Forget Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle – Female Comics Say Stand-Up Has ‘Never Been Safe’ for Women

·7-min read

Several years ago, while performing her stand-up routine at a resort in North Carolina, longtime comedian Bobbie Oliver was attacked on stage by a man in a gorilla suit.

It was at a Halloween show, so the gorilla suit wasn’t the most bizarre thing about the incident, but it shook Oliver up so much, she gave up touring. “He starts grabbing my boobs and my crotch,” she told TheWrap. “I’m looking at the (venue) manager thinking somebody’s going to come and help me, but the manager is just laughing. He’s in the back like, ‘This place is wacky — anything can happen here.’ I’m being assaulted, sexually assaulted, in front of an audience, and the audience thought it was part of the act. Because why wouldn’t it be?”

Since March, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, male comedians have been raising the alarm over their physical safety while performing on stage. The attack on Dave Chappelle last month during a performance at the Hollywood Bowl added even more fuel to their fears. But the truth is, female comics have been enduring these sorts of threats for decades, as they’ve elbowed their way up through the testosterone-dominated, often misogynistic comedy scene, performing in boozy clubs filled with drunk, often hostile audiences.

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“Guys are half joking that they need bodyguards,” said Oliver, a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles comedy scene who opened Tao Comedy Studio, a rare safe haven for young female comedians, in Koreatown in 2003. “Like everything else, once it starts happening to men, suddenly everybody cares, right? I’ve seen people saying, ‘Now comedians aren’t safe.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, female comedians have never been safe.’”

Of course, there’s arguably no safer venue than the Kodak Theatre stage during the live Oscar ceremony, but that didn’t save Rock from getting smacked. Ironically, though, it was another comic at the Academy Awards who was threatened with even more extreme physical violence: Amy Schumer was besieged with actual online death threats after she did her bit pretending to mistake nominee Kirsten Dunst for a seat filler. Schumer issued an apology for the gag the next day, attempting to reassure the world that Dunst had been in on the joke.

As it happens — and entirely predictably — it wasn’t Schumer’s first brush with death threats. Back in 2015, she told Barbara Walters that she’s been receiving them for at least 10 years.

From left, comedians Bobbie Oliver and Jessica Kirson (Courtesy of Oliver and Kirson)
From left, comedians Bobbie Oliver and Jessica Kirson (Courtesy of Oliver and Kirson)

Comics with less name recognition have endured considerable abuse both on stage and off. Jiaoying Summers, a Chinese American comedian who’s been doing stand up for a little over three years in L.A., said she was assaulted outside of the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica.

While she was performing on stage, she heard a man in the audience calling her racist after she cracked a joke about her Chinese mom. Summers decided to ignore him. But after the show, she said the heckler, who was white, followed her into the alley, jabbed her hard in the shoulder and pushed her against a wall, trapping her. “He called me a Vietnamese whore,” she said. “He’s like, ‘You are a racist bitch. You should not make fun of Chinese people, f— you.’”

Summers hasn’t performed at that club since and did not tell them about the assault. Nor did she file a police report. If she were ever to return, she said she’d bring a large male friend as a personal bodyguard. “After the Will Smith slap, and after the pandemic and the hatred towards Asian people, all of that combined has made it very, very unsafe,” she said.

Unlike Chapelle — whose bodyguards tackled his attacker during his performance at the Hollywood Bowl in May — Summers can’t afford to hire professional bodyguards. Neither can the vast majority of female comics. And they can’t rely on clubs to provide security for them, either.

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In April, rapper T.I stormed at Atlanta comedy-club stage and demanded that Lauren Knight take off her wig after she mentioned his sexual assault case at an Atlanta gig. In a video posted to YouTube, women in the audience can be heard yelling, “It’s her show,” but T.I. instead seized her mic before eventually handing it back and leaving the stage — without any apparent intervention by the club’s security staff.

Knight later said that T.I. had called her a “bitch,” which led to a slew of death threats and insults from his fans, before the two made peace. (Neither T.I. nor Knight responded to TheWrap’s request for comment.)

“It’s no secret that there’s nobody to protect you if something were to happen,” said stand-up comic Heather McDonald, who wrote and produced on E!’s “Chelsea Lately.” After the Oscars, McDonald predicted on her podcast that there would be an uptick of violence on stand-up comedians. Demanding more protection from clubs doesn’t do much good, either. “You don’t want to be dramatic,” McDonald said. “You don’t want to be a diva or the club won’t ask you back.”

After the Chappelle incident, a shaken McDonald offered free tickets to cops to attend her next show. “For my June 17 set in Napa, I have about six officers for each show,” she said. “It makes me feel better because, even if they’re not on duty, they’re always on alert… I have a big fall tour and with enough prep time, I plan on always having at least two or three people that are former military or police.”

From left, comedians Jiaoying Summers and Heather McDonald
From left, comedians Jiaoying Summers and Heather McDonald

New York-based comic Jessica Kirson, who appears in Bill Burr’s new Netflix special, “Friends Who Kill,” has relied on other comics, sometimes her opening acts, to watch her back if something dangerous goes down. “I don’t want them to get into fights,” she said. “But, I mean, it just scares me.”

Actual physical attacks are only part of the problem — sometimes it’s just the threat of violence that can make comedy clubs a hostile environment for women. Kirson recalled doing a show in March in Minnesota when she found herself in a potentially perilous back and forth with a member of the audience. “I was talking about being Jewish and there was a guy who admitted that he was a Nazi,” she said.

Fortunately for Kirson, the rest of the audience was ready to throw down to defend her. “There was a huge table of Black people that were like, ‘We got your back — we’ll beat the s— out of him.’ The whole audience got involved. But in my mind, I’m like, ‘This guy’s gonna kill me.’ And he was sitting right by the stage. I had to walk past him. I really did fear for myself.”

Kirson is being more careful about where she plays now. “If there’s a place where the security isn’t good, I’m not going back at this point,” she said. “Even before the Will Smith thing, I made that decision after COVID. There were a couple places where the security was really horrible. You had to deal with heckling all weekend. The security didn’t do anything. I had to handle it and I’m like, ‘This is not worth it for me.’”

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