Recently, Pittsburgh City Paper columnist and local stand-up veteran Gab Bonesso came to us with a story about the struggles faced by women in the Pittsburgh comedy scene. Her motivation to pursue it came from the outrage over Pittsburgh Improv hosting a semi-secret show earlier this year for Louis C.K., the popular comedian who, in 2017, confirmed allegations that he forced multiple women to watch him masturbate. Bonesso and local comedian Cassi Bruno were two of the women who decided to speak out against the appearance in City Paper and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“It breaks my heart that his shows are sold-out and that people want to hear from a misogynist, victim-blamer,” Bonesso told City Paper in January. “I thought in Pittsburgh 'hate has no place here.' I guess I was wrong.”
Bruno also noted at the time that C.K. wasn’t the only questionable booking from the Improv. Earlier in January, the Improv hosted comedian T.J. Miller, who has been accused of violent sexual assault, and was arrested last year for calling in a false bomb threat.
After the articles appeared, both women say they faced online harassment for speaking out. The event has since led to other local women recounting their own experiences of being harassed by men in the Pittsburgh comedy scene on a private Facebook page, which the women thought was a safe space to share their stories. Bonesso says someone took screenshots of the private discussions and shared them with the accused.
To try and understand this issue, City Paper hosted a roundtable of local female comedians, all at different points in their careers and representing the improv, stand-up, and burlesque scenes. They discussed being preyed upon, sexually harassed or assaulted, or blackballed by men in local comedy, including podcast and radio hosts, venue owners, and organizers of major comedy festivals and events. They believe the scene is dominated by a boys’ club that often shuts women out, a belief supported by local showcases featuring one token woman and the prevalence of events with no women at all.
The women came forward even as they expressed fears of being harassed or retaliated against for telling us their stories. For their protection, we made the decision to retract any names that were mentioned during the roundtable. The following discussion has been edited for space and clarity.
CP: I heard there were some issues with the last comedy showcase some of you performed at Brillobox.
GAB: There were two men in particular. It felt like they came not to just watch the show, but to watch us. One man didn’t even stay for the show.
CASSI: I was in the corner the whole time, I was doing the music. This guy walked in and he had loose fitting pants on. He just had his hand in his pocket and … would not stop staring at me.
GAB: This man who was in the audience at another Brillo show I did, before the show was like, “Hi, I just became your friend on Facebook,” and then he kept going up to me being like, “I want to take you out.” And I’m like, “Please don’t do this. I don’t want to date.” In the middle of my show, he would yell out stuff. After the show, “Do you wanna go out?” Then he messaged me on Facebook. … And then he waits three months and comes to a show at Brillo and does it all over again. I literally ran away from him.
That’s one of a million I could tell you. With the situation with that guy, how many times do I have to tell you no? That’s why I run.
TRACEY: It’s fight, flight, or freeze. You flew.
GAB: You can imagine a man being like, “Well, what did he do that’s wrong? He just asked you out.”
CP: Have you ever been in a situation where you felt you had to do certain favors or act a certain way in order to get a gig?
CASSI: When I started, I was 21 and I would go out all the time and everybody was a lot older than me. I was trying to be their friends, and I had several situations with older guys that I would say, “You’re too old for me.” But I would see them at every open mic and they would always be like, “Am I still too old for you? Are you old enough for me?” They would flirt with me and be real drunk and corner me. I didn’t want to start anything because I wanted to do comedy, so I was just trying to be cute and laugh it off.
I think subjecting myself to like, having to do that, because I’m not usually the type of person to be that way. I was new. I didn’t want to blow up my spot. I just think having to strip yourself of your dignity to put yourself in situations like that where it’s not explicitly sexual harassment but still dehumanizing, you have to sit there and act like a child and act like you’re happy that men are paying attention to you.
TRACEY: And smile and look pretty. “Why aren’t you smiling?”
GAB: It’s so sad how, even with us, sexism is ingrained. I’ve made excuses for men, “Oh he was drunk, he was this, he was that.” Within my first two years of comedy, there was an older man who worked with me, was promoting me, helping my career … and one night we were doing a show at Club Cafe, and I was working the soundboard, and he came up behind me and he literally stuck his hand down the back of my pants and put his finger in my vagina, and I freaked out.
He was so drunk and he was doing cocaine that night and I made an excuse for him, and I continued to work with him. He doesn’t live in Pittsburgh anymore, so I haven’t had to work with him, but when all the stuff came out about Trump, I got so triggered. “Oh my God, I had that happen to me and I kept that man in my life.” He’s still on my Instagram, he’s still on my Twitter feed. When I see that story, “Grab ‘em by the pussy,” and then having been grabbed, I was messed up. And I hate that I would even give him a pass, “He was drunk, he was doing cocaine.”
ARLA: That’s why I started doing comedy in burlesque and the burlesque scene because I don’t have to deal with that.
TRACEY: People understand consent there.
ARLA: The troupe that I’m in, it’s a queer troupe, the Velvet Hearts, and they found me useful and adopted me, and I feel safer. I’ve been verbally harassed a lot, but I haven’t been groped, fortunately.
CP: Do you think there are more women in Pittsburgh comedy than when you started?
TRACEY: Thanks to Gab, there are definitely more women. You create so many opportunities.
GAB: When I started at the Funny Bone, it was me and two other guys, and the two guys were Black and I was a woman, and we never got any gigs. We were always told we weren’t funny, and what we needed to work on. We left and went to Club Cafe.
I purposely try to hide from the scene. Even doing this roundtable, I was freaking terrified because I try to just be “Gab who does Brillobox and does her own thing, and I’m not bothering you and I’m not trying to take your piece of the pie, I just have my little quirky thing over here, and I do the kids things so don’t get mad at me because I’m helping little kids. And I took care of my mother for nine years so I hid and did that because the amount of harassment I got in my first three years doing stand-up …"
Men from the Funny Bone would go on my website, call me a dyke, tell me how ugly I am, tell me that I’m not funny, tell me that the only people who come to my shows are lesbians, that the only following I have are lesbians.
TRACEY: Like that’s a bad thing!
GAB: Even the owner of the Funny Bone came on and trashed me. It was madness. I’ve had male comedians take my name and buy a domain like gabbonesso.org and then write horrible things about me because I didn’t have the money to have it ripped down. These are the reasons I have become this isolated little person who, when women find me and they’re like, “Can I do standup?” and I’m like, “Yeah, come on!”
But the joke is I’m Willy Wonka. The joke is I do the Island of Misfit Toy comedy. The joke is I’m the person for the weirdos, if you’re fringe and not a real comedian, like [one local male comedian] said to me. I’ve won best comedian three times, and "Your style doesn’t fit with what I book.” But you book a comedy club, so my style is never going to be invited to a comedy club? So that’s a gaslit narrative, that he’s the gatekeeper of comedy, that’s not real.
ARLA: I took stand-up classes and as soon as I graduated, I was like, “Oh, I can do anything.” They had the first stand-up competition for the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival, and I was like, “I’m doing that, no question.” And then I go to Arcade and [that same male comedian] comes in and is just like, “Oh, so this is kind of like an open mic. It doesn’t really matter.” And I’m sitting there like, “We’re competing.”
GAB: Three years ago, my mother died, I needed something to throw myself into. I got signed by Misra Records to do a comedy album. I was told that I was going to have to do a bunch of interviews and promote the album. [During one interview] the hosts were already very drunk by my time. At the end of the interview, one guy was like, “Hey do you want to hang out and smoke?”
So we were hanging out and at first he was like, “I didn’t know how pretty you were.” And then he’s like, “Can I kiss you? Do you want to make out?” And I was like, “No." So then we’re hanging out a little bit more … and we’re sitting on the couch, and he’s like, “So you wanna come over here and make out?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t.” He said it again one more time, and then I’m like, “I gotta go,” and as I’m walking out, he literally pushed me up against the door and kissed me and I pushed him off and went “No,” and he went, “Really, no?”
What was concerning me at the time was he was booking [a local comedy festival] and so I just went to a friend of mine who runs the festival and was like, “Look, this is what happened to me. I’m a veteran. I’m just concerned he is going to do this to younger women and use his power if they wanted to get into the festival, and the guy who was my friend was, like, 'I hear you, but he does a really good job, and other than this story, we wouldn’t have grounds to fire him, so you’re going to have to come out publicly with this.'”
My album was just dropping. I’m like "I don’t have time for this. I made my album because my mother had just died and then right before I was recording it my brother overdosed." I was just not in the headspace to deal with any of this. If I didn’t come out when the other guy put his hand in my vagina, I’m certainly not going to come out when this guy just kissed me. But I really do look back with a lot of regret on all of this, and I do feel that people do count on me to stand up, and I do feel badly that these incidents happened and you didn’t know.
CP: I have heard that the improv scene is a lot less toxic than the stand-up scene. Can you speak to that?
TRACEY: The improv community is very isolated because it’s all mostly white straight people. They really do not get sexual orientation, gender identity stuff. They don’t get queer people. They march in the pride parade, but their idea of being inclusive during pride week is to bring in a drag queen as a headliner.
ARLA: Get a king! Get a person of color!
CASSI: I’ve heard people in the improv community … and people in standup say, “Well, there’s not a lot of Black people or people of color that come to these shows. I don’t know why. It’s not like we tell them they can’t.” Why don’t you think a little more about it?
TRACEY: Every old guy in improv has come to me to have a serious talk about, “Why do people think I’m creepy?”
CASSI: They never have to think about it their entire lives and then …
GAB: It’s her job! Make a woman explain it to you.
TRACEY: I am always the one who has to take one for the team and have the hard talk with whoever it is. … They really f’n don’t get it. I want to pass out copies of White Fragility to everybody I know. Here, everyone read this about white male privilege. There’s white female privilege too, but at least I know I’ve got it.
GAB: Even a white woman doesn’t have a lot of privilege in comedy.
CP: I have spoken to men who used to be in the comedy scene who have told me that they felt bullied. Do you think it would be good if these men spoke up as well and it wasn’t just you guys carrying the burden?
ARLA: Oh yeah, that would help. But it can’t be they, like, taking it over like, “We thought of this.”
GAB: Like [a local male comedian] capitalizing on the oppression of women while oppressing women in his real life. This is the guy who’s defending feminism in Pittsburgh, but we’re just loud, angry bitches.
CASSI: All of my male comedian friends have all said to me at one point, “We hate him too, he’s annoying, you don’t have to worry.” But you don’t have people making you think, “Should I have not worn this? Are people staring at my boobs when I’m trying to tell this joke?” or “Are you going to follow me to my car later?” You don’t have that same experience. It’s harder for me to just ignore that when it’s like, a culture of oppression.
GAB: Even the guys who say, “But we’re allies, right? We’ve never made you feel uncomfortable.” And they don’t, but … they, like, want us to mother them. There are so many roles a woman can take on, so if [you’re] not going to sexually harass people, then I need to mother you and give you stage time and take care of you.
CP: Do you think venues having women-only nights is a novelty?
TRACEY: A token.
GAB: Like the “Ladies of laughter comedy night!” I remember once, we were on stage, and I was like, “We’re a freak show. Come right up and see four women who are actually funny!” So I try to have bills that are mostly all women and we just don’t talk about it. We’re just like, a comedy show.
TRACEY: Why do we need to state it? If we’re mainstreaming ourselves, then we need to stop focusing on the fact that we are assigned female at birth.
CP: If you don’t have an all-female show, we have the token woman.
GAB: And that’s where Arla probably gets screwed because there’s one woman, one Black person. If they have you, you’re taking two spots so you can’t be on the show. Or if they have you, they’re still going to have to have a man. It’s so sick and gross. I look at bills and there’s the one woman, there’s the one Black guy; there’s the one woman, oh, one gay person! Wow! Someone opened up and actually let someone in the community on this show. Like, it’s just disgusting.
CP: Do you think there’s a way to go about making comedy more equitable and more representable?
ARLA: Getting the little guys together and doing your own thing.
GAB: More women producers. More women producers.