Contrary to popular opinion, 2017 is not the best time to be a comedy writer.
Yes, there’s an abundance of potential Trump material accumulating by the Twitter character, but there also always seems to be millions of lower-income children on the brink of losing health insurance, and comedy writers have to craft jokes about that, too. It was a difficult enough job already before every high-profile man in every industry started getting fired over sexual harassment. Mining comedy out of that ongoing sewer saga is as difficult as, well, trying to mine coal out of the dying coal industry. The writers at Saturday Night Live have been flinty and adaptive in their mission to somehow make sexual harassment hilarious, but this week they stumbled hard.
Although the show started out promisingly enough, with a sketch where a mall Santa ends up teaching kids about Al Franken and Roy Moore–(“I learned that if you admit you did something wrong, you’re in trouble, but if you deny it, you get to keep your job!”)–soon the episode turned to “Sexual Harassment Charlie.” It’s a sketch about two employees of a company called Beta Corp, who lose their jobs because of sexual harassment. Before leaving the office for the final time, however, both men are made to formally apologize to the staff (something that, of course, would never happen, but whatever). It goes like this:
This sketch is . . . unfortunate. For a lot of reasons. Let’s unpack them:
James Franco’s Fired CFO Character Is Too Sympathetic
The main joke here is the contrast between what Doug Gifford (Franco) did to get fired, and what Charlie the Front Desk Guy (Kenan Thompson) did. Every time Gifford speaks, he details some relatively tame misdeed, like referring to an employee named Janet as “My little honey bee” or complimenting a woman on her figure, while Charlie is much more sexually explicit, but in a folksy (and racially stereotyped) way. To be clear, neither approach should be tolerated in office culture, but what Gifford stands accused of is not what’s been getting men fired lately. They’re getting fired for forcible kissing and propositioning, and sometimes much worse.
Even if it’s just a setup so Gifford stands in contrast to Charlie, the message it sends—with a character losing his job because of relatively innocuous charges—is that we’re experiencing a witch hunt. It’s hard to classify what’s happening as a witch hunt, though, when almost every witch that gets captured admits, “Okay, yeah, I’m kind of a witch, but I remember some of my witchery differently than the witch hunters say, and also the culture is not the same as it used to be.”
These Women Like Sexual Harassment, If the Right Person Does It
The sexual politics at play in this sketch are straight out of a Reddit thread for pickup artists. What those bridge trolls believe is that women enjoy being catcalled if the dude who does it is attractive or is at least harmless. (Although when one harmless old man/former president harassed women recently, they reportedly did not love it.) I have never been a woman getting catcalled on her way to work, but I bet one thing such a woman wouldn’t want is to get to her office and watch a sketch set in the middle of a patriarchal apocalypse that suggests women like catcalling. I bet a woman might find it exceedingly ill-timed, and kind of suspicious.
It Paints Women As Hypocrites
I’ve been racking my brain for 36 hours, trying to think of what is meant to be funny in the contrast between how the women react to Gifford vs. Charlie. Their disdain for Gifford makes it seem like they’ve been praying for his downfall for a long time, and now stand victorious over his charred remains. If they’re enraged over the “My little honeybee” guy, though, while still deeply fond of the “Woman, you are thicker than a bowl of biscuit batter” guy, they’re hypocrites. Even worse, they’re blithely unaware of that.
I have still not figured out just what the joke of this sketch is meant to be, but it seems like maybe it’s at the expense of finicky women with inscrutable boundaries. At best, this is a poorly timed criticism against women, and at worst it’s a pre-emptive backlash strike against specifically the women who have experienced harassment.
The Premise Of “Sexual Harassment Charlie” Is Racist
“It feels like you’re going easier on him because he’s a charming old black man, but he’s done way worse stuff,” Gifford says toward the end of the sketch, handily describing its entire premise. The women definitely do go easier on Charlie, the question is: Why? Whether the joke is about how common it is for a charming old black man to harass women, or how quietly flattering and fun it is when they do, there is one group the joke spares: white men. At face value, the sketch seems to be saying that white men don’t receive as fair a shake as black men do, which is absurd. If there’s one thing all of the men on Fast Company‘s running tally of mostly admitted sexual harassers have in common, though, it’s whiteness. Is the fact that Sexual Harassment Charlie had to be black a #NotAllWhiteMen statement? Probably not, but the meaning of the sketch is enigmatic enough that almost no possibility feels out of bounds.
James Franco Should Maybe Not Be in a Sexual Harassment Sketch
The last thing anyone who recently watched and enjoyed The Disaster Artist wants to do is think about the time James Franco sexted a 17-year-old. If that memory is lurking in the back of your brain somewhere, though, seeing Franco play a letch-y dude in a sketch set during the #MeToo movement will pull it to the forefront.
The good news is that this misfire of a sketch is an anomaly, the cold open that preceded it handled the wave of outed sexual harassers in a much better way, and is more representative of what the show has been doing lately. The bad news, at least for humanity, is that these outings are likely nowhere near over and so the show’s beleaguered writers will have more opportunities to get it right.