The Double R Diner is proud to present this guest post from Abby Fudor, a Pittsburgh-based improviser and world-class friend. Abby is one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, and more importantly one of the BEST people I’ve ever known, and she shouldn’t have to put up with the stuff that prompted her to write this post. We’re happy to have her, even though we wish she had a better reason to be writing here.
Last month, something happened that fueled me, for the first time in about 6 years of doing improv comedy, and about 28 years of being a lady person, to pause, reflect, and write down some thoughts about those two aspects of my life crashing together so often and so significantly as of late.
I entered an improv scene, said about one line of dialogue, and the guy on stage closest to me responded to this by miming punching me in the face while calling me a “cunt.”
Wait, let’s back up a little. What is improv comedy you ask? Do you ask that? I don’t know, but in case you do: there are lots of formats, lots of definitions you can find out there. It would take me a lot more time and energy than I think is necessary for this personal account of a jarring incident to really launch into a full-blown discourse over the artform, but I’m happy to recommend this book, point toward this blog, and show you this photo to give you a general idea of what I’m talking about here:
I perform pretty much weekly at the Pittsburgh Improv Jam in downtown Pittsburgh. I’ve been doing improv there for over a year, with generally the same group of people each week. The idea behind this show is that a lot of improv performers in the city are members of various troupes; this is a night for us “pros” (ooof) to come together, putting aside our conflicting money-makers that occur other nights of the week to just “play” together. Picture Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson having fun shooting hoops together in between bouts. Now picture them taking one-word suggestions and pretending to be other people. [And while you imagining things, go ahead and imagine I could come up with a decent sports reference after the year of 1988.]
The only athletes Abby has ever heard of.
Photo by John W. W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated
It’s important to note the evening’s milieu, because as you might guess by the description, many of us are friends up there. We are at least long-standing friendly acquaintances in this very small Pittsburgh circle. Or we are at the very least somewhat experienced improvisers (with anywhere from 5 to 25 years under our belts) who know the primary rules, and can thus follow a basic code of respect for those on stage. The man who called me a derogatory name without any narrative or comedic reason to do so knew better. In theory. [This distinction struck me because I also perform weekly at a show tailored to introducing improv to complete novices and encouraging them to get up there and try. Often, an improv novice will get scared and overwhelmed and resort to dumb, sexist humor until he/she is taught otherwise. Understandably, this can happen a lot, so to some extent I'm prepared for it.]
The man in question, we’ll call him Harold (wink), has been a casual friend of mine for four and a half years now. We’ve performed together occasionally over the years, but it’s only since I started going to the Jam that I’ve been regularly improvising with him. Harold has been known for being aggressive on stage. Harold has been known for being particularly aggressive and sometimes misogynist toward women. But Harold had never directed this personally toward me, so I never got as angry about it as I should have before now.
Something that is said a lot in the world of comedy, or in the world of life, is that “anything is fair game if it’s funny.” That the mortal enemy of “inappropriate” is “hilarious.” And conversely, if something is NOT funny, then any tinge of uncomfortable misogyny is going to reverberate through the room like a giant gong—a gong that should have been on stage to instantly send Harold’s unfunny, inappropriate ass back to his seat. That was the situation we all faced last week. I entered a scene, said a line or two of dialogue to “up the stakes” and bring a fading scene to a somewhat interesting conclusion… and I was called a cunt. GONG.
I was the only woman on stage, with four men performing in the scene and four other men on the sidelines with me. I entered as a higher status character than Harold (an architect/businesswoman to his elderly bingo caller) and I got shot down. There is a lot that was wrong with this performance scenario in the overarching fight for feminism. Improv comedy, along with many other types of comedy, is a boy’s world, and chicks like me are just living in it.
But those inequities in improv have never motivated me to sit down and write this kind of essay. To be completely honest—what really got me writing was just how much it shook me to the core to be verbally attacked like that. Maybe that’s a simple subject for a blog post: “Hey! Something upset me!” But I think this is worth exploring. It’s noteworthy that a friend, who is experienced in improv comedy, could do something on stage that upset me, a woman who’s been in the man’s world of comedy for a long time now, so viscerally that tears stung my eyes and I trembled with disgust. No guy had ever called me a “cunt” before like that, on- or offstage.
When it happened, I stood there, dumbfounded, thrust suddenly in a lady-power dilemma. Do I make a stand by walking off the stage right now, signaling that I will not engage in anything so senselessly mean? Do I make a stand by entering the next (and every!) scene left, signaling that no man degrading me in front of dozens of people will bring me down? In the end, I did what felt like some weak combination of these options: holding back from entering as many scenes (that needed me) as I could have, but also coming forward and playing a powerful pharaoh in another. Harold said nothing to me that night about the incident, and I discovered later, did not realize he should have. He did nothing he was sorry for, short of making me feel bad and offending me. From his perspective, he was just playing a character and that character made a choice.1
So that’s the story of the most painful improv scene of my life. I feel as though this tale should carry with it a powerful ending, but I don’t have one yet. This story will likely be one of many I hope to tell my grandchildren one day, about a time when “women weren’t funny,” and how grandma kicked some serious ass to defeat that erroneous stereotype.
The worst part about that night was feeling like I took a huge step backward (or was pushed backward) in my ongoing effort to fight the good fight for women in comedy. But I’m coming to realize I don’t have to feel that way. It felt like I was backsliding because I was so shaken up, I was so hurt, and all I wanted to do was cry and be comforted by my boyfriend that night. But I’m not a feminist comedic machine. I’m a funny lady who’s good at improv comedy because I’ve worked hard to be good at it for a long time. I didn’t sign up for “representing an underrepresented contingent” when I got into this game, but represent I do. And nights like that one, once the sting wore off, motivate me to get back on stage and play hilarious, powerful, varied characters. They remind me that I am making a difference by making my (higher-pitched) voice heard. They remind me that even in the tiniest off-shoots of artistic circles—like improvisational comedy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—women are kept down if we don’t pay attention. Well, Harold, you got my attention. Next time you call me a “cunt” on stage, I will not tremble. I will be ready, I will block your poorly-choreographed punch, and I will “yes, and?” you to clarify your statement so that it doesn’t silence a room. “Did you want me to ‘cunt…inue what I was saying? Sure. Back to the building codes in question.” ….AND SCENE.
1Since I wrote this, Harold and I have talked and he has apologized. I don’t want to get much into the conversation we had, as it didn’t really do much beyond smoothing over a fight between two friendly acquaintances, and has nothing to do with the content of this writing. Just thought I should note it for the record.
[I’d like to sincerely thank the Double R’s for letting me guest write so early in their blogdom. It is generous of them to share a slice of their internet soapbox with a small potatoes writer such as myself. The matter was time sensitive, and these gals can spot an issue in need of attention a mile away.] [You're welcome, Doll. - R&R]