This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
When I started doing comedy nine years ago, my favorite comedian was Louis C.K. I totally bought into the cult of Louie. Here was a man excavating the darkest corners of his soul in order to bring us some sort of higher truth. I heard about the rumors when they first emerged as blind items, but performed the necessary mental jiu-jitsu to ignore them and continue enjoying his work. It wasn’t until the rumors became official news that I reappraised his work. His work wasn’t heroic, it was cowardly. It was hiding in plain sight—using vulgarity and vulnerability to appear honest about his shortcomings while obscuring the actual depths of his abuses and failings.
Unfortunately, it was too late. His influence was baked into me. That idea that just saying the thing—that holding up your pain and demanding an audience identify with it counted as not only an artistic act, but a moral one—was integral to my self-conception as an artist and as a person.
Last year I was added to the Yuk Yuks roster of stand-up comedians. For those unfamiliar with it, Yuk Yuks is Canada’s largest chain of stand-up comedy clubs, with clubs stretching across the country and also innumerable one-off gigs, from daytime corporates to shows at golf course ranges in the backwoods of the Ottawa Valley that feels like a combination of Coach’s Corner and The Wicker Man.
Amongst Canadian comedians, Yuks is a controversial topic. Some comedians believe it has been terrible for Canadian comedy. Mostly this ire is due to monopolistic practices. When you sign with Yuks you aren’t allowed to perform at any other clubs in cities where a Yuks exist. As well, any major festival appearances you book or independent gigs you pick up are expected to be reported so they can have their cut, though there is a varied amount of leeway here. This is all with no guarantee to you of steady work or pay. You are basically treated like an independent contractor, minus the independence.
But what they offer in exchange for your compliance—beyond mediocre pay—is stage time, sweet, sweet stage time, which is like mana for comedians. Not just any stage time, but club stage time all over the country, and not just in the agreeable confines of hipster independent rooms where I spent most of my time. This is what appealed to me about joining them. Trump was president, and I wanted to get out of my bubble. Visions of blowing the rubes’ minds with Bill Hicks-like rants and diatribes danced through my head. I would transform rural Ontario into a socialist hotbed, one joke about my sad childhood at a time.
How naive I was. My idealism was shattered by a brief flurry of bombs that left my confidence shattered and morality discarded. A mad panic began to consume me. The road audiences could believe whatever the hell they wanted to, I just needed them to laugh at me, to like me. I clung to the advice my hilarious friend Dylan gave me when I asked him about how to avoid shitting the bed on the road. “Just say ‘cum’ more,” he succinctly told me. And I did. And I began to have more fun.
A little earlier this year, Yuk Yuks put on a show at their downtown club called “White Males Matter”—an embarrassing attempt at racist trolling as promotion for a show whose revolutionary idea was that it would only have white guys on it. A truly radical spectacle if there ever was one. I was pissed. I have no problem with coarse and conservative, telling-it-like-is stand-up shows. There’s enough room and audience for everyone. But this wasn’t satirical, this didn’t have a higher purpose at play. This was being offensive to be offensive. Comedians like to cling to an idea that there is an inherent value in being offensive, but they ignore that trolling is a right-wing value now. Owning the libs is the main ideology binding together the vicious forces preying on vulnerable people throughout the world.
Faced with this moral outrage, I did the heroic thing and sent an email to my superiors.
It was the owner, Mark Breslin’s call, I was told. There was nothing to be done, but I should send him an email directly, that might help.
The coward that I am, I never did.
A few months later and Breslin was back at it. The past weekend, the downtown Toronto club was headlined by Jeremy Piven. Piven, who is best known as the abrasive agent Ari Gold from HBO’s Entourage—though to me his most iconic and accurate role is as the pathetic loser dean in Old School—was also one of the bigger celebrities who faced accusations of sexual misconduct in the first blushes of the #MeToo movement. Eight separate women have accused the actor of acting in a physically aggressive manner, including groping, exposing himself, and forcing one woman to the ground and masturbating until he ejaculated. Piven has denied all accusations, threatened to sue the website that first brought them to light, and claims he passed a lie-detector test, which he says exonerated him. A potential serial groper passing a lie detector test that he paid for and that asked him if he believes he has ever been inappropriate with women? Case closed as far as I can see.
If there’s anything we’ve learned over the tumultuous past year, is that all men have been shit. I’m no exception. I’ve cheated, been emotionally manipulative, ghosted, enabled shitty behavior from friends, and one time a woman and I were dancing to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” and during the epic breakdown I fist-pumped when the beat came back and accidentally punched the woman dancing with me right in the face, forever discrediting me as an ally to the movement. I’m not a strident ideologue for the movement; merely another occasionally shit dude keeping his head down and trying to listen and learn. That being said, I would prefer that my employer didn’t gleefully act as a staging ground for the career rehabilitation of an accused sleazebag. But, I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised, after all Yuks made it clear who it thinks matters.
Because of the controversy surrounding Piven, VICE asked me to cover his show. I was interested; he has only been actively working at stand-up for a little bit now and I thought the chances for a trainwreck were high. I emailed Breslin to let him know I wanted to write this article and to voice my displeasure with the booking in general. I was politely but cryptically told on a call with Yuks head office that if I wrote the article, it wouldn’t be good for me or my career. I expressed my frustrations about the night overall and was told it was better to just get a beer with some friends and hash out my criticisms that way. (I’m but a humble comedian but I tried to be a reporter by sending Yuk Yuks an email asking them for comment about this article. They, so far, have declined to comment.)
I went to the early show on Friday night. The show was to begin at 7:30 PM, but the ticket said to arrive no later than 7. That seemed insane to me, there was no way he was popular enough that people needed to arrive earlier. Yet, when I got there on Friday at 6:50, there was a huge line of people who looked like they treated the exploits of Vince and the boys on Entourage as a religious text. There were women in pencil skirts hurriedly brushing their hair from their face as they sucked back weed gummies. There were multiple jacked men with tight haircuts, wearing khaki shorts and flip-flops. There were no Vinces, only Johnny Dramas.
I entered the club and found a seat. The place hummed with more energy than I had seen in there before. People were excited, laughing and murmuring to one another as servers flew around the space with drink-filled trays. The new-wave rock playlist blasted over the crowd. The second-to-last song that plays before every show is “Blitzkrieg Bop,” and seeing a crowd of Entourage heads hey-ho-ing along with the Ramones was a clear-eyed reminder that whatever punk rock rebellion existed in stand-up is long dead and pissed on.
There were two acts: the very-funny host, Toronto comic Jean Paul, and the Piv. Near the end of the host’s set I looked around and saw the Piv standing near the back, sipping some water and taking the show in. I was immediately struck by the power of celebrity. At the first sight of him, all my criticisms folded, replaced with a delirious recognition of Hey! That famous person is standing and sipping water in a spot where I have also stood and sipped water. We’re the same! I’m famous now!
I was not the only one suffering from this fame delirium. When Piven hit the stage he was greeted with a wave of adulation. Manic clapping, cheers, and people “whooing” with the desperate fervor of a pilgrim hoping to be touched by a Pope. It’s clear that this idea that accusations ruin men’s careers is utter bullshit. Everybody in this place either didn’t know about the accusations, or didn't care. There was no hesitation or hiccups in their love for him. They were there for him—and when he inevitably gets another TV show they will be there for him too.
Now, you might say, the very fact that he’s up there performing stand-up is evidence that his career has suffered. He’s supposed to be a prestige TV and film star! The only reasons that he would degrade himself by doing stand-up—the lowest form of performance art, fit only for losers and wrestlers who can’t wrestle anymore—is because his TV show was canceled and he probably needs some quick cash. The man himself would disagree. He claims that his most recent show was canceled because it didn’t fit into the network's schedule. And as for stand-up? As he stated in interviews and on stage, he’s up there because he caught the bug, that it represented a new, and most challenging yet, creative frontier.
He did seem to be telling the truth here. My hopes for a trainwreck were immediately thwarted. He looked good: fit, well-dressed, with a full head of hair. He looked like if a spritz of expensive cologne became a person. He knew what he was doing up there. Other than a couple of times when he reached for the mic stand and missed, there weren’t any signs that he was new to this. He did effective crowd work, charismatically told long stories, and nailed the punch at the end without losing the plot, and used the whole stage for energetic act outs.
In the interview with the Toronto Star that ran prior to his Yuks appearance, Piven said he loved stand-up because it gave a chance for an audience to get to know him better, stating, “Selfishly, this is a way for an audience to see who I am... It’s fun, it’s terrifying, but I think they can feel your truth.” And I think we did see his truth. He mostly told douchey anecdotes about going to the gym, about being famous. He did consistently worse impressions of celebrities he has met—his Jackie Chan and Mark Wahlberg impressions being particularly indistinguishable from one another. In a particular brazen act, in the midst of a joke asking why Mike Tyson needs a bodyguard, he did a joke about it being like, “Bill Cosby needing a mixologist.” When he said Cosby’s name, there was a huge reaction and he reveled in it, as if realizing that every laugh he got up there distanced him from needing to reckon with his own alleged transgressions. It was the audacious act of a man on the lam who thinks he’s permanently avoided capture. He made the requisite joke for all masculine American comics about Caitlyn Jenner, using mangina as a punchline. He was coarse and arrogant—An asshole.
There was one moment of vulnerability. Piven was telling a story about how he would run Entourage lines with this mother (his in-character yelling of “Lloyd” got the biggest reaction of the night) and he brought up that he had been raised on the stage. His parents were theater people and he was just a theater kid, always doing Shakespeare and Chekhov, and there was a brief ripple through the crowd as you could see all the jocks in attendance asking, “What the fuck is Chekov?” It was at this moment I realized our uncomfortable similarities.
I had always idealized stand-up as the province of weirdos and outlaws. The territory where theater kids like me and Piven could challenge the status-quo of the cool kids. But watching the way Piven hungrily lapped up the affection of people who had no idea who Chekov was made me realize I had been lying to myself about what I wanted. Stand-up wasn’t my way of challenging anything, it was just the way for this theater kid to get the cool kids to like me. I didn’t want to confront audiences on the road, I just wanted them to love me.
I saw the amorality at the heart of stand-up. There is no guaranteed nobility here, no path from here to a better world. Rather, it was just as easily the avenue for disgraced men to rehabilitate or burnish their image through faux-vulnerability and humility, an act of ego nourishment, and fantasy perpetuation, nothing more. Which was all Louis C.K. was ever really doing. Which was all I was ever doing. So I guess you could say that, yeah, Jeremy Piven was pretty good at stand-up. Though he also used oriental face as a punchline for a story about Jackie Chan, so maybe I shouldn’t give him too much credit.
And obviously, I quit working with Yuk Yuks.
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