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One Night at Asssscat, or What to Do With a Date Rape Monologue

We’ve been getting a lot of emails this morning about a particular audience monologist that performed at the Assssscat at the Del Close Marathon on Sunday, August 14. In case you don’t know, the Del Close Marathon is the Upright Citizens Brigade’s annual improv fest in New York and Asssscat is the improv show that caps off the weekend. Last night, improviser Poupak Sepehri posted on her Tumblr about the show and in it linked to a video of the monologue, posted by improviser Stephanie Streisand. Having raised his hand and been chosen by the performers on stage to tell a story, the audience member in question begins at about 38 minutes in. If you watch it or saw it in person, the most benign way to describe it is that it’s the story of the monologist coercing a drunk woman into have sex with him, despite her repeatedly telling him that she did not want to and to leave her hotel room. The more accurate way to describe it, in my opinion, is as the chilling account of pseudo-rape, told by the perpetrator as if it was a funny thing that he saw on the subway.

I was in that audience for the show, and I have lot of THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about what an incident like this means to the comedy community and how it was handled. What this guy did and what, if anything, the woman in the story can do about it is a matter for the authorities. I hope that doesn’t seem like an utter cop-out, though maybe that’s what it is. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m specifically interested in what this story, and the public venue it was told in, means to us as comedians, and comedy-loving people, specifically.

As an audience member, let me just say that his story filled me with a creeping dread. There is something so surreal about watching someone reveal something dark about themselves with a seeming total lack of self awareness, and with utter glee. Say what you will about comedians: most of us at least attempt to be self-aware. That being said, I know I’ve seen weird strains of misogyny rear their head at comedy shows before, though none as explicit (or, you know, real) as this one. As a white, nominally heterosexual woman I can’t speak to how LGBTQ comedians or comedians of color handle similarly ugly situations, but I have been at shows of all kinds where something deeply ugly boils to the surface of someone’s psyche, and I imagine the feeling is similar in those situations: one minute we’re all laughing and having a good time, the next we’re staring into the dark parts of a person’s soul, and they don’t even seem to realize that it’s there. Or that not everyone is laughing with them.

I know what you’re thinking: “Halle, this story was not just an offensive improv scene or stand-up bit, but a real godawful event that took place in real life to a real human being.” That is very true and very hideous, and I don’t mean to trivialize the actual incident in anyway. However, the most horrifying part of the incident, to me, was that it was a joke to the monologist. This wasn’t a story being told telling off–the-cuff: his friends pointed him out as having a superior story, certain details had clearly been finessed, and at one chilling point, the storyteller added, “This is how I tell this part to my friends.” Of course, there was also the coup de grace, when the monologist acted out how he successfully implemented “the fishhook” on the woman in the story, jabbing his fingers into a phantom vagina and turning to the audience with a look on his face that suggested we should have been applauding him. It was clear that he had told his joke before and found particular delight in it. This was clearly a beloved bit about when he valiantly struggled to overcome a woman’s desire not to have sex with him, and succeeded. L.O.L.

As for how the performers handled it…well, I wish for a million reasons that there would have been at least one woman on that stage. Not that a female performer would have stepped to the front of the stage and declared, “This is not right!,” nor should she have to bear the burden of that expectation, considering male performers are more than welcome to call out bullshit when they see it, and do. No, the reason female performers were needed in that show, and in every show, and in every avenue and aspect in life really, is that when the audience started booing the monologist, the storyteller turned around with a look of pure bafflement, as if he didn’t understand why an auditorium of hundreds of strangers didn’t like his hilarious story. He didn’t understand why we didn’t get the joke.

I think Matt Besser and Ian Roberts, the original UCB members performing that night, handled it as best they could, given the massive audience and extremely public venue. I also think they assumed, as some did, that the story would have a twist, a hilarious revelation that nullified the intense creepiness of the first, oh, I don’t know, 500 minutes of it. If they thought that, it is because they are comedians who expected a comedic story with jokes in it. Besser went on to specifically call out the monologue as being about rape multiple times, while Roberts tagged into a scene about suicide to say, with horror, that the story wasn’t the hilarious anecdote the teller thought it was. Each mention was met with applause because, yes, of course, exactly, right. Personally, I would have shut that shit down as soon as the teller got inside that woman’s hotel room. That, however, is just me, and excluding that option, the performers’ treatment of it was dead-on.

Again, I don’t mean to play down this really awful, really sad event, which this person loudly and proudly told on camera, as being just A Question For Comedians. The only good that comes out of this incident is that this guy is now preserved on film, revealing the graphic, unsettling details of a night most people would opt never to repeat out loud to anyone. However, the whole thing makes me think about how many times I’ve heard someone dismissed for “not being able to take a joke” or “just not getting the joke.” I think moments like this make it clear how profoundly and disturbingly different people’s viewpoints of the world can be. Not to get all Marc Maron on y’alls asses (i.e. to get extremely Marc Maron on y’alls asses), but I honestly believe that we as comedians are philosophers and poets and therapists, in addition to being normal fucked-up human beings. Even when we are telling butthole jokes, it’s a way to bring to the surface all the dark garbage floating around inside our humanity and expose it to the light. And when a person gets up in a public place and mugs to an audience about successfully fucking a woman who explicitly and repeatedly made clear she did not want to have sex with him, there’s a role for comedians to play, and to keep playing. And it’s not just to applaud.

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