PERSONAL
07/02/2020 16:49 EDT | Updated 07/05/2020 13:13 EDT

As A Comedy Club Server, I Bore Witness To A Broken, Sexist Culture

There are probably gross attitudes lurking in your local comedy scene too.

Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP
Comedian Chris D'Elia performs on stage during the Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival on Sept. 15, 2013 in Irvine, Calif. 

Mid-way through my shift as a cocktail server at a Vancouver comedy club, I’m in the women’s washroom, washing my hands before I go back into the showroom. Expecting to see a giggling female patron who’s maybe had a few too many vodka sodas, instead I see a man. The headlining comedian that night.

We make eye contact, and he laughs.

“L-O-L,” he says, pronouncing each letter with gusto and a smile, as if a 40-year-old man walking into a women’s washroom was the funniest thing in the world. 

“Me too!” he says, bluntly referencing the movement to call out sexual assault and harassment allegations against abusers, notably celebrities and including comics just like him.

And then he leaves. I’m still there. The faucet’s still running.

I should be shocked, but it feels normal. This is what it’s like to work in a comedy club. 

Vershinin via Getty Images
Working in a comedy club, I witnessed the dark underbelly of stand-up comedy. 

Recent high-profile takedowns of shitty dude comedians have exposed — once again —  the dark underbelly of stand-up comedy. Chris D’Elia was dropped from his agency last week, following accusations of sexual misconduct with minors. several women came forward alleging he “groomed” them and asked them for nude photos. 

It feels like every time big names like D’Elia are called out on social media for being gross, there’s a conversation about what needs to change in comedy. A reckoning happens, the court of public opinion rules and they’re ostracized — for now. 

He follows Louis C.K., who was “cancelled” after five women came forward with sexual misconduct allegations in 2017. And while Louis C.K. faced repercussions, like a halt to his touring schedule and his latest film being shelved, he’s had a comeback. He released a new special, chock-full of #MeToo jokes. He’s started touring again. And he played five sold-out shows at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto in October 2019. 

I should be shocked, but it feels normal. This is what it’s like to work in a comedy club.

It’s almost like there were no repercussions for his actions. 

And it’s happening in local rooms and clubs all the while. And worst of all, it builds a culture in fans and patrons of these clubs that this is somehow OK. I worked at the Vancouver Yuk Yuk’s location for almost three years before it closed due to the coronavirus pandemic in March. 

Being a server at a comedy club is a unique experience. There’s a lot of knowing when to slide a drink onto a table between laughs, ducking and dodging so you don’t obstruct people’s views, and shmoozing with comics. 

There’s late-night, after-hours karaoke on the main-stage with the staff, knowing the regular orders of every local pro comedian and going into work on your night off to see a free show because you just can’t stay away. There’s taking care of 40 tables in one shift and having to take payment from all of them in a 20-minute last-call. 

There are also a lot of shitty, shitty people. 

During my time there, I witnessed sexism, homophobia, racism, transphobia and all sorts of other nasty things, both on and off stage. I heard beloved local comics talk openly with other staff about cheating on their girlfriends with younger women.

That same night the headliner walked into the women’s washroom, I was groped while doing my job.

After the show, I had been enlisted to help hawk poorly copy edited editions of the comedian’s self-published book by the exit to the club. I was standing in a corner, debit machine in hand.

During my time there, I witnessed sexism, homophobia, racism, transphobia and all sorts of other nasty things, both on and off stage.

A pair of women from a birthday party full of middle-aged women I’d clocked earlier, obviously drunk, approached me from the crowd. One of them mumbled something to me.

“Sorry, could you repeat that?” I asked in my strained chipper customer service voice.

“Are you a girl or a boy?”

It was a question completely out of left field. I’m a fairly masculine-presenting queer woman, with short hair and tattoos. When the club had gotten new staff shirts and I took one look at the plunging neckline of the “women’s cut,” I opted for the loose-fitting men’s version. Still, that’s not a question you should ask a stranger. Ever. 

“Um,” I felt suddenly aware of how I was literally backed into a corner by the surrounding crowd. 

“Are you a lesbian?” the woman asked, stepping forward, her “birthday girl” sash sparkling in the stark lights of the club. “Tell me I’m hot.”

“Um, ma’am, I think you need to go now,” I stammered, scanning the crowd for my manager.

“It’s her birthday,” the other woman said. “Tell her she’s hot.”

And with that the birthday girl reached forward and groped my chest. A fumbling, grasping, very drunk middle-aged white woman grope. But a grope, nonetheless. 

Before I could even respond, the two stepped back and were swallowed by the crowd. I told my manager, but they were already gone. There was nothing I could do. 

WATCH: Comedian Hannah Gadsby slams Louis C.K. Story continues below. 

Not normally an angry person, at the end of my shift I went into the back room and punched the wall, furious at how powerless I was and how both the comedian and his fans felt empowered to do that. After I told my manager what happened with the male comedian — from the bathroom incident to his grabbing my shoulders and physically moving me out of his way at one point— she acted quickly. 

Normally, she’d personally drive comics back to their hotel after the show, or at least call them a cab. He got none of that, simply a “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” as he dragged his hockey bag full of merch out into the night.

There was nothing we could do about the woman who groped me. But I bring it up because it demonstrates the culture in these rooms. When you have gross dudes on stage talking about taking advantage of women and mocking queer people, then of course you get audience members who think that’s OK, too.

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Louis C.K. attends the 2015 Comedy Central's 'Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together For Autism Programs' on February 28, 2015 in New York City.

My coworkers and I have had crude remarks directed at us and have been touched without our permission more often than we can count. It wears on you to spend every night in that environment. 

And the thing is, I love comedy. I took the job at Yuk Yuk’s to pay for grad school, yes, but also because I knew it would be fun. It was unlike any other restaurant job I’d worked. I made lifelong friends with my coworkers and with some of the local comics. I’d come in on my night off just to hang out. And our club did work hard within the constraints of stand-up comedy culture to elevate marginalized voices, whether through a monthly showcase of local female comedians or a semi-regular drag show in partnership with a local drag group. 

And so it breaks my heart to see this system be so broken. I have to stress that Yuk Yuk’s is not unique. Everything I’ve described happens at clubs across the world. 

Men like D’Elia and Louis C.K. and hundreds of low-level comics will have their comebacks or face no serious consequences in the first place. They’ll still sell out rooms, they’ll still inspire people to think it’s OK to be like them. Workers in the industry like me or my coworkers will at some point say, “Enough is enough” and leave. And the system will keep on churning as it does. 

Comedy doesn’t have to be like that. A 20-minute walk from the club I worked at is Vancouver’s Fox Cabaret, which hosted New Moon Comedy every Wednesday until the pandemic hit. Every week featured a different lineup where the unifying factor was a maximum of one straight white guy on the bill. It was remarkable how much more fun and how much safer I felt there than in my own workplace. 

The married queer couple who run the show open it with a land acknowledgement. The lineup is made of folks who look like me, whose jokes relate to me and my experiences. The room is small, intimate. It’s so fun, and I’ve never once had my ass grabbed. 

Let’s have more spaces like that. They are possible. 

Demand better from your comics. Don’t support gross dudes. We need to start cancelling that toxic culture in our hometown clubs too. Do it for comedy workers like me on the front lines. Do it for marginalized comics trying to break through. Do it for this thing I love so much.

It’s the only way things will change.