After a lengthy account of Aziz Ansari's sexual misdeed made its way around the internet, the name suddenly became a fun-sponge, absorbing any sense of conviviality in any room. And yet, the account from an anonymous woman named Grace was also everyone's favourite subject. The New York Times published two opposing opinion editorials on it. The Atlantic wrote a vicious take down of Grace's account. The author of the original story sent a vindictive (and maybe hilarious, depending on who you ask) email to another woman, prompting yet another wave of outrage, this time at petty journalists. Refinery29's Anne Cohen tiptoed into the fray with a piece entitled, "Yes, Even Millennials Are Confused About #MeToo."
And that's just on the internet! In the past four months, #MeToo, sexual harassment, and the Time's Up initiative have become compulsory, provocative topics of discussion. If you write for a late night comedy show, the matter is even more murky. How do you talk about #MeToo or the allegations against Ansari without ordering another round of backlash?
"If you focus on the evil-doer, but not the victim or the survivor, you're okay," Robin Thede, host of BET's The Rundown with Robin Thede told Refinery29 at the Writer's Guild Awards on February 11. "I believe in comedic outrage, which I think [Full Frontal with Samantha Bee] is doing really well." Full Frontal was one of only a few late night shows that addressed the controversy surrounding the Ansari allegations directly.
"If you say you're a feminist, then fuck like a feminist," Bee pronounced in her monologue, giving women everywhere the line of the century. The Rundown took on allegations against Vincent Cirrincione, Halle Berry's former manager, last week in a segment entitled, "Robin Thede Has This To Say About Nasty Handsy Men."
"My ire is focused on the perpetrators," Thede pointed out. "You can do that and share comedic outrage with folks."
If comedy seeks to dismantle, then it has to comment on the status quo — which involved a generous amount of sexual harassment. But how do you take a topic like sexual violence and make it funny enough to late night comedy without trivialising it?
"I don't know if you can actually make [sexual harassment] funny, but what you can do is make fun of the responses to it, or how people handle or process it," said Anthony Atamanuik, who impersonated Donald Trump on The President Show. Atamanuik's impression, both disgusting and disgusted, has been covered at length by both Vanity Fair and the New York Times. On the show, which ended its run in November 2017, the character is Trump as a lech, but only as a product of his own weakness or idiocy.
Added Atamanuik, "That's part of our responsibility, all of us who show and do media, there's a choice we make about showing the weakness of someone who is abusive or sexually aggressive. There's a way to look at that that weakens that as opposed to reinforcing it. That's our job, is to isolate it and try to take it apart."
Zhubin Parang, the head writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, noted that it's not just about writing, but the writers themselves. "You want to make sure that whenever you're writing these kinds of stories, that the women's perspective is also taken into account, which is why we also make sure the women on our staff — not just the writers, but the production staff, the crew, are all able to pitch in their own ideas about what's happening and what we can say about it," he explained. When The Daily Show gave its take on Weinstein in October, Noah handed the mic to Michelle Wolf, one of the show's correspondents.
Laura Grey, a correspondent on The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, and, you know, a woman, told us that writing about sexual harassment is just about persistence.
"Keep pitching ideas about the #MeToo movement, because it's such a murky area, and it's a touchy subject — literally, and figuratively, like, 'Don't touch me anymore!' I think it's just about finding the right angle that has a conscience. One that believes women," she said. The Opposition addressed the Ansari allegations — next to Full Frontal, it is one of two that did — in a segment with Guardian writer Jessica Valenti.
"The most important thing to satirise is the backlash. Because we've been so quick to jump on backlash of this wonderful, eye-opening, revolutionary movement. As much as you can satirise how afraid people are instead of recognising its power first, the better," Grey explained.
Jenny Hagel and Ben Warheit, writers for Late Night with Seth Meyers, emphasised empathy.
"You want to try to understand how people feel. Then, you can expose what's underneath," said Warheit.
Hagel, who is one-half of the duo who performs the timely recurring segment "Jokes Seth Can't Tell," explained, "When you're writing based off headlines, you want to read the headline, do a gut check, and think, 'How does this make me feel in my gut?' and write from that place. Instead of writing from the surface level. And you always want to think about who's the butt of the joke. People talk a lot about, 'are there topics we can't make jokes about?' The answer is definitely no, as long as the butt of the joke is always right."
"Or if you're writing about pet obesity, it's like, these pets don't like this," Warheit piped in. "Which brings us back to empathy!"
The irony is that this approach — being empathetic, focussing on perpetrators, dismantling the system that allowed this kind of abuse — might have been the right one all along.
Speaking to us at the Writer's Guild Awards, The Daily Show's Parang paused, seemingly bemused. "It's actually kind of funny, as I'm talking this out," he said. "The way to approach sexual harassment is the way we should have been approaching everything in the industry, which is to take into account women."
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