Sexual abuse is the worst. For women like me, who’ve spent a lifetime striving to be excellent at something, a close second is having the door of your profession slammed in your face, to the point where you can’t make a living, can’t move up, can’t work at the very thing you sacrificed all to master. When that happens, there is nowhere to go, no place to complain, no one to help. When those with a boot on your neck enjoy unquestioned support, you are just left for dead. And it appears to be all your fault.
There are many self-hating Jewish men in show business. Or maybe they just hated their mothers so much, they must grind assertive Jewish women under their feet. They don’t have to be Jewish, there are men who just hate women (shocking!)
In the early ’90s I had a meeting at Castle Rock Entertainment, to pitch a show about a female sports columnist facing obstacles being a woman in sports. I was on the road fifty weeks a year, I saw sexism first hand every day. At that time there were no women working in sports broadcasting, sports writing, no female voice of a team, none doing field interviews, no female voice of authority in sports. This is how bad sexism in sports was at that time: HBO was to receive a large check for “Comic Relief” during half time at a basketball game in Louisiana; a nice public relations move for all involved. Paul Rodriguez was to receive the check, but the weather was so bad, very few flights could get in or out. Paul was stranded. Chris Albrecht at HBO, knowing I was on the road and might be able to make it, tracked me down and asked me to fill in. Happy to. What a great arena, what a great crowd, what a great day. Except for one problem; they would not give me the check. The only thing they repeated over and over in their southern accents was this: “No women in the booth”. They would not make the presentation. By phone, Chris was appalled. I was appalled, everyone outside the booth was appalled. Real men often ride to the rescue, and who just happened to be present (and stopped the heart of this lifelong baseball fan?) Only the gentleman who made “The Catch” in the 1969 World Series, Ron Swoboda. You never know who’s a fan. Mr. Swoboda first apologized to me (he had nothing to do with any of it. He just apologized as a human being.) He then went into that booth and read those shit kickers the riot act, letting them know exactly who I was, forcing them to hand over the check, which was for charity for fuck’s sake. The point is, I knew how much sexism there was out there. This is what the Castle Rock executive turned my project down with: “Sexism is over.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Well dear, perception is reality, and my perception is that sexism is gone, so that’s the reality.”
I’ll never forget that sentence. When I got home my agent called to tell me the exec called her and railed that it was the worst meeting he ever had, having someone dare to argue with him. He went on and on, how dare I?
Which leads us to Franken. I kept quiet because I care about keeping Democrats in congress, and who cares about my past woes, really. But the cat is already out of the bag. These women coming forward about him need to be supported, and perhaps a broader picture will help them. His and my paths crossed many times over the decades in the world of comedy; he was always dismissive. Fine. Not the first nor the last. We happened to be the only guests booked on 1993’s New Year’s Day CNN Crossfire show. They booked two comics because Michael Kinsley and John Sununu wanted a lighthearted, entertaining New Year’s Day show. While I was silly and politically funny, Franken was serious and ponderous. Great. We gotta be us, right? At the commercial break, Franken said, with all the condescension he could muster, “Hey. Nice jokes.”
“I thought they asked us here to be entertaining.”
Cut to 2003. By then I was known for my political material. I was a favorite guest on “Politically Incorrect”, appearing in the hot seat thirty- two times, when no one else wanted to go up against tough Republicans. (The gun show pitting me against Gordon Liddy, Charlton Heston, and Ted Nugent, was excerpted the following night on Entertainment Tonight.) I had moderated the Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate on C-SPAN for NOW. I had campaigned with Governor Gray Davis, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton. I did the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner for Bill Clinton’s first year, I also did the Ford’s Theater Gala, entertaining the President and congress again. I guested on local news for election returns for hours. I did the series of Larry King’s post debate shows, speaking for the Democrats (and clashing with Republican Ben Stein, who said to my husband in the men’s room afterwards, not knowing he was my husband, “I hate Jewish women”). I alone hosted election night on the mall in Tennessee at Al Gore’s request, as the results trickled in. Six hours of ups and downs during that election mess, in the rain, when many of the Hollywood celebs abandoned ship (they literally left and refused to appear when Gore was behind in the count. Cool, I confiscated their goody bags, which were awesome), and I was left to fill hours and hours in front of thousands of people, as Gore lost his home state! I was a political comedian, walking that fine line of current events, and still being funny. So of course when the radio station “Air America” was being birthed, my name came up.
My managers and I had great meetings with John Sinton, who was putting the “liberal radio station” together. Finally, something to go up against conservative talk radio. I was perfect for it and I couldn’t wait. I cleared my calendar for one solid year, committing to the show despite the large cut in pay for me. Negotiations were almost done, when suddenly the “Air America” people went silent. No one would respond to us, or tell us why they stopped negotiating. All we knew was it was all going ahead without me, and I was left with no live work for a year. Crushed.
We finally found out, that in order to get Al Franken to be an on- air host, which they desperately wanted, “Air America” had to give him an ownership piece of the network. And let him make the on-air hiring decisions. Ah. “Air America” failed because it was heavy, preachy, ponderous, and had zero humor, lightness, or entertainment value. It took Stephanie Miller to finally successfully brilliantly host a liberal radio show. Nice jokes.
Karma’s the bitch you mistook for us.
P.S. Sexual abuse is, of course, the worst. We all know that. But keeping women from working is part of the same power play of keeping women down, out, marginalized, and broken. I would never want an innocent person found guilty of anything. Franken’s not a child molester. If he’s innocent I certainly don’t want him to lose his seat. I want him to keep it and sponsor legislation that helps women, and others.
“She was asking for it.”
“What was she doing there?”
“What did she think was going to happen?”
I get it, sometimes it looks bad. But you cannot know the innocence and hope in the hearts of not –very- experienced- in- the- real- world young women wanting to succeed, who believe in goodness.
When I was starting out in 1973, as I’ve said before, we didn’t have a term for “sexual harassment”, we just called it “going to work”. That’s the way it was. I worked as a hostess in what was then the New York Improv in Hell’s Kitchen. In those days, before the big comedy boom, it was just a dive, often almost empty when the weather was bad.
I started to discover comedy that related to me, something I had never before imagined. The young comedians working there, mostly male, were lifetime comedy fans. I was new to the idea, and they kindly turned me on to Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, and all the great comedy album kings. A comedian there at the time, Bob Shaw, and I would take the train to his Brooklyn apartment in Carroll Gardens, and laugh into pillows while our bodies almost broke open, having to keep it down while his wife slept, so she could go to work early in the morning and support his dream, as did many of the comics’ wives/girlfriends at the time. I remember us almost bleeding out to Firesign Theater. Such a treat, and then when the sun came up and his wife woke up for her job, we’d all get café con leche. She went off to work and I took the train back to my apartment to sleep until work that night.
Celebrities often dropped into the club, sometimes famous comics came in and went onstage. For several nights, David Frye had come in and performed. I was a twenty -year -old, raised by the Taliban in Brooklyn. I left high school at sixteen because why even pretend? I was just accidentally discovering comedy, but recognized Frye from the Ed Sullivan Show from when I was a child. He was one of the premier impressionists in the country, his take on Nixon putting him squarely on the comedy map. This was exciting for all of us aspiring comics. Sometimes we all went to the Brasserie together if someone with more money than we had invited us. It was a fun, lively, midtown late night spot, always filled with interesting night birds and good cheesy eggs and toast.
Before I became the Improv’s hostess, Danny Aiello, the actor, had the doorman job for several years. I took over, but he still hung out there a lot and we became friends. One night around two a.m., when I was about to leave, Danny said David Frye wanted to take us to the Brasserie. I was always the last comic out, being the hostess/hostage, so no one was really around to go, except Danny and I. Danny assured me we’d have fun, and I loved going there, not to mention being a little star struck. We went and we ate and we did have fun. Then Danny took me aside, and told me Frye had lots of never-before-seen comedy tapes (etchings?) that were historical, hilarious, amazing, and rare. He suggested we all go up to Frye’s place and watch. Remember, most of us worked all night and slept all day; three a.m. was the perfect time for a social engagement in our world. I just had to make sure: “Danny, you’re going to stay and hang out too, right?”
So okay. We enter one of those grand, large, pre-war apartment buildings. We go up in the dark wooded elevator. Frye opens the door on a large, dim, clearly moneyed home. I turn to Danny again, “You’re staying, right?”
“Honey of course!”
And with that he pushes me in and runs out into the elevator and disappears. Frye heads straight to the door and locks it. He’s coming at me and though he was short and older, he was also stocky and scary. I needed to get to the door he was blocking and get out, just so I could hunt down my good friend Danny and kill him. He comes at me, grabs me and pulls me down on the couch, holding me firmly on his lap. “No!!!”
“Well just sit here until I come.”
And I push off and make it to the door and get out.
Can you imagine if I had been raped and tried to convince anyone I was not “asking for it”? I’m in this guy’s apartment alone at four a.m., I don’t know him, I thought I was going to watch comedy tapes. Yeah, right. So that’s how these things go, we really think good people are going to help us.
By the way, if every woman had a dollar for every time a horrible guy said, “Just (something) until I come”, we’d own the world. In the early days of my working at the club, I was couch surfing, no actual place to live yet. I always made it very clear I needed a couch or floor to sleep on, and I was not coming over to have sex. Most everyone was decent and honorable; the bartenders, the wait staff, the comics. One guy who became a successful Hollywood writer, Marty Nadler, had other ideas. I sat down on his couch and to my surprise he sat down right next to me. “You can’t stay here for free.”
“But you understood..”
And with that he humped my knee until he came in his pants. Four a.m. on a subway to nowhere or wait until it was over, those were my choices. Then he wordlessly went into his bedroom.
And so here’s the worst of it. Of course the sex part is horrible, but just as bad, these guys then keep you from getting work. I have no doubt that to protect themselves from you possibly shaming them, and wanting to keep you out of their sphere after shaming themselves, they preemptively paint you as a nut, a liar, a whatever, and you are never given a chance to read for a part, or become a successful part of whatever business they are a highly esteemed member of; your profession. That is the glass ceiling, covered in jism. That is some of how and why women are kept down. I have a million of ‘em #metoo, but for another time.
Vancouver Straight – November 1, 2017 – That Time I Bombed is where the Straight asks comedians about their life-changing shows, favourite specials, and, a subject that any peformer will face at some point in their career, a time that they bombed on stage.
Top three comedy specials/albums
…Elayne Boosler — Party of One read more…