Content warning: sexual assault and abuse of power.
Disclaimer: some of the names of places and people have been changed for this piece.
Amy and I walk down the steps into the basement of McCaffrey’s and sit down at the very back. The blue stage lights are on and it feels like 7 p.m. even though it’s only noon on a Sunday. There’s a table and a chair on the stage and Rob, the showrunner of the venue, is ready with a notebook and pen. The lights are on. The audience is here. The scene is set. I tell Amy again, for the millionth time in the last hour, that we can go if she wants to. “No,” she reassures me.
When I imagine a town hall I don’t think of a basement with blue lights and a stage and the smell of fettuccine alfredo wafting in the background. I think of Stars Hallow from Gilmore Girls. Of a man with a gavel. Of something so different from this.
Amy squeezes my hand. I know before I turn my head that it’s him. He walks down the rest of the steps (all the while avoiding eye contact with us) and takes a seat in the opposite corner of the room. “Are you sure?” I ask. I wouldn’t blame her if she wanted to go. “No,” she says again. But this time, she gets up and quickly walks to the washroom. I follow her.
“I really don’t mind leaving,” I say in the washroom – the same one we regularly chugged beers in before improv sets. The same one I threw up in before my first Fringe show. The same bathroom in the same comedy venue that the two of us will vow – a few weeks later – to never step foot in again.
When I imagine a town hall I think of an important person, one who doesn’t have all the answers but pretends to, telling a community how they can come together. I think of idealism and a wooden podium and a group of people with one common goal. I don’t think of my community – a collective of stand-ups, improvisers, and comedians – coming together to discuss what has happened to us since Louis C.K. performed in our city.
In the TV show BoJack Horseman, the title character spends most of the series making bad choices. At the end of the second season, BoJack (who’s in his 50s) offers to take a friend’s daughter (who’s 17) to her high school prom. While first done as an act of kindness, he later ends up breaking her trust and causing her emotional damage (it’s revealed years later that Penny suffers from panic attacks because of BoJack). At the end of the episode Penny, the daughter, tells BoJack she wants to sleep with him. She reassures him that she’s sober and that the age of consent in New Mexico is 17. Although he rejects her at first, he invites her into his bedroom, only to be interrupted by Penny’s mother before anything can happen.
Later in the series, BoJack confronts Penny in a drunken stupor. Penny, terrified, says, “I was 17, I didn’t know any better.”
Five months earlier my friend Sasha tells me Louis C.K. is scheduled to perform two shows at Rumor’s Comedy Club. It’s June 2019 and we sit together in the basement of McCaffrey’s to support our friend who’s premiering a show. I tell Sasha that can’t be true. He tells me it is. One of the openers and a few of the serving staff confirmed it. I check the Rumor’s website. Under their calendar, on the two dates Sasha tells me C.K. will be performing, are the words Surprise Guest.
Later that evening, Sasha makes a post on his Instagram Story. “I’ve been told problematic information about Rumor’s Comedy Club,” it starts. “For the dates of June 11 and June 15 they are booking Louis C.K.” I share the post immediately. Others do too. The next day, Rumor’s announces the special guest is not, in fact, C.K. Sasha is wrong about when, but he’s not wrong about who. In five months, when C.K. flies in from L.A., Sasha won’t say “I told you so,” because this is something he didn’t want to be right about.
I don’t remember how I found out C.K. was officially confirmed to perform in Winnipeg. I don’t remember the weather, I don’t remember the day of the week, I don’t remember who told me. But for the purposes of this piece, I think it was a Wednesday, I think it was October 2, I think the sky was cloudy and the wind was cold, and I think my friend Amy messaged me about it first. I do know I was sad and angry, and I also remember saying “Sasha was right.” Looking back, I remember thinking the comedy community was unified. Comedians spoke out about the injustice of C.K. being booked (one even said, “If you want to give me a birthday present today, please email Rumor’s and ask them to cancel his booking”). We were a group of people with one common enemy. We were, at least for a little bit, all on the same page. But the following day it came out Rumor’s had booked local comedians to open for CK. And then, everything changed. The very same people who had taken public stances against C.K. were quiet when they found out it was their friend or colleague opening for him. Within hours, the comedy community was split. There was no turning back.
Season five of BoJack Horseman has been lauded for its parallel to the #MeToo movement. Although the show was released the year after the Weinstein article came out, the entirety of the season was written before October 2017. Still, the similarities are remarkable.
At the beginning of the season, we’re introduced to Vance Waggoner, a celebrity who retreated from the public eye after stories of his misconduct surfaced. Five years later, Waggoner is ready for a fresh start. Diane, arguably the show’s most ethical character, dislikes Waggoner and disagrees with him starring in BoJack’s new TV show. At the end of the episode Wagoner’s publicist, Ana, meets with Diane and says to her, “He’s reformed. What else would you have him do?”
The further in time we are from the start of #MeToo, the more we talk about the idea of redemption. Ever since C.K. made his “comeback,” people are wondering if the one year he took away from the public eye has been enough retribution. According to Tarana Burke, the activist who coined the term “Me Too,” redemption is a balancing act. “Leaving them in a heap on the side of the road is not the answer; allowing them to sneak in through the back door and act like nothing has happened is not the answer,” Burke tells NPR, “There should be an expectation that there’s real rehabilitation.”
Amy is unsurprised when we find out the full list of openers. She calls me a lot over the next couple days. Sometimes it’s to talk about C.K. – whose first show is days away. Other times it’s to talk specifically about one of the openers, Dan.
I had known Dan pursued Amy years ago. I remember being 18 and Amy, who had just turned 19, gushed about Dan, an older comic who’d taken an interest in her. We were both new to the comedy scene when their friendship started. Amy sought him out for advice on producing shows. He enthusiastically agreed to help her. At the time, I didn’t think anything was really wrong with that.
Now I pace back and forth and listen to Amy over the phone. She tells me she’s been thinking about the details of her and Dan’s relationship. We talk about the age difference, and how that contributed to an unhealthy power dynamic. We also talk about the night he hit her.
Listening to her talk about the years of abuse, I have flashbacks to dropping her off at his apartment. Back then, at 18, I didn’t fully understand why my stomach felt strange as I watched her walk into his building. If I could go back, I would drive her around for a little bit longer. Hold her hand tighter. And tell her, with all the conviction I could muster, not to see him ever again.
Amy paces back and forth in my apartment. My laptop is open and I’m typing like a secretary taking minutes at a council meeting. She pauses.
“I can’t do this,” she says.
“What if no one believes me?”
“Then they’re an asshole.”
She sits next to me and tries to recall every abusive, gaslight-y, horrible thing Dan did to her over the last five years. Half of it I’ve heard before. Half of it I never knew about. After she finishes, she stares at the floor quietly.
“What if it was my fault?”
“Amy,” I start, “It’s the 18-year-old’s job to have a crush on the older comedian. It’s the older comedian’s job to say no.”
She stands up, “Let’s keep going.”
She starts pacing again. Back and forth. Back and forth.
“I was 18-years-old when I first met Dan. I was new to the comedy scene and looking for advice…”
I type as fast as I can, trying to keep up with the thoughts coming out of her mouth. After about an hour, we sit together, reading The Statement over and over and over again.
“I think it’s done,” she says.
There’s silence for a bit and then the sound of her typing on my laptop, logging into her profile, and posting The Statement. By 10:30 p.m., it’s live.
In the final season of BoJack Horseman, the consequences of his actions finally catch up to him. In a powerful scene, a reporter grills BoJack on his past. As the two sit across from each other (in a Barbara-Walters-esque fashion), the interviewer asks BoJack if he’s ever come to terms with the way he’s abused his power. She goes on to list some examples: BoJack sleeping with the president of his fan club, taking a 17-year-old to her prom, dating a woman who just woke up from a 30-year coma, and having sex with actress Sarah Lynn, who played his adopted daughter on a sitcom decades earlier. “Do you enjoy having power over women?” The reporter asks. BoJack, growing increasingly defensive, says, “All these women that you mention, I never forced myself-”
The reporter interrupts, “Well, not through force. But you understand the power differential?”
As the interview draws to a close, the reporter asks one final question, “How can we believe you’ve stopped this pattern of behaviour if you won’t acknowledge this pattern exists?”
I remember one time, in the basement of McCaffrey’s in November 2018,
I remember finishing a show and going to the bar/lobby area to say hi to friends
and I remember seeing a girl – a young woman – who I
taught improv to sitting at a table
and I remember there was a comic – an older man – who was talking to her
and he was leaning into her and I bet she could smell his breath
and all I could think about was how I knew her when she was 15
and 16 and 17
and now she’s 18 and just barely old enough to be here
and anyways I remember he left to use the bathroom
and I remember going up to her and saying
“Do you want me to tell [redacted] to leave you alone?”
and she said “No.”
and I said, “Are you sure?”
and she said “Yes.”
and I said, “Please be careful.”
and she said, “I will.”
and I walked away
and he came back
and sat next to her
and I walked up the stairs
and let the door close behind me.
The days following the release of The Statement are filled with phone calls between me and Amy. Sometimes she tells me how grateful she is for the support. Other times she wishes she never said anything. She tells me the one thing she wants, over anything else, is for members of our community to publicly state they believe her.
By the end of the week, The Statement has been shared dozens of times. While Amy is thankful for the kind words, she notes a lack of public support from the comedy community. She has conversations with show producers in private – on the phone or over text. But none of them take a public stand against the abuse. Dan’s monthly show at McCaffrey’s is cancelled, but the emotional pain continues. The action is a step in the right direction, but it feels sterile without the “We believe you,” statement coming from our community leaders.
A month later, women who sent Amy messages of support appear on line-ups with Dan. We’re both disappointed, but we can’t blame them entirely. To quote a line from BoJack Horseman, “People have short memories. It’s the best and worst thing about them.”
Watching a show that has, in real time, reflected a national movement and intricate moments of my personal life has been strange. At 19, I remember watching BoJack, a middle-aged man, invite Penny, 17, back to his bedroom and not fully understanding the problem with that.
A year-and-a-half later, on October 7, 2017, the Weinstein article was published, and the cultural zeitgeist changed forever. On November 5, 2017, the article accusing C.K. of sexual misconduct came out. A year later, C.K. announced his comeback tour. And now, in November 2019, C.K. has performed in my city, my best friend has come forward against her abuser, and I’ve had to come to terms with my own experiences of sexual assault.
In the last few episodes of BoJack Horseman (ever), BoJack, after being #cancelled, loses his closest relationships and is sent to prison. He faces real consequences for his actions. There is, as the BoJack writers suggest, a punishment that comes with doing bad things. He isn’t easily forgiven, and he doesn’t make a public apology (unlike another celebrity comic we know). He caused multiple women deep trauma they may never recover from. And for that, he too must suffer.
But as reflective of the world BoJack has been, it is still just a TV show. Amy’s abuser will never face jailtime. He still has his closest relationships intact. He continues to perform in shows throughout the city. The town hall we had on November 3, 2019, did nothing to heal wounds, start a conversation, or create lasting change. Amy has had to find her own peace.
Sometimes, when I’m walking past McCaffrey’s, I think about a promise I made to myself years ago. I told myself I would try stand up before I turn 23. I’ve always done sketch or improv, so the idea of being alone on stage terrifies me. I was ready to do it. But then C.K. performed here and Amy came forward and everything changed forever. And I made another promise to never step foot in that venue again. I feel isolated from a community that had, for years, embraced me.
Sometimes, Amy and I ask each other who the real losers are in this. On one hand, we agree that like, morally-speaking, a lot of people lose. But in terms of the day to day? Amy and I no longer spend our Friday nights doing the thing we love most: comedy. On a general level, we are two young women who wanted, so badly, to perform. We wanted the spotlight. We wanted to make people laugh. And now, we’re removed from the place that gave us that chance.
And sometimes, when it’s late at night, I imagine an alternate timeline. One where C.K. is unavailable the weekend Rumor’s tries to book him. One where none of this happens. The truth stays buried, the lights are on, the stage is set, the audience is here, the curtain is rising, and Amy and I are on in five.
Enjoy two audio stories surrounding The Louis Months, featuring music from Urban Vacation.