That I crossed paths with Harvey Weinstein at a standup show last Wednesday to me is some kind of cosmic wonder, because this isn’t the first time I’ve responded to him with comedy – although it was the first time he was in the room.
When the news broke in 2017 about rape accusations against him, it was difficult to find a comedy show where I didn’t hear a bad rape joke, usually coming from a male comedian who was punching down on accusers with unoriginal and offensive jabs.
I never thought it was time to ban comics from talking about rape, but it did seem like time for a new kind of rape joke, from new voices. I remember thinking: if rape survivors make up at least 20% of women in America and a significant number of men, why don’t they have the mic right now?
Warning: the below video contains strong language
The first time I heard a comic talking about her sexual assault, at a bar show in Brooklyn, it felt like a religious experience. It was so refreshing and cathartic that I found myself desperately searching to find a space exclusively for this “genre” of joke somewhere in New York. I wanted to capture it, to share this story as a film-maker, but I couldn’t find a standup show anywhere. There was this obvious hole where there needed to be a show, and so I decided to fill that.
My show was Rape Jokes by Survivors.
Every woman knows another woman who has a “me too” story, so I started by reaching out to a comic who I know publicly identifies as a survivor of rape. She knew of two more women. Those women knew of three more women. Overnight, I had a list of over 50 comics, and I could see the strength in their numbers.
Watching these comics perform made me realize there was something healing to the process of making a funny joke about your own rape. For a joke to be funny, it has to be tested. It can bomb. And when you’re writing a joke about what might be the worst night of your life, that bomb is no easy rejection to swallow. I discovered that in order for these jokes to be funny, the comedians in many cases had to first and foremost process their traumatic experiences. If an audience senses that a comedian is not “OK” with what they’re talking about, the audience often tenses up and feels sympathy rather than the release of laughter.
On the night of Rape Jokes by Survivors, I was shocked to see the show sold out 150 tickets, with a line of people on standby out the door. Still, as the show began, there was a bit of tension. You could feel that some of the audience members were holding back.
I brought out a heavy hitter early on, trusting that she would bring up the energy of the room – and Wendi Starling did not disappoint. She called out the audience on their own hesitance and demanded their laughter, stating that the comics needed laughter to heal. “When you withhold your laughter from me, it feels like you’re taking your pain, and forcing it inside of my body!”
After that there was a sigh of relief, and a steady stream of laughter for the rest of the night. There was Irene Fagan Merrow smiling ear to ear while she roasted her rapist for having a sad blog and describing all of the “perks” of being raped. Rebecca O’Neal telling us about how Prozac was gentrifying her brain. Adrienne Truscott closed the show by singing her own version of Whistle by Flo Rida, with a rape whistle between her legs. Their hilarity was a fearless reclaiming of the rape joke, and the crowd couldn’t get enough of it.
On stage and off, there was a unique sense of sisterhood that I haven’t seen often in comedy. In a green room that might normally be packed with men, there were women survivors laughing, sharing stories from their worst nights of survivorship, drinking wine and hugging one another.
You could feel that community in the audience, too, as many people in the room were survivors themselves. One woman approached me after the show and said that she and her friends had driven up from Baltimore. She said that she laughed at stories she didn’t know she was ready to laugh at, and described to me how important that was for her. I heard the same sense of eager excitement and healing that I knew myself.
It’s difficult not to feel defined by trauma, especially when it becomes public knowledge. As comedians, we often make a choice to be more defined by how we respond to the pain in our lives. I set out to tell the stories of these women. When I saw them on stage, like so many others, I saw myself too. They are my heroes.