Luck kept her safe that night when emotion overcame her. She had just walked away from her passion. She had finally quit comedy.
“I never felt more like myself than when I was on stage, and I hope I can get that feeling back somehow,” Vaughan says. “If it’s not in comedy, then somehow.”
For Vaughan and many other female comedians, Dallas comedy is no laughing matter. They describe Dallas comedy’s culture as riddled with sexism, misogyny and intimidation, where "paying your dues" means being on the end of endless microaggressions that can escalate quickly. To succeed, some women say, they must be submissive, and those who dare speak out are often mocked, ridiculed and pushed out.
Vaughan’s comedy career began December 2016, when her father gifted her with a comedy class at the former Dallas Comedy House. Within a year and a half, she was teaching comedy, performing nightly and starting to produce her own shows.
“When I started doing stand-up, it was this feeling like I'm being heard for the first time, like I just learned to speak for the first time, and I'm finally speaking the language and the art that I was meant to speak,” Vaughan says. “It felt really good to find a creative outlet.”
In February 2020, her enthusiasm landed her a weekend date opening for Saturday Night Live’s Melissa Villaseñor at the Addison Improv, but her euphoria was short-lived. The pandemic forced comedy clubs to close temporarily, and when shows returned, so did sexism. This time around, it was unbearable.
“I found that what was waiting for me in the comedy world was worse than what existed before,” Vaughan says.
Throughout her comedy career, Vaughan had endured countless uncomfortable moments, like the time she sat through a set where a male peer sexualized female comedians in the lineup. The show’s booker laughed. She once overheard male comedians and a booker casually “talking about not raping a drunk girl the night before.” She listened as comedians offstage expressed sympathy for comics Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby, both of whom have histories of sexual misconduct.
“Things like that would raise a red flag to me and say, ‘Hey this person is not safe to be around alone because they don't think that sexual, predatory sexual behavior is a bad thing,’” she says.
For Vaughan, these behaviors were instant confirmation that a person belonged on her “not-safe list.” This wasn’t a list of people she would never work with, but people with whom she would never be alone. If another female comic were to ask her about these people, she'd let them know she didn't trust them.
That July night in 2021, Vaughan saw a glimmer of hope. A comedy club owner was taken aback when she brought up these issues and discussed them with her at length. Afterward, though, her male peers extinguished all hope.
“They started saying, “Hey, if you feel this way then you shouldn't be doing comedy because it means that you're not funny enough. You should be funny enough that that stuff doesn't matter,’” Vaughan says.
It mattered. Vaughan knew the dark side of comedy. She’d been cornered and sexually harassed by an audience member.
When she told her peers, they questioned whether it was “really harassment.”
“‘If you're not tough enough to handle an audience member doing that, then maybe you shouldn't be doing stand-up, because I'm willing to do stand-up for anyone. That means I'm good enough to hang in there,’” she says they told her.
That night Vaughan quit comedy for good.
“It's so sick because you're gonna make $100 a weekend and then let people treat you like this, but that's what everyone's fighting for here,” says stand-up comedian Lauren Davis.
“If you do want a career in comedy, as a female, you have to put up with this because you only have about three options to get booked.” – comedian Lauren Davis
Davis, whose TV credentials include appearances on Fox, Hulu, Viceland and FuseTV, has navigated the profession since 2012. She’s lived and worked as a comedian in Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. While she's found no city’s comedy scene to be flawless, she believes Dallas’ is the most oppressive. Others' opinions differ.
“[The Dallas comedy scene] is the best in the state,” says local comedian and booker Ryan Perrio. “I would put the city against any city that’s not New York or L.A. There's a huge talent base here, and we're extremely talented comics for the most part.”
Perrio’s experience as a comedian dates to 2006. His website states 2010, but Perrio says the four-year difference is time invested in making a name for himself. His role as a booker takes him to venues all over Dallas to scout talent.
“If you do want a career in comedy, as a female, you have to put up with this because you only have about three options to get booked,” Davis says. “If you burn those bridges by standing up for yourself, or standing up against the misogyny or advocating for yourself, then you're pretty much blacklisted, which has happened to many people already.”
Locally, the Dallas Comedy Club, Hyena’s Comedy Nightclub and the Addison Improv are the most notable comedy stages. A headlining weekend at these clubs is the ultimate achievement. Comics spend years attending open mics, building rapport with bookers and “looking the other way” while vying for the opportunity, Davis says. For women, the opportunity may never come.
“If you're looking at 12 months of the year, you look at month after month, you'll see the majority of the headliners are men, and then the few women you see are huge, like hugely famous,” says Arlington native and stand-up comedian Jasmine Ellis. “That's a hurdle. Very few people want to take a chance on a woman if she doesn’t come with a huge following already.”
Now living in Los Angeles, Ellis has built her following from the ground up. She incorporates storytelling into her comedy, with mixed reviews.
“Some of the complaints I've gotten, that I just kind of laugh at, are like, ‘Where's the funny? I don't want to hear some lady talking about her life,’” Ellis says. “[My response is] if you want one-liners and getting straight to the point, please go watch Mitch Hedberg from 20 years ago.”
Despite the criticism, Ellis’ comedic delivery has resonated with audiences. Her comedy album Trashbaby shot to No. 1 on iTunes. NPR’s Bullseye With Jesse Thorn named Ellis’ comedy special Nobody’s Queen the 2021 Comedy Album of the Year. Yet, she continues to face the same hurdles that keep women from headlining slots.
Hyena’s Dallas and Fort Worth locations will headline only three women between now and April 2023, according to their online events calendar. The headliners are nationally acclaimed comedians Katherine Blanford, Jenny Zigrino and Helen Hong.
"The world is varied, and I think the comedy scene should reflect that, but that's not the case.” – comedian Jasmine Ellis
The Addison Improv’s schedule will headline TikTok’s Pinky Patel and Netflix’s Cristela Alonzo. Aside from a live podcast, no other women are on the Improv’s current headline schedule.
Alonzo is one of the few nationally recognized female comedians with local roots. Her comedy career was born at the Addison Improv, where she worked as an office manager in 2003, according to Texas Monthly. A chance encounter with Carlos Mencia at the Improv launched her career.
Dallas Comedy Club’s event schedule is progressive in comparison. An all-LGBTQ+ cast performs monthly for Queer Factor, an event the website describes as the “biggest gayest thing to happen at Dallas Comedy Club.” An all-women benefit show took place Oct. 28. Only two women will headline between now and April 2023.
Von Daniel, owner of The Comedy Arena in McKinney, says the lack of female headliners is not a jab at local female comedians. It’s a matter of numbers.
“Stand-up comedy as a whole, usually, is majority men so the percentage of people that are performing are men,” Daniel says. “With that said, it kind of puts women at a disadvantage already, because of the sheer numbers in visibility. There are women here in the D/FW area that I think are super, super talented, and they probably will have no problem moving up throughout the ranks.”
Daniel has owned and managed The Comedy Arena since March 2017. He is present at 90% of the venue's shows, and his phone number is written on a board in the venue’s green room.
“By making myself present and available, that makes a world of difference versus being this club owner who's elusive that you never see and just stands in the shadows and just works and just watches the shows,” Daniel says.
This presence has allowed open communication between Daniel and comedians. For Davis, that communication is lacking in the larger comedy scene.
Outside of Dallas, she leaned on comedian-organized Facebook groups to help her navigate new scenes. In these groups, comedians would post warnings and let one another know where it was safe to perform, give tips and ask for help when necessary. At the time, she was unaware of anything similar in Dallas.
Since her 2020 return to Dallas, Davis has watched countless friends and acquaintances leave comedy after being solicited, stalked or sexually assaulted. Such behavior is normalized and swept under the rug, Davis says.
Women must decide between their safety or their career. When allegations do come to light, she says local venues continue to support aggressors.
“No matter what someone has done, if they're famous enough, if they can sell the tickets, most clubs are still going to book them,” Davis says.
Louis C. K. was accused of exposing himself and masturbating in front of female comics who feared their careers would end if they complained. Bryan Callen was accused by four women of sexual misconduct and assault. Both men had shows canceled, and C.K. 's movie I Love You, Daddy was pulled by its film distributor. But that didn’t keep either of them off Dallas comedy stages. The Addison Improv continued to book both after allegations became public.
Despite this, some comedians felt safe in Dallas’ comedy spaces. In Nov. 2020, after Callen performed in Addison, comedian and producer Gretchen Young told the Observer that no matter what comedy club she was at in North Texas, it was a safe place.
But when the Improv continued to support C.K. in 2019 with four consecutive dates, Stomping Ground Theatre co-founder and artistic director Lindsay Goldapp condemned the venue in an op-ed.
“This is not unique to comedy," Goldapp tells the Observer. "It just happens to be that the comedy doesn't have an HR department that woman can go to and say, ‘I think that I may have just been sexually harassed.”
In her 20 years in comedy in Dallas and Chicago, Goldapp has heard many complaints of sexual harassment or of demands that women trade sex for stage time, and not just in Dallas. It happens everywhere, she says.
“Stand-up comedy is not an exception for this type of behavior,” he says. “It's not like this only happens in comedy. This is global.”
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission April 2022 data highlight, 98,411 charges of workplace harassment were filed between fiscal years 2018 and 2021. Women filed 62.2% of those charges and 78.2% of the sexual harassment charges.
At The Comedy Arena, Daniel incorporates his corporate background into policymaking. He says staff is bound to a zero-tolerance harassment policy. The club works with a third party to help facilitate harassment claims. Employees can call or send an email anonymously to the firm.
The club uses a “lights” communication policy. During conversation if a person says yellow, that means they are starting to feel uncomfortable and the speaker should proceed with caution. Red indicates they are uncomfortable and the speaker should stop.
Stand-up comedians are considered independent contractors. Daniel cannot bind them to The Comedy Arena’s policies.
Issues with contractors are handled on a case-by-case basis, which usually involves a conversation between the comedian and Daniel. In most cases, the conversation solves the issue. If the issue continues or is egregious, the venue terminates the relationship. The venue has had to cut ties with only two comedians.
When Davis returned to Dallas comedy in 2020, she tried to take matters into her own hands.
She created a Facebook group called “Bitchin” as a safety measure. She imagined a space for Dallas’ queer and female comedians to discuss issues within the scene and protect one another.
“I did hear an allegation about sexual assaults and I was concerned about them,” Davis says. “One of the guys I'd heard about I've been on shows with. He was a nice guy and had asked me to do a show coming up.”
She asked if anyone had heard about the allegations in the Facebook group. No one said anything. The silence startled her.
She later learned that a Facebook group like the one she sought to create had existed in Dallas a few months prior. When a sexual assault was reported, someone else had taken screenshots of it. The whistleblower received blowback with comments such as, “Oh, are you trying to ruin this guy and fuck with his career?” Davis says.
In November 2021, Davis attempted to tackle the issue of visibility and brought up the lack of women as headliners and in lineups with a female booker. The response she received floored her.
“She was like, ‘So my thing, though, about women in Dallas stand-up is they're not that funny because most of them just talk about sex and vaginas,’” Davis says.
Perrio bases his booking on talent. When he books, he’s not looking to meet a diversity quota, but his lineups do feature women, he says.
“I try to book according to who I believe is the best talent and keep giving advice to the people that aren't there yet about what they can do to possibly work their way closer to that goal,” Perrio says.
He listens for clean comedy with no graphic sexual references and for audience reactions when he scouts talent. For him, headliners, openers and open mic lineups are a reflection of talent.
Open mic lineups are typically arranged with known talent at the beginning, the best talent in prime spots, typically fifth in line and so on, with comedians who are just starting out closing the shows, he says.
Despite her TV credentials, bookers would often put Davis at the end of open mic lineups, which she says are the most treacherous times. She advises women to not go to open mics alone and to ration their alcohol intake, especially after 11 p.m.
At The Comedy Arena, open mics are straightforward. Comedians come in, write their name on a list and perform in that order. Daniel monitors open mics. If a comic makes vulgar jokes on subjects such as child abuse or rape, their set is immediately terminated. Crowd work is not allowed.
“If you have, for example, predators that are open like comics, they can literally be everywhere," Daniel says. "Because they're not being hired, they're just showing up at a public place … but unfortunately, in D/FW, we have way more open mic comics than we do headliners or Hollywood headliners.”
He urges comedians to maintain open communication with venue owners and management.
“I'll listen to anybody if they have a problem. I want to hear it and I'll try to help you solve it,” Daniel says.
The combination of corporate-inspired policies, presence and communication has allowed Daniel to maintain The Comedy Arena’s safety and keep an orderly environment.
As a booker, Perrio has no control over club policies, but he places emphasis on communication.
“I would implore [people with safety concerns] to communicate that to the management at the club, or the person running the venue, if it's at a non-club,” Perrio says.
He’s never experienced anything that he “explicitly considers unsafe.”
Goldapp has seen improvement in comedy. She believes the #Metoo movement has propelled a shift across many industries. As more people continue to bring these issues to light, comedy is having to adjust.
“Over the course of 20 years, it's really gotten better, it's gotten safer, but it's still imperfect,” Goldapp says.
La’Tasha Duran’s comedic experience also crosses state lines. Her career began in Houston in the early 2000s. She spent five years in Los Angeles before making North Texas her home. Alternative comedy spaces had allowed her to hone her craft. In Los Angeles and Houston, she had performed at bars, garages and speakeasies. D/FW was a different beast.
“This comedy scene down here in D/FW is so close and so tight that these people can still survive, even though they are blatantly rude to people of color,” Duran says. "Even though we offer so much to the world, they're still blatantly rude and it's unacceptable. But my comeback to that is to boycott, so that's what I do. I just don't go.”
As a Black female comedian in the South, Duran has endured rampant racism. She is selective about where she performs and seeks out Black and Hispanic comedy spaces. She’s a regular at comedy duo Chuckle and Flo’s Look Cinemas stand-up events. Snookie’s, a Black-owned comedy club, has been fair in Duran’s experience. Comics are given the freedom to express their artistry. The opportunity is invaluable.
Still, she’ll take a shot at any crowd.
“Once you hear me, once you see me, once I get your attention for three minutes, you laughed, or you smiled at me, or maybe you were curious looking upon me, but you didn't hate me ... you just enjoyed me for the time that I was out there, which you probably wouldn't give me the time of day before, but you loved me for five minutes, "Duran says. "That's my reward, I guess it’s my way of coping."
Ellis stresses the importance of diversity. Her career has taken her from D/FW to Austin and now Los Angeles.
“It's really important to be somewhere where there are strong female voices and male voices and non-binary voices and trans voices. The world is varied, and I think the comedy scene should reflect that, but that's not the case,” Ellis says.
When Ellis moved to Austin in January 2017, she noted how Austin women were flourishing in comedy. Maggie Maye had performed on Conan in 2015. The Austin Chronicle voted Vanessa Gonzalez 2017’s best stand-up comic. In 2019, Lashonda Lester’s posthumous comedy album Shonedee Superstar won critical acclaim. Dallas’ female comedians were abundant, but most weren’t able to sustain comedy full-time and TV credits were rare. The change of scenery gave Ellis access to rooms where she could grow with respectful constructive criticism.
Davis and Duran agree that change won’t be propelled by comedians, owners or bookers. It’s up to the audience to hold venues accountable.
“The audience is the control room,” Duran says. “The audience needs to speak up and say, ‘Hey, there needs to be more women on your show,’ ‘Hey, there needs to be more color on your show. This is my first time coming to your show. It's been mostly white people.’ The audience doesn’t say anything; they just allow these people to do whatever they want.”
Goldapp suggests all comedians request venue’s policies and procedures on discrimination and harassment. If there aren’t any, she advises comedians to not perform there.
“If a place doesn't have policies and procedures in place, then they're not doing even the basic, the bare minimum, to protect women,” she says.
She stresses the need for fellow institutions to implement safeguarding policies and action plans to address sexism. She recommends anonymous reporting systems.
Vaughan won’t return to comedy until there is a consistently safe environment that holds its staff and talent accountable, but even that’s too much to ask, she says.
“I can just hear comedians mocking that want for a literally physically safe space. I can hear it now,” Vaughan says.