Participants at a December meeting addressing sexism in comedy left their grievances about being a female in the industry on a 'wall of baggage.' Credit: Women in Comedy/Instagram

UPDATE: The date of the blackout and the meeting at the Laugh Factory has been changed to Sunday, January 31 in order to accommodate as many female comics as possible.

When Chicago native Beth Stelling revealed in December that she was abused and raped by a former boyfriend, it opened a floodgate for female comics in both LA and Chicago. Dozens came forward with their own stories of harassment and assault in the comedy scene, both openly and anonymously. Chicago nonprofit Women in Comedy followed up with an open Google form called “Gross Things That Happened to Me As A Woman in Comedy” and posted the anonymous responses on their blog.

While the posts were mostly met with support, a backlash emerged Monday, when iO founder Charna Halpern wrote a post on Facebook saying, “There are times when there are women who just like to either cause trouble or get revenge or just want attention so they make up stories.” She has since removed the post and issued an apology, but not before sparking outrage among Chicago’s female comics.

Comic Caroline Sabatier was among those who responded. She went public with her own story, revealing that she had been harassed and assaulted by an authority figure in the improv community several years ago. In a blog post on the Women In Comedy website Wednesday, Sabatier called for a February 1 January 31 “blackout,” a boycott of comedy theaters, classes, and shows that make female comics feel unsafe.

As an alternative, Women in Comedy founder Victoria Elena Nones is encouraging female comics to gather at the Laugh Factory in Lakeview for a panel discussion lead by Kaethe Morris Hoffer, executive director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

“Sometimes you really do have to start with a unified event to show that you are serious,” Sabatier says.

Sabatier says she has been overwhelmed by the support she’s received from both men and women since her post went up, but is still frustrated at the lack of official response from authority figures and leaders in the comedy scene.

Sabatier says she reported her assault to the theater where it took place, and to Chicago police—something that comedic institutions are now encouraging others to do. But she found the process of reporting her assault nearly as traumatic as the assault itself, a common refrain among many survivors.

She writes:

I’m sorry to say this, but Olivia Benson is not waiting for you at the police station. The cop who takes your statement may do so over the counter in the lobby of the station for hours at a time, while people wander in and out to report their car accidents or lost wallets. You may cry so hard that you need to rinse off your contact lenses before you leave so that you can see well enough to get home. You may start to live an inexplicably odd double life, where police and detectives call you at all hours of the day and night and show up at your door unannounced with questions. You cannot tell anyone these things while they are happening because you might compromise your own investigation. You may spend nights trying to breathe into plastic evidence bags while they ask you questions like: ‘Does this happen to you a lot? What were you wearing? Would you have gone to dinner with him, if he’d asked you?’ They may call you and read you his text messages and emails over the phone and ask you if you can remember what you said back. They may ask you, ‘Why are you just reporting this now?’ It is because you are ready today. It is because it is your right to report a crime that has been committed against you.

Julia Weiss, a local comedian who defended her colleagues from Halpern’s criticism, says that part of the problem comedy culture faces is the fine line between harassment and casual sexism; the police can’t step in if a women is being objectified in an improv scene.

“A lot of it you wouldn’t even be able to call it harassment as much as inappropriate,” Weiss says. “[Male comics] see these women as a conquest and trophy—‘You can’t see her the same as the dudes; you can’t treat her like a scene partner.'”

Organizers say the goal for Monday’s Sunday’s blackout is help men in the community see how many women feel that they aren’t being treated appropriately.

In the days leading up to the event, women are being encouraged to follow Sabatier’s example and share their own stories of harassment—and to call out specific theaters with the hashtag #womenincomedy and #madfunnywomen. Few have so far. But the lack of personal responses is indicative of the silence that has left these issues undiscussed for so long.

“I think people are just kind of scared to put themselves out there,” Sabatier says. “I know it does take a really long time to get there, so I don’t want to push anyone to do anything they’re not ready for. I would just encourage people to think about what would make them ready.”

Nones is planning a series of networking events and shows to help foster a sense of community among female comics and help them find the courage to come forward. She also hopes to help them move on.

“I don’t want to do a whole show about harassment,” None says. “I want us to have a safe space where women can come together and celebrate ourselves.”

The next event, Love Letter to Myself, is scheduled for Tuesday, February 9 at the Laugh Factory. Along with comics, the show will feature stories told by other prominent women from outside the comedy world—including a Chicago homicide detective and a Cook County judge—to give women in the entertainment industry allies in the “real world.”

Comedy theaters including iO, Annoyance, and the Playground Theater said this week that they would address community concerns by putting in place new anti-harassment guidelines.

Sabatier hopes they follow through.

“It looks good on paper,” Sabatier says, “but it needs to be put into practice.”