Australia’s Stand-Up Comedy Scene Is Broken, And It Allows Shit Men Like Alex Williamson To Thrive

stand-up comedy
Contributor: Jenna Suffern

Hello! Hi! How are you? Great to hear! How am I? A bit pissed off actually, and I want to have an open conversation about it.

If you’re not living online like myself, then you may have missed the news about comedian Alex Williamson. You can read all about it here, here, here, and even here!

In summary, Williamson’s ex partner (singer and social media personality Peach PRC), accused him of “abusive, manipulative, and predatory” behaviour. [Editor’s note: Williamson denied accusations of abusive or predatory behaviour, but that denial leaves a lot to be desired. He has since apologised.] This started a snowball effect, with people making allegations about his behaviour both on and offline. In the end, Williamson’s management dropped him, and both Sydney Comedy Festival and Perth Comedy Festival cancelled his shows. Chef’s kiss.

A lot of his comments (apparently he refers to them as ‘jokes’ but jokes as a definition are meant to be funny. It’s like, joke writing 101. His misogynistic comments aren’t funny) have been shared online and have people asking, “how was he a comedian in the first place?!” But here’s the thing, this isn’t ‘new’ in the comedy world. In fact, ‘comics’ like Alex Williamson are a regular occurrence. And that’s why I want to chat.

alex williamson

But who am I and what do I know? Great Q. I’m Jenna and I’m a stand up comic. When I started doing stand up comedy, I was doing as many open mic gigs as possible. And it was fucking hard. You don’t get paid, your ‘co-workers’ are drunk half the time, and pretty much anyone can get up. So, you know how your uncle may have a few beers at Christmas and start cracking really shitty, racist jokes? Well, imagine that happening every night at a bar down the road, but they have been listening to Jordan Peterson all day, and now they have a mic.

But the biggest problem in the culture? It’s when you start doing comedy and other women pull you aside and basically give you a list of men to avoid. Imagine, you turn up for your first day at a new job. Your boss gives you a tour of the office, points out the best place to get coffee, and starts giving you all your paperwork. “Okay here is your Tax File Number declaration form, your Superannuation choice form, OH and of course, here is a list of men to avoid in the office, OKAY HAVE A GREAT FIRST DAY!” You would probably leave, wouldn’t you? So why is this an okay situation to have in the arts? Because of this, so many people choose to stop doing stand up comedy, or hear the horror stories and decide not to start in the first place.

I reached out to a bunch of female and non-binary comics to share their experiences in the comedy scene, and a lot said the exact same thing.

“I got bored of being wolf-whistled on stage and being called sexist names by both male comics and male audience members so I stopped doing gigs unless it was a female & non-binary room. I didn’t want to put up with sexual harassment in the workplace.” – Courtney Ammenhauser (FBi Radio)

“I started in stand up comedy and had some early success but quickly found the environment way too icky and unsafe. I decided to start producing my own work away from that scene because it wasn’t good for my mental health” – Laura Hart (The Kings)

One of my very first gigs I had to go on after a male comic who had described cocaine as “the new date rape drug”. Hilarious, right? Was he reprimanded for this? Or at least spoken to after the show? Of course not! After he finished his set, the MC got up and introduced me to the stage.

But I think there is a bigger underlying issue with these comics. Half the time, before we go up on stage and do our sets, we chat backstage or at the bar. In my experience, most of these comics are “great guys.” We chat about gigs we are doing, our personal lives, what shows we are watching, and then they get up on stage. It’s like they become a completely different person. Sexist jokes, racist jokes, domestic and family violence jokes, oh and ALWAYS somehow transforming the mic to represent their penis. It’s like they think they have to become a character. A stereotype of what a straight male comic is. And before you come for me, obviously it’s NOT ALL STRAIGHT CIS MEN. But honestly, if you’re not standing up for us, you’re also part of the problem.

“For everyone that goes down like this, there’s 10 more that don’t. And some of those have far bigger executive power than Alex Williamson.” – Victoria Zerbst and Jenna Owen (Freudian Nip)

“We have to stop fake laughing at these jokes because it has meant that fuck heads like him (Williamson) have an inflated ego and can get away with shit jokes that rely on shock factor.” – Lily Starr (comedian)

“As a queer stand-up you repeatedly put yourself in rooms where your existence is the punchline for mediocre straight men. And while I applaud their temerity, I’d wish quite a few of them would just sit down.” – Brendan Hancock (Comedian)

Thankfully, heaps of inclusive and safe spaces for stand up comedy have been created over the past few years. They’ve been created because we want to feel just that, safe!

A lot of people (cis white straight men) give heat to these kinds of rooms because it’s an “easy audience”, as if you haven’t made it as a comic until you’ve performed outside of your comfort zone. But where isn’t comfortable for a white cis straight man? And this is coming from me, a queer white cis women, I’m aware of my privilege. These safe spaces are even more important for trans people, BIPOC, and people with disability.

“As QTPOC I traditionally hate white parties. The day that these spaces are radically inclusive of queer, trans, people of colour, is the day that white comics will no longer have the monopoly on Australian comedy. You give them so much power and then wonder how they get away with dangerous behaviour.” – Natali Caro (comedian)

“I think it’s great that more people who haven’t been represented in the stand up community have started performing. People are feeling safer and more confident in spaces that weren’t always accessible and we as a community need to help each other out and make sure everyone feels welcome.”- Béatrice Barbeau-Scurla (comedian)

“Without these safe spaces, you’d have so much less diversity within the comedy scene. I meet women all the time who would love to try comedy but are looking for safe supportive environments to do so, so it’s awesome that these spaces exist.” – Guneet Kaur (comedian)

We’re told that this is just the way it is. That’s freedom of speech. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. But I don’t want to feel unsafe anymore. I don’t want my friends to feel unsafe anymore. I’m sorry if that is too much to ask but I am just so tired. We already feel unsafe when we have to walk home from gigs late at night, so can we just have a fucking break when we are trying to do our job? My friend and fellow comic Courtney Ammenhauser said it perfectly: “Agents should have more women, trans, nb [non-binary] and BIPOC folk on their books so that they’re actively championing these voices by getting them work. They have such a big influence on who ‘makes it’ and should use their power to change the culture.”

Obviously an article isn’t going to change the systemic issues that contribute to this culture. And the fact of the matter is, Williamson hasn’t been taking this seriously. But of course he hasn’t. Why should he when so many of his predecessors have done the same thing and gotten away with it? It’s about calling people out. Starting the conversation. Speaking out. It’s hard, but if we all do it, we’ll start to see a difference.

Jenna Suffern is a comedian, producer and bad speller. Bringing an off the cuff and kooky approach to comedy, Jenna is a known face in the Sydney comedy scene, and produces a monthly queer comedy room, ‘Two Queers Walk Into A Bar at Giant Dwarf Theatre. Despite all of this, her biggest achievement was once being introduced as a “prominent Sydney lesbian”.