Chris D'Elia performing at the Laugh Factory

Chris D’Elia Demonstrates How Comedy Can Be a Haven for Abusive Men

The allegations of sexual misconduct against the popular comedian brings up the question yet again: What makes standup such a toxic space?
July 13, 2020
6 mins read

In Season 2 of the Netflix series “You,” actor Chris D’Elia plays a comedian who lures underage girls to his house with the intention of drugging, sexually assaulting and photographing them. His character is undoubtedly despicable, perhaps even as evil as the main character, serial killer Joe Goldberg. This storyline and casting is intensely ironic, given the cultural firestorm currently surrounding D’Elia and his past actions. Over the past few weeks, multiple women, some of whom were minors at the time, have come forward to accuse comedian D’Elia of sexual misconduct. 

Julia Holtzman, 17 at the time, received a DM on Instagram from D’Elia in 2016. D’Elia sent his phone number and asked her to travel from Long Island to New York City to visit him. She did not, as she thought it odd that a famous 36-year-old comedian would ask a random underage girl to visit him alone. 

Simone Rossi, who was 16 at the time of her alleged online relationship with D’Elia, posted screenshots on Twitter to prove that D’Elia requested nudes. When Rossi asked to meet, D’Elia allegedly asked to make out even though Rossi states her online presence demonstrated she was in high school and underage. 

Michaela Okland, who runs the Twitter account SheRatesDogs, stated that she received hundreds of submissions of stories from women or friends of women who were preyed upon by D’Elia. In response to the numerous allegations, his agency, CAA, ceased representing D’Elia. The comedian released a statement to TMZ denying these allegations, however the statement does not provide any proof of innocence; D’Elia ends it by stating he will “do better” — a vague promise without accountability that does not address or explain what he was failing to “do better” at. 

Another male comedian with sexual misconduct allegations is Louis C.K., who has been accused by multiple women of showing them his penis or masturbating in front of them without their consent. In 2002, C.K. undressed and masturbated in front of comedy duo Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov without their consent. In 2003, he began a sexually inappropriate conversation and masturbated while on the phone with comedian Abby Schachner. In 2005, he asked comedian Rebecca Corry if he could masturbate in front of her while working on a TV pilot, despite having a wife and child. Producers Courtney Cox and David Arquette corroborated Corry’s allegation. C.K. confessed that there is truth to the allegations and also apologized like D’Elia, but despite his abominable actions, has continued to perform.

In the mid-’90s, Jerry Seinfeld, of “Seinfeld” fame, dated 17-year-old Shoshanna Lonstein while he was 38 years old, though he waited until she was 18 to publicly confirm their romantic relationship. She was in high school when their “friendship” began, and despite the concerning age difference, there was little backlash.

Comedians like D’Elia, C.K. and Seinfeld are not anomalies. Richard Pryor allegedly abused many women during his career, yet his offenses are erased from his lasting legacy. Bill Cosby drugged and raped myriad women, and was found guilty in court for three counts of aggravated indecent assault. Woody Allen allegedly raped his own daughter. Martin Lawrence allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted Tisha Campbell on the set of “The Martin Lawrence Show.” The longer you look at the list of famous male comedians, the more examples you find of inappropriate behavior, sexual misconduct and assault against women; many of those women were also in the comedy industry themselves. 

Even if the male comedians don’t actually abuse women themselves, they love to joke about it. Drew Magary wrote in GQ about C.K’s own show, “Louie”: “You can already mine old episodes of Louie for grotesque warning signs of this, including a scene where he attempts to rape fellow comedian Pamela Adlon’s character.” C.K. often joked about masturbation in his standup routines, a hint to his lewd and abusive behavior toward women. Comedian Daniel Tosh also joked about a woman in his audience getting raped by five men.

The question is: Why is comedy a space for terrible men? Why do they grow their fan bases and achieve fame, success and wealth while terrorizing women or joking about it? Why is the comedy stage a haven for them?

One answer looks at a psychological understanding of comedy. “Hobbes and Plato took the playground perspective, suggesting that making fun helps us feel superior to others,” Olga Khazan wrote in The Atlantic. Perhaps male comedians use misogynistic jokes about women to feel superior to them. This also aligns with the psychology behind sexual misconduct and abuse, as taking advantage of women and underage girls also gives the assaulter a feeling of power and  superiority. 

Power and superiority go hand-in-hand in comedy. Khazan continued, “You can’t make a joke without inserting a wicked twist, and you can’t be a comedian without holding a small amount of power, for even a short period of time, over the audience.” This also aligns with the Hobbesian and Platonic view of superiority and the connection to power: Successful comedians hold power over the audience. Comics then, to be in this field of work, must either subconsciously or consciously enjoy power. 

Another point Khazan makes is that many jokes are on the edge of appropriate and offensive. Women are less likely to commit these “violations” in humor than men. Much of male comedy comes from darkness, always pushing the line of what is acceptable and what is insulting. Maybe this is why the field of male comedians is chock-full of confirmed and alleged sexual abusers. They are comfortable making violating jokes. They like to have power and superiority over the audience. Comedy should be a space safe for everyone, but it can’t be as long as terrible men like D’Elia, C.K. and Seinfeld dominate the field.

Emily Jewett, University of San Diego

Writer Profile

Emily Jewett

University of San Diego
English, concentration in Creative Writing, minor in Political Science

I’m a senior at USD studying English, creative writing and political science. In my free time, I love to read, write and watch an excessive amount of TikTok.

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