My friend D.J. Mausner and I are similar. We both love snacks, we’re in our early twenties and beautiful, we have respective and wistful plans to move from Canada to the United States to pursue writing and comedy.
I sat down to talk to Mausner at a coffee shop in downtown Toronto, like we do on a regular basis, to commiserate about the worse, less funny parts of being some of Toronto’s coolest young comedians. When we met this time, it wasn’t for the usual banter. We didn’t talk about our lifetime crushes on Andy Samberg or some terrible comedian one of us regrettably kissed last weekend.
In May, a Superior Court judge authorized a class action lawsuit against Gilbert Rozon, the founder of the the Just For Laughs comedy festival, in which more than 20 women allege that they were sexually assaulted or harassed from 1982 to 2016. Rozon resigned last October as the allegations became public.
Mausner has decided to turn down a paid, nationally broadcasted television taping of her stand-up comedy at the annual 2018 Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, Quebec. The comedian is boycotting JFL as a means of denouncing Rozon and the lack of action his corporation has taken in support of the women allegedly assaulted over a 30-year period.
JFL’s history of inexplicit and explicit lack of support for survivors of sexual violence was revealed to Mausner via a Facebook post that emboldened her to act. “I saw a friend who’s from Montreal post saying, ‘This is awful but is anyone surprised about this? He was already charged for sexual assault in 1989!’ And that to me was like, ‘What?’ I had never heard that and then more stories came out. In 1989, he was charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old as well as the sexual assault and confining of a 31-year old woman,” she told me. “He pleaded guilty to the 19-year old and there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the other one. He was charged $1,100 and was put on a year probation."
The 23-year-old comedian won the TV taping, the gold ribbon atop an otherwise abysmal $300 prize, at The Homegrown Comics Competition in 2017, where she performed in front of around 700 people and an adjudicatory panel of industry professionals. “It was the biggest crowd I’ve ever performed in front of,” she told me. “I tied for first place with Courtney Gilmour, a really amazing Toronto comedian, and I would have recorded a TV taping [at the 2018 Just For Laughs festival] in July. It would have aired on The Comedy Network.”
She won’t perform in the historic Just For Laughs festival, soon kicking off its thirty-first year on July 11th, and she hopes other comedians consider refusing so too.
“I’m turning down my taping because JFL is one of the only things that a Canadian comedian can have on their resume that’s important and can be recognized in the States, which is more or less where everyone wants to go. The idea is not to tear JFL down. I hope that JFL will take note, because they have truly done nothing with any of this information,” Mausner. She would like to see the organization put out an apology and statement in support of the women allegedly assaulted by Rozon, acknowledging that JFL enabled Rozon by continuing to employ him.
Seasoned comedians seem to rank a difficult path to success as highly as a credit from a festival like Just For Laughs. Louis C.K., with his own history of sexual misconduct, says it’s “the comedians that start awkwardly and badly who end up being interesting.” Bill Burr warns, “I don’t want to discourage [young comedians], but you will take your lumps.” We’re told that the endurance of rough circumstances is essential to a comedy backbone. What surrounds that backbone, however—presenting as cisgender, being white, having money and expendable time—matters. Evaluating merit in a system that only seems to value one kind of person lacks empathy; and it’s a tradition that’s becoming difficult to honour without criticism.
“I was looking at the Just For Laughs website today and they have a banner of all the people who are headlining the galas. Four of twelve are women, one is a woman of colour, there are no [openly] queer women. There’s no non-binary people and there are no trans women,” Mausner said.
Mausner’s own privilege is another part of her message. Since she’s white and cisgender—and she lives with and is supported by her parents—the comedian says she’s in a unique position to turn down the $3,500 she would have received for doing the TV taping. “I don’t need that money so badly. It’s particularly important for me as a white comedian to [boycott JFL] because there are so many more comedy spaces where I feel more comfortable and which are not actively trying to make space for [marginalized] people to feel comfortable.”
Mausner proposes that JFL starts making meaningful changes to the industry, for instance, by having particular spots reserved for comedians who identify beyond the norm. She says spots for women and non-binary identifying comedians should be upped to 50 percent.
“That doesn’t mean they’re going to have perfect people. I know lots of fellow white women who are like ‘I’m one of the boys’ and they do terrible comedy,” Mausner said. But with more space for marginalized people, she says we’ll start to see more talent. “When there are spots at the top, more [marginalized people] will start showing up and I’m sure Just For Laughs will love to take credit for that when that happens."
The feeling that stayed between us as we finished our drinks was skeptical. We hoped that her reasons for turning down the taping would appear valid, but we were unsure. Though there are certainly opportunities which have been out of reach altogether, we thought of the many others we’ve chosen to give up ourselves as a means of self-protection. It’s one thing to get a seat at the table, or a spot on a show, and another to feel safe enough to stay and somehow, quitting rather than losing always carries a particular kind of shame. Regardless of my work—its great merit or strength—some force can prevail so powerfully that I might be compelled to quit.
Indeed these gruelling processes, as older comedians remind, do feel necessary; the only way to survive is to know which opportunities are worthwhile. If I persist in an industry which might never care about my work, I need to remember that refusing antiquated circumstances is essential to the pursuit of better ones.
I want a spot, but I want much more to be respected and valued. I’m grateful to have friends like D.J. Mausner with whom I share that desire.
Follow Celeste Yim on Twitter.