Tackling Harassment in Scottish Stand-Up Comedy
We speak to comedians Ruth Hunter, Kimi Loughton and Ashley Manning about sexual misconduct on the Scottish comedy scene, and the need for progress
TW: this article contains discussion of sexual violence, harassment and misconduct from the outset and throughout
“An audience member approached me after the gig in the bar area to say that he really enjoyed my ‘bold material’, then grabbed me by my neck and waist and whispered a filthy joke about a man raping his daughters.”
That’s just one of Ashley Manning’s experiences of the Scottish comedy scene. Sadly, sexual misconduct is endemic within the Scottish comedy industry. It’s a shocking statement, but merely making people aware this is happening is not enough. Since the start of the #MeToo movement, “acknowledging the assault and harassment has done nothing whatsoever," says Ruth Hunter, an Irish comic now living and performing in Glasgow. “People have agreed that it's terrible but unless people actually change the environment from which it was bred it will just continue." Although this misconduct has been rife on the scene for years, it has attracted more attention over lockdown due to resurfaced allegations about male comedians internationally and closer to home.
“It's still just such a boy's club,” Kimi Loughton explains. She’s currently on hiatus from comedy due to the Scottish scene’s toxic environment and the mistreatment of women within it.
All three comics are unsurprised that many female acts have quit comedy as a result of the sexual misconduct they’ve endured. It’s particularly difficult to keep track of numbers at the bottom of the circuit. Fewer women get far in comedy “because when they start it's just so intimidating.”
There’s a glaring lack of HR in the comedy industry, something organisations like the newly-formed Live Comedy Association want to help with. Manning suggests comedy isn’t viewed as a ‘proper’ workplace because so many see it as a hobby. “It's one of the rare jobs where you can drink or do drugs at your place of work, and so the boundaries of professional conduct are skewed to begin with.”
Loughton agrees: “If people are going to make careers out of comedy they're going to have to treat it like a career and a job with morals and standards and rules.”
Although there has been some reporting on the impact of sexual misconduct on the Scottish comedy scene, little has been mentioned about how the scene can progress. Three of Scotland’s largest comedy clubs have drawn up a collective code of conduct for their venues, but there’s some scepticism over whether acts were consulted and why the code remains unpublished on the websites of The Stand, Monkey Barrel and Glasgow’s Rotunda. Hunter suggests that “if you're not proud of it then it's just a band-aid. It's not a solution."
We asked Hunter, Loughton and Manning how they would tackle sexual misconduct on the circuit. Bookers or promoters have a lot of responsibility to improve the scene, the comics reckon. For Manning and Loughton, it’s about looking beyond profit and focusing on gig quality. “A lot of bookers don't watch the performances they've organised, and sometimes don't even have that much of an interest in comedy,” states Manning.
“There needs to be more care and pride in the job,” Loughton agrees. “If you're just putting on the same acts every weekend, why are people gonna keep coming to your club to just see the same people talk the same shite?” She feels bookers and acts quickly form cliques, barring new comics from progressing their careers.
Hunter has been campaigning for bookers to take a training course on sexual harassment, assault and consent. She fundraised over £500 in 48 hours so 15 bookers can complete training offered by the Good Night Out Campaign, a charity which gives advice and development opportunities to organisations wanting to ensure safer nightlife. She also thinks bookers need to do more by making acts sign contracts in accordance with venues' codes of conduct. “You say, 'I am booking you, this is our code of conduct, if you think for any reason you can't abide by any of these then please turn down this job offer, and if you do break any of these, we will not book you again.'” By agreeing to a contract, this legitimises comedy as a job as well as making acts accountable for their behaviour on and off stage.
The way Hunter sees the Scottish comedy scene progressing is through collective action from everyone involved in the industry. She believes venue staff would particularly benefit from the same training she has organised for bookers. “If you don't understand what [harassment, assault and consent] is you're not gonna do anything about it, you're not going to know how to approach it, you're not going to understand why it's a serious problem.” And, if there’s consistency in training across the industry, including sexual misconduct definitions and the vocabulary used, it will help normalise the reporting of this behaviour and empower staff to handle it effectively.
Manning thinks venues can do better by having codes of conduct visible in green rooms and providing act line-ups in advance to other comics. “I've always found it nerve-wracking when I didn't know who else was going to be performing. Having a few names and knowing the male/female ratio helped a bit.” The Stand is the best venue you can get according to Loughton. Their staff are all comedy-lovers and are visible and present, “unlike other places where you're just shoved away somewhere, hidden” where people think it’s acceptable to express inappropriate language and behaviour.
All three agree that fellow comics can do more to advance the Scottish comedy scene. Loughton’s looking to stalwarts and professionals to show more interest in new acts, take them under their wing and have a better understanding of what the current newbie experience is like. By speaking to newcomers, there’d be fewer bombshells dropped when sexual misconduct is noticed and reported. Likewise, she thinks acts need to be kinder to each other. "[Comedy] is a breeding ground for people with mental health problems but if nobody wants to talk to each other and support each other in that way, then things are gonna escalate,” leading to serious incidents.
Importantly, to both Hunter and Manning, the onus to fix the industry shouldn’t be on its victims of sexual misconduct. “It's draining enough being asked all the time 'What's it like being a female comedian?' without the context of the assaults,” says Manning.
Hunter adds, more directly: “If there's a gig that is run and booked by someone who is known to be a rapist, don't do that gig. Don't give that person your business or talent.” Continuing to work with known abusers means you’re “complicit in perpetuating the environment that comedy has become, is, has always been.”
Manning agrees: “We're not out to ruin men in comedy, we're just asking for a bit more respect and safety.” These are things that male comedians receive automatically.
Some audiences can further cement the hostile environment female comics face. There are still gigs where audiences think comedy is about heckling and punching down. “It's important for audiences to understand what comedy is and how live comedy works," Loughton asserts. Comedians work hard on their material and would rather not “waste their ten minutes on stage having to put people in their place". Manning stresses the importance of the MC to set the tone for an audience including acceptable behaviour at a gig. By a compere amping up a ‘LADS LADS LADS’ vibe, she’s had awful experiences of audience members, "as a direct result of the host egging the toxic males in the room to reach their full dickhead potential.”
But can any improvements be made before the scene picks up again? All three comedians think so. Codes of conduct are a good place to start, although as Hunter explains, it’s only one step. If you want to achieve a safe environment and “you only do the first step, you're still at the bottom of the stairs.” She also thinks communicating with the Good Night Out campaign is a simple move in the right direction.
Hunter and Loughton believe setting up a third-party reporting system would be massively beneficial due to the close-knit nature of the Scottish comedy scene. On top of this, Manning emphasises the importance of diversity on bills: “book more women and non-binary people on line-ups”. It’s not a box-ticking exercise of minimum representation for female/people of colour/LGBT+ acts. “The excuse that there are not enough female acts is just not valid.” Ultimately though, Loughton says the Scottish comedy scene could progress quickly with “the number one rule of comedy: just don't be a dick”.
Our acts want to shout out to some fellow brilliant female comics so you've no excuse: Bylgja Babylons, Amelia Bayler, Fern Brady, Roisin Caird, Mara Joy Craig, Eve Darcy, Sophie Duker, Krystal Evans, London Hughes, Heather Jordan Ross, Jay Lafferty, Amy Matthews, Allie O’Rourke, Susan Riddell, Marjolein Robertson, Alison Spittle
You can also find Ashley Manning on her Twitch channel at Twitch.tv/ashleymanningx