Comedians talk sexual harassment as the 'Weinstein effect' snowballs
The fall from grace for Louis C.K. and the Just for Laughs Festival chief Gilbert Rozon has left many comedians reeling.
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For weeks, allegations of lurid, predatory sexual behaviour committed by powerful Hollywood executives, morning-show hosts and top-billed actors have become an almost daily media fixation.
The swift and total fall from grace for Louis C.K. and Gilbert Rozon, the impresario behind Montreal's world famous Just for Laughs Festival, has left many comedians reeling about the reprehensible behaviour in their industry and the path forward.
These are the people, after all, who are supposed to make us laugh, not cry.
Russell Peters, whose series "The Indian Detective" just premiered on CTV, stresses his sympathies are with the victims. But he doesn't believe C.K.'s career is necessarily over.
"As a comic, I'm not saying we're above the law, but we have the ability to address our situation honestly and hash it out on stage," says Peters. "There's still going to be a curiosity to see what Louis has to say about this."
However, adds Peters, "he's definitely going to have to take a little hiatus."
Peters is no stranger to controversy given his boundary-pushing standup that addresses race and stereotypes.
He also came under fire earlier this year for jokes he made while hosting the Junos, which critics said sexualized women.
Juno organizers later apologized and said they did not "in any way support, nor did we sanction, the off-script remarks."
Reacting to young girls in the front rows of the audience, the comedian suggested the scene was "a felony waiting to happen." The remark offended some, including Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, who Peters also called "hot" before she took the stage.
Peters says his joke about the screaming teenagers was based on being startled.
"They weren't there during rehearsal," he says. "I just couldn't ignore them and go straight into the monologue, so I said it was 'a felony waiting to happen.' As a father, I'm thinking: drugs and alcohol. The other stuff people accused me of, that's never in my realm of thinking."
There are other comics who also strongly believe that controversial material should not automatically be verboten.
"This Hour Has 22 Minutes" star Susan Kent performed a monologue about sexual harassment shortly after the allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein were made public. The St. John's, N.L., native stood with all the women on the show in denouncing the culture of inappropriate behaviour that has plagued workplaces for decades.
But Kent also believes you can joke about any situation, as long as it's never at a victim's expense.
She points to a joke written by one of her colleagues, Heidi Brander, which goes: "Women have been dealing with this forever. Why do you think every woman in a medieval painting is rolling her eyes?"
Kent denounces C.K.'s actions as a crime, but holds out hope that he can someday return to comedy.
"Everyone should have the chance to ask for forgiveness and earn back trust and contribute their gifts to the world once they pay their debts," she says.
The onus is on C.K., she adds, to "grapple with what he has done and the effects it has had. If he ever comes back, that is his unwavering responsibility."
Fellow "This Hour Has 22 Minutes"' comedian Mark Critch also notes that Paul Reubens (best known for playing Pee-wee Herman) and Fred Willard came back after they were caught masturbating in adult theatres.
But he makes a distinction about C.K., who "masturbated in front of women to feel power over them. It's a different thing."
"Comedians are often successful because they speak truth since they are often outsiders. Not predators," Critch says.
"When you think of your favourite comedian, you smile, you laugh, you feel good. When that is coloured by something as off-putting as what Louis is guilty of, it can change your perception of them. Comedy has to be relatable. There's nothing relatable about sexual assault."
Ever-touring comedian Ron James taped his annual CBC New Years' Eve special in October, just days after the Weinstein scandal broke. The Nova Scotian works plenty of topical comedy into his year-ender and managed to squeeze one Weinstein joke into this year's mix.
The behaviour behind the headlines, however, is no joke to James.
"When all the dominoes start to fall, I think this is a tectonic change in the business and in these powerful men being called to task."
Like James, Gerry Dee was in the middle of a tour when reached about these issues. Asked about the fallout from C.K.'s actions, the star of CBC's "Mr. D" put it bluntly.
"He was a funny guy," says Dee, "but the stuff he did off stage, it wasn't funny. We rely on fans, and if fans don't like you personally, they're not going to go see you."
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