They were impressed by one another’s work.
“One of the things that blew me away about Gail,” Murphy remembers, “was that at that time she was a rape crisis counselor during the day and a stand-up comedian at night. So she had this amazing ability to lure mainstream audiences into talking about feminist issues: sexism, sexual violence, at a time when people weren’t used to talking about those things. I’d overhear frat guys going, ‘Shit, I think I’m a feminist, you know?’ It was really cool.”
For Stern, it was simpler: Murphy was doing a show that seriously interrogated his privilege has a heterosexual white man—long before it was fashionable.
Both were looking for a new project. Murphy, recently returned from a stint in Los Angeles, was trying to rediscover his place in Chicago theater. Stern, after working for years as a rape crisis counselor, was feeling an exhaustion common to that field—burnt out by the burden of victim’s advocacy, and wondering if there was another, more proactive way she could help.
They discovered a niche. “We both felt there was a dearth of decent or engaging sexual violence programs on college campuses,” Murphy explains.
It wasn’t only that such programs were comparatively rare then; many that did exist were unable to win over unreceptive audiences. Others were even counter-productive, reinforcing dangerous cultural tropes like victim-blaming, or conflating risk reduction strategies (“don’t walk alone at night, girls”) with real assault prevention and moral accountability.
“We thought if we can make something more engaging, a show that balanced the tension between something artistically fulfilling but also reflective of the research and the lived experience of survivors, and use humor to make the material more accessible, to bring the audience in, then we could really have a dialogue that galvanized both men and women to work on these issues,” Murphy says.
In 1999, the two began collaborating in earnest., In 2000, after several months of work, the show that would become Sex Signals—then going by “The Sensitive Swashbuckler and Other Dating Myths”—premiered as a late night comedy billing at Chicago’s Stage Left Theater. Despite audiences of drunks expecting lighter fare, the show immediately struck a nerve: Based on audience reaction and the evaluations they collected afterward, Stern and Murphy knew they were on to something.
“A lot of people said, you know, at first I was a little thrown by the whole conversation about sexual assault, but I really loved the humor and I loved the way that you gave us an opportunity to have a sort of candid, frank, honest, safe conversation about it,” Stern recalls.
Encouraged, the pair continued refining the show. They brought in representatives from rape victims advocates and academia for feedback, striving to maintain the vital balance between engaging entertainment, and rigorous, effective education. They got their first college gig: a presentation at The University of Chicago. More followed, as did a collegiate programming agency, interested in representing the show. That first school year (from fall 2000 to spring 2001), Sex Signals was performed eight times on college campuses. The following school year, it shot up to fifty. For 2014 to 2015, that number is expected to top 2,500.