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How Samantha Bee and Sarah Silverman outdid their late-night peers on sexual harassment in comedy

There’s a reason their commentary was a cut above — and it’s not simply because they’re women.

Sarah Silverman and Samantha Bee took an approach that rings truer than most.
Comedy Central/CBS/TBS

When comedians like Louis C.K. and Al Franken are accused of sexual harassment or assault, how are their peers supposed to respond?

That’s the question many in the entertainment industry have been grappling with ever since the deluge of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein began in early October, sending wave after wave of similar accusations to crash on Hollywood’s shores. The industry is undergoing an undeniable change as previously well-established tectonic plates shift beneath it, allowing long-held secrets to emerge from the shadows into the harsh light of day. And as the scandals have continued to surface, the way people respond to them has also shifted, often publicly, to meet it.

But for comedians, especially those regularly taking to the airwaves on their own late-night television shows, the task has proven tricky when it comes to calling out members of their own community. When the C.K. allegations were published by the New York Times on November 10, only a few of that evening’s monologues about the news of the day featured jokes about C.K., and outside of The Daily Show and The Opposition With Jordan Klepper devoting shorter segments to the news, most of the punchlines were glancing blows at best.

On the one hand, the news broke just a couple of hours before most late-night shows taped; on the other, the following week found them with little more to say beyond the basics — i.e., “this is a bad thing and we don’t care for it.” The harshest words Stephen Colbert had to share regarding C.K., with whom he used to write The Dana Carvey Show, came on Twitter, and only after C.K. admitted that the allegations were true. (Or at least I think they were harsh words; Colbert’s phrasing was pretty convoluted.)

A week later, on November 16, LA radio host Leeann Tweeden went public with her account of Franken sexually harassing her during a 2006 USO tour, complete with a horrifying picture of Franken grabbing at her chest while she slept wearing an Army vest. This was a little harder for late-night TV to ignore; not only was Franken a Saturday Night Live staple for years (he wrote and performed on the series for a total of 11 seasons), but he currently serves in the US Senate, the dysfunctional chamber of partisan horrors where many of late night’s topical jokes are born.

Most late-night hosts took on the Franken story in conjunction with the ongoing accusations piling up against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who remains defiant in the face of a growing pile of evidence that he has a history of soliciting sexual relationships with minors.

Colbert called sexual harassment a “bipartisan pastime.” Seth Meyers expressed disgust over the picture of Franken and said he wouldn’t be surprised if women started wearing protective vests just to be around men, period, highlighting harassment as a systemic problem that goes beyond partisan politics.

Jimmy Fallon’s single joke on the matter drew a direct line to the sexual assault allegations that have been levied against Donald Trump, with Fallon quipping that the picture of Franken has now made Franken a frontrunner to be elected president.

In all of the above instances, the late-night hosts in question have said the right words; I even believe that most of them were sincere. But there’s something undeniably missing that could’ve made their takes far more worthwhile: self-awareness.

It’s tricky for comedians to joke about harassment within their own ranks. Samantha Bee and Sarah Silverman succeeded by acknowledging that uncomfortable reality.

Expecting people like Meyers (who came up through SNL, just like Franken) and Colbert (who worked with C.K. early in his career) to roast their fellow comedians who crossed boundaries has been an ultimately unsatisfying exercise. As culture writer Ira Madison III put it, “the call is coming from inside the house” — a reality that neither host, nor any of their male peers in late-night, has truly acknowledged.

Put simply, their ability to crack jokes and speak truth to abuse of power is inherently limited, given that they’ve inevitably benefited, whether actively or more passively, from the same system that lets shitty men rise through the ranks without much recourse. But even with that inherent limitation, their responses to the C.K. and Franken allegations could have been much more meaningful if they had at least mentioned as much.

That lack of awareness has necessarily served to underscore two specific instances of more nuanced comedic material to grace late-night commentary on the subject of sexual harassment and assault, from Full Frontal With Samantha Bee to Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America. Neither show has aired a new episode since the Franken news broke, but both women addressed the C.K. revelations much differently than their male peers from the get-go.

On the one hand, yes, they’re both women; their perspectives on the situation are not only different but give them a certain advantage in understanding it that their male peers will never have.

But on the other, Bee and Silverman did something that no one else has: They straight up acknowledged that they’re a part of the community that has traditionally fostered men like C.K. and Franken.

During her November 15 episode, Bee also addressed C.K. while discussing Moore, but in a way that demonstrated how a community can, and should, “kick out its own creeps.” She then signed off with a quick but searing segment directed at men who abuse their power within the comedy community by assuming they’re great, and at any women in her audience who want to pursue their comedy dreams.

“If you don’t understand why all the women are so pissed off ... I invite you to go away,” Bee said to the men. “You are wrong about where the clitoris is, and you’re wrong about what makes good comedy.”

To the women, she offered a more hopeful idea: “The meteor has already hit. So don’t worry about what the dinosaurs think; the future of comedy is yours.”

Those are the segment’s two most tweetable quotes, but the reason they landed relies on how Bee opened the segment: “People always ask me what it’s like to be a woman in comedy,” she said with a tight smile. “Here’s what it’s been like for me and a lot of women I know: Even if no one exposes his penis to you, you’re still dealing with a parade of total dicks.”

Bee instantly made it clear that she is no stranger to the kind of behavior that has only recently made headlines. She also made it clear that she’s sick of it, and brought her frustration into her material with a vengeance.

Silverman, meanwhile, approached the C.K. revelations in a starkly different way — and with good reason. Silverman — who has been friends with C.K. for more than 20 years, and whose sister Laura has claimed he harassed her too — visibly struggled to express her gnarled feelings on the subject. She freely admitted that she “really, really, really [didn’t] want to” express them at all. But she did anyway, with a frankness I won’t soon forget.

When she opened her November 16 show, she didn’t seem angry; she seemed heartbroken. “I love Louis, but Louis did these things,” Silverman said. “Both of those statements are true. So I just keep asking myself, can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them? I can mull that over later, certainly, because the only people that matter right now are the victims. They are victims, and they’re victims because of something he did.”

Addressing sexual harassment, Silverman said, is important — “it’s like cutting out tumors: It’s messy and it’s complicated and it is going to hurt. But it’s necessary and we’ll all be healthier for it.” She also confronted a difficult truth as she went on to note that “some of our heroes will be taken down, and we will discover bad things about people we like. Or, in some cases, people we love.”

Silverman’s candor took a clear toll on her. And while her segment wasn’t particularly funny, it was unfailingly honest in a way that made it stand out.

Obviously, Bee and Silverman can comment on this whole mess from a much different place than any man in late night possibly could. But it was their choice to lean into that fact, and to speak specifically about their personal connections to the story, while their male peers’ more general condemnations of harassment did little to examine their own links to the problem going unchecked within the comedy community.

For any community touched by sexual harassment and abuse (read: all of them), this type of introspection and analysis will be crucial to moving forward. As more and more comedians are found to be at fault — and considering the way comedy has largely functioned as a boundary-less free-for-all for so long, that seems inevitable — those who make a concerted effort to confront and address their own experiences and connection to the problem are the ones who will be most worth listening to.

Updated to reflect that Bee’s November 15 show is not its last for the year; that episode will air December 20.