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Co-owner of West Columbia’s Comedy Closet exits after allegations posted on blog

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A short-lived Columbia blog that allowed anonymous accusations of sexual misconduct led to the departure of a co-owner from a West Columbia comedy club.

Comedy Closet partner John Gibson confirmed he resigned over unspecified accusations posted to True Colors Cola, according to a statement issued to Free Times through a lawyer.

"Though Mr. Gibson has no recollection of these incidents either generally or specifically and denies that they occurred, he also recognizes the effect of such allegations on the long term viability of The Comedy Closet,” the statement reads, “and he was more than willing to remove himself from the operation and ownership of the club without pause in order to allow for the continued success of a club that he worked passionately and tirelessly to build."

Joe Coughlin, who has become the club's primary investor and sole proprietor, says Gibson offered to leave the day after the allegations broke before they even had a discussion about his future.

"John's name came up on an anonymous list of sexual predators," Coughlin tells Free Times. "We both agreed it was best for the company if he stepped down."

The lawyer representing Gibson declined to comment on the exact nature of the accusations made against the former co-owner.

Before it was taken down, True Colors Cola was peppered with familiar names from the local arts and bar scene.

The Tumblr blog's anonymous organizers' last post explained that they received “an alarming number of threatening messages claiming to do us harm, messages threatening to take legal action, insults and hurtful words thrown our way continuously, and too many people who have abused our platform by submitting false allegations towards a number of people that we have tried our best to weed out but do not see an end to.”

A similar blog in Charleston ran much the same course recently, appearing and disappearing in the face of similar issues.

On June 27, the Comedy Closet announced the departure of an unnamed co-owner on social media and pledged to become more inclusive.

The post says the co-owner is “currently transitioning out of the company,” and pledges the venue will “offer accountability to the members of Columbia’s comedy scene … and serve as a safe space for women and marginalized communities,” and commits to making substantive changes to ensure this cultural change.

The club says it will use this incident as the spark for a larger discussion about the culture of the comedy scene in Columbia.

“Stand-up comedy is very male-driven and it can be off-putting for women to be included in comedy,” admits Coughlin. “And we don't like that. We've never liked that as a comedy community, and we want people to feel safe.”

Coughlin says he wants to get more women involved in leading the club with him, as well as starting an inclusivity council or panels to both provide strategic guidance on how to promote inclusivity as well as implement a “one-strike” rule for comedians who “cross the line” with their material.

“I think a powerful force like that needs to be put in place because of how [these jokes] make women and marginalized communities feel,” he explains. “If a guy goes up there and he's making rape jokes, and people are laughing, how does that make women feel? It makes them feel scared, and it’s [just] terrible.”

“I'm against censorship. I don't want people to be censored, but I want the wrong people to be removed.”

Coughlin says the guidelines for this “one-strike” rule will be posted publicly and hopes that performers will err on the side of caution for fear of losing a venue. He plans to use a larger team of comedy professionals to monitor every open mic, although he will serve as the ultimate arbiter for any bans, at least for now.

More than anything, though, he emphasizes that he wants to continue to learn and respond to any concerns about the culture his club is fostering.

“Some people think that I have not been assertive enough in changing the community,” he admits. “And to that, I would just have to say, it can't happen overnight. I'm doing all I can, and I genuinely want to hear your concerns.”

The Comedy Closet is still closed due to COVID-19, and it is unclear when it will be able to open again. Coughlin says the current hope is to be able to open safely in August, possibly with some parking lot shows, but at the moment they are “bleeding money, like every other company.”

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