It’s the day before Thanksgiving in 1998 when Gwyneth Paltrow admits to David Letterman that she doesn’t really want to be there, bantering with him on the set of The Late Show.
He asks about her plans to travel home to see her family — is she going tonight? Tomorrow? — and she explains, with a raise of her eyebrows, “I would have ordinarily gone, well, not on Thanksgiving. But I’m here for you.” The audience applauds this benevolence.
“Are you here of your own free will?” Letterman asks her. They both laugh, and she says nothing. So he goes on: “Has someone coerced you into being here?”
Still smiling, she replies, “Do you count Harvey Weinstein as a coercer?”
She doesn’t say that, four years earlier, Weinstein lured her into his hotel room under professional pretenses and tried to give her a massage. Or that when she relayed the encounter to her then-boyfriend, Brad Pitt, and Pitt confronted Weinstein about it, Weinstein called her up and “screamed at [her] for a long time. It was brutal.” As she would tell the New York Times nearly two decades later, she “was expected to keep the secret.” Just a few months after this Letterman appearance, Paltrow would go on to win an Oscar for her performance in Shakespeare in Love, produced by Miramax — by Weinstein.
What she does say is, “I do all my movies for Harvey Weinstein. That’s Miramax, for all of you. And I’m lucky to do them there, but he will coerce you to do a thing.”
“And in return, what will Harvey do for you?” Letterman asks.
Her eyes search the ceiling before she says, brightly, “Nothing!”
“Really?” Letterman feigns incredulity. “Well, what’s wrong with that equation? As the kids say: You do the math.” Then he escalates: “You know, I’m kind of fed up with Harvey’s behavior.”
Paltrow gasps aloud, then dissolves into laughter.
Two bombshell investigations by the New York Times and the New Yorker recently revealed dozens of allegations against Weinstein, Paltrow’s among them — a pattern of sexual violence that covers a three-decade span. It seems Weinstein left no tier of talent untouched, from assistants to the A-list; his alleged victims include Angelina Jolie and Ashley Judd, former assistants and employees, multitudes of aspiring actresses. Three women have accused him of rape.
It is becoming clear, to those who did not already know, that Weinstein’s predilection for “casting couch” abuses was an “open secret” in the industry. And so people are revisiting the past: The silences that now seem suspect, the complicity and inaction — and the jokes.
The jokes range from clumsy and horrific-in-hindsight to cutting, defiant, even prescient. The take that none of these jokes is aging well is a misguided one: Not all these jokes are the same. Paltrow’s bit on Letterman’s show is the perfect example of this range. While some of the Weinstein jokes serve to minimize of his abusive behavior (which clearly those joke tellers knew about, or they wouldn’t have cracked said jokes at all), others seem now more like a means of getting the message out, a dogwhistle to people who already knew, or sensed, what Weinstein had done and could do.
And the jokes are illuminating, in their variety and endurance. For all those who claim to have known absolutely nothing about Weinstein’s misconduct, the jokes — and the laughter with which they were met — imply such ignorance within Hollywood’s inner circles was, if not impossible, highly unlikely.
Appellate lawyer Jason Steed, a former English professor who wrote a dissertation on humor theory, saw his Twitter explode last year after he wrote a viral thread on Donald Trump’s insistence that he was “just joking” about wanting to assassinate Hillary Clinton. Jokes always have significance, Steed says, and, by extension, moral implications. Humor always assimilates or alienates; a joke can make light of something by laughing about it or reject something by mocking it.
“That’s what’s so slippery about humor,” he said. “Sometimes, the exact same joke can play differently for different people… Sometimes it gets interpreted as embracing or condoning the thing that maybe you were intending to mock and alienate.” And because of that power of a joke well-told to dictate what ideas and people are acceptable and which ought to be shunned, “There’s a huge ethical aspect to humor,” Steed said.
For all those who claim to have known absolutely nothing about Weinstein’s misconduct, the jokes — and the laughter with which they were met — imply such ignorance within Hollywood’s inner circles was, if not impossible, highly unlikely.
Among those whose jokes are withering in the bright light of new information: Seth MacFarlane, 2013 Oscars host. He announced that year’s nominees alongside Emma Stone, and after he reeled off the names of the best supporting actress contenders, he said, “Congratulations! You five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” The line got laughs. And MacFarlane went on to be one of the most blatantly misogynistic hosts in modern Academy Awards history. A centerpiece of his monologue was a song, “We Saw Your Boobs,” in which he shouted-out actresses whose breasts he’d gleefully seen on screen.
MacFarlane now insists that he made his Weinstein joke “from a place of loathing and anger,” based on a tip from a female friend who had “an encounter” with Weinstein’s “attempted advances.” But his “swing” at Weinstein, as he put it, is inextricable from the context of his reputation and the sexist execution of the rest of his Oscars hosting duties; it scans as even cruder now than it did at the time.
— Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane) October 11, 2017
And as Jodi Kantor, one of the two Times reporters behind the Weinstein investigation, told Slate, the reaction in the room makes it that much worse. “It is sort of like everyone in Hollywood was joking about a known thing… There were really serious allegations dating from as recently as 2015. And so it is sort of like people were laughing about this in the open when behind the scenes the alleged abuse was still going on.”
In 2005, the second season of Entourage, noted feminist masterpiece, introduced a Weinstein-inspired character named Harvey Weingard (played by Maury Chaykin) who curdles under closer inspection. The idea of Weinstein as a bombastic, profane, larger-than-life power-player who is ultimately hilarious but basically harmless only normalizes Weinstein’s allegedly abusive conduct. (Though initially outraged by the character, Weinstein reportedly had a change of heart and later told creator Doug Ellin that he liked it after all.)
As Ronan Farrow wrote in the New Yorker, Weinstein “has been thanked more than almost anyone else in movie history, just after Steven Spielberg and right before God.” Awards show acceptance speeches have been littered with Weinstein jokes, too — less about Weinstein’s sexual advances and more about his position as the movie industry’s almight. In 2012, while accepting a Golden Globe, Meryl Streep, tongue in cheek, called Weinstein “God. The punisher. Old Testament, I guess.” At the Golden Globes the following year, Jennifer Lawrence, thanked Weinstein “for killing whoever you had to kill to get me up here today.”
The speeches are cringe-inducing now, not because the jokes are intended to gloss over something hideous but because of their irrefutable truth. Harvey was, for a time, godlike in the industry; he did threaten and intimidate his way through infamously cutthroat awards season campaigns. But that power, and the universal acceptance of it from the likes of Streep and Lawrence, is exactly what so many of Weinstein’s alleged victims say made them feel powerless. As one of the most damning lines in former Weinstein Company junior executive Lauren O’Connor’s memo reads: “The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.”
But the digs taken at Weinstein by 30 Rock are of a fundamentally different nature. On two separate occasions, Jenna Maroney — a perfect caricature of a narcissistic fame-monger who will do anything for a lick of celebrity, played by Jane Krakowski — references past trysts with Weinstein. “I’m not afraid of anyone in show business,” she brags in a 2012 episode. “I turned down intercourse with Harvey Weinstein on no less than three occasions. Out of five.” The following season, she assures another character that she, too, has struggled to get over an ex. “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.”
“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.”
30 Rock, it’s worth remembering, also went after Bill Cosby. And this was back in 2009, after a handful of women had accused and attempted legal action against Cosby but five years before a stand-up set from comedian Hannibal Buress sparked what would become an onslaught of nearly 60 allegations. In the episode, Tracy Morgan’s character is asked a favor by a Cosby impersonator (long story) and rejects him outright: “You’ve got a lot of nerve getting on the phone with me after what you did to my Aunt Paulette!… 1971. Cincinnati. She was the cocktail waitress with the droopy eye!” Co-showrunner Robert Carlock later told Entertainment Weekly that the joke “was not an accident. From my memory, the joke was more overt. And because he had not been found guilty of anything — and still hasn’t — we had to reword it to be a little more obtuse.”
The 30 Rock Weinstein jokes, really, do the opposite of what Entourage and MacFarlane’s did. It plays like the writers were sending up signal flares — to see if anyone was actually listening, or would care. To put Weinstein on notice, for whatever that was worth. And that feels much closer to what Paltrow was aiming for.
Watching her Letterman segment now, Paltrow’s careful wording about Weinstein almost reads like a wink, even a potential warning, to people who had heard the Weinstein rumors. It’s like a way of confirming, under her breath, that they’re true. She didn’t introduce the word “coerce” into the conversation, but she ran with it. Given that she now says she felt she couldn’t tell anyone else what had happened to her, these kinds of asides may have been her only way of speaking out. It was better than nothing.
“There probably wasn’t a lot of conscious thought behind the comment, but clearly there’s something behind it,” Steed said. “In social interactions, humor is always spontaneous. We don’t plan it. But it comes out of who we are and how we interact with the world. And so much of it is about how we form communities, and communities we want to be part of or don’t want to be part of.”
Nineteen years ago, the number of people who saw Paltrow’s Letterman appearance and really got the joke was probably close to zero. But “we all know about Harvey Weinstein now,” said Steed. “Now, we’re all in on it.”