Comedian James Corden is doing a little Twitter apology tour after joking about Harvey Weinstein's decades of sexual misbehavior at the amfAR gala this weekend:
To be clear, sexual assault is no laughing matter. I was not trying to make light of Harvey's inexcusable behavior, (1/2)
— James Corden (@JKCorden) October 15, 2017
But in fact, for years the only people who managed to speak the truth in public about Weinstein were jokesters:
— HannahJane Parkinson (@ladyhaja) October 14, 2017
Tina Fey, now a Hollywood power player in her own right, has been making Harvey Weinstein jokes for years:
In a later season, the same character jokes: "Look, I get it. I know how former lovers can have a hold over you long after they're gone….In some ways, I'm still pinned under a passed-out Harvey Weinstein and it's Thanksgiving."
Fey also made jokes about Bill Cosby's reputation for sexual assault before it was cool, on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update and in a 30 Rock episode featuring a confrontation with a Cosby impersonator:
Jack Donaghy: I've arranged for one of Tracy's childhood idols to reach out to him.
Tracy Jordan: Hello?
Jack Donaghy: Tracy, this is Jack, I have someone here who wants to speak with you.
Rick: Tracy, this is Bill Cosby…
Liz Lemon: [whispering] Really? This is your strategy?
Jack Donaghy: [whispering and smiling] I heard him do this at a party!
Rick: …I want you to come back to the TGS for the people who like the jokes and the things.
Tracy Jordan: Bill Cosby, you got a lotta nerve gettin' on the phone wit' me after what you did to my Aunt Paulette!
Rick: I think you're confusing me with someone else.
Tracy Jordan: 1971. Cincinnati. She was a cocktail waitress with the droopy eye!
Rick: I'm the guy… with the pudding…
In fact, the final (please God, let it be final) downfall of Cosby was ultimately triggered by a comedian, Hannibal Buress, who in 2014 urged people to google "Bill Cosby rape" during a standup routine that went viral.
Thanks to Twitter, we can all be pundit-comedians about the latest scandal. But top-of-the-market comedians are in a better position than most of us to know about and expose pernicious open secrets in Hollywood. This can get tiresome, of course, when it's not done judiciously (cough, Daily Show, cough). And it can be disastrous if done to an ordinary person on the basis of bad facts or misunderstandings. But when it comes to exposing the misdeeds of powerful people who have plenty of lawyers, more jokes are better than no jokes.
This isn't about the First Amendment or censorship; the legal right to make such jokes—outside of the workplace, anyway—is clearly established. It's about where we make space in our culture for this type of humor. Where there are powerful people doing bad things (read: all times and all places), there must be comedians, pranksters, and satirists.
We have to leave space to talk about horrible things in a funny way, because sometimes that's the only way we can talk about them at all. It's no good tsk-tsking at comedians for making light of sexual assault when dozens or hundreds of very serious and important people who knew the same information offered only silence. Under the right circumstances, literally everything is a laughing matter.