Saturday Night Live‘s best response to the Harvey Weinstein story may have come during the goodbyes, when host Kumail Nanjiani addressed the crowd in earnest to say, “Believe women.” But since this is one of the most talked-about stories in the country, and SNL is a comedy show, there were also some jokes.
Whether SNL’s Weinstein sketch or its Weekend Update commentary were funny is as up for debate as anything else on the show this week. (The nursing home sketch was a big hit in my house.) By at least one metric, the show’s Weinstein material was a huge success: Nobody had to apologize for it later on. The same cannot be said for a couple other high-profile attempts at Harvey humor over the weekend.
It’s a real minefield stroll, joking about something as insidious and consequential as serial sexual predation. Part of the reason is that comedy has long been used as a buffer for systemic misogyny. Women offended by rape jokes are cast as being humorless; women who can roll with them are embraced as Gillian Flynn’s mythical Cool Girl. It’s also just a matter of timing. This story is still unfolding, and a lot of people are hoping it could turn into a moment of reckoning for the entertainment industry and broader culture. In almost any situation right now, the smart move is to not joke about Harvey Weinstein. If for some reason you absolutely must, however, this past weekend was a real-time tutorial in what to do and what not to do.
Let’s start with the latter.
I've always made it my mission to tell every American I meet that we hate James Corden in the UK. Now they know why. pic.twitter.com/nXl3mGVYl5
— Stephen Patten (@StevePatten) October 15, 2017
James Corden was hosting the AmfAR Gala, a benefit for AIDS research (that Weinstein was long associated with), when he decided to do some Weinstein jokes. They were . . . not good. And not just in the way you might expect from the creator of Carpool Karaoke. “It’s a beautiful night here in LA,” Corden began. “So beautiful, Harvey Weinstein has already asked tonight up to his hotel to give him a massage.” Yowza. There were a couple of other jokes, but this one is everything that could go wrong with joking about Weinstein in a nutshell.
First of all, it’s a joke about what the predatory mogul did, with no judgment about the man himself. (A later Corden joke does this too, the punchline banking on the inherent hilarity of ejaculating into a potted plant.) It exists in a moral vacuum where Weinstein’s now-infamous methodology is the only subject. One assumes that Corden is against what Weinstein did–anyone openly defending him is an instant pariah–but you wouldn’t know it from the joke. Journalists must adhere to (at least the pretense of) objectivity, but this is comedy. You’re expected to have a point of view.
Another damning aspect of the joke, which Corden eventually apologized for, is his use of the word “beautiful.” By emphasizing that beauty was the engine driving Weinstein in his alleged sex crimes, Corden made it sound like only certain women are attractive enough to be victims of sexual assault or harassment (what a shitty thing to say!)—and that somehow, by being pretty, they’re to blame for being violated. The entire point of the #MeToo hashtag, after all, is that the mechanisms that allowed Weinstein to thrive for so long affect most women in one way or another.
Jokes like these also reduce the Weinstein story to mere current event status—a weird thing that just happened, as opposed to an inflection point for Hollywood. NBC commentator Al Michaels made the same mistake during Sunday Night Football when he joked about the Giants having “a worse week than Harvey Weinstein.” Aside from having the same construction and sensitivity level of a Dennis Miller joke from 1992, this comment is lousy for focusing on Harvey’s pain. Perhaps the least relevant element of the Weinstein story is how Harvey Weinstein is doing right now. A joke that focuses on his situation again places his actions in a neutral vacuum. If it seems difficult to find a context in an NFL game to compare to Harvey Weinstein’s despicable deeds, perhaps that’s why most NFL announcers might opt not do that.
It’s more understandable, however, that Saturday Night Live would attempt to inject some humor into the topic. In fact, a lot of media outlets called the show out for not going after Weinstein the previous week, when the story broke. Here’s how SNL’s approach differed from Corden’s and Al Michaels’s.
The minute and a half the Weekend Update hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost spend on Weinstein spans the following subjects:
- That working for him must have felt gross (and anyone who felt like saying so was forced to stay silent).
- That he should go to prison.
- That his looks are way easier to make fun of than his deeds.
- That his excuses for his behavior are insultingly lame.
None of their jokes treated the story as an ephemeral blip on the weekly news radar. None of them were at the expense of Weinstein’s victims. When a sketch elsewhere in the episode does use the experience of Hollywood actresses to make jokes about what Weinstein did, though, it’s in service of a larger point.
The segment put Viola Davis (Leslie Jones) and Marion Cotillard (Cecily Strong) on a panel to discuss sexual harassment in Hollywood. Joining them is fictitious older actress and “winner of the Humphrey Bogart Good Sport Award” Debette Goldry (Kate McKinnon), who provides a historical counterpoint. While Cotillard and Davis speak with the grave seriousness the issue demands, Golden Age veteran Goldry ranges from glib to gleeful. She is so used to old school relaxed norms, she can barely believe society has finally gotten around to condemning them. (“Women being harassed is Hollywood,” she says at one point.) Through this premise, the writers are able to mix jokes in with straightforward social commentary. Whether the jokes land is up to the viewer. What’s undeniable is that they take aim at the culture of toxic masculinity and raging misogyny, and offer a perspective of the women directly affected by it. (There is a chance the actresses playing other actresses here are familiar with what those actresses are talking about.)
Perhaps not rushing to comment the first weekend after Weinstein’s actions came to light helped SNL get it right. Now it’s up to the show to remain consistent on the topic going forward. When Seth MacFarlane told a joke about Weinstein while announcing the 2013 Oscar nominees, he was at least bringing attention to something that was still a secret at the time. (The joke itself does not pass the criteria outlined above.) However, any goodwill from his breadcrumb-trail of a joke evaporates with his opening number of the Oscar ceremony, a celebration of actresses’ willingness to do nude scenes.
Jokes have the power to chip away at the culture of misogyny, but they also have the power to reinforce it.