When Improv Goes Bad [UPDATED]

The Internet has been buzzing about a monologue by an audience member that was part of the Assssscat show at the Del Close Marathon on Sunday, August 14. The Del Close Marathon is the UCB’s annual improv festival in New York City and the Assssscat show is the final show of the weekend. According to a friend who attended the festival but not this show, the Assssscat show has something of a reputation as a testosterone-fest, an observation backed up by the fact that the cast in the show in question was entirely male.

So the show was an Armando, which is a long-form improv that begins with a true story told in a monologue and which the actors then use as the prompt for show. In this case, an audience member volunteered to tell the opening story. You can see the entire monologue in the video below, but I’ll let Halle Kiefer, who was at the show, summarize it:

If you watch it or saw it in person, the most benign way to describe it is that it’s the story of the monologist coercing a drunk woman into have sex with him, despite her repeatedly telling him that she did not want to and to leave her hotel room. The more accurate way to describe it, in my opinion, is as the chilling account of pseudo-rape, told by the perpetrator as if it was a funny thing that he saw on the subway.

Ms. Kiefer does a brilliant job of unraveling some of what makes this particular monologue so creepy and offensive, and I’d encourage you to read her entire post, but I wanted to touch on two aspects of what she brings up. The first is the guy’s utter cluelessness that his story could be taken as anything other than a panegyric to his superior cocksmanship.

Ms. Kiefer again:

No, the reason female performers were needed in that show, and in every show, and in every avenue and aspect in life really, is that when the audience started booing the monologist, the storyteller turned around with a look of pure bafflement, as if he didn’t understand why an auditorium of hundreds of strangers didn’t like his hilarious story. He didn’t understand why we didn’t get the joke.

Reading this, I was reminded, oddly enough, of Ginnie Thomas, Clarence Thomas’s wife, and what Jeffrey Toobin wrote about her infamous phone call to Anita Hill, which any sane person could have told her was a terrible idea.

The origin of Ginni’s call to Hill may be found in the nature of the Thomases’ social and professional lives. They are known for their long trips in their “bus”— a motor home that they drive around the country, and to football games. (The Justice roots for the Dallas Cowboys and the Nebraska Cornhuskers.) In Washington, though, the couple are pillars of the conservative movement, socially as well as professionally. The Thomases hosted at their home, and the Justice officiated at, the third wedding of Rush Limbaugh. (The Justice did not preside at, but did attend, Wedding No. 4.) Other friends include the radio talk-show host Mark Levin, the author of “Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America.” As reported recently by the Times, Thomas has also been a close friend of Harlan Crow, a Dallas businessman and supporter of conservative causes, who is funding a museum in Thomas’s home town of Pin Point, Georgia. According to Politico, it was Crow who made the five-hundred-thousand-dollar contribution to Liberty Central. When questioned by the Times, Crow said, “I disclose what I’m required by law to disclose, and I don’t disclose what I’m not required to disclose.” Thomas has spoken to the conference of conservative funders that is sponsored by Charles and David Koch, who are leading benefactors of the Tea Party movement. The Justice is also a regular at Bohemian Grove, the annual all-male conclave in Northern California. In his social life, Thomas thus differs from his frequent ally Scalia, who is well known for his friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, his ideological opposite and a fellow opera buff. (“I’m not really a Washington-type person,” Thomas said at a recent law-school appearance. “I don’t sort of like hanging out at the opera and that sort of thing.”) Even in today’s highly polarized political environment, any number of members of Congress share friendships across the aisle. But the Thomases live in a world where, it seems, everyone believed Thomas’s testimony, and Ginni might well have got the impression that everyone else did, too.

In other words, this dude genuinely had no idea that there was anything remotely wrong with his story, because no ever told him there was. All of his friends think his fishhook story is fucking hilarious. The trainwreck quality of the clip above is only heightened by the absolute glee with which he hoists himself by his own petard. The story, in his mind, is of a successful sexual conquest, nothing more. (From a purely improv comedy perspective, the problem with the story is that it’s not funny and has no twist of any kind, it’s just, I wanted to fuck this girl, then I fucked her, then I left. But that’s another discussion entirely.)

Which brings us to my second point, which is the often predatory nature of male sexuality and how that kind of aggression leaves both parties damaged. Without descending into any sort of defense of this guy, part of what is so terribly sad about this account, at least from a male perspective, is how absolutely joyless and perfunctory this entire exchange is. Aside from the coercive elements (a big aside, that), this is not a story of a satisfying sexual encounter even for the teller. The actual sex is passed over with the line, “She laid on her back and I did my work,” which is about the most depressing account of borderline non-consensual sex since Bristol Palin’s book was released. Basically, the entire point of the story can be boiled down to “I took something she didn’t want to give up.” He never even describes the woman or states whether he was attracted to her; she matters not one whit to his story, she’s a non-entity.

So the unstated, unexamined assumption behind this guy’s story — and the reason he was confused by its reception — is that a dude’s job is to get sex by any means necessary: charm, trickery, coercion, money, alcohol, roofies. The means do not matter, only the end. And the end is not pleasure, in fact the actual sex is beside the point. The point lies in the taking of something from another human being. Taking power, taking control. By this thinking, even entirely consensual sex involves taking something from your partner, a power play in which only one can be the winner. All sex, according to this mindset, is pulling one over on someone.

I don’t mean to pile on this guy, one because I think the Internet in general and the Jezebel commentariat in particular will do that just fine, and two because I doubt that anyone who has been sexually active for any length of time hasn’t treated other people in ways he or she later regrets (and before you say that this guy doesn’t regret what happened in this story, I would bet he does now). I know I’ve got my share of regrets. What I don’t believe is that this is just “how men are.” I think that’s a cop out and a very old lie. People are teachable. Even men are teachable, hard as that may be to believe sometimes. I would hope that this strange public confession becomes such as opportunity for this guy.
Update: Looks like he’s been banned from his current improv group.
Update 2: Linda Holmes at the NPR blog Monkey See has a good piece on this incident.

Maybe it’s not true. Maybe it’s part-true. That certainly matters to the police, and to the woman, and to him, and presumably to his family and friends. But whether he considers this a true story where everyone will be on his side or a comedy routine that will strike people as some kind of a hooray-for-the-underdog narrative, I find it profoundly upsetting. Having it be true is awful, but having it be something he would invent or embellish, either as comedy or as image management, also crawls across my skin like an entire army of cockroaches.

Update 3: Over at the Women in Comedy Festival blog, Pam Victor makes a good argument that the problem is a lack of diversity in the improv scene.

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6 Responses to When Improv Goes Bad [UPDATED]

  1. crisi-tunity says:

    Yes, exactly. Men are part of the human species too and deserve more respect than for people to think they’re just animals. Even men like this.

  2. Erin O'Brien says:

    The boyish face. The absolute absence of desire. The slacker feeling to the whole movement. Who knew there could be such a thing as apathetic rape?

    And now onto details: Romeo brags about employing “the fishhook” (which elicited a visible shudder from Yours Truly), then goes on to say that the woman removed her pants.

    Hm. Logistics sound a bit off there, unless of course the fishhook involves a woman’s nostrils. Or (more hopefully) there are elements of fiction to his story.

    I wonder if we’ll ever hear from the woman. I wonder if this guy has ruined his life–short term, long term or both.

  3. I finally watched this, having found the 10 minutes necessary and I’d already read your post so I had an interest.
    First what strikes me is the interchange between the guy, the audience, and the improv troupe. No one stops him, no one challenges him. The people on stage are visibly uncomfortable but their job is to find an “in” in which it insert (sorry about the wd choice) jokes. I understand that in improv comedy you allow a player to continue his gig. Still, something here was amiss. Like watching a crime and standing by.
    What is creepy to me is not so much the story itself, but his absolute lack of self-knowledge. Though the feed is bad, his face and gestures give away a sense of someone who strikes me as unrepentant. He seems to lack self-reflection, but moreover, he lacks any compassion for the situation–not just himself, not just her, but the nature of the whole experience. It’s a conquest, but not even a good one. You know that some killers and rapists lack parts of their pre-frontal cortices? That’s what I get. He’s oddly unengaged with the audience–he can’t read their clues. I don’t agree with what he did or his telling it, but if he is teachable at all, maybe someone should get to teaching him so he stops being a creepy asshole. If he has remorse, maybe he should be on suicide watch and I’m not saying that flippantly. He’s now infamous for telling a story about a fumbling, alcohol-involved, semi-rape encounter. But again, the overarching feeling I get is that he is clueless above everything else.
    One of the most chilling lines in his story: “I’m pretty sure she felt pretty safe.” This line is very telling: he doesn’t have good instincts of his own and he allows his doubts to take him and the woman in a bad direction. He doubts himself, but goes forward. His doubt includes an acknowledgement that he he can’t read her. It’s really fucking horrific. I was sad and horrified listening to this story–the feeling starts right away when he doesn’t clearly distinguish whether he was working in the kitchen or managing things. I was appalled at the responses of the troupe on the stage. They should reflect and write a very good explanation to all who have viewed this which at this point means a publicly written piece. I for one would like to hear the justification for standing by and yucking it up. It really was creepy–the “boy’s club” feeling I got from the troupe (the burden was more with them than with the audience, in my opinion).
    I am glad we live in a time when this all seems wrong.
    Get this guy a really good therapist or he’s doomed to a life of just what you describe, Kamper. If he is truly incapable of self-reflection and remorse (these people do exist), then he should get a Scarlet Letter emblazoned on all of his shirts to warn the next woman, slightly drunk or not.

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