Some Thoughts

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Out of an abundance of caution I’m going to try not to say too much about the New Republic article publicly, for a while at least, since Cris Italia has twice threatened to sue me and I don’t quite trust myself to discuss it without the security of an editor and fact-checker. That said, I’ve received some criticism about non-ToxicCisWhiteMaleFat parts of the piece that I think is worth addressing, so let’s do that here.

In short, the criticism is that sections of the article that list comics associated with The Gavin McInnes Show and The Stand unfairly lump in good people with bad. Here are the paragraphs in question:

The Gavin McInnes Show was more than the white power hour, however. In the years before and during his show on Compound Media, McInnes tried his hand at live comedy, performing in New York City venues like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and The Creek and The Cave. He recorded a podcast, “Free Speech,” at the club Stand Up NY; in 2016, McInnes said he was banned from a club called The Stand after he exposed himself onstage. (He later recalled the manager telling him, “I have to turn my back on you now.”) He used his platform on Compound Media to mingle with a revolving door of respected, even mainstream comics: people like Big Jay Oakerson, Tim Dillon, Justy Dodge, Mike Lawrence, Larry the Cable Guy, Joe Matarese, Tom Shillue, Dave Hill, Alonzo Bodden, Luis Gomez, and Dave Smith, none of whom were deterred by McInnes’s friendliness with white supremacists.

[…]

That mission was a success. Over the course of the late 2000s and early 2010s, [Cringe Humor]’s live productions leveled up from bars to clubs to colleges to theaters. In 2012 they opened their own club and restaurant in Gramercy Park, The Stand, hoping to offer a more hospitable atmosphere than the traditional club. A few years later, they opened a satellite location in Long Island City, then moved the main club to a bigger space in Union Square. They signed Big Jay Oakerson and co-produced his Comedy Central special. They produced Conan writer Laurie Kilmartin’s special on streaming service Seeso. They signed Luis Gomez, Aaron Berg, Yannis Pappas, a pre–Saturday Night Live Pete Davidson, Cash Cab host Ben Bailey.

And below are two responses, which correspond with messages I received from a handful of readers. (To be clear, I’m addressing these critiques because I like and respect the people making them. Relatedly, if you ever think I am wrong about something, you are absolutely invited to tell me so; I know how I sometimes present here and on Twitter, but I promise I want to hear it.)

To start, I regret including Justy Dodge in that first paragraph, which doesn’t make the point it should. The list was whittled down from a longer and more varied list (in a somewhat more nuanced paragraph), and I included her in the final cut because, well, comics I respect respect her, and one point I wanted to make was that respectable people went on this show. But I didn’t weigh how the rest of the paragraph had changed, or consider that the final cut implied that she should have known better than to lend her stature to Gavin McInnes, which isn’t fair to someone who frankly is not as famous as most other comics on the list. A better version of this paragraph would reflect how McInnes (and Compound Media) leeched credibility not only from the prestige of famous comedians who easily could have turned him down, but also from the goodwill of non-famous comedians incentivized to take every gig. I’m sorry to have botched this.

To be very clear, though, the article does not describe Dodge as alt-right. It describes the way reactionaries infiltrated the New York City comedy scene by associating with comics of every stripe: established, unestablished, conservative, liberal. This is a crucial piece of the story. Comedians helped normalize The Gavin McInnes Show by treating it like any other gig. McInnes offered them a spot and they took it. Going on his show wasn’t just “doing a podcast,” as Dodge tweeted. It was doing a white supremacist’s podcast. The failure to make this distinction years ago is the whole problem. Gavin McInnes wrote his essay “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural” before he went to Compound Media, a network founded by noted racist Anthony Cumia. This was all out there. As with many things in comedy, the only way to avoid seeing it was not to look.

It’s true that McInnes (and Compound Media) took advantage of systemic forces that compel comics to get as much exposure as they can. But we have to follow this thought through. Exposure is not a neutral quality. The exposure you get in one room is different than the exposure you get in another; the exposure you get on Compound Media is to white supremacists. I resist the idea that structural incentives to go where the gigs are erase the individual’s duty to make ethical decisions about what gigs they choose and what audiences they court. If exposure is currency, then it’s on the comic to figure out if they’re taking dirty money. If they decide that it’s in their interests to do so, then they must carry the weight of that decision, however light or heavy it is. That doesn’t mean they should be canceled or dragged for it, but it does mean someone might later point out they went on a white supremacist’s podcast.

To Flores’s point, and I went back and forth with him a bit on this, I also wish that paragraph were clearer about what it describes: the way Cringe Humor simultaneously worked with respectable and less respectable artists, arguably using the former to distract from the latter. (The final paragraph of the article says this explicitly; it was worth foregrounding.) But again, we’re talking about adults who made the adult decision that it was in their interests either to work with vile people (Patrick Milligan was quite open about his beliefs going back into the early oughts; you just had to Google him) or not to find out who they were working with. I understand why people make this trade-off and I think it may often be justifiable, especially when the choice is between bad people and worse. Still, part of the trade is that people get to point out you made it.

I sympathize with the impulse to defend good people from association with bad people. The association, however, is the point. Almost everyone in standup is associated with bad people. It’s a very small world. Lots of people in it (as in all show business, and many other businesses) make the calculation that they have to do things they find unethical, with people they find unethical, in spaces they find unethical, in the hopes that later they’ll have the power to do things right and improve the system from within. I’ve had long conversations with artists I respect who worked at The Stand despite their problems with it because they felt it was a net good for them to take money from bad people, or because they thought they could infiltrate and reform the place. It seems clear now that the opposite was happening: they were the ones unwittingly granting legitimacy to the people actually infiltrating their community.

This is not to shame these artists. Everyone is susceptible to manipulation, no one is to blame for being manipulated. What I would suggest, though, is that while the calculation they make is often reasonable, it is rarely followed to its logical conclusion: a system where good people accept that they have to compromise their ethics is a system where unethical people thrive. This is a huge part of why there are so many Nazis in comedy. If good people want to drive them out, at some point they’ll have to reckon with the assumptions that let them in.

I do think comedy workers have a tendency to overstate their own powerlessness within the industry. The incentive to take every gig is economic, but it is also cultural, reinforced by social norms surrounding hard work and networking and the grind. There’s tremendous pressure to do whatever it takes to reach the part where you’re making money, real money, and to get on good terms with everyone who might conceivably help you out someday. Everyone does it, everyone says it’s what you have to do. Comedy is, after all, the business of being liked.

Still, the truth is there are rarely high stakes involved in turning down an individual spot, most of which in New York City are unpaid. It’s very easy—usually—to research the people who want to work with you, and to turn down, say, a podcast booking if you don’t like the host or audience. If we’re talking about comedy as a profession, then let’s be clear that the same rules apply as in other professions: when you associate with bigots at your job, people will associate you with bigotry. Comedy is full of people who are comfortable with some level of the first part but very uncomfortable with the second. I might suggest a straightforward solution to this discomfort.

Yes, things get harder up the food chain, for some much more than others. The industry often punishes people for trying to act ethically within it, sometimes quite severely. But it seems clear to me in retrospect that this has more often been an excuse for silence than what it should be, a call to action. Everyone seems to know by now that clubs are rotten places populated by bigots and abusers, yet very few seem bothered enough to do the work of confronting this. Others may be working behind the scenes; I can’t wait to see the fruits of their efforts. Still others may think it’s hopeless, or not worth the risk, and they want to get what they can while they can; that’s their choice, and if they feel it’s defensible then they are welcome to defend it. But at a certain point we have to stop calling this “just trying to get work” and start calling it “opportunism.”

Nobody has a right to be a comedian. If your chosen vocation requires you to sacrifice your morals to get ahead—to make complex rationalizations about why it’s okay to associate with people you find reprehensible, who may be using you toward their own vicious ends—then you are accountable in some part for the consequences of those sacrifices. Accountability doesn’t have to mean exile or a permanent scarlet letter, but it at least means talking about things clearly and honestly. It’s important to be blunt about the complicity, knowing or naive, of good people, because we have to acknowledge our role in injustice if we wish to envision a world that doesn’t compel us to play it. (This goes equally for journalists who uncritically covered this part of the industry, as I did early in my career.) I’d love to hear other ideas, but at this point I struggle to see any solution to comedy’s Nazi problem other than a mass effort to deplatform the Nazis. We all know what happens when good people say nothing.