JFL 42 has descended on Toronto, and, for the first time since the comedy fest’s inception in 2012, founder Gilbert Rozon is not there.
Rozon resigned last October due to nine allegations of harassment and sexual assault, as was originally reported by Quebec newspaper Le Devoir. He now faces a $10 million class-action lawsuit, which alleges that he assaulted more than 20 women—some affiliated with JFL, some not—between the years of 1982 and 2016, with accusations ranging from unwanted sexual advances to rape. (Rozon has denied the allegations; none have been proven in court.)
JFL did not publicly address the allegations until nine months later, when the company released a statement and a new anti-harassment policy just two days before Montreal’s annual JFL festival in July.
In the statement, JFL announced the launch of an educational program for all employees that was “designed to prevent any future workplace harassment issues.” As for the new policy, the company said it aims to enable “safe reporting through the creation of a new independent committee with direct oversight over any workplace harassment issues.” (The full policy can be found here.)
While the policy is a step in the right direction, the statement came only after Montreal comic D.J. Mausner went on the record about turning down her invitation to perform on a paid, nationally-broadcasted television taping at the annual Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, which she won through the company’s “Homegrown Comics” competition.
Speaking with her friend and fellow comic Celeste Yim in an interview for Vice, 23-year-old Mausner explained that she pulled out of the show because she didn’t feel she could work for a company with such a problematic history. Five days later, JFL released its statement. While Mausner considers it a victory, she says she isn’t about to “toot a vuvuzela over women-identifying and non-binary people getting […what] they should’ve always had.”
“My personal belief is that a stronger message is sent in refusing to accept mediocre treatment than to operate within it,” Mausner tells FLARE. “As a white performer who already had a JFL credit and [doesn’t need] the money for food or rent, I felt I had the privilege to act on that opinion.”
As JFL grapples with moving forward post-#MeToo, so does the comedy world at large.
Stand-up has historically been a boys’ club with few seats at the table for women, LGBTQ people and POC. And we mean that literally: In August of last year, the New Yorker published an article about an actual table in a New York restaurant where only those who have performed at the famed Comedy Cellar are allowed to sit. The article names 17 prominent comedians who have sat at the table (among many others), only three out of the 17 named were women.
Shortly after that New Yorker article, Louis CK—one of the comics who has sat at that infamous table—admitted to multiple instances of sexual misconduct. Earlier this year, fellow New York city comic Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual coercion by an anonymous claimant. And in 2016, NYC comic Aaron Glaser was accused of rape by multiple women and, after an internal investigation, was later fired from his job with the Upright Citizens Brigade. He denied all claims and later sued both the first woman to come forward and the UCB. (Charges have never been filed against Ansari or Glaser.)
Even as the discussion around sexual harassment and assault in the comedy community intensifies, the rape joke refuses to die. It’s a comedy staple, once the bread and butter of big acts like Dave Chapelle and Daniel Tosh. Since #MeToo has unfolded, some comedians have changed their material to be more politically correct, while others staunchly maintain that the stage is no place for censorship. Apparently in the latter camp: Bianca Del Rio, the winner of Ru Paul’s Drag Race season 6, who mocked fellow Drag Race contestant Blair St. Clair’s sexual assault as part of her act in July. Also see: Louis CK, whose recent stand-up set—his first performance since acknowledging his misconduct—featured a joke about a rape whistle that was met with applause (and reportedly only one official complaint to the venue).
Del Rio and CK notwithstanding, the comedy world *is* shifting in response to #MeToo. But, according to Mausner and other comedians, there’s still much to be done to make the industry a safer space for women, non-binary folks and people of colour.
More comedians need to punch up
“People make [good comedy without offending anyone] all the time,” says Yim. “The idea that there are more things to laugh at when punching down than punching up doesn’t make any sense,” she says, because there are way more people at the bottom than there are at in positions of power. To Yim, it’s just good business to be funny and smart because it will resonate with more people.
Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette has been lauded as a clear sign of comedy’s shift—it’s chock full of jokes that probably wouldn’t have landed prior to #MeToo. As one review eloquently put it, “Nanette is a show about abuse—about how comedians abuse audiences, how men abuse women, how society abuses the vulnerable people living on its margins. Gadsby says that in becoming a comic, she has been complicit in her own abuse and that of people like her, because she is covering up her stories of trauma with laughs, rather than digging deep into the marrow.”
At the very least, comedy like Gadsby’s has forced the industry to talk about its role in a changing society. “The #MeToo movement [moving into the] mainstream has made some comedians more [conscious of] what would be [a bad joke], and more aware of their own actions and privileges [in the industry],” Mausner says.
Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen, co-creators of the Baroness von Sketch Show, agree. “#MeToo […] has spawned a lot more conversation about gender, sexuality and race,” Browne says. “It’s forced people to ask themselves if they have any [power] and if they’re wielding it properly. It’s a new way of looking at things and there’s lots of fertile ground. Being thoughtful in a different way doesn’t mean you can’t be funny.”
In some ways, #MeToo has even created new material for comedians. Whalen says she and her cast mates now find themselves able to talk about subjects, such as workplace harassment, that they couldn’t five years ago.
Season 3 of Baroness von Sketch—which airs every Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. on CBC—will include two sketches about sexual assault.
“Now we can talk about what women have known forever. I think it helps humanize women for men because our culture [often] shows women in a narrow way—as wives, mothers, girlfriends and prostitutes,” Whalen says. “It’s always about their function as they are appendages to men rather than people in their own right.”
JFL needs to take a page from other arts festivals
Since the start of #MeToo, other major arts and entertainment festivals—including the Cannes Film Festival, Boots & Hearts and Comic-Con—have updated their harassment policies, or created new ones. Most recently, TIFF made a significant effort to decrease incidents of misconduct during its run earlier this month.
Prior to the start of TIFF 2018, director and CEO Piers Handling told CBC that the company’s zero-tolerance harassment policy and code of conduct (which was already in place) would be made more visible through signage around the festival. Further, all delegates were required to agree to the code of conduct in their accreditation forms, and there was a hotline dedicated to fielding confidential reports of wrongdoing. Complete with a rally for inclusion and equality, the fest was lauded as one of the right ways to adapt to the post-#MeToo era.
In comparison, the rollout of JFL’s policy seems underwhelming. While it does adequately define prohibitive behaviours—”unwelcome sexual propositions,” “remarks of a sexual nature” and “abuse that is disrespectful,” among others—and sets out a process for the treatment of complaints, it remains unclear how the policy will be enforced at JFL42 and at the company’s other festivals. When asked about tactics for executing its policy, JFL declined to comment and reiterated its statement from July, an attitude that frustrates Mausner.
“I truly do hope [JFL’s] changes make it easier for women-identifying and non-binary performers—especially those of colour and those who are queer—to be able to work at the festival in a [capacity similar to that of their] more privileged colleagues,” Mausner says. “I am curious to know more about the new policy [and] if it provides more for their employees. I also hope that JFL’s statement offers even a small amount of relief for the women who have come forward against Rozon, despite it being much too little, much too late.”
Where does Canadian comedy go from here?
As more inclusive comedy becomes a priority for comics and audiences alike, safer comedy spaces have started popping up across the country.
“Crimson Wave Comedy” and “The Ebony Tide” are just two shows running this month at Toronto’s Comedy Bar, which describe itself explicitly as “feminist-friendly, LGBTQ-positive, zero rape joke laughs” and in “celebration of the magic of melanated comedians across Toronto,” respectively. In Vancouver, Blind Tiger comedy has committed to running one “WTF (Women Trans Femme) Night” every six months, which aims to provide a supportive environment exclusively for those who identify as female, transgender, femme, genderqueer, trans-masculine and trans-feminine.
This fall, SiriusXM Canada Radio host and former comic Allison Dore will launch Howl & Roar Records, which she says is expressly for women and LGBTQ comics to create, produce and distribute their content. “I want to create a space where they feel valued and where they feel like their voice is important. A space where they feel like someone believes what they do is good, and that they deserve to be seen,” Dore says.
In Mausner’s opinion, the onus is on organizations to adapt, and the creation of safe spaces is a great place to start.
“As Celeste pointed out to me, it’s not my job to demand that the festival change. My only job is to be a comedian,” Mausner says. “But […] JFL’s former policies did directly affect me as a woman [working for] their festival, [and that’s] what caused me to boycott. Ultimately, only Just for Laughs is responsible for making themselves more accessible. They absolutely failed to do so, so community action had to be taken.”
While Mausner stands by her decision to refuse her opportunity with JFL, she supports any of her peers who do perform at the fest.
“I am rooting for each and every woman-identifying and non-binary performer—particularly those of colour and those who are queer—who are doing JFL42 this year,” says Mausner. “They deserve the credits and money, and they don’t owe JFL an education, especially at the expense of furthering their careers.”
There’s no doubt that comedy is becoming a safer and more inclusive space, but progress is slow. If JFL and other organizations are serious about combating sexual harassment, their policies will have to be comprehensive, required of all employees and enforced with a strong hand. Because the rights of women, non-binary people and POC are human rights, and that is no laughing matter.