By John Dick Winters
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
January 24 2019, is my seven-year stand-a-versary. After months of lurking around the Tuesday open mic at the Smiling Moose on the South Side of Pittsburgh, I decided I was ready. I was brought up to the stage by then stranger, now business partner in the Burning Bridges Comedy Club, Derek Minto. I was incredibly fortunate with a very welcoming crowd that evening, rarely the case for this particular open mic. I told predominantly mean-spirited jokes at the expense of my twin daughters, very Louis CK-esque.
The past seven years have been an interesting, and at times, thoroughly fulfilling journey. I’ve opened for famous comics, comics whom I deeply respect (not always the same thing), won contests, traveled the country, done comedy festivals, made some of my closest friends, produced countless shows, started my own festival and at some point became a pretty good comedian. But ultimately, and most importantly, I’ve become a better person through standup.
What I considered funny seven years ago compared to today, is worlds apart. When I started I was crude, foul, aggressive and most importantly, not very funny. I’d say the F-word freely. I’m not talking about “fuck,” BTW. I did a number of problematic things. I honestly don’t recall if I ever wrote a rape joke but I 100% defended those who did under the guise of “anything can be joked about.” That was then. Much has changed in me since January 24 2012.
I traveled the country meeting countless talented jokesters. These people wrote honest, deep and deeply silly bits. They ran shows that cultivated non-P.C., but thoughtful humor; comedy full of empathy and understanding from a progressive point of view. And little by little, every time I met one of these humans, they rubbed off on me. They made me want to be funnier. To be smarter. To be more than I was.
Maybe two or three years in I was getting very serious about stand up. I had started doing some DIY touring in bars, garages, the occasional living room, basically wherever I could book a show. I had gotten better on stage but still had a long way to go (still do in fact). I was at this point I started looking into getting club work — working at real comedy clubs as an emcee or a feature (middle) act. A full weekend at a club is typically six shows between Thursday and Sunday and pay was typically between $300-1000 depending. I was chatting with a local comic here in Pittsburgh who had been doing this for years, and he very nonchalantly told me that I’d never work clubs. Not because I wasn’t funny enough but because I was too “alt” or I was too “punk”. I forget the way he worded it but basically he was saying I was too outside the mainstream of stand up comedy to ever get any club work. And for awhile, I believed him.
I kinda gave up on the idea that I could ever work clubs. Another year or two passed and now I’m getting pretty good. I’m opening for a lot of big name comics here in town at the independent venues: The Rex, Club Cafe, Mr. Smalls, Altar Bar(RIP), etc. And I’m producing my own shows fairly successfully as well as producing the Burning Bridges Festival. I don’t need to work at clubs, but man did I still want to. Not just because the money is good, but cause fuck that guy who told me I couldn’t and fuck me for believing him.
Now, let me get to the real reason I’m writing this. About two weeks ago, I booked not one, but two clubs for paid emcee and feature work. Go Bananas in Cincinnati and the Improv right here in Pittsburgh. It took dang near seven years but hey, I’m just happy for the opportunity. An opportunity which I feel I’ve earned. I was going to emcee for comedian Pete Lee from Feb.14-17.
I was elated … for about a week.
Just a few days after being booked at the Pittsburgh Improv they announced that Louis CK would be there Jan 24-25th! What a great stand-a-versary present! I assume the sarcasm is obvious. But for the uninformed, CK was on the top of the comedy awards when multiple accusations surfaced in the past few years that CK masturbated in front of several women comics over the years. He eventually confirmed the allegations and his comedy career came to an abrupt stop. However in the past year or so, he began performing again in clubs around the country.
One thing I take incredibly seriously as someone who books upwards of 200 shows a year at my own venue and comedy festival, is not working with people who are fucking creeps. And there are a lot of them out there, lemme tell ya, at all levels of comedy. It’s one thing to have these progressive, liberal beliefs but they mean literally zero if you won’t act on them when needed. As a straight white guy who has some power in my field, I take my role as an ally seriously. I want my shows to be a comfortable place for women, PoC, LGBTQ, and anyone else to perform. In the past, I’ve shut down shows, banned comedians and stood my ground as far as drawing a line in the sand concerning who I will and will not work with.
I’m not bragging. I’m really not. It’s a common complaint I hear on the independent comedy community, especially from women, about these folks who produce and book shows that let fucking creeps perform. These producers talk a big progressive game, saying all the right things and knowing all the buzz words, and then let scumbags do their show because they don’t want to create any waves. I talked to other comedians about my situation and every one of them told me that i shouldn’t let Louie being at the Improv disrupt something I’ve worked hard for years to get.
Well, fuck that. I’m definitely not a perfect person, I have my own demands and have been called out, rightfully so for my own mistakes. But I won’t let that hinder me from doing whatever I can to stop this bullshit whenever possible.
So I’m backing out of my weekend at the Pittsburgh Improv. Not that they’ll care. Not that really anyone besides me will care. $300 isn’t worth it to me to be a hypocrite. I’ve worked really hard at both the comedy and the business side of stand up. And I’ve become, albeit a small one, a gatekeeper of our little Pittsburgh comedy scene. And I don’t want to work with anyone that will work with Louis CK or anyone like Louis CK.
I hope other comedians out there will do the same.