Comedy is the art of tragedy and time. By letting our worst pains and fears become funny, we take away their power, or at least subdue it. Still, some topics are so traumatic that joking about them feels in poor taste. In this #MeToo era, comedians have struggled to write jokes that capture the sensitivity and complexity of the issue. Luckily, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll gave us the relief we need as they hosted the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
"Last year, everyone who is famous died," began Mulaney. "This year, everyone who is famous wishes they were dead."
But why stop there, asked Kroll and Mulaney? They decided to come right out and name some names.
Mulaney shared a true story about meeting disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. At the meeting, Weinstein complained about working in television, telling Mulvaney that his tombstone won't read 'Pulp Fiction,' it will read 'Project Runway.'" "You don't have to worry about that Harvey," said Mulaney. "Your tombstone will read 'double XL unmarked grave.'"
Kroll followed up with an anecdote working with disgraced director Brett Ratner, who apparently was "always scratching his balls." After a particularly, uh, thorough scrotum-scratch session, Ratner proceeded to walk over to a table and touch several doughnuts with his bare hands. "I thought, 'if this is how the guy treats doughnuts!'" said Kroll.
The duo then tackled the age-old question of separating the art from the artist. "With Kevin Spacey, can we still love K-PAX?" asked Kroll. "And what about Woody Allen, and his last 20 unwatchable movies?" began Mulaney. "Can I still not watch them, or must I reevaluate them based on new allegations that was public record 30 years ago?"
The trick is a comedic technique called punching up. It means that institutions of power are a far better target for comedic roasting than more marginalized communities. Jokes that punch up are intended to fry a bigger fish; they say something brutal and honest and hilarious about power structures. And last night, Mulaney and Kroll didn't just punch up, they went after the elephant in the room and exposed them for what they are.
If you're ambivalent about #MeToo jokes, that is understandable. It's a painful subject for many people, and on a macro level, it's a salient cultural moment that has impacted all of us. Jokes about #MeToo haven't always succeeded, and watching them has left me feeling conflicted, but Kroll and Mulaney made it funny by being completely savage about the things that hurt. They reminded us that these "great artists" who abuse others shouldn't continue to be venerated because of their art; sometimes they made bad art too! In the end, my ambivalence about #MeToo jokes continues, but hopefully more comedians can follow the steps of Mulaney and Kroll when crafting their own jokes. Maybe we just need more time.
You can watch Mulaney and Kroll's opening monologue below.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified John Mulaney as Mulvaney throughout.