Chicago's Woman Comedians Are Fighting Back Against Sexual Harassment 


Early this week, the founder of Improv Olympic (iO), one of the most important comedy theaters in the country, inadvertently lit a fire under the Chicago comedy community’s ass.

“The issue of sexual harrassement is very important to me and I have put pollicys in place and even have a professional counsellor at iOWest to help if there is ever a problem,” Charna Halpern wrote on her Facebook page [sic’d throughout]. “But there are times when there are women who just like to either cause trouble or get revenge or just want attention so they make up stories.”

Halpern wrote her post after a student had claimed on Facebook that a producer had sexually harassed her; in return, she said, Halpern had offered her free classes.

“This call never happened,” Halpern claimed. “Ive never had any complains about [name redacted] nor would I handle an issue in such a shallow way. Its people like this who make it difficult when a woman really has a problem—we need to take this issue seriously and not spread lies because you didnt make a team or for whatever reason you are angry.”

The post earned hundreds of likes and sparked a conversation many comments long, many of which involved Halpern repeatedly defending her mistaken position that women often falsely report harassment. The debate then splintered off into various unique posts across the Chicago comedy community (an abbreviated version is available on Imgur, since the original post has been taken down). The discussion quickly veered away from the issue of the woman in question (who may or may not be telling the truth) and turned into one that has tormented the Los Angeles and New York improv communities for some time: How to best address an epidemic of sexual harassment and misogynistic behavior in comedy in general.

The Los Angeles comedy scene has been reeling since comedian Beth Stelling, and, later, Courtney Pauroso, admitted to being sexually assaulted and raped by fellow comedian Cale Hartmann. The private “Women of UCB” Facebook page has served as a gathering point, where women in the community can organize and figure out how to move forward together.

In interviews with BuzzFeed for a lengthy piece by Katie J.M. Baker, a number of women in that group recounted that reporting harassment or unsettling sexual content in a scene is frequently looked down upon.

“If you complain about it,” one comedian said, “you’re not viewed as a team player.”

“I didn’t want to step on any toes or prevent opportunities for myself,” said another, who ended up quitting after repeated harassment. “I know that’s sad, but I didn’t know who I could trust.”

The nonprofit Women in Comedy recently circulated a Google form entitled, “Gross Things That Happened to Me As A Woman in Comedy,” that allowed women to anonymously report unsettling or violent behavior they had experienced, and posted the responses to its website. One reads:

At indie team practice, he flashed his dick at my all female team…for a really long time…despite repeated protests.
He’d say ‘I didn’t get to see yours.’
About a year later, we reported it. Several others made reports on separate incidents. He suffered consequences. Now I hear he’s back in the game. No one seems to care anymore. [sic’d]

“You must understand that there are people who pretend to be victims and that it is THEY that hurt real victims,” Halpern doubled down in a later post. “Thats why I was incensed—on be half of real victims.”

“I think the best training I got, I got at iO, and it’s a really special, valuable place that has been sort of getting eaten up by casual sexism,” Julia Weiss, a member of the Second City Touring Company and one of the primary commenters on the Facebook thread, told Jezebel. “It’s the little things—the micro-aggressions, the underrepresentation, the fact that we see men as improvisors and women as female improvisors. Reading Charna’s post, it was clear that that mentality can come from the top down.”

Part of the problem is that the comedy community is so steeped in a culture of sexism. This is especially true of the Chicago scene’s history.

“I mean, Del Close [former Second City director and father of modern improv] was a misogynist, let’s not forget that,” Weiss said. “He wasn’t a sunshine-y cool-ass dude who thought women were funny. He was a misogynistic asshole, and we’ve inherited the world that he created.” (Halpern has previously denied that characterization of Close, whom she worked with for years. And as Kim Howard Johnson wrote in the book The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close, “For every woman who considered him a misogynist, there seemed to be another who was deeply devoted to him.”)

Victoria Elena Nones, a comedian who has been a member of a Second City house team, founded Women in Comedy to combat that entrenched misogyny. On a call with Jezebel, Nones agreed that Halpern’s attitude was a symptom of a much larger problem.

“I think people are trying to find one villain to attack for a systemic problem that has been happening for a long time,” she said. “I think it’s a cultural problem. [Halpern’s] just raising a voice within the issue, and showing that sometimes these institutions sort of oppress our voices when we do try to come forward.”

Last year, iO, the Annoyance, Second City, and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater all revamped their misconduct policies. UCB and iO West even hired licensed counselors at their New York and Los Angeles training centers. Following Halpern’s post, iO reportedly recirculated their list of policies.

“This is a thing that’s making me angry right now,” Nones told Jezebel. “That these institutions are coming back and saying, ‘Well, we have policies in place.’ [The reality is] that if you’re not actively engaging in those policies and you’re not making sure everybody knows it on a regular, day-to-day basis, and making it a part of your company culture, then those policies don’t mean anything.”

Nones argued that the teachers are the ones mainly responsible for allowing a sexist culture to flourish. To combat it, these values need to be integrated into the curriculum from the very first class.

“This happens across industries and I think that we experience it on a greater level because we are dealing with jokes. People are saying, ‘Don’t limit my creative freedom; don’t censor me,’” she continued. “We’re supposed to be political and social satirists and that’s the epitome of comedy. But if we’re not using those sensitive subjects intelligently then it’s no use. We end up just sort of saying racist, sexist, homophobic things in our jokes.”

Irene Marquette, a teacher at iO, the Annoyance, and Second City, says she attempts to approach her work from a “holistic standpoint.”

“If you are directing performers, it’s necessary to think about it from that standpoint: How are they giving and taking power? How are they expressing themselves?” she said on a phone call with Jezebel. “We can explore different power dynamics and different status levels, but that the performers themselves are coming at the material from a place of empowerment and awareness.”

Marquette makes a concerted effort to have conversations about acceptable behavior at the beginning of every class, and when questionable scenes arise.

“You’re asking these people to dig into their subconsciousness and be truthful and say things that are real—you’re, like, mainlining into their id, and sometimes the things that they say are so out there. There’s so much that is internalized that people aren’t even aware of.”

“I have also had to completely shift my views as an instructor,” wrote Susan Messing, an iO veteran instructor and founding member of the Annoyance Theater, in an email. “I thought that by modeling strong onstage behavior as a performer and teaching people how to protect an improvisor’s onstage safety and content so people could laugh, that was enough. I am learning that it is still woefully inadequate, and for that, I feel terrible and have to double down my efforts.”

On Wednesday, comedian Caroline Sabatier published an essay on the Women in Comedy website, in which she confessed to being harassed and assaulted repeatedly by an unnamed authority figure in one of Chicago’s improv institutions. Sabatier wrote that her attempts at reporting the perpetrator to the theater and the police were repeatedly foiled. The theater refused to promise her anonymity in reporting the perpetrator, and the police weren’t much more help.

“Due to the threat of defamation,” she wrote, “I was never able to name my attacker and to my knowledge, he continues to teach.”

In the post, Sabatier proposed a Chicago comedy blackout for February 1, “in honor of every person who has left the entertainment industry because they were hurt by someone else in it, and did not feel they had a any [sic] other choice but to get out.”

“There’s already been so much good work that has been done within this community and I think that’s why this is bubbling up right now, because we’ve already been laying the foundation and lifting each other up,” Weiss said. “The energy of the women talking about this right now is, by and large, really excited and positive. I’m really proud of the community I’m in for standing up and demanding the right to redefine these spaces.”

Halpern has slowly begun to retreat from her original firm stance.

“I have read your posts and listened to your messages,” she wrote on Facebook several days after her initial post, noting that she would be conducting an internal review of iO’s policies. “I’m listening to you now and I will continue to listen. Improv is an art form that cannot exist without trust. And iO would not be the magical place that it is for so many of us if we did not have a foundation of trust.”

“iO is a place where everyone is welcome. If there have been times where some of you felt that was not the case, it ends today.”

Women in Comedy reiterated Sabatier’s call for a February 1 blackout, demanding a boycott of all theaters at which women have felt harassed or exploited next Monday. The organization will also host a discussion with the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE)‘s Executive Director at Kaethe Morris Hoffer at the Laugh Factory that night.

“We don’t learn to stop playing with fire because someone tells us to,” the event description reads. “We stop because we get burned.”

Update: Charna Halpern has since commented on the discussion to Chicagoist.

“I’m learning,” she said on the phone. “Up until today, nobody has come to me personally [about sexual harassment at iO] within the last 15. I didn’t know any of this crap that’s going on! It’s terrible.”

She maintains that the initial woman in question was never a student at iO, but says she will work to update iO’s policies regarding sexual harassment. “I want to do it right.”

“I’ve learned that people are afraid to talk to me,” she concluded. “They’re afraid that because they were victimized, I’m going to throw them off a team. That is the one thing that makes me cry… it’s the one thing that kills me.”

Update: BuzzFeed’s Katie J.M. Baker reported on February 2 that the woman in question, Bella Cosper, actually was a student and former intern at iO West.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via iO.

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