Get me home safe: the stark reality for women who work in comedy

If you happen to be a comedian who isn’t male, the road home isn’t so simple. Ahead of a special one-off fundraising gig on December 9, comedian Amanda Kennedy writes about the dangers of simply getting home – and what’s being done to solve it.

Content warning: Article discusses the impact of physical and sexual assault.

Working in comedy means late nights, drunk punters hanging around, and always leaving work in the dark. Sometimes you get a lift home. Sometimes, if you live close enough, or you’re poor enough, you put on your headphones, hold your keys in your hand, and walk. Sometimes you drive, if you have a car, but you still must walk, both towards and out of dark car parks. Sometimes you take public transport, but you must still walk: walk through the city to wait in a dark street or an empty train station, then walk in dark streets when you get off at your stop.

Roberta*, a comedian who doesn’t drive, has stopped taking the bus home after comedy events. After a man masturbated at her on the bus, a man made kissy noises and tried to spit on her on the bus, and yet another man followed her from the bus stop all the way to her front door, she now spends nearly half her income on Ubers.

Comedian Melanie Bracewell was walking from the bus stop to her home once, when “some random dude” started pulling her arm and wouldn’t let go. “I had just started comedy and it was terrifying.”

Driving doesn’t always keep you safe, either. Comedian Livi Reihana parked in her sister’s street to text her to unlock the front door. Two men appeared, banging on her windows, trying the doors, yelling and staring at her. Livi called the police, who escorted her to the house.

Sometimes, just getting to your car is distressing. Near Auckland’s Classic Comedy Bar there’s a dimly lit, grimy Council car park at the bottom of Myers Park, grimly referred to by many as “the rape zone” and often the only parking available nearby on busy nights. Bar staff and male comedians will walk us to our cars there when possible, but if you want to leave before the show ends, or the bar is busy, you’re on your own with the leering comments, the staggering drunks, the meth-heads and the people synnied out on the stairs.

Sometimes it’s the punters that make you afraid to leave a gig alone. There is, in the world today, a peculiar type of anger directed at comedians who aren’t what men expect – that is to say, aren’t men – and lots of them deal with their feelings by seeking out the comedian in question and doing their best to take them down a peg, humiliate them, or just rattle off a few threats.

While you’re inside the building, this is manageable, even if you do just want to flick them in the forehead. But once outside of the building, away from staff and security, they are more free, and more dangerous. Groups of men have grabbed and hugged me on the footpath. I’ve seen comedians physically lifted off the ground up by men in groups, I’ve had my ass smacked outside by men in groups, I’ve had my hair pulled; Livi has had her breasts groped.

A man in a group once grabbed my arm to stop me after a set. I thought he was going to give me a compliment, because he was smiling and seemed happy. “See you in the carpark,” he said. I was confused and asked why. “To give you a fucking hiding.”

Sarah,* another woman in our industry, was seriously attacked while walking home as a new comic after a late show. “A guy approached me and wouldn’t leave me alone despite repeated requests,” she says. “He asked to come to my house, and asked multiple sexual questions. He then grabbed me and [only] ran away when I started screaming and hitting him. He came back a minute later and put his hand over my mouth, telling me not to scream, but I fought him anyway.” She screamed, she fought back, and when she broke free, she ran home.

Few men in comedy have ever run through the night with pure cold terror propelling them. 

Many women in comedy have.

I keep feeling the urge to pull back on these stories and situations, because I don’t want it to be too much or too dramatic. But it really isn’t. In June of this year, aspiring Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered on her way home from a comedy gig.

Everybody in New Zealand comedy was frozen. It was all we talked about for days. It wasn’t even unusual news, in that women read about the deaths of women at the hands of men all the time. We frequently imagine it was us, or it was our friend, and this time it was. A comedian, murdered after a gig: someone saw her on her way home and decided to take her life for himself.

Not long after Eurydice’s memorial was desecrated by a young man, myself and my comedy duo partner undertook a short survey of 61 women and non-binary people who were or are in comedy in New Zealand. It was sobering.

While walking back to their car or public transport, 98% feel afraid, 79% have experienced harassment, and 36% – more than a third! – have been attacked or assaulted.

The private details that poured into our private messages were particularly upsetting. One person reported being raped on the way home from an event, and others had experienced attempted rapes. One woman advised that as she is transgender, experiencing violence in public isn’t unusual anyway.

As you’d then expect, 51% reported being unable to do comedy gigs because of a lack of safe and affordable transport home. Personal safety was described as a “huge factor” in whether or not one woman accepts gigs, and another said the cost of ubering to and from gigs to stay safe was a “massive financial burden.”

One of the things we hear a lot in comedy is that there isn’t enough representation. The acts are overwhelmingly men at every level, and honestly, this isn’t because men are the funniest type of person. Half the population is women, and an important percentage again non-binary, and part of the reason we miss out on these voices in comedy is because it’s not safe. 

We all do comedy to make people laugh and have a wonderful time. We all deserve to get home happy and in one piece afterwards. And this isn’t always happening. 

Comedy isn’t known for making it rain cash, and even for quickly successful comics it can take a while to start getting paid properly, so younger and newer comedians are particularly at risk. The only obvious solution is a practical one: get people home full stop.

So our industry has started an initiative to help our community: it’s called GetMeHomeNZ, and will provide a free transport service available to anyone working professionally in comedy who is a woman, nonbinary or otherwise vulnerable person and needs to get home.

If you’ve ever enjoyed comedy in Aotearoa, you can help keep our funny community safe just by coming along to One Hell of a Comedy Night, a fundraiser at Q Theatre with some of the biggest names in NZ comedy. This show, which we hope to put on every year, will ensure an annual injection of cash (you can buy tickets here). A Givealittle campaign has also been launched for those who can’t come to the show but want to support the cause (you can contribute here).

We are furious that the only practical solution appears to be ensuring as few of us as possible are available as prey. Ideally, men just wouldn’t harass, assault, rape and murder others who are making their way home. Like, that would be a good solution.

But this is next best.

* Some names have been changed

Amanda Kennedy is one half of multi award-winning New Zealand musical comedy duo The Fan Brigade, along with Livi Reihana

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