Monday, December 6, 2010

Freedom (in Comedy) and a Call to Arms

“ has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense.” -- Noam Chomsky

[Note: The idea of “free speech” presented here is NOT the technical legal “right” to it. Obviously we all have that “right,” in theory. However, in our society and more specifically the industry of stand up comedy, censorship is accomplished through systemic means in the name of “business” or “industry.” I would like to combat those forces.]

Let’s not bullshit ourselves: free speech is a farce. Freedom of press, ditto. These “freedoms” are ideological platitudes that we ascribe to ourselves and our society simply because we exalt them in theory, but in practice we are often their hypocritical opponents.

While I believe that all people should defend freedom of expression, I can not stop anyone from opposing it. But I can respond to that opposition. Journalists, writers, comedians, editorialists, actors, painters, or anyone whose very existence implies and relies on freedom of expression should all be vehemently defending these rights without question. The fact that there is not a united front on these issues is the reason those “rights” are eroding under various guises of “national security,” corporate interests, “political correctness,” “offensiveness,” etc. These masks are all fraudulent platforms and they need to be systematically castrated.

As a stand up comedian, I am presenting this community - and any other interested parties - with a call to arms. Our rights are being violated not by a fascist censorship, but rather a systemic one with the drive for money at the heart of it. I will start with two personal anecdotes.

Comedy Club on State - Madison, WI

In May 2010, I had an incident with a heckler. I have covered this story before, so I will keep it brief. It’s mostly included in the video. If you haven’t seen this, please watch. If you have already seen this, just refresh yourself with my closing comments on it. There is no need to re-watch me calling someone a cunt, unless you get off on that sort of thing.

After this video was up for a few days, I decided to take it down. (I’ve recently reposted it to assist this particular story.) Not because I didn’t believe in its content, but because I was ready to bury the hatchet. (This is months ago, back when I still believed in the potential of diplomacy.) I decided to accept the ban, and try and mend fences after the year expired. So, a few months later, I emailed the club, telling them that I accept their one year ban in hopes that we can continue our great relationship next year. Four months later, they still had not responded...

I called the club on Friday, December 3rd, to follow up on that sentiment. I was told that because I posted that video I was banned for life. They said it was disrespectful to the club. I argued that to accept a banning without explaining my side of the story would be disrespectful to MYSELF. Eve, the general manager, said more or less that she didn’t care and I will never perform there again. She then told me to never call that number again. Then she hung up.

First of all, the video was factual. However, since it was inconvenient to the club’s business, I was banned for it which is a deeper example of opposition to freedom of speech. My “banning” has consequences. The booking agency of that room books many other rooms and values this room’s opinion. So, given that they banned me, I now have a reputation based on that opinion. However, the agency was not privy to the actual events, nor was anyone else. So, I posted the video which is the truth. Certainly people will think what I did was wrong, however nobody should deny my right to do it. My intention was to be funny, even if it was at the expense of the heckler. Regardless of your opinion, that was my intention and there were many people who found it funny.

That video, when it was posted, was littered with comments of token support. “Hilarious, Drew. Fuck them for banning you.” These were mostly written by comics, many of whom continue to seek work from and therefore support that club. Now, on an individual basis, I don’t necessarily blame them. There are many who subscribe to the belief that “this is a business and you made your own bed, and while I may agree with your sentiment I shouldn’t have to pay the consequences for YOUR actions.” And sure, there is a point to that. However, that is precisely the attitude which allows the erosion of our freedom and power.

We are fragmented and isolated and the clubs use the power of opportunity cost against us. We are all trying to “make it” in this business and it is one such that any missed opportunity could be catastrophic. Everyone is afraid to stand up to a club because it might mean a banning for them as well. I understand that. But if everyone is this afraid then they will continue to wield their power against us.

It is only by the process of unification under a fundamental banner that we can continue to exist with some level of autonomy. Marxist shit. (To those who say we should start our own comedy clubs, I want to note that this process is not JUST about comics vs. clubs but rather the battle for freedom of expression against those who oppose it (the public, the media, etc.) as we will see later on. Also, I argue that one should not have to validate his/her right to opinion by earning enough money.) With respect to the clubs, this idea of fragmentation/isolation is why comedy unions were tried in L.A .at the Comedy Store in ’79 and the early 2000s in NYC. I believe there was a movement here in Chicago as well back in the 90s.

I’m not necessarily advocating for a labor union (yet), but I AM advocating a united front on specific issues, namely that of freedom of expression. In this specific case, if the club in Madison received numerous emails from my supporters, comics and audience alike, my fate would not have necessarily been sealed (or at least not so rapidly). Of course, not a single individual sent such an email. I was completely isolated and therefore easily defeated by a much more powerful opponent.

Red Bar Comedy Club - Chicago, IL

That Friday was a rough day for me. Later that night I performed at the Red Bar Comedy Club in downtown Chicago. I was doing a short, 10 minute guest set. I had worked on a new bit earlier that week that I was going to do at the club. The bit focuses on the word “nigger.” The premise behind it being that since there is such high emotion, high octane emotion and sensitivity among blacks and whites alike surrounding that word, we are constantly told that it is FORBIDDEN to say. Basic human principle is such that when we are told not to do something, we immediately want to do it. So, I claim that by being told not to say the word, it makes me want to say it. And yes, I say the actual word, nigger, because I don’t believe in copping to its euphemisms for the sake of others.

Anyway. I performed my new bit to a great response on Thursday, the night before, at an open mic in front of about 40 people. Here is the audio:

After that set I was told by people, black and white alike, that the bit is great. Even Dave Odd, the producer of the room, said “good work” and I think he hates me more than anyone. I’m not an idiot: I know the use of the word “nigger” is dicey and will cause issues with people. So, given its success, I was that much more excited to do it at the club on Friday night. I did. Here is the audio:

Okay, awkward silence. Nobody heckling, decrying what I said. Nobody even seemed offended, just upset that that I wasn’t being funny. (It’s possible that they were offended, albeit silently, but it honestly felt different than that.) That’s fair. It’s possible that I performed the bit differently than the night before, different timing, cadence, or attitude which led to its failure. It’s possible that the bit is not quite ready, or simply unfunny. Regardless, the audience responded how they did. I finished on a more time-tested bit and got off stage. That’s when the mayhem started. The owners of the club were angry with me for doing a risky bit that had not been worked out long enough. Understandable. I apologized for that. However, given the response it had gotten, as well as my conviction in it, I honestly thought it was ready. Error in judgment.

After this, I was sold out by a fellow performer who was in attendance. Brian Babylon, a Chicago comic, posted slanderous things about me on his Facebook page which was received by many other comics, bookers, et al. This hurt me. For one, it was a fraudulent allegation which had actual negative consequences. People read that post/thread and now have a perception of me as a racist or a “bad seed” without knowing the facts. One local producer even threatened to “handle” me on a morning radio show. It was insane. I understand that some of those people are Brian’s close friends and they will take his word over mine any day of the week, but that is why I’m firing at Brian. HE chose to sell me out and for that I am criticizing HIM. He started a chain of slander that will make it basically impossible for me to work the South Side of Chicago. Not that I worked it much anyway, but still, this is horrendous given that it is censorship WITHIN the community.

Secondly, we are supposed to have each others’ back in this fight. Whether or not one agrees with what I said on stage does not take away from my right to say it... especially when I’m someone who has at least SOME credibility in stand up. I am clearly not clueless on stage. I headline the club. What I was doing was clearly in the interest of comedy, especially given the response the bit got the night before. It’s offensive that one would try and limit my opportunity to experiment, no matter how “risky” the territory. We can’t be judging solely on the basis of whether or not the jokes get laughs, but rather if they were INTENDED to get laughs. EVERY joke has gone through a process of not getting laughs at some point. That doesn’t take away from one’s right to say it and work through it. The subject matter of the joke should not limit its ability to be tested. Anyone who believes otherwise is an opponent to free speech.

The Michael Richards (“Kramer”) incident was mentioned a few times. Now, obviously I don’t believe that he and I are even in remotely comparable territories, but I will go ahead and assume that comparison because it doesn’t change my stance. I will defend Richards with pleasure and ease.

The Michael Richards fiasco was a failure. Not because of the tirade he went on, but rather because he was sold out by the hypocritical community that should have supported him or at least supported his right to do what he did. He was isolated and therefore easily defeated.

Obviously you will be hard-pressed to find someone who agrees with the CONTENT of his tirade, but that doesn’t deny his right to say it. Imagine he was yelling at a pro-lifer or somebody who didn’t believe in gay rights. All of the hypocritical liberals would be posting that video on their Facebook pages, calling the guy a hero. It’s insane. Or what if he were yelling at a woman? Case in point: look at how comics responded to my clip from Madison and/or how everyone exalts Bill Hicks’ Funny Firm tirade.

Is it only because these are funnier or get more laughs than Richards’? Maybe, but maybe people only laughed at Hicks or at me because they agreed with the sentiment. I bet a bona fide racist would have laughed his ass off at what Richards said. In fact, I bet many of YOU laughed your ass off at how insane it was while you watched it on YouTube behind the safety of your Macbook screen. But regardless, whether or not something is funny does not change the validity of its message nor the comic’s right to say it.

We have to assume, especially with an immensely credible comic-actor like Michael Richards, that the intention was to be funny. It doesn’t always pan out. However, it is only when the performer does something with which we disagree (or think we’re supposed to disagree) that we strive to deny him/her the right to say it. But that just goes back to the initial Chomsky quote: our real commitment to freedom of speech is only tested when confronted with “horrendous” ideas, as the good and palatable ideas require no such defense. It’s a hypocritical stance.

Richards should not have apologized to anyone except possibly the club owner for not making the crowd laugh, thus failing to do the job for which he was hired (a task at which many people fail, and one can argue that no such apologies are necessary in each case). It is for precisely these reasons that I refused to apologize to the woman from Madison nor will I apologize for anything I say on stage, ever (unless I misstate a fact or statistic or something). These should be TRUISMS, especially in the stand up community. We are already fragmented and isolated by the “industry,” whether it be by clubs, television, management, NACA, whatever; to permit or advance infighting is exponentially disastrous and possibly fatal.

Imagine what the aftermath would have been if every single comic came out in support of Michael Richards. People called him racist. Even if he is, so what? Does that mean he can’t perform? You think he’s the only racist in comedy? You think you can eliminate all the homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, etc. from comedy by banning people if they say something that’s not PC? That’s insane. That will just stop the vocalization of those thoughts, but the thoughts and feelings will prevail. The only way to reach a higher state of collective consciousness is by discussing these things openly and honestly. In order to do that, we have to allow people the right to say what they’d like, even if we disagree with it. One’s ideology should not disallow them from performing unless you believe in Stalin-like censorship. Again, irreconcilable with freedom of speech.

What do we do?

There are endless numbers of cases like this in comedy (Bill Hicks vs. David Letterman) and otherwise. This is a call to arms. Stand up for these ideals in which you claim to believe. (Pun unavoidable, sorry.) Don’t fall into the category of every other hypocritical American - speak up. Freedom of expression is a very basic, relatively black and white issue. You either believe in it or you don’t. Yes, people have the right to react however they do as well. That’s their choice (or socially programmed response). But we have the right to respond.

To anyone, especially those who do stand up comedy -- which is supposed to be a beacon of free speech, a field in which we are supposed to QUESTION the boundaries we are given -- if you claim to support free speech but don’t actually stand up for it, then you are a hypocrite. (Conversely, if you DON’T support free speech, then admit that and own that position.) Don’t just support it tacitly with Facebook “Like”s, etc. Defend it. Fight for it. If someone infringes on this right, be rabid and vocal in your response, ESPECIALLY in cases like Richards where it’s so easy to hate him.

This is a VERY SMALL community (stand up in general, not just Chicago) and one in which we can all actually make fundamental differences. Due to the stresses of business and money, freedom of expression and freedom of press is eroding and rotting in front of our eyes. But most of us would rather ignore it because that might open up an opportunity to do a 6 minute guest set at [insert any of the plethora of parody comedy club names]. The only way to prevent it is to fight back in droves.

You will see many detractors who mock this as a juvenile fight for the right to say “cunt,” but this is much more than that. Many rooms limit what you can say, what topics you can talk about. It’s insane. People will say, “Well it’s a business!” Yeah, but that business mentality only helps the club owners and promoters. Bill Hicks was cut from Letterman because their pro-life sponsor didn’t approve of his pro-life joke. Is that freedom? It’s a business... yeah, a fucking soulless one. The clubs and networks do it for their sake, so they can maximize the number of nacho “munchies” they sell alongside their daiquiris or the number of minds they can numb with their cathode rays so they can make a stronger presentation to Tide. The comics don’t see shit from that. All they get is an opportunity to take part in a bastardized, left-field-wall version of the art form for which they sacrifice and if they play the game right, they can earn a few dollars and maybe have their own TV show, consolation prizes which amount to nothing when compared to their stifled creative freedom.

If we are unified against these powers, the industry would adapt. We have to force the industry to recognize this right. Imagine if every comic came out in favor of Hicks and said, “In the name of free speech, we won’t do your show unless you air his set.” Now we have a battle between ad dollars and righteousness. (To take it further, what if every screenwriter, TV writer, etc. refused to curb THEIR content. What would TV advertisers and networks do then?) At least it’s a fight. Of course, nobody spoke up and defended Hicks because they were hoping they would be the replacement comic. Just another example of how our current system pits the people against each other.

How can the clubs or TV reconcile a free speaking comic with the public’s desire for “safe” entertainment? One possibility is BE FUCKING HONEST. Tell them it’s impossible to make everyone like everything. If the industry is the liaison to the public, then have it explain, “Look, you might be offended by this or that, but understand that the thing you were laughing at might offend somebody else. We can’t draw any lines because if we give in to every single complaint, we will have people up there only talking about clouds or sandals. And even then, you’d have people complaining about how the comic made fun of MY favorite brand of sandal and that’s not right...” Treat the public with some fucking respect and tell them the truth. Don’t give in to the fear of losing their money.

With a united front, we can force the industry to either adapt or collapse. Both outcomes are good things because in its current form it is unacceptable. If the stand up industry collapses under pressures that demand for free speech, then perhaps we need to look deeper and direct our efforts toward the system as a whole (something we should be doing anyway).

Perhaps I overestimate the potential of this field and/or its constituent people. Maybe stand up is just another cog in the Entertainment wheel and we should all be shooting for Hollywood. Maybe we should accept our fate as the limited, social jester-hamsters, free to do all of the things we want so long as we keep people spending. I don’t think I want to support an industry like that. This is a cry of hope.

Until we are united and in lock step on this issue (and perhaps others), we can’t fight these basic infringements. We need to shatter the illusions that pervade our communication and infringe on our rights in society and in our chosen “field.” What would the comedy club business do if every single comic vowed in unison to never capitulate to language requirements? What would you say on stage, in the name of comedy, if you knew that every single comic had your back and would defend your right to say it?

Imagine the possibilities...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mary Fakhoury is Fucking Insane

Let me set this up for you. I did a show on Monday, November 22nd at the Elbo Room, a great venue on Lincoln just north of Diversey. It was a really good lineup that included Jacob Williams, Prescott Tolk, Joe Kilgallon, Marty DeRosa, and me, in that order. The crowd was light, only about 15 people or so, but they were nonetheless engaged. There was a music show set to take place directly after the comedy show. During Joe’s set, a woman started wandering the room looking for... something. This is Mary Fakhoury, our hero. She was slated to sing after us. I’m not exactly sure what happened between this and my set, so I will try to summarize as objectively as possible.

Joe engaged Mary because she was being distracting, either by walking or by talking at an audible volume. (I’m half deaf so if I could hear her, EVERYONE could hear her.) Basically, Mary said she goes by “M” and that she could sing in three languages: Arabic, French, and Spanish. Joe made fun of her for not listing English.

During Marty’s set, it was more of the same. She kept talking and Marty, no slouch when it comes to crowd work, riffed some more on this weirdo. At some point she claimed to be “worldly” and “cultured.” Either way, a huge distraction to the show.

I went up last, after Marty. I don’t need to describe what happened because I have the audio here:

So yeah. Funny epilogue: after she left, she complained to her back-up band and the manager of the bar about what happened. She got even more infuriated when they took my side. So infuriated, in fact, that she left the venue and didn’t even perform her singing show! So then, the back up band which she hired to play, came up to me and shook my hand, thanking me for what I did. Apparently, she and her “manager” paid the back up band up front. The manager called later asking for half the money back and was promptly told to “screw.”

This is all hilarious to me, for obvious reasons. I thought it was over at that point. Unfortunately, when you assume sanity in another individual, you are often bitten in the ass by the fangs of fate...

I woke up the following morning and got this Facebook message from Mary Fakhoury on November 23 at 8:44 AM:

remember me the "KUNT" you should never be on stage your a talentless person and and the lowest was the "n" word wow! look up this cunt you have 700 views pathetic, I have 4 million look it up, and your so lucky my brother was not there, btw I also work for FOX news and they are so interested in the story, you can look up my news friends if you don't believe me: your career is going to be over, you opened up for tracy morgan who happens to be a black man and you have the audacity to use that word, what a story this will be your nothing but a low class peice of trash

So, at 2:38 PM, I responded:


Holy shit, Fox News! I can't wait to get some press. Since Fox News always values the facts of a story more than the angle, let's get some facts straight:

1. I didn't use "the 'n' word," I used "nigger." I didn't call anyone a nigger, I said that you should be nice to me because, since you were going on after me, I could make everyone leave by saying "nigger" an absurd number of times.

2. I have never opened for Tracy Morgan. Even if I had, I'm not sure what that has to do with anything. I have opened up for my friend Hannibal Buress, who is also a black man. Does that help your nonsensical "argument?"

3. "Your" is possessive; "you're" is a contraction for "you are."

4. Nobody is interested in your story.

The only reason you are doing this is because you were acting like a cunt last night and you got called out on it. I, along with the other performers, popped the bubble of your delusional narrative in which you tell yourself you are a good, upstanding woman. That belief is in direct contradiction with reality.

By continuously talking, you treated the show, the performers, and the audience with such contemptuous disdain that the only valid explanation is that you are a cunt. I explained this to you in detail at the show. At first I thought, "Ah, she's probably drunk." But now that I see a lucid articulation of your inner monologue, it is obvious that you are a self-entitled, bone-stupid, cunty cunt. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that, but don't deny your identity! Be proud! The cunts have a very colorful history. Hell, a lot of U.S. Presidents were cunts. Maybe one day YOU could be President! Barry Bonds is a cunt and he has hit more home runs than anyone! (Well, anyone except Josh Gibson, another black man for whom I've never opened.)

You are just angry with yourself that you got stomped by a 25 year old dude. So, you have to be outraged now and act like someone else is to blame. It's childish. Look within yourself and figure out what it is that makes you so thoughtless and self-important. Maybe the (supposed) 4 million views have gone to your head. Maybe your pantsuit job at Fox News is inflating your ego. Or maybe you're just a cunt who needs to have her cunt fucked. If the latter is the case, send me your number and I'll give you plenty to be thankful for on Thursday...

Happy holidays!


She writes back:

your mentally ill and this will be posted everywhere, your a no talent peice of shit. period

And I write back:

Great! I will send you the audio from the show, a head shot, and my contact info so I can be rightfully credited. Let me know where this will be posted so I can send the link to my family and friends!

Thanks for helping me promote myself. You're a doll.

PS. See fact #3. You obviously missed it the first time.

At this point, she blocks me on Facebook. I then get a message from her brother, Hani Fakhoury:

hey mother fucker, can't wait for your next show, your going to be carried out in an ambulance promise you that

So I responded:

God damn it, didn't anyone teach your family how to use "you're," the proper contraction of "you are?"

Let me know which show you'd like to attend and I'll make sure to add you to the comp list!

He then told me to “keep it up.”

I then get word from someone that Mary has gone ape shit on Facebook/Twitter. I have a screen shot of what her Twitter account looked like:

Last night I got a phone call from the manager of Timothy O’Toole’s, the bar where we put up Comedians You Should Know. Apparently Mary called and talked their ear off for 45 minutes about how I threatened to rape her and how she is going to continue to call every venue she knows that books me.

And that brings us to now. First of all, I admire your patience in reading this far. Secondly, what the fucking fuck? I mean, okay, look, I get it. She’s mad. She wants to assert herself in this world where she feels alone and without meaning. Okay, fine. I’ve done my share of stalky behavior. (Ironically, it has been fun watching someone stalk really badly because it makes me appreciate how good I actually am.) But we’re dealing with true insanity here. Impervious to reason, the whole thing. I don’t know WHERE she is getting this Tracy Morgan stuff, but apparently it’s the crux of her argument against me. I suppose my completely contextual, non-racist use of the word “nigger” is even more offensive to her because, in her mind and ONLY her mind, I have opened for Tracy Morgan, a black man. How does this indict me, exactly? Not only does she think I’m racist, but she thinks I’m doing it behind Tracy Morgan’s back! Like I work my way up the ladder to get the opportunity to perform in front of Tracy Morgan, but secretly whenever he turns his back I’m just spouting the n word to anyone who will listen. “Fuck that stupid nigger! He’s such a nigger that he doesn’t even know I hate him because he’s a nigger!” This is what she is claiming?!

I have no idea... I honestly can’t make heads or tails out of her thought process. I am trying to imagine her inner monologue, but I can’t even believe it’s a coherent string of words. I imagine it’s just the “Song that Never Ends” from Lamb Chop supplemented with imagery of midget rape. I honestly don’t even know how to combat this foray of insanity. Every possible idea I come up with is - and should very well be - illegal.

That is all... for now.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Censorship" and Other Offensive Words

Censorship. Let's do it.

I'm a stand up comedian, or I work as one at (infrequent) times. Regardless, I have spent many nights performing stand up, driving to gigs, working with a variety of bookers, et al. I haven't seen everything, but I have seen my fair share. A small preface... I view stand up as a perfectly valid form of expression. It's an art. If you see the world a certain way and you share that perspective with others, that is artistic communication. So, the things I am going to say about stand up can be extended to any art form. Specifically, I'd like to talk about the idea of "working clean." This is a ubiquitous concept in the world and it is one with which I vehemently take issue.

To clarify, "working clean" is a form of censorship. The idea behind “working clean” is it is an effort to not offend the consumers (money spenders). It’s part of this politically correct mode of communication in which the communicator/artist (comedian) is limited in what he/she may express so as to not "offend" the listening public. The public, in their utmost role-acting, should they hear a curse word or an “offensive” idea, take it upon themselves to become offended. They are not actually offended, but they become so because either a) they are told that what they just heard is offensive or, b) the idea being expressed is so diametrically opposed to the listener's preconceived notion of reality that the two are completely and utterly irreconcilable; the resulting conflict in disparity thus causes the particular level of "offense." People are fools. They like to compartmentalize and categorize the world in "understandable" terms. People don't like not knowing, so they create a reality inside their minds which is tenable and satisfying to them. When that reality is challenged, and a valid hole is poked into that prism, the individual's insecurities come pouring out. They feel naked and they "take offense" at the one who poked said hole for exposing the tits of their prism to the world.*

When people become offended, they are often not likely to pay money... and this makes businesses angry. So, in an effort to mitigate such losses, bookers, business owners, TV execs, and other various suits have taken it upon themselves to censor the performer. "Work clean," they'll say. "No F-bombs, C-word, N-word, pussy jokes, shit jokes, race jokes, cancer jokes, abortion jokes, rape jokes, shit-rape jokes, abortion-shit rapes, joke shits, or live abortions." But therein lies an issue: when you eradicate all potentially “offensive” words, ideas, imagery, you water down the piece of expression to an absolutely, and abhorrently dishonest and unfree level. It is tainted, marred with capitalist interests and devoid of artistic merit and freedom. If you cut out ANY part of the idea, you make it something other than what it is meant to be. Draw one line, draw them all... a notion that can not be reconciled with artistic freedom! In the absence of freedom (and therefore the absence of honesty), the art is reduced to nothing more than the vacant flaunting of ability in craft. It is here where we reach censorship's counterintuitive truth: in an effort to create a piece of art that is devoid of offensive content, what emerges is in fact an incredibly dishonest and therefore truly OFFENSIVE product.

* An oversimplification: For example, if someone makes a Holocaust joke and it offends someone, what is really taking place is this: the person who got offended maintained the belief that the Holocaust CAN NOT be funny. However, the comedian believes and demonstrates that it can (or parts of it can from a certain perspective), thus poking a hole in the other's reality. The resulting dissipation of insecurity leads the audience member to feel offended.