Between a Yuk and a hard place

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on May 23rd, 2013

An acquaintance (a friend?*) of ours, comedian Christina Walkinshaw of Toronto, was recently banned from a casino. Banned! From a casino! She blogged about the incident– the post is called “This Isn’t The Way I Planned on Getting Banned From a Casino.”

I got an email from my agent. She informed me I’ve been pulled from my upcoming shows in Niagara Falls. They don’t want me to perform there, due to an “incident” that happened last time I was there. Being the chronically “Look on the bright side” kind of person I am, I immediately thought of the positive notes of this information. “It’s an hour an a half drive and there’s always so much construction on the QEW during the summer, plus cottage traffic… no hotel… maybe it would be more peaceful to forgo the $500 I would make that weekend, and just relax.” Because tragically, I can be that lazy.

But then the raised endorphins of my cardio infused morning started fueling my brain with another train of thought. “Christina. That “incident” wasn’t your fault. Not even close. Why aren’t you standing up for yourself?” So now I have to tell you what happened.

Five or six years ago, we would have opined about this immediately upon hearing about it. These days, though, what with Facebook and Twitter and websites looking for linkbait and comments– and comments that comment on other comments– we tend to lay back for a bit and let things play out for a while. Quite often, the reaction to a story is more interesting than the story itself. (And, again quite often, we feel the need to eventually opine when we sense that it is our fellow comedians who don’t seem to “get it.”)

Briefly, Walkinshaw got heckled by a group of male patrons (“Show us your tits!” That kinda thing) but she was hamstrung by the policy at the venue. (The venue is Yuk Yuks at Casino Niagara. From what we can tell, the policy is Casino Niagara’s, not Yuk Yuks’.)

As she explained on the website Xojane.com (in an article entitled, “I’m the comic who was fired because 10 men heckled me to show my breasts and vagina– And I’m finally speaking out.”):

We (the comedians) get memos from this particular club telling us “the use of profanity, name calling or abrasive comebacks towards hecklers should be strongly avoided. If you feel hecklers are not being handled in a proper manner during your show, please voice this to the management.”

Walkinshaw bulled through, did her time, adhered to the policy and, when she exited the stage, she registered her displeasure with the way it was handled (or, in this case, not handled):

“Hey, next time some audience members shout “Show us your tits! Show us your bush!” You might want to tell them to be quiet.”

Then I burst out crying. Oh for fucks. I can’t believe I’m confessing to crying on the internet. I never cry. At least I didn’t cry on stage, right? I’m professional enough. My tears seemed to shock her.

“Oh! Sorry! We thought you liked it.”

Of course, the fine folks at Xojane.com prefer to view the entire incident through a third-wave feminist prism– in fact, the URL for Walkinshaw’s essay is “http://www.xojane.com/issues/christina-walkinshaw-sexual-harassment,” if that tells you anything. But the “breast and vagina” part of the story is the “B plot,” if not the “C plot.”

Walkinshaw was put in a bad position. We’ve all been there. Not in this particular, exact position, but we’ve been in situations where our artistic integrity is (at the very least) compromised and/or we’re miserable and/or the “management” of the club (such as it is) is unsympathetic.

But this inicident is more correctly viewed through a business filter– the Casino Niagara policy is… stupid. Unless it’s augmented with strict crowd control by the folks who are managing the venue. Which didn’t happen. (And, judging from the above “We thought you liked it,” statement, the management of the venue is incapable of grasping a situation where intervention might be warranted. Indeed, they seem barely capable of inhaling and exhaling.)

There are some comics who have second-guessed Walkinshaw’s handling of the situation. Some have said that they would have dashed the policy, silenced the hecklers (in some heroic way that adheres to the policy yet magically mollifies ten drunk casino patrons). Of course, there’s no guarantee that would have “worked” either. Like we said– we’ve all been in sticky, miserable situations… and, more often than not, the comic comes out as the bad guy/gal. We weigh all these scenarios on the fly. We adjust, we persevere, we take risks (or not). More often than not, we are faced with that Sophie’s choice (without all the dead kids and all), which we review in a matter of microseconds:

Fuck this place! I’m never coming back here. It’s a hell gig, run by morons! (Then, out loud): “Fuck this place! You can all bite me!”

Or…

I’m going to be totally professional, play nice, hope for the best and pray that we… pray that we what? Pray that we can smooth things over and… and what? Come back to this place that three or four nanoseconds ago I had declared was the shittiest hell gig on earth?

Walkinshaw chose to adhere to the policy and complain to management. For this, she gets banned. She loses work. No-win situation. At the very least, one has to admit that the outcome sucks.

When she initially blogged about her experience, the reaction among her Toronto colleagues was swift and supportive. Much to their credit, some of them canceled their upcoming dates with the venue in solidarity. Good for them. Canceling a gig– whether you’re a Canadian comic or an American comic– is not something that is considered lightly. And, considering that the club is branded by Yuk Yuks (who has a near-monopoly on standup in Canada), it’s remarkable.

Yet another article on the incident, this one on Jezebel.com, includes reaction from Casino Niagara. Walkinshaw is quoted as saying:

“The fact is, they want to treat a comedian like an ‘employee’ of their casino, but they won’t protect us like one. I’d be willing to bet all $500 I’m losing by not playing their club, that if a bunch of guys chanted “Show us your bush! Show us your bush!” to a Blackjack dealer, they’d be kicked out.”

And, once again, though tits and bush are involved, it’s less of a sexual harassment question than it is a failure on the part of a business to properly consider what a sub-contractor (in this case, a comedian) needs in order to function at the highest level. And it makes for a less than satisfying experience for those folks who behave themselves. The folks at Casino Niagara screwed the pooch and the best thing they can come up with is to fire the comic who complained. Remember that memo:

“If you feel hecklers are not being handled in a proper manner during your show, please voice this to the management.”

It seems rather clear to us that is precisely what Walkinshaw did.

The Jezebel.com article links in turn to a Toronto Globe and Mail article, which quotes from and email they received (which, we suspect, was solicited by the TG&M reporter):

A Casino Niagara spokesperson says the casino received a comic booking list from Yuk Yuk’s with Walkinshaw’s name on it, indicating availability. “Based on post-show comments from our staff (following the September, 2012 show), we decided not to re-book Ms. Walkinshaw at this time,” wrote Greg Medulan, Niagara Casino’s director, communications, in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. When asked, he would not provide details of those comments.

“Ms. Walkinshaw’s recount of the evening was outlined using social media. We’ve reviewed all of the details of the evening and stand by our decision not to re-book her.”

It seems that the people at Casino Niagara either don’t know or don’t care that they’re messing with someone’s livelihood.
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* Full disclosure: On a recent road trip back east, we took a three-day side trip to Toronto during which we partied with several members of the TO comedy community. Walkinshaw was among the folks we became acquainted with on that trip.