Comedian of the year: Marcia Belsky looks back on a harrowing 2018
Chatting with the Handmaid’s Tale: The Musical co-creator about a year of breakthroughs and backlash for women in comedy
By David Goldberg|
Since she started in stand-up, Marcia Belsky has never shied away from a fight, whether calling out the misogyny of the comedy community, getting kicked off Facebook for posting “men are scum” on a friend’s post about harassment or going in with her fellow firebrand Rae Sanni on their podcast Misandry (which hits Union Hall on December 27). In 2018, as Belsky and Melissa Stokoski launched and toured their brilliant parody, Handmaid’s Tale: The Musical, the private battles that women comedians face became more public—and the backlash was brutal. We spoke with Belsky about Louis CK, engaging with trolls and the next generation of comedy.
Handmaid’s Tale: The Musical originated at alt-comedy spaces in Brooklyn, but ended up selling out D.C.’s Kennedy Center. How did the humor translate? I was prepared for them not to understand it. And whatever the reaction would have been— we did the Kennedy Center, and they couldn’t take that from us. But the audience was really on it. There was this elderly couple that just stared at us; it didn’t seem like they weren’t enjoying it. I think that, at a certain age, it’s just too much to emote. We’ll never know if they hated it or loved it, but I like to think they loved it. But the show got great laughs—we couldn’t ask for better. The Aunt Betsy Devos character killed. They were very politically savvy.
You’ve always spoken openly about the male bullshit you’ve experienced in comedy spaces. But it felt like a lot of that experience came up in the larger discourse this year. I used to love doing spots at certain places, but I've heard that all clubs—except Stand Up New York on the Upper West Side—have now agreed that Louis CK can drop in and do spots. That’s literally every club, and it reinforces what I always knew: They see us [female comedians] as guests. They ultimately would be happy with us not being there or just there in a minimal way, keeping our mouths shut. So we’re already seeing this rewriting where they’re glossing over what he did because they don’t want to say every time: "I understand that Louis nonconsensually jerked off in front of these women and did it so much that he confused who these women were and apologized for the wrong thing."
It was hurtful, but it’s been a learning lesson that I can’t control these people. They’ll never value us, and they’ll always book us for just tokenized spots, whether it’s women, people of color or queer people. They’re never going to let us be a real voice, but we have a real voice in our own spaces. I believe that we are the next mainstream wave of comedy—all of us—and they know that, and they’re ultimately pigeonholing themselves with this decision to not care about abuse. They do this, too: “If you make sure no criminals are onstage at a comedy club, you won’t have anybody!” That’s not what we’re saying. All we want is for the same basic rules of decency that apply to other professions. If a doctor jerks off in front of a patient, then he’s not going to work as a doctor again. Maybe what we do isn’t as serious as medicine, but I would love to know that men can look at a guy who has done that and go: “It makes me angry.” And we still don’t live in that world. That’s what those clubs represent.
Photograph: Courtesy Bridget Badore
In the past, when a comedian would behave as Louis CK did, the PR machine used to create a redemption narrative. But now—and this comes from the President down—there seems to be this sense that if a man decides he is forgiven, he can go right back to his career whenever he wants. What bothers me is that now they’ll say, “Let the audience decide.” But if you really want to let the audience decide, you’d set up an hour, address what he did and let whoever wanted to go attend. Instead, he’s just pussyfooting his way back in, trying to build up his hour with audiences who haven’t chosen to see him and trying to build back his reputation without addressing what he did. He’s trying to get the male-genius pass: He wants to be seen as funny enough that what he did no longer matters. He will do that, and then it will be insane for any woman—or anyone who wants to work in those spaces—to bring it up. You have to look at who is protecting whom.
Every month, I feel like I’ll see an ad for a new Comedy Central special with some dude I’ve never heard of when I know so many diverse acts who are clawing up. You see that time and time again. Even in writers rooms, they’ll have nine feminist guys, and they’ll say that it’s basically the same as having a half-female writing room. And it’s like, no! When you do blind [writing submissions], it’s the same thing. They’ll say, “How come I keep hiring nine guys when I do blind packets?” Gee whiz, you think men might subconsciously be able to tell which humor is catered toward them? Women are taught to enjoy male humor, and men are not taught to enjoy female humor. Now, there are so many female comics, it’s insane if guys don’t like female comics. And men will act like it’s hard to book more than one woman. Nowadays, you don’t even have to try because there are so many funny women who crush consistently.
Photograph: Courtesy Bridget Badore
I recently had a woman comedian email me about her show, saying the special guest was T.J. Miller. I have also had men do that, but it was more surreal seeing a woman endorse him. I’m not really sure how to engage without being moralistic or judgmental. That’s where it’s hard. You have to decide how much you can excuse, and that’s what’s frustrating. There’s a lot of spinelessness in comedy. All the major clubs will say, “What did T.J. Miller even do?” And the answer is: “He allegedly punched a woman in the face without consent.” “Oh, okay. What did he do again?”
That’s gaslighting. And sometimes it’s selective amnesia—whatever suits people’s narratives. There is more of an expectation on the marginalized person to do the right thing, but we’re all raised in the patriarchy. Internal misogyny runs deep. Beyond that, if some people were to really look at what behavior is unforgivable, they would have to cut a lot of men out of their lives. Instead of doing that, they just… don’t. It’s a bummer, and that’s how these guys get away with it. But there’s a reason these abusers stay abusers for so long: They’re enabled by society and everybody around them. But I’ve learned that even reaching out about it exhausts me emotionally. You have to learn which battles to fight, because there are so many going on.
You and Rae engage with your haters on social media quite a lot. Rae gets it way harsher than me, for the obvious reason: She’s black. And because she has a job at NBC. When you’re verified on Twitter, the right wing does this galvanizing where they try to find you on something and get you fired. They sent people to her show in D.C. to write this negative review of her. Dylan Maron's podcast [Conversation's with People Who Hate Me] taught me a lot, which is: All they live for is the engagement. Negative, positive, it breeds them. That’s how you get Tomi Lahren. These hate retweets really are profitable. I’ve been the target of three campaigns. Every time it happens, they come for me on Twitter. I make all my accounts private because they’re crazy. They’re always anonymous. They go to my YouTube videos to vote them down and give negative comments, and in the process they give me a thousand views every time.
I never get mad when people respond to trolls; that’s your right to do that. I don’t do it anymore because of what I learned from Dylan’s podcast: All they want to do is screenshot your response and say, “Look, she paid attention to me. I can text my equally sad friends about this feminist that I got to argue with me.” To them, it’s all a game. All these debates are hypothetical. Your emotional response is funny, so to them it’s all a game, but to you it’s real and emotional.
You’re in real danger. It makes you paranoid. I won’t do certain shows because there’s a real active troll [in New York] and his people will go see him [at a show].You start to realize that these venues are not safe. A lot of the women I know—maybe every female comic I know—has at some point or another put their accounts on private and stopped posting their shows because they’re afraid. Most of these peopleare cowards, but it only takes one.
A comedian we know had a stalker at her show last month. That’s every girl I know. When you put yourself in public, there’s so much more of a risk. You have these people who feel you don’t deserve to be there. There’s a resentment toward female attention. There’s this idea that women get enough attention sexually, so they don’t deserve attention any other way. I’m so appreciative that comedy has changed that I get to do it now. I look back at people I love—like Laurie Kilmartin, who broke ground and continue to break ground so I can be here—where I now have hundreds of female comedian friends whom I find to be funny. Now, we get our own boys club, and that’s where some of the resentment comes from: They don’t like how it feels. We’ve always been on the outside looking in, and now we have this fun thing going on.
And it’s quality. There’s a high pedigree to queer, POC and women-based comedy in NYC. That terrifies them. “You can’t get a job anymore if you’re a white guy!” Then how come less than two percent of writers rooms in L.A. comprise people of color? It’s not the case. It’s just not. You’re seeing a divide that I hope gets bridged in some ways, but it’s not going to get bridged with us compromising with people who are not going to value or see us.