I received an email from a woman who was seeking female comedians to share stories about being harassed by male comedians. I responded, telling her I had lots of great and funny war stories about being a comedian in NYC for the past decade. But when she elaborated on her project and reiterated she was seeking stories by women who’d been harassed by men/male comedians while in a comedy environment, I paused, took a bite of my sandwich, and really thought about it, with width and girth, for a few hearty minutes. I racked my brain, ready to deliver all the dozens of stories of the waterfall of guys who’d wronged me, harassed, me and brought me to the emotional breaking point in my 15 years of comedy. As I swallowed the mouthful, I also swallowed the truth—I had almost none.
Sure, there were stories about my ex, Kurt Metzger, whom I have no problem naming because many comedians in the scene have heard the stories—either his version, mine, or some combination of both. He broke my heart and mistreated me, I was jealous and clingy, had zero boundaries and let him (and everyone) walk all over me. We were two young, determined assholes in love. I don’t resent Kurt, because we were just a coupla dummies who didn’t know any better. And at the end of the day, we had great fun and adventures together. We started comedy together, graduated college together, grew up together, learned a lot from each other and ultimately needed each other at that point in our lives. And that is essentially where the list of men who did “done me wrong in comedy” ends.
On the contrary, the majority of stories I have about men in comedy are ones about men who’ve pushed me along, lifted me up, given me words of encouragement and got me paid gigs.
Jim Norton let me sleep on his couch countless times when I was essentially a starving homeless comedian in NYC—and he never even once tried to pee on me. He got me booked at clubs and even on TV. He gave me rides to shows and provided super valuable comedic advice when I needed it.
Patrice O’Neal befriended me, was kind to me in his own way, and gave me wise words of comedy advice more than once. He steamrolled Big Jay Oakerson into letting me take the extra bed in his hotel room when I was booked to perform at Montreal Comedy Festival. Jay, an old Philly comedian buddy and former roommate, was happy to help. The festival had paid for Jay’s transportation and hotel room. I had hitchhiked and none of my expenses were covered by the fest. After the festival, they sent me a generous and unexpected check. I suspect that Patrice was behind that, too.
Kevin Hart gave me a successful pep talk when I met him in tears at The Cellar after a rough night of comedy. Dante Nero drove me around like a personal chauffeur to more shows than I can count, and we joked and commiserated about the comedy scene. Matt Kirshen got me booked in the UK and LA and offered me his couch more than once. Jim Gaffigan put me in his TV show and was a regular fixture, reliably lending his star power to a dinky monthly comedy show I helped produce. Colin Quinn read my script and gave me honest feedback. Neil Brennan and Dave Chappelle put me in the pilot of Chappelle’s Show. The list literally goes on and on. Maybe their motives were of a horny kind, but if so, it never felt that way.
The sad and creepy truth is, it isn’t men who’ve been most cruel and unkind to me in comedy, it’s been women. And not just any women, but the most successful and powerful ones I’ve known.
A very famous female comedian told some mutual comedian friends that I’d “creeped her out” after I appeared at two shows that she happened to be performing in in one night. I was a new comedian at the time, trying to show my face at as many of the hot shows as I could, every night. She was visiting from out of town and apparently doing the same thing. I was devastated when I heard that I’d alienated one of my heroes. I have a photo of us together from that night, me smiling, young and happy eyed; her, apparently “creeped out” by an ambitious young comedian’s very presence. Years later I confronted her about it as politely as I could and apologized for whatever I’d done wrong (nothing), and she accepted my apology and apologized herself, but the damage had already been done. I could never see her in the same light. She was such an inspiration, and she tried to sabotage me–a famous comedian, using all of her star power to smoosh the reputation of a tiny, insignificant newbie–she didn’t have to do that.
A female booker who was booking a decent club at the time befriended me. She passed me at her club and we struck up a close friendship. We spent afternoons having lunch together, running and talking about boys. I confided in her with personal details and problems I was having with my boyfriend. I later found out that while I had been opening up to her about him, she’d been literally opening up to him and was sleeping with the guy toward the end of our relationship.
I accompanied my ex-friend, a now very famous comedian, to therapy and was there for her when she was making sense of some personal issues she was dealing with. I called her a good friend for many years. I even introduced her to a friend whom she ended up dating for several years. Then one day, she ghosted me shortly after her move to LA, where she got a job on a big show. No explanation, no fight, no goodbye—she simply stopped communicating with me. It truly broke my heart and took me years to get over.
Still another very famous female comedian and I shared the stage a few times. We bonded at a show when she asked me intimate questions about an ex, or at least, I thought we had. I asked her if she was having sex with him and she said no, never! (Later, I saw in a documentary that she said she had.) She booked me to perform on a show, which led to a TV appearance for me. I saw her the evening of my appearance and she was icy cold to me. Was she angry that I’d booked a nice gig from her show? I brushed it off, convinced I’d imagined it. Later, when she got her TV show, I emailed her to say congrats and that I hoped we’d get to hang out again someday. I signed the email, Your pal, Jessica. She responded, “We were never pals.” I thought she was either kidding or had been mistaking me for someone else. The last email I’d gotten from her said, “You rock my world bitch!” I saw her at comedy clubs after that and she was weirdly hot and cold. One time she icily brushed by me, another time she smiled and waved warmly at me. I texted her a few times, determined to fix or figure out whatever was going on. When there was a scandal in the news about her, I texted, “Hang in there, we’re all doing the best we can.” She responded, “Thank you, new phone, who is this?” I replied, “Jess Delfino.” She texted back, “We are not friends. I’ve been more than clear with you. Don’t text me.” I was so confused. It was she who’d given me her number. I didn’t find it in a dumpster, though that’s where I left it. Another comedian confided in me that she knew of an incident where she had sabotaged a nice gig I was supposed to have been booked for by telling the people involved not to hire me. I’m still gobsmacked over it all, and I’ll probably never know what it’s all about. Luckily, she can’t hurt me at all, because I’m already dead inside.
Today, I find myself surrounded by a group of pretty cool and somewhat tightly knit comedian women. The climate is different. We are more aware that we aren’t necessarily competing, or at least that we don’t have to. We have a better understanding that if we want to get paid as much as men, we have to stop acting like babies and work together. We share resources. We commiserate. We talk about tampons. It’s great. We make a good team. It hasn’t always been that way, but it has been pretty good most of the time, except when it’s been bad. I can’t imagine these women acting the same way the more successful ones had. I chalk it up to inexperience with fame, defense of an imaginary throne, perhaps, and the non-realization that you see the same people on the way up as you do on the way down. Or maybe I deserved it, because I did something terrible to them all, and maybe some day, I’ll find out what.
But in short, no comedy dude has ever really harassed me that I can think of or remember. Maybe I’m not hot enough. Maybe I give off a vibe that makes their penises go soft, like those vibrating machines that keep deer and bugs away from cars. I don’t know. But I like it, and I hope whatever I do to make them not harass or come onto me in undesired sexual ways, I can keep doing it.
Addendum: I acknowledge that there are a lot of really creepy and shitty male comedians out there who have done the whole spectrum of harassment to women in comedy, and worse. I have heard the horror stories firsthand. Just because that hasn’t been my personal experience does’t mean it’s not the reality for a lot of women. I know it to be the case for countless women. Some nightmare stories have even gotten national press as we all know. This isn’t a piece letting men off the hook for their bad behavior. If anything, I hope it will inspire men to continue to consider their actions, and look to the way their heroes mentioned above treated me as shining examples of ways to interact with and reach out to women in comedy (and to people in life).