clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How comedy has excused bad behavior like Al Franken’s — and why it might not anymore

It’s time for comedy to retire the “it was just a joke” excuse and face its problems for real.

Al Franken Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The hardest thing about looking at the photo in which Al Franken grabs at a sleeping woman’s breasts is seeing his smile.

The photo — released November 16 alongside an essay by Leeann Tweeden, the woman in question — would be horrifying enough without it. But Franken’s wide grin acts as a sickening sort of wink, framing the grope as an inside joke with the camera. It shows how Franken, a former Saturday Night Live cast member who would be elected to the US Senate just two years after the photo was taken, thought he was doing something hilarious.

Franken admitted as much in his first statement after the photo was released, saying it was “intended to be funny.” In his second statement (which acts much more as an apology than his first), he acknowledged that it was never funny.

But when Tweeden wrote at length about how Franken allegedly treated her while they were on a USO comedy tour together, her account bore a pointed title that anticipated Franken’s initial reaction: “Senator Al Franken Kissed and Groped Me Without My Consent, And There’s Nothing Funny About It.”

Having operated in comedy circles before — and being part of a tour in which “the skits were full of sexual innuendo geared toward a young, male audience” — Tweeden knew she had to prepare for the inevitable justification for what Franken was doing to her in the photo. She had to anticipate the reaction to how she says he behaved in rehearsals for a sketch in which they kissed by insisting that they practice, over her objections. She had to preempt the persistent, typical excuse men in comedy give when someone calls them out: “It was just a joke.”

“Senator Franken, you wrote the script,” Tweeden continued, “But there’s nothing funny about sexual assault.”

It sounds simple enough, but the pathetic fact of the matter is this has apparently come as something of a revelation to some — especially those who have taken advantage of the leeway comedy provided them to do whatever they want in the name of a punchline, whether they realized it or not.

Comedy’s free-for-all ethos engenders harassment. It’s overdue for a rewrite.


A necessary part of making comedy is making a whole lot of mistakes. A bit that seemed promising may fall flat in front of an audience and require a rewrite. One decent punchline may have been born of 20 terrible ones. Those 20 terrible jokes might have come from 50 half-baked ideas, batted around and examined from several different angles before they were discarded. The comedic process requires a willingness to throw things out there that might not land — and, too many believe, a willingness to push the boundaries of decency in the name of pursuing a joke. If a joke rubs someone the wrong way for being sexist or racist, hey, it’s just a joke. Laugh it off, suck it up, and move on.

“Writers rooms let you do things that would be firing offenses in a non–Bill O'Reilly workplace,” comedy writer Daley Haggar wrote recently in a Lenny Letter piece that’s as bracing as it is exasperated. “It's usually fun, but the fun has a downside. When someone does cross the line, you can never be sure because … what line? Being sexually harassed by a sitcom writer is like being sexually harassed by your gynecologist. It can be hard to tell if the guy's being a pervert or just doing his job.”

Comedy allows room for people (mostly cis men) to indulge their ids, for better and frequently for worse. This is how Louis C.K. shone a light on dark impulses in his comedy, until it was revealed that he was indulging some of those impulses outside his comedic material. This is how we get caught up in circular cost-benefit analyses of what it means to be “politically correct,” as some comedians — mostly white, mostly male — insist that “PC culture” stifles creative environments. After all, if a joke doesn’t land, or if it even offends someone, hey, it’s just a joke. Laugh it off, suck it up, and move on.

This method of (not) dealing with criticism means that when people (often women) do object to a joke or comedic conceit, there’s a built-in excuse for brushing off their concerns: Dismissing discomfort is easy when you can dismiss the person expressing it as a killjoy.

Now, as more and more industries seize this post–Harvey Weinstein moment to clean house of their resident creeps, the women in comedy who have been brushed off as spoilsports when they complained are rejecting the label wholesale, embracing their anger and sharpening it to a fine point.

In the comedy world, the pushback against sexual harassers is in large part challenging the idea that pushing people’s personal boundaries is a necessary evil. But comedy has operated on those terms for decades. Bringing that status quo crumbling to the ground will mean that some previously vaunted figures will go down with it, as C.K. learned the hard way.

So if my calculations are correct, we’re about to get approximately a metric shit-ton of men in comedy reckoning with the fact that they might, in fact, have crossed the line at some point, or many points, in their careers. They will have to face jokes that, as Franken put it in his apology, they “once thought were funny, but have now come to realize are offensive.”

But not everyone thought these kinds of jokes were funny in the first place. Not everyone was laughing, let alone obliviously confident enough to pose for the camera with a smile. And as the rush to condemn Franken in the wake of Tweeden’s accusation has shown, not everyone is willing to accept the trade-off of decency for comedy anymore. Some, in fact, have found a way to be funny without demeaning, dismissing, or outright harassing people at all.

As this reckoning of sexual harassment and assault continues, implicating generations of men who have abused their relative power, whether consciously or not, there is a chance it will change the structure of how the entertainment and comedy industries operate going forward. As more and more people speak up and out against accepted norms, those norms may actually bend, or even break. Enough, it seems, may finally be enough. And as for those who can’t imagine a future in comedy that involves being considerate … well, maybe they should consider leaving comedy in their past.

Or, to put in terms they might find more familiar: Stop laughing it off, suck it up, and move on.