When an arts scene slugs it out

What the Comedy on State controversy reveals about conflict and power in Madison’s entertainment world.

What the Comedy on State controversy reveals about conflict and power in Madison’s entertainment world.

Illustration: Abstract shapes and faces approximate the motions of hands and impact stars in a comic-book fight. Faces float among the shapes, some smiling and some cringing in dismay. The word “accountability” in handwritten letters edges alongside many of the shapes. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Comedy on State’s Twitter account has spent more than a week now blocking people who criticized the Madison venue’s decision to host a run of shows from Louis CK in late July. Even people who merely liked or replied to critical tweets were caught up in the tantrum. The club’s owners have made it clear they’re not interested in discussing the ethics of booking a comic who has admitted to sexual misconduct and has failed to meaningfully address that harm. The wave of Twitter blocks is at best an overzealous social-media manager ducking the flack, and at worst a small-spirited, childish attempt to opt out of a conversation that will go on whether the venue’s owners like it or not. 

What makes the ongoing storm of Louis CK discourse stand out is that Madison is having an arts-and-culture conversation that is openly adversarial. Activists, including the Madison chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, called out the club explicitly and repeatedly. They staged a protest in front of the venue during all three evenings of CK’s shows, and called for a boycott. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the chapter, though I was not involved in organizing its response to the Louis CK shows.) The chapter’s Socialist Feminist Working Group has since created souvenir buttons for people the club blocked on Twitter—decorations from the local internet wars. Many local and state media outlets thoughtfully covered the initial reactions to the booking, the protests, and a counter-programmed comedy show at Bos Meadery that raised money for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault. 

As horrible and unnecessary as this booking was, there is a silver lining: sometimes it is healthy to embrace the arts as an arena for conflict and antagonism. This particular conflict highlights some divides that Madison’s arts and culture community should keep exploring, because if we don’t, it will just culminate in more business as usual: more propping-up and laundering of bad actors, more failures to address workaday problems that impact arts and culture in Madison. And in the case of the Louis CK booking, there was little hope of having a civil conversation, so people had to stop playing nice. Really, playing nice at all costs is what Madison’s arts and culture scenes do best.

In my experience, people in Madison’s various corners of arts and entertainment don’t often air their gripes publicly. We, as a community, don’t often push enough (I include myself and Tone Madison in this criticism) for deeper discussions about who has power, how they behave, and how local entertainment businesses (which mostly are really alcohol businesses, which is a whole discussion unto itself) succeed or fail in doing right by performers and audiences. People don’t like to rock the boat or stick their necks out and possibly lose opportunities. Being the person who nitpicks and complains can be a lonely, bruising experience. People also feel, rightly, that it’s important to celebrate the good things our community has to offer. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when that positivity curdles into defensiveness, entitlement, and denial. 

We often set conflict aside, rationalizing that we’re all in this together and need to help each other out. What this really ends up meaning is that audiences and struggling artists end up helping out venues and businesses that already hold most of the money and power. It turns out it doesn’t cost that much to secure the goodwill, or at least the grudging assent, of local artists who have limited opportunities in Madison’s creative economy. If you’re an artist in Madison (I’m using that as a catch-all for people from visual artists to comics to musicians to writers), you have to strike a balance between helping to build some independent infrastructure for your own, and maintaining at least some ties to more established corners of the local entertainment industry. That is hard work, and it makes it difficult for people to risk burning bridges. 

Sometimes people take that risk and things burst out into the open. In spring 2019, more than 200 artists and their supporters signed an open letter challenging the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s business practices. The level of solidarity, across an arts community that comprises so many fragments and niches, surprised me and probably surprised the higher-ups at MMoCA, who made some changes in response to artists’ demands. Earlier in 2019, the Overture Center disastrously mishandled a panel discussion about the musical Miss Saigon, which prompted a deeper, more intense discussion of the show’s racial politics and Overture’s leadership decisions. Both of these situations involved an established institution that wouldn’t really have faced much public scrutiny unless artists and arts supporters got together to call them out. Both highlight the power imbalance that exists between artists and the entities they rely on for opportunities, whether they’re non-profit museums, for-profit venues, or simply a fellow artist with more social capital.

Not all disputes in the arts world need to become public discourse. Ages ago, a venue’s staff accidentally forwarded me an email argument with Cheap Trick’s tour manager about how many towels the band needed. I enjoyed this glimpse into the apparently damp reality of a great band, but some things are just inside baseball with no greater significance. But there are plenty of other things that deserve to be hauled into the sphere of controversy, not all of them as silly as towels and not all of them as extreme as booking a known sex pest. And they almost always involve a power imbalance.

If you want to see that imbalance play out, consider the costs people faced for speaking out  versus the costs Comedy on State is (or is not) incurred for booking CK. The Madisonians who protested CK’s shows faceda torrent of online harassment. Twitter’s finest attacked them with predictably vile, sexist insults, and offered ridiculous excuses for CK’s behavior—a lot worse than just about anything the club’s Twitter account experienced from the people it blocked. Comedy on State’s owners and managers, the Paras family, kept their heads down and offered very little public comment, though they were of course available to talk when it’s time for a puff piece or an empathetic profile. Chances are the club will suffer very little fallout beyond a reputational hit among a small segment of its overall audience. All five of the Louis CK shows sold out, and those hundreds of ticket buyers also bought drinks. Touring comedians will keep booking there and singing the club’s praises, because it’s the only comedy club in town and has a proven track record of filling seats and booking in-demand national talent. Most people heading out for an evening at a comedy club won’t concern themselves all that much with the politics of it. 

Local comics will keep performing at the club’s open mic. As any stand-up comic will tell you, it’s a craft you can’t really develop without performing in front of an audience, frequently, for a very long time. If the club’s owners don’t like what a comic says about them in public, they’re under no obligation to give that person opportunities. Comedy on State isn’t the only place in town to perform, of course. Enterprising local comics and promoters have put together independent festivals, showcases, and open mics at venues ranging from the Black Locust Café to a train car. But it’s hard to match the club at marketing, and doing well at its open mic can eventually lead to bigger opportunities to open for the big weekend headliners. Part of the club’s marketing is the comics themselves—open mic newcomers bring their friends out to see them, more experienced comics draw an audience as they hone their acts, and all these people also buy drinks. (Literally, they will buy drinks: Comedy on State, like many comedy clubs, enforces a two-drink minimum, and not buying your two drinks costs $3 per drink.) Again, that perverse imbalance: artists need a venue’s clout, but will also do a great deal of free or cheap labor to contribute to that clout. 

It is possible for venues to do the right thing and not cower from their own spotlight. Back in 2016, since-closed downtown venue The Frequency announced a ban on hip-hop shows, drawing a massive backlash. Eventually the venue’s owners stopped being defensive and took part in real, constructive discussions. In 2017, the Majestic swiftly canceled a planned Crystal Castles show after former member Alice Glass accused co-founder Ethan Kath of a history of abuse. The Majestic then set aside the show’s date for an event benefitting the Dane County Rape Crisis Center. These venues, both imperfect and both businesses dependent on ticket and alcohol sales, had the decency and self-awareness to respect how audiences felt about both specific events and the bigger issues surrounding them. Their behavior seems downright saintly compared to Comedy on State’s approach of plugging their ears and brazening it out. 

Those who defended the Louis CK show generally do so with glib “vote with your dollars”-type logic. (Well, when they don’t stoop to “just whip your dick out whenever at anyone, apparently,” logic.) They claim the people who bought tickets were clearly happy, and people who don’t like Louis CK don’t have to go to the show, right? This argument, of course, sidelines the significance of what venues do. The bookings and other decisions a venue makes tells you something about the judgment and values at work there, and about what kind of people the venue wants to appeal to. Booking a man who has admitted to sexual misconduct—and made a big comeback with stupid transphobic jokes clearly aimed at scraping for that anti-cancel-culture dollar, a truly sad abasement that felt like a certain Louie promo come to life—sends a message. It shows a lack of respect for people who’ve survived sexual harassment or assault. It signals that your venue is not a good or considerate place for those outside of a certain kind of boys’ club—a big enough problem in comedy, and in nearly all arts and entertainment circles, as it is. 

Entertainment venues don’t have to be anything more than businesses. When they aren’t simply trying to pack a room full of people who don’t particularly object to sexual assault, they are also catering to our need for deeper, more intangible things. We accept that our relationship with art is transactional, but when we walk into a show we want something that’s not just another of that day’s transactions. And we feel quite a sting when a venue and/or a performer treats these aspects as beneath their concern entirely. That’s why we sometimes need the more confrontational approach some Madisonians have taken with Comedy on State over its decision to book CK. Sometimes you have to air your grievances and fight it out.

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