Some people cope with harassment by joking about it. That’s one minor but significant takeaway from Ronan Farrow’s shocking report about a pattern of sexual harassment and retaliation at CBS—which covers, among other things, several women’s well-documented accounts of being sexually accosted by CBS chief executive Les Moonves. One of Moonves’ alleged victims, the actress Illeana Douglas, said she decided to deal with his unwanted kissing in 1997 by “joking my way out, so he feels flattered.” Douglas is funny, and she had enough presence of mind that, when Moonves stopped shoving his tongue down her throat long enough to ask what she thought, she said, “Yes, for the head of a network you’re some good kisser.” He looked upset, so after muttering, “This has been great, thanks,” while gathering her things, she headed for the door. He allegedly blocked her and asked her to confirm that they’d be keeping what happened between themselves. “No, sir, we won’t tell anyone that you’re a good kisser,” Douglas says she answered—joking again. He let her go without looking at her.
Minimizing and joking about harassment has always been one way for women to cope with it. Douglas is so sharp that she found a joke midassault. But we’re in a moment when a lot of what we thought we knew about power and comedy—specifically, that it’s “tragedy plus time”—is being interrogated by comics like Hannah Gadsby. That tragedy-plus-time nostrum basically takes healing for granted: The reason a joke is funny is because the memory of the tragedy has faded but the stakes remain, abetted by the happy fact that whatever consequences the speaker once feared never came to pass.
The reality is more complex. For one thing, many people actually have, either personally or professionally, turned stories into jokes and still suffered the consequences. (Douglas says the incident “derailed any future career I would have had at CBS.”)* As Gadsby points out in Nanette, it’s not at all clear that turning a story into a bit provides “healing,” nor does healing seem like a prerequisite for good comedy. It’s no secret that plenty of stand-ups are pretty messed-up people, and there’s an argument (which Gadsby makes) that the practice of turning one’s complicated life story (coming out, say) into a comedy routine might in some cases preserve the trauma and impede emotional progress.
For another, people like Douglas didn’t actually get much time for the tragedy to turn into comedy: It had to happen on the spot. She had to find the joke right away to mollify Moonves and minimize the consequences to herself, and one reason that’s interesting is that it isn’t how we’ve been taught to expect victims to act. We are, as a society, taking a sort of crash course in how humans who are harassed or assaulted behave. One of the best and most instructive things about #MeToo has been the reminder that human response to trauma is unpredictable. Victims of sexual assault can be very creative when they’re trying to mitigate the damage being done in the moment and in the aftermath. Gadsby turned her pain into a show partly in order to recover a sense of control. So, in a way, did Douglas.
It should go without saying that Douglas’ joking didn’t mitigate the gravity of the incident. Douglas reported Moonves’ assault to friends and even to an attorney; she was suddenly fired from the show she’d been cast in, whereupon her manager and agent fired her too. She must have panicked in the moment, but Douglas, like Gadsby, has retold this story many times since in her capacity as an entertainer (without naming her assailant), and in a published version in a collection called Fired!, she keeps it light. Mostly. “At first it was funny,” she writes of the man shoving his tongue down her throat. “It was like one of those ’60s movies where someone chases you around a desk and a couch. Then it was more like a French film with him on top of me on the couch, and finally it was like a ’70s disaster movie where I screamed a lot and nobody heard me.”
That last sentence spins a funny story into something like horror. Yet the entertainer’s impulse still drives Douglas to end the story triumphantly, to reassure the reader that justice was served:
By the end of the week I was paid in full, and because everyone had fired me, I didn’t have to pay anyone any commission. The head of the network even called to offer me a miniseries.
“So you’ll do the mini, right? Tits and guns, baby! Tits and guns!”
On Friday my entire team called to congratulate, grovel, and rehire me, which in an act of good karma I allowed them to do.
It’s startling to realize, thanks to Farrow’s exposé, just how much this happy ending conceals. “What it feels like to have someone hold you down—you can’t breathe, you can’t move,” she told him, freed of the pressure to package her experience for laughs. “The physicality of it was horrendous.”
Jokes can be cudgels. Gadsby both acknowledges and explains this by repeatedly explaining that she’s created the tension in the room that the audience longs for her to relieve. The comedian’s relationship to the audience, she says, is inherently abusive for this reason: Her punchlines ease an anxiety she also provoked. Humor’s connection to power isn’t exactly obscure. Dictators and wannabe dictators love this form of “comedy” at its lunkheaded extreme: Whether it’s Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte joking that his soldiers can rape up to three women, Reagan’s hilarious 1982 “We begin bombing in five minutes” bit, or Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott’s knee-slapper about carrying a riddled target around “in case I see any reporters,” the point is not that any of these jokes are funny. They manifestly aren’t. The point—to borrow Gadsby’s framing—is that they release tension the speaker manufactured: I could destroy you right now, but I won’t. They borrow the power relation we associate with jokes without bothering to deliver the laughs.
But jokes can also be intensely conciliatory. Douglas was attempting the opposite of “dictator humor,” which uses fear to make you laugh: She was trying to defuse an intensely frightening situation by making a powerful man laugh so he’d feel safe enough not to destroy her. This is tragic in its own way, and it’s something Gadsby anatomizes too: Her rejection of the self-deprecating humor that’s largely characterized her act is predicated on the idea that its function—at least coming from someone on the margins—“is not humility, it’s humiliation.”
What Farrow documents in his reporting on the culture at CBS is a pattern of humiliation. “People’s reputations are important. Do you understand?” Moonves reportedly yelled at writer Janet Jones over the phone after forcibly kissing her. “I’m warning you. I will ruin your career. You will never get a writing job.” He seems to have done much the same to several other talented women. And what kept the public from knowing about it was precisely this obsession with masculine reputation. “These men control our stories and yet they have a diminishing connection to their own humanity, and we don’t mind so long as they get to hold on to their precious reputation,” Gadsby says in Nanette, and though she wasn’t thinking of the head of CBS, or of Douglas struggling out from under him, trying to joke and keep both of their reputations intact, she could have been. It’s easier to be funny from a position of power. Douglas had to use comedy as defense. She had to be funny in that moment, with a man’s tongue down her throat, in order to save her reputation and her career. But comedy wasn’t enough. Comedy won’t save us, and neither will using it to minimize one’s pain. Moonves wasn’t mollified. He reportedly called Douglas at home to fire her. The reason he gave? “You make me fucking sick. You are not funny.”
Correction, July 31, 2018: This post originally misstated that Illeana Douglas never worked for CBS again after the TV movie Bella Mafia. She did have roles on a few shows broadcast on the network, but she said in her interview with Farrow that the incident “derailed any future career I would have had at CBS.”