Culture

What Lawrence Mooney’s Tantrum Reveals About The Extent Of Sexism In Australian Comedy

Australian comedy has a problem.

Earlier this week, comedian Lawrence Mooney suffered the indignity of a three-star review in an Adelaide newspaper from a young female reporter, and subsequently went on a bit of a rant at the journo in question. In an age of hot takes, opinion was evenly divided on whether Mooney’s outburst was an indication of sexism in the industry or a reaction against the poor state of comedy reviewing in Australia. Either way, Mooney’s tantrum ensured the review got far more attention than it would have otherwise.

Mooney’s somewhat notorious in comedy circles for chucking wobblies at reviewers who fail to accept him as our One True Comedy God. You can see that in this 2012 exchange with arts critic Richard Watts:

While he’s been aggressive with male reviewers in the past, it doesn’t make this latest attack any less gendered. Every barb was designed to paint the reporter in question, Isabella Fowler, as inferior to him; someone who should stay in the gendered pockets of “soft” journalism, as though writing a comedy review is on par with a jaunt covering Mogadishu. Using terms like “fucking amateur” and “deadshit” (though Fowler is new to comedy reviewing, Fowler is a paid writer with a background in arts coverage), Mooney characterised her work as “a thoughtless, insouciant swipe” before infantilising her and suggesting she go back to covering real estate and food.

But there’s another aspect to this tantrum that we need to explore: namely, how men of the left (many of which supported Mooney) are allies to themselves and rarely to women. For every open letter to support asylum seekers, monologue against conservative politicians and award speech noting the lack of women being recognised in comedy, there is a gendered backlash against women if they graze the brittle veneer of male progressive identity — from challenging their politics or, Heaven forbid, critiquing their work.

A Systemic Problem: Sexism In Australian Comedy

All too often when incidents like this occur the response from comics is that it’s not gendered, it’s no big deal, or it’s a one-off. But these so-called one-offs combine to form an ugly picture. Comedy has a problem when it comes to women, and it’s one keenly on display whenever a male comedian is challenged or doesn’t get his own four-to-five-star way.

I ran a review publication for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for over five years. In that time, we regularly received complaints from male performers about their reviews — never from women. Only one complaint was made against a male reviewer. One. The rest were about female writers, who had their qualifications questioned, were insulted on the basis of their looks or otherwise denigrated on personal grounds.

Comedy is a subculture with its own idiosyncratic ecosystem — who succeeds or fails decided off-stage as much as on. It’s a niche performance art that falls outside mainstream arts funding and coverage, and is surprisingly insular. On almost every level it is dominated by men, on-stage and off, and crafting a living from comedy is near impossible, leading to fierce competition for high-profile gigs and opportunities.

As in other male-dominated areas like sport or military institutions, progress towards improving inclusion and attitudes to women is slow going, especially when women challenge the “good guy” or “good ally” narrative men in comedy so often cling to. As the reaction from Mooney’s fellow comics demonstrates, plenty of male (and some female) comedians are quick to come out in support of one of their counterparts who says or does sexist things because they believe the person to be a “good guy” who apparently cannot, therefore, do a bad thing.

It could be that Mooney and his supporters don’t realise his remarks were gendered because in the insular world of comedy, there are far too few women around them or clued up people to challenge them. When there’s no opportunity to have your worldview challenged, it becomes resolutely one-eyed. Men often believe that because they do not intend to be sexist, sexism is not occurring. And because they see institutional sexism as the status quo, they’re unlikely to recognise it and respond with hostility when it is pointed out. They’re unaware that structures can be sexist simply by what they value or the attitudes and behaviours they reward.

Men in comedy are unable to step back and see how these individual incidents add up to a death-by-papercuts situation propped up by a sexist system. Writing for The Lifted Brow, Jana Perkovic says: “Comedy, like politics, is patriarchy condensed”.

Complicity, Silence, And The Lie Of The ‘Good Bloke’

In comedy, both in Australia and overseas, sexism operates along a full spectrum of horrifying behaviours. From women in audiences having death wished upon them for silently objecting to rape jokes to tantrums like Mooney’s to the tacit approval of intimate partner violence and sexual assault against female comics in the name of “jokes”, sexism is rife in comedy.

When comic Brydie Lee-Kennedy spoke out late last year about her abuse at the hands of another comedian, she unveiled ugly truths about Australian comedy and the culture which enabled her abuser. She described the Australian comedy scene like so: “men in the industry will nod thoughtfully and pay lipservice to the idea of increased representation, while continuing to contribute to a culture in which women are unwelcome and under-valued. They’re so right on they could never be sexist, right? They voted Green in both houses last election!”

Writer Kara Eva Schlegl then followed up with an account of the aftermath in the Saturday Paper, where men in the industry mostly decided it was ‘not their place’ to alter their relationship with the man in question. “These guys were all progressive, left-leaning, uni-educated men,” another comic told Schlegl. “They thought they were switched on… they wouldn’t acknowledge at the time that they benefited from the system.”

These acts are committed by the same men who stand on stages and joke about progressive politics. The same men who tell stories casting themselves as ‘good blokes’. Men who trade on their likeable personas and the minor celebrity that comedy brings. Who end up on the family television shows on every station — who enjoy the rewards of a culture which punishes women for daring to think they can be more than just audience members expected to applaud men on stage, regardless of how they feel about the material.

We are yet to solve the mystery of why the vast majority of people getting ahead in comedy (as in the rest of society) are ‘good blokes’, but the ‘good blokes’ seem convinced that comedy is a meritocracy. After all, what would it say if they had to admit that the luck of being born a straight white man may have helped them rise to the top of their field?

Because as much as this article focuses on the short shrift women are getting, you better believe that being a person of colour, having a disability or identifying as anything other than heterosexual makes it exponentially harder to get ahead. Imagine being a woman who also identified as one of these! (You will have to imagine it because you won’t see a comic like that on your television screens or headlining too often, Hannah Gadsby being the exception that proves the rule.) We all want to believe we’ve earned what accomplishments we have, but it takes nothing away when we admit that our path to success might have been easier than others.

Why Men In Comedy Need To Speak Up

In an otherwise tedious repetition of why comics should be free to express any and all opinions on stage, Sally Bennett recounted a discussion between Adam Hills and Wil Anderson on stage where they declared “sometimes it takes a comedian to take down another comedian for atrocious behaviour. Specifically, it took US comedian Hannibal Buress to go on stage and call Bill Cosby a rapist for his horrific history of alleged sexual abuse to unravel.

So where are they now? Where are the Australian comics speaking up about the state of the local scene? About the abuse of women? Women who speak out should be supported. But more than that, men in male-dominated worlds like comedy need to examine the culture they have helped create. It is one where, as Lee-Kennedy surmises, “men look after men and in the end, no one wants to hear your grievances”.

For men in comedy it’s an uncomfortable truth that even those who don’t sexually harass or intimidate women are complicit in a system that privileges them and their work. For men prepared to see this privilege, it is now incumbent upon them to be allies to the women in their industry and in audiences.

It’s time to stop turning away from uncomfortable truths, whether they be that a colleague and friend is a domestic abuser, or the seemingly benign sexist behaviour of other men. Your silence reinforces to these men that you condone and are complicit in their acts. Call out a comic who bullies female reviewers on Twitter. Don’t freeze out women who disclose domestic abuse by one of your own. Don’t stand by when a comic threatens an audience member who objects to a rape joke.

It’s time to stop protecting each other’s bad behaviour. It’s time to start being the men that you stand on stage and tell us you are.

Lefa Singleton Norton is a writer, editor and producer from Melbourne who founded Women in Literary Arts Australia. You can find her on twitter at @LefaSN.