This Is A Huge Problem

"These communities are more susceptible to manipulation."

CW: Sexual harassment and assault in comedy spaces. 

Over the weekend I shared this essay by the writer and comedian Micheal Foulk. It’s a wrenching account of their experience at The New Movement, the Austin/New Orleans comedy theater that fell apart—sort of—amidst the surfacing of various (alleged, one has to say) abuses of power by its founders and leaders. Megh Wright’s report over at Splitsider is a solid primer on what happened there. I wanted to draw your attention to the piece because I think it is an important read, first of all, but also because it gets at a much bigger issue in the comedy world that I’m not sure has received much attention. 

“I don’t think improv or comedy conservatories are inherently terrible,” Foulk writes. “That would be ridiculous. But I do believe these communities are more susceptible to manipulation. Where ‘Yes and’ might be a wonderful way to develop a scene, it’s a dangerous way to create a community. We were all trained from day one to never question the suggestion. That is entirely and treacherously unsafe. Power structures and hierarchies must be questioned, if they can’t stand up to scrutiny then they are faulty at best.”

There has been a good deal of reporting over the last several years about predators within comedy communities, chiefly the cultural hubs of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. These reports have opened long-needed conversations about structural deficiencies within theaters and scenes that enable and protect abusers. What has gone understated—to my eye—is what Foulk identifies here: the perversion of comedy’s artistic norms by the people who lead these communities as a means of consolidating and abusing their power. This is a widespread, insidious problem, not only in those cultural hubs but also in secondary markets, cities where there may be only one or two shops in town and whoever runs them has virtually free rein. 

The top two comments on the Reddit thread about Foulk's essay identify two similar cases: one in Oklahoma City and another in Chattanooga. I myself have been investigating a case like these for some months, but I’m not sure when that article will be published and don’t want to get ahead of it. But I do want to briefly point to a number of controversies that have become public in the last few years.

  • Just two months ago, in November, ImprovBoston’s artistic director, managing director, and touring company/sales director all resigned after what Scout Cambridge described as an “internal outcry.” The outcry included allegations of harassment and gaslighting by the artistic and managing directors, and allegations that all three facilitated an unsafe, inequitable workplace where reports of misconduct went unanswered.

  • ImprovBoston’s recently departed managing director, Tom Spataro, in 2013 succeeded Zach Ward, who returned to North Carolina to resume leadership of the improv theater he founded there, DSI Comedy. DSI closed in August 2017 after Ward was accused by performers of “more than a decade of alleged intimidation, manipulation, sexual misconduct, and favoritism.”

  • DSI's building was purchased in September 2017 by Ali Farahnakian, owner of the Peoples Improv Theater in NYC. In October 2017 he was accused by more than a dozen members of that community—“including current and former interns, students, performers, teachers, and bartenders”—of mishandling claims of sexual misconduct and fostering “a culture in which this behavior was difficult to report, and even tolerated.” Farahnakian himself was described as “a boss prone to unpredictable behavior, including verbally berating and humiliating employees, withholding raises, and retaliating against those who challenge him, both women and men.”

  • One month later, in November 2017, the Reckless Theater in NYC closed after its founder and artistic director, Christian Capozzoli, admitted to inappropriate conduct with students and performers. His resignation letter—and its subsequent retraction—acknowledged behavior of a much narrower scope than members of the community alleged. Suffice it to say, that theater no longer exists. 

  • Also in November 2017, Brian Posen, creative director of the Stage 773 Theater in Chicago and founder of that city’s Sketchfest, resigned from Stage 773 and was dismissed from his position as the head of Second City’s improv program. The Chicago Tribune spoke with “more than 20 former female collaborators and colleagues of Posen's who say they believe he behaved inappropriately while working with them,” which he denied. His statement to the Tribune said in part: “Comedy often stretches comfort levels. In the 30 years I have been in comedy, and the thousands that I have taught or mentored, the most that anyone has ever accused me of is bad taste. If I crossed the line and offended anyone, I am deeply sorry. Today, more than ever, that line is blurry and continues to move.”

  • In February 2016, iO West artistic director James Grace was fired over allegations of sexual harassment. Here is an interesting story about how his boss, who still owns and runs iO Chicago, initially dealt with complaints about him. 

These are just a few cases. Recent cases. There are always more. I've heard of a few which were never made public. I’m sure you know of others still. And while most of these examples concern theaters in the cultural hubs I mentioned above, I don't think that's because the problem—to state the obvious—is in any way confined to those cities. Just based on my own reporting, I suspect one reason we have heard less from smaller cities is that the pressure against coming forward is even greater there. When an entire comedy community encompasses one or two theaters, to name an abuser at the helm of one can essentially mean exile.

It’s also a media problem. The gutting of local journalism means there are few local reporters to give these communities robust coverage that holds their leaders accountable. (There are also more familiar apathies: I once pitched one of these stories to a metropolitan newspaper editor who responded, “Normally don’t get involved in these type of allegations unless there is a police report or lawsuit.”) I suspect this is compounded by a general sentiment that because the work is unpaid, and because the people doing it are often young, it is not serious work; if they have a problem with the way things are done, they can just leave. This small litany of resignations and firings certainly reflects the greater cultural push for accountability, but it is worth considering what needs to be done to carry that push outside the industry centers. I would venture that one critical task is reframing the way we talk about comedy work, chiefly by putting the work part front and center.

It bears emphasizing that these problems are present in workplaces of every stripe. But in comedy communities the workers generally aren’t getting paid. They have thin protections. They are implicitly obligated to make significant donations of time, energy, and money, to socialize with the boss, go to parties with the boss, be the boss’s friend. And they do. They make enormous sacrifices because they love the work. And many of them are punished for doing what they love, by the same people who demanded they sacrifice so much to do it, to the point that they leave and never come back. Or they stay and endure.

It would be easy to say that comedy communities are facing the same reckoning as every other industry right now, but I don’t think that’s quite right. As Foulk suggests, the cultural elements of improv and sketch as they translate into comedy business models deserve unique scrutiny. Maybe the first question to ask is whether it is really such a good idea to give anyone unilateral authority over large, unpaid workforces taught to say yes before they say anything else. 


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