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Sexual harassment and mob justice in the LA comedy scene




A comedian performs in Las Vegas, Nevada.
A comedian performs in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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An improv comedy club with locations in Chicago and Hollywood announced a new zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy after allegations surfaced online that staffers and performers faced regular harassment.  

iO Theater's artistic director Charna Halpern said the theater's new policy explains exactly what harassment is. Trained staff members have also been added to the team to handle incidents. 

“We’ve actually taken more action than any theater anywhere,” Halpern said Thursday on AirTalk.

Katie Baker wrote about assault and harassment allegations in her Jan. 16 BuzzFeed article, "Standing Up To Sexual Harassment And Assault In L.A.’s Comedy Scene." Women in the local comedy scene shared their stories of harassment and abuse in a private Facebook group — one way that sexual assault survivors across the country have been able to band together. 

Baker writes about comedian Beth Stelling who made national news after posting photos on Instagram showing bruises on her arms and legs. She alleged the bruises were from an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with a male comedian. Fellow stand-up Courtney Pauroso came forward and said she'd been abused by the same man.

Neither of them revealed his name but another comedian did and the alleged abuser was quickly ostracized.

That story and others led to some men in  L.A.'s comedy scene being professionally shunned — even investigated. Baker wrote: 

"At least three men whom they accused of sexual harassment and assault are no longer allowed at some of Los Angeles’s most prominent theaters. One comic is facing a police investigation. Another man’s reputation was so thoroughly destroyed that he had to move back to his Midwestern hometown."

This mode of justice has left many in the L.A. comedy scene feeling uneasy. Is it fair for these men to be forced out of their jobs based on unproven accusations?

Some commenters take a critical view of women taking to the Internet to accuse perpetrators and harassers, referring to it as "mob justice" and calling it a failure of the police. 

Rene Amador writes, "The point of failure here is clearly the police. The central objective of a strong law enforcement institution (like the police) is to solve the hairy problems that mob justice isn't equipped to handle. We should view the fact that comics feel they have to self-police as a failure of our law enforcement to take these accusations seriously." 

Others point out that sexual harassment and assault is not unique to the comedy world although the comedy scene has unique dynamics.

In improv comedy, performers adhere to the "Yes, and..." rule where they aren't supposed to "deny" anything said by another improvisor on stage. AirTalk listener John in Los Feliz called in to share his experiences of seeing female classmates get roped into inappropriate scenarios on stage.

"I definitely saw a lot of attractive female actors being hit on in scenes, and I definitely got the message that teachers weren't going to cut it off unless it crossed a really obvious line, yet I saw those actors being really uncomfortable," John said. "It wasn't so much those individual events, it was more the accumulations of how frequently an attractive woman was just hit on in a scene and how the male students didn't realize that was inappropriate."

This story has been updated. An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that both Beth Stelling and Courtney Pauroso had posted pictures of their bruises. Only Stelling posted pictures of her bruises. Afterward, Pauroso said she'd had a similar experience with the same man. 

Guests:

Katie J.M. Baker, BuzzFeed reporter who wrote the piece, “Standing Up To Sexual Harassment And Assault In L.A.’s Comedy Scene” that was published on the site in January. She tweets from @katiejmbaker

Charna Halpern, artistic director of iO Theater, an improv comedy club in Chicago and Hollywood, which has institued new policy on sexual harassment