offend their bosses, so you rarely hear them complain about this, and when they do it’s usually in the wrong direction: toward audiences, whose “sensitivity” is only a threat because companies can do whatever they want to censor comedy. Many forms of corporate censorship are considered perfectly acceptable. There are only so many jokes you can tell on network TV.

More importantly, this dynamic means comedians cannot speak ill of the vast majority of their famous peers, who are all either potential employers or connected to potential employers, without risking their own careers. The business of speaking truth to power is structured at every level to discourage anyone from speaking truth to power. This of course does not excuse the industrywide silence about Jeff Ross. But it is clarifying to remember that comedy’s truth-tellers are far outnumbered by creeps, their sympathizers, and trained cowards. These people aren’t in it to take risks; they’re in it to risk nothing. Jeff Ross couldn’t do what he does without them.

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Header: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images via Comedy Central.