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No Joke Illustration by Rebecca Roher

No Joke

Sexualized violence is rampant in comedy, reports Madison Trusolino. Is anything changing?

Bridget Paulson stepped on stage at an open-mic night for the first time in 2014. She was eighteen and had decided to give comedy a try after a post-trade school “identity crisis.” After that first set, she was hooked. 

Paulson started performing in about three shows a week. By any measure, she was doing well in the Ottawa comedy scene, even winning a local newcomer award. She had a sharp wit and a comeback for everything, making her a natural for stand-up. To an outsider, her trajectory in the industry was looking good. 

But within a month of her first performance, Paulson began receiving disturbing messages from a local comedy club’s forty-two-year-old booker. “He started sending me hundreds of creepy messages in the middle of the night and being so weird and so clearly drunk,” she says. Later, he tried to cover his tracks, offering Paulson a spot on a live show that he produced. She says she was unqualified for the gig at the time, but she felt pressure to take it to avoid any confrontation. 

Paulson ended up confiding in an older male comedian, who then reported the incident to the club’s owner without her permission. “It was really upsetting and jarring,” she says. “I wanted to talk about this when I was ready.” The owner asked her to hand over copies of all of the communication between her and the booker. The booker was fired, which only created more problems for Paulson. Word spread quickly among other comedians in the small scene. “They were really hostile towards me because I had taken a spot to be silent about it essentially,” she says. “There’s professional consequences from reporting and there’s professional consequences from going along with it.” 

Paulson (who isn’t using her real name in order to protect her identity) now believes the older comedian didn’t report the booker out of concern, but to prove to her that he “wasn’t like the other guys.” At nineteen, she and the older comedian, then twenty-eight, began a consensual sexual relationship. One evening, he came over to her apartment, initiated sex and then left. She found out that he was in the middle of hosting a show, had sex with her during the headliner, and returned to tell the other male comics what had happened. Even years later, Paulson struggles to describe what happened to her that night. “Is it sexual assault? Is it hazing? Is it sexual harassment? Is it just being a really shitty person?” she asks. Whatever it was, it made her feel like a joke.

Shortly after, another comedian followed her home from an Ottawa comedy club and raped her. She no longer felt safe in the city or local scene, but she still loved the freedom and independence of stand-up. She knew if she left the scene altogether, she’d miss the rush of receiving immediate feedback from the audience. So she decided to move to Toronto, hoping it would allow her to escape her past while continuing with her career in comedy. 

But one night, at the beloved Toronto venue The Ossington, a fellow comedian cornered her aggressively in the bathroom. When he finally apologized to Paulson months later,  she accepted it, only to be picked up off the ground, against her will, by the same man later that night. “He bent me over, pulled my skirt up when I was wearing sheer panties, and slapped my ass in front of a bunch of other comedians who did nothing,” she says.

“People have all these romantic memories of [the venue], and for me it’s a site of intense trauma,” she says. “Of feeling unsafe and of having your dreams crumble around you.” Still,  she kept these stories close to her chest. She feared that sharing them as an emerging performer would lead people to challenge her integrity—that she’d lose the home she’d made for herself in the industry, precarious as it was. 

Canada is often touted as a wellspring of comedic genius. It’s home to global heavyweights like Just for Laughs (JFL), the world’s largest comedy festival, and Yuk Yuk’s, North America’s biggest comedy chain. We’ve also exported some of the greats of modern comedy: Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy and Lorne Michaels, to name a few. 

Despite this reputation, there is little government support for Canadian comedians, unlike artists in other industries who rely heavily on grants to produce their work. Individual stand-up comedians are not officially recognized as artists under Canadian granting institutions. This means the industry’s formal and informal gatekeepers—be it comedy festivals or popular comedians who are primarily white, cisgender and male—hold undue power over the careers of up-and-comers.

Being a comedian anywhere is difficult, with its late hours, tenuous security and little pay (beginners often work for free and might eventually earn about $20 per gig). Yet it’s especially hard to make a go of it in Canada, where even professional club comedians at Yuk Yuk’s don’t make enough money to get by. Comics here have limited access to touring in the United States because of a complicated and expensive visa process. And because of Canada’s vast geography and public veneration of American content, it can be difficult to piece together a career.

With few formal supports in place, reputation is an important currency for Canadian comedians, maybe even more important than talent. Access to stage time, particularly early on in people’s careers, is often granted through other comedians. Being “likeable” is essential, and it’s used as a silencing technique to tamp down potential complaints. After all, to complain is to be humourless—and in an industry with a long history of pushing the edge of civility, so much can be written off as a joke.

Canada is no stranger to the battle over “political correctness” in comedy. In 2019, for instance, Yuk Yuk’s was mired in controversy when its CEO and founder Mark Breslin booked Louis C.K. for a stint in Toronto two years after several women alleged C.K. had exposed himself to them without their consent. Breslin claimed that C.K. was being unfairly punished, and prior to C.K.’s performances, Yuk Yuk’s released a statement saying that the comedian still deserved a platform. 

During their twenty years in the industry, Billie Franklin, an agender comedian and actor based in Atlantic Canada, has witnessed and survived a myriad of gender-based harassment. Mitigating threats in the comedy world is a constant, they say. And the fear of repercussions for speaking out—be it losing gigs or facing further harassment—casts a shadow over the artform. (To protect their identity, Franklin is not using their real name.) “Is it a crime to call someone sweetheart? Obviously not,” they say. “But that is bad to do at work if it’s contributing to these major oppressive power structures that end up with women getting assaulted.”

In 2017, D.J. Mausner, a non-binary comedian and writer, tied for first at the JFL Homegrown Comics competition in Montreal. The win came with a chance to film a special at JFL the following year. Despite being a Canadian festival, JFL offers few explicit opportunities for Canadian talent, and Homegrown Comics was a rare exception. Winning the competition was validating, Mausner says. In the following months, however, they learned of JFL co-founder Gilbert Rozon’s history of abuse. 

In 1998, Rozon was charged with forcibly confining a thirty-one-year-old woman, though the charge was dropped due to a lack of evidence. He was also charged with sexually assaulting a nineteen-year-old woman, for which he pleaded and was found guilty. Rozon was fined $1,100 and put on one year’s probation.He quickly appealed the sentence and received an unconditional discharge. That decision meant he avoided having a criminal record, which would have made it difficult to travel to the United States or Europe, where JFL did much of its business. 

In late 2017, as a second wave of allegations against Rozon began to emerge during the Me Too movement, he stepped down from his role as president of JFL. Rozon didn’t comment on the specifics of the allegations at the time, but in a statement on Facebook he wrote, “To all those I have offended during my life, I am sincerely sorry.” Following his resignation, JFL released a statement that the organization contributed $34 million to Quebec’s GDP that year. 

In 2018, a group of women—known in Quebec as Les Courageuses—launched a class-action lawsuit against Rozon, alleging sexual misconduct and harassment. Their application alleged Rozon had at least twenty victims, with incidents occurring between 1982 and 2016. In 2020, Quebec’s Court of Appeal rejected the class-action lawsuit. In 2021, six women filed civil suits against Rozon, with allegations ranging from sexual assault to harrasment (all six lawsuits are ongoing). 

Mausner watched on closely as these events began to unfold. Although Rozon was no longer associated with JFL, their excitement over their potential 2018 taping had seriously waned. Mausner teamed up with a journalist and publicly announced that they’d be forgoing their taping. They produced a list of demands for JFL, including the creation of a new sexual harassment policy and reaching gender parity in its lineups. 

Despite fearing that they were torpedoing their future in comedy, Mausner knew it was the right thing to do. “If I’m willing to buck my personal politics at twenty-one for $3,500 for a fucking seven-minute taped set at JFL, what am I going to be willing to do later on in my career?”

In a statement to Maisonneuve, a JFL spokesperson said the organization is committed to providing a safe, healthy and respectful work environment for its employees, artists, patrons and partners. “We take all allegations very seriously and under no circumstances are complaints that are brought to our attention dismissed or downplayed,” they wrote. As the biggest comedy festival in the world, a safe environment at JFL is crucial; what happens there doesn’t just impact those involved with the festival—it sets a kind of precedent for the entire industry.

There are few avenues to formally address issues of harassment in comedy. Training centres like The Second City have human resources departments, although it’s hard for outsiders to determine their efficacy due to the private nature of these institutions. Because of the multiple venues and platforms comedians work across, it’s difficult to achieve cross-industry changes. To make up for this fact, private Facebook groups are popular among marginalized comedians. They’re a space to post opportunities and speak honestly about issues in the industry.

Franklin is an active member of some of these groups and has become a confidant for others. Post Me Too, several people reached out to them to disclose their experiences of abuse. Franklin supports anyone who wants to disclose, though they caution that disclosing online, even in private Facebook groups, is never actually private. “If you want to disclose publicly and then have a career, you have to be fucking tough as steel,” they say. “Comedians who disclose risk their reputations, employment opportunities and even legal action for libel.”

In 2018, Paulson disclosed the name of an alleged abuser to a Toronto comedy venue and on a private Facebook group after four other people told her about their experiences with him. The venue never addressed her concerns. She lost friends who either didn’t believe her or were worried about their reputations by association. As anxiety and depression set in, Paulson lost sleep, couldn’t eat and was drinking and doing drugs more than usual. She had trouble holding down jobs, both within the comedy industry and outside of it. For her, one of the worst parts of the situation was having other women in comedy tell her to stay silent. “I had women come to me and say, basically, ‘We all go through this, shut the fuck up.’”

Now twenty-six, Paulson has given up on becoming a professional comedian for the time being. She says she’s burned too many bridges along the way. She still works to hold venues accountable for the people they platform, primarily through social media, but her most sustained contribution to the scene has been producing more inclusive shows where marginalized comedians are given more stage time and paid well. 

“If everyone had an equal chance at access,” she says, “a lot of these white guys would lose their jobs, and they know that.” ✲

Madison Trusolino is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. She researches and writes about women, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ cultural workers’ experiences of work and resistance. Follow her on Twitter @peskykilljoy.