The System Is People

NYC clubs are reopening, Chris D'Elia gets sued, and no one ever asks Amy Poehler about her manager.

The System Is People

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The dog has officially caught the car: New York’s comedy clubs are now allowed to reopen on April 2nd at 33% capacity, capped at 100 people—150 with rapid testing—with masking required for all patrons. The thing to keep your eye on now is whether clubs enforce masking and whether authorities enforce it when they don’t. Given the lack of city or state interest in the illicit, unmasked indoor shows EastVille’s been producing for months now, I’m pessimistic we’ll see much in the way of rigor from the New York comedy community, even as the country hurtles toward a variant-driven surge:

NEW—CDC warns #COVID19 is "on the cusp" of potential resurgence, with cases & deaths rising. Highly-transmissible #B117 variant can "hijack our successes", as fatigue leads precautions being "flagrantly ignored".

Been warning for over a month. So 4, 2021

This week in CaNcEl CuLtUrE, Chris D’Elia was accused in federal court of child sexual exploitation and soliciting child pornography. From The Hollywood Reporter:

The suit, filed on behalf of a Jane Doe in a U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, claims that in 2014, a then 34-year-old D'Elia sexually abused Doe while she was 17 years old and demanded sexually explicit images from her after meeting her over social media. A spokesperson for D'Elia said, "Chris denies these allegations and will vigorously defend against them in court."

Per the lawsuit, D'Elia met Doe after she direct messaged him on Instagram and he invited her to come to a comedy show. Before they met up, D'Elia allegedly asked for the defendant's Snapchat information and, after a few initial messages, asked for a nude photo. Per the suit, he continually asked for photos and Doe eventually sent him five to 10 nude photos before they met in person.

When they finally met before a show at Connecticut's Foxwoods Resort Casino, Doe brought a friend to meet D'Elia in his hotel room, but allegedly D'Elia wouldn't open his hotel door until the friend had left. During that first encounter, D'Elia "instructed Ms. Doe to get on the floor, take off his shoes and pants, and give him oral sex" and "approximately ten minutes after she arrived at his hotel room, Defendant D’Elia had sex with Ms. Doe," per the complaint. Doe told D'Elia that she was 17 years old and in high school, the lawsuit says. They had another sexual encounter after the show, according to the complaint.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned in any reporting on the lawsuit is its allegation that D’Elia attempted to facilitate abuse of the plaintiff by his friends, including three other comics. From the complaint:

Defendant D'Elia repeatedly asked Ms. Doe to meet up with and have sex with some of his friends. At one point, Defendant D'Elia sent Ms. Doe a photo via Snapchat of him and the friend he wanted Ms. Doe to meet. The friends Defendant D'Elia wanted Ms. Doe to met included several other stand-up comedians: Bryan Callen, Jason Collings, and Michael Lenoci.

Jason Collings and Michael Lenoci were both regular openers for D’Elia. Bryan Callen is his friend and collaborator who was himself accused of sexual assault last year. Callen responded to those allegations by suing the husband of one of his accusers. He’s been touring throughout the pandemic, with shows this month at Zanies Nashville, the Comedy Zone in Jacksonville, the Funny Bone in Omaha, and Standup Live! in Huntsville, Alabama. Now seems as good a time as any to revisit this thread by comedian Dan Telfer:

It's been brought to my attention that comedy clubs are booking known serial assaulters & rapists in their comedy clubs, most likely because they are desperate for work and in a pandemic clubs are desperate for people willing to take the risk. Every booker doing this is a coward.September 22, 2020
It shouldn't just be women comics refusing to work at these comedy clubs just so comics and audiences can feel safe. And unless clubs retract their bookings and publicly apologize to women comics for calling them out, I won't work at them after the pandemic either.September 22, 2020
I am not interested in debating this. I'm not super famous and I'm not pretending this will drastically alter the industry either. But I'd like to see more male comics give a shit about safe green rooms though. This is a workplace issue. Let's get our shit together.September 22, 2020
For instance, clubs like @HeliumComedy, @BricktownComedy, @ImprovKCMO, @ImprovDallas, @SkylineComedy, and @AddisonImprov are blocking women for calling this well-researched story to their attention. It's hard to make rent, but we can't stoop to THIS. 22, 2020

One thing we’ve explored in this newsletter is the idea that the comedy industry is the way it is because of a relatively small group of people. Its problems may be structural, but many of those structures were designed, fairly recently, by individuals—a handful of venue owners and TV producers, really—and they’ve survived in spite of their problems due to the good will of their beneficiaries. The system protects itself, which is to say the people within it protect each other.

For example…

This week Netflix released Moxie, Amy Poehler’s new movie about a high school student who sparks a feminist revolution by writing a zine. Naturally, coverage of the movie has emphasized Poehler’s feminist bona fides, her commitment to empowering and telling stories about strong women, her mentorship work, and her experiences of the patriarchy in Hollywood. Here she is in the New York Times:

As far as “Moxie,” were there things you had to learn about the way teenagers today think about feminism in order to make the film? Oh, yeah. It’s like how in the movie I play a mom who considers herself a very active feminist, who felt she moved things forward, but then has to realize, maybe the movement I was in wasn’t intersectional; we didn’t have a sense of who we were leaving out and were coming at it from privilege. Part of that work is to not get defensive. Like when someone says, “Hey, white women, stop centering yourself in a story,” I think that’s interesting. I like it. I’m into all the young people who worked on “Moxie.” I’m into what Gen Z is selling. There are a lot of cool conversations that feel inclusive. Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it right. You know, I was saying to my friend the other day, “Am I too old to be on TikTok?” Because I’m obsessed with TikTok. I’m learning a lot and don’t want to be excluded. TikTok was explaining the GameStop controversy to me! I thought, I’m having the stock market explained to me by teenagers — and I couldn’t have asked for better teachers.

And here she is in Vogue:

On that note, the feminist awakening that occurs at Vivian’s high school in Moxie mirrors the one that happened in the industry post-#MeToo. Have you seen it bring about real change?

AP: “A true activist never feels like we’ve gotten far enough, but over the past 20 years, I’ve seen things change in terms of the types of stories being told and the people telling them. Gatekeepers, the people making decisions about what gets made, are starting to change too, and that’s exciting. But one of the things that Moxie has taught me is that we have a lot to learn and, when we get older, we have things to unlearn. There are moments in the film, when Vivian tries to make things better but doesn’t realise the patterns she’s falling into [for instance, when she tells Lucy to ignore her bully]. So many of us can relate to that when we look back on our own behaviour.”

What you will not find in any interviews with Poehler—what you will never find—is any mention of her world-famous improv theater’s practice of stealing its workers’ pay, a decidedly antifeminist project she has pursued for two decades. (The Times asks about the culture of UCB, but ignores the massive crime at its center). Nor will you find any mention of her longtime manager Dave Becky.

Becky is best known as Louis CK’s former manager who allegedly intimidated into silence some of the women CK abused. In the wake of the CK revelations a few years ago, Becky was dropped by a few of his high-profile clients, like Pamela Adlon and John Mulaney (the latter of whom stayed at 3 Arts, where Becky is a partner). Poehler was one of many who stuck with him; others include Bill Burr, Kevin Hart, Hannibal Buress, and Issa Rae. As their manager, Becky is also an executive producer on many of their projects, like Poehler’s TV series Duncanville and Russian Doll. To state the obvious, this means he makes a lot of money from them.

As I wrote in 2017, Becky’s sole public statement about the CK revelations was riddled with inconsistencies:

He writes that he heard of the Goodman/Wolov story “third-hand,” and that he “misperceived” his source’s “casual way” of portraying the story. The Times reports that Lee Kernis, one of Goodman and Wolov’s managers in 2002, told Becky directly—that is, secondhand—that C.K. had acted in an offensive manner. It’s unclear how a casual portrayal might distract from the literal characterization of his conduct. Later in Becky’s statement, he says he never heard of the other incidents because he was in a bubble of power: “I have come to realize my status wielded an atmosphere where such news did not reach me, or worse yet, that it seemed such news did not matter to me.” This beggars belief. He already admitted that such news reached him. He even admitted, erroneously or not, that it reached him from someone with no direct knowledge of the incident. If that story reached him, then it’s hardly a stretch to believe others might have. This is an assumption, true, but it’s a safe assumption, just as it’s a safe assumption that C.K. has harassed or assaulted more people than have yet been reported.

Even if we indulge our most generous natures, though, the statement is damning. In Becky’s telling, he ran his company in such a manner that well-known allegations of his client’s vile, habitual misconduct never came near him. He moved unilaterally to silence powerless comedians—hobbling their careers—based on a misperception of someone’s tone. He made no followups and confirmed no details. He did what C.K. and all his boosters decried for years: He acted on a rumor. The difference is that Becky, unlike those using whisper networks to keep their fellow comics safe, actually had the power to punish someone at the rumor’s origin. The other, more crucial difference is that his reading of the rumor was incorrect.

Beyond his statement in 2017, Becky has never accounted for his role in Louis CK’s abuses. To my knowledge, no one in the industry has ever held him to account, other than the few comics who stopped working with him. Poehler has acknowledged her continued association with Becky on one occasion, if you can call it an acknowledgment. Here she is in a 2019 Hollywood Reporter piece previewing Wine Country:

Like so many women of her generation, Poehler is grappling with her own pre-#MeToo assumptions about sexual politics amid the existential dread of the Trump era. But one thing is certain: She has definitely had it with condescension from the patriarchy. "Women are constantly criticized for being too emotional," she tells me. "Can we be allowed to be as messy, as all over the place, as inconsistent and as mediocre as men? Do we have to always be patient, special, nurturing, adaptable?"

Also, please don't ask her to explain the bad behavior of men, namely Louis C.K., even if they were friends and share a manager (Dave Becky). "Women seem to be, unfortunately, the ones that have to have the answers," she says. "Whether or not we want to be the ones with the answers."

There’s no context for that last quote, so it’s unclear whether the reporter actually asked Poehler about Louis CK or Dave Becky. Still, the implication is clear: it’s not her problem.

But it is her problem, just as it’s Bill Burr’s problem and Kevin Hart’s and Issa Rae’s. Becky used the power his clients vested in him to make the comedy industry less safe, and he used the power they continued vesting in him to get away with it. This makes it his clients’ problem, whatever their gender. I suspect it’s difficult for so many of them to accept this because while Becky was doing bad things to other people, he was doing good things for them. At heart, Poehler’s response is no different than Burr’s:

“I stand by my fucking manager,” Burr said. “I’m never firing the guy. I’ve been with this guy since 2006. Dave Becky is one of the great people I’ve met in this business. I wouldn’t be surprised if [the media goes] after Louis C.K.’s mailman saying, ‘If you’re delivering his mail you’re part of the problem.'"

Here's the deeper reason Poehler will never part with Dave Becky: she owes her entire career to him. As she writes in her memoir Yes Please, Becky was Matt Besser’s manager in the mid-90s when he visited Chicago to check out Besser’s improv group, the Upright Citizens Brigade. He signed the whole team and put them in front of Comedy Central, who bought their sketch series in 1998. At the time they were performing improv out of a dance studio. Thanks to the increased attention their TV show brought them (“The show fed the theater and the theater fed the show,” Poehler writes), they soon had to move into their own space. The rest, unfortunately, is history.

This is not to suggest UCB would never have risen to prominence without Becky, or that Becky would not have his current power without Poehler and UCB. It’s just a small, crystalline example of what I mean when I say the system protects itself, the system is made of individuals, and there’s not all that many of them. A few people could force some big changes. It’s to everyone’s loss that they don’t.

I will leave you with this video by Eric Rahill:

Rough idea for a scene in my WWII movie 4, 2021