While the tentative comedic return of Louis CK dominated the news yesterday, I’m still stuck on Matt Lauer. The former NBC host, who was fired from the network after over 20 years for sexual harassment, assured fans (a group of old ladies at a restaurant) he’d be returning to TV. His exact words were “I’ve been busy being a dad, but don’t worry, I’ll be back on TV.”
There’s a certain level of shamelessness I’ve gotten used to since #MeToo began. I wasn’t at all surprised when stories began rolling in of men trying to get their careers started again after “serving their time,” aka laying low for a few months after the stories of their sexual misconduct broke, seemingly without any attempt to rehabilitate their behavior or make amends. But Lauer’s comments enraged me anew. “Don’t worry”—as if we’ve been worrying! As if the world has been deprived of his presence, and it is his solemn duty to return! I can’t speak to why these ladies “miss him,” but most of us have not been losing sleep over Lauer no longer being on air.
Many have asked What To Do About The Men? In the case of CK and Ansari, do they have a right to show up at an open mic? To return to their jobs? If not, why? If so, when? I mostly don’t know, and also don’t care. Yes, they have the right, it’s a free country, just as the audience has the right to walk out on them or applaud or laugh or not laugh at their joke attempts. What I’m more interested in is why on Earth they’d want to show their faces in an industry in which they caused so much harm? Like, cliché I know, but have you no decency, sirs?
They don’t, that’s the problem.
Consider a more normal office instead of the business of entertainment. Imagine there’s a guy there, a junior executive or something, who has been sexually harassing his women coworkers for over a decade. Some of these women, who had ambitions to excel in this industry, quit out of frustration. The world never sees their work. Others, finally fed up, head to HR, and after everything is verified, this man is fired. This is a reasonable consequence for this man’s actions.
Now imagine you’re the guy. You’ve gotten away with this behavior for a long time, and even though you keep doing it, I have to hope on some level you know it’s wrong. But even if you don’t, you’re made aware of it by the fact that you were fired. Maybe you’re truly an asshole and think everyone is out to ruin you, but a good number of people in that situation would feel a very helpful feeling: shame. After everyone knew this about you, you probably wouldn’t want to show your face in that office again. Even if the work you did was so important, and you were the best at doing it, the shame would be too much. You’d figure out something else.
Though these men have faced consequences, you can’t fire someone from entertainment. While Lauer was fired from NBC, any other network can hire him. While CK’s movie I Love You, Daddy was pulled from theaters, he can still walk on stage at the Comedy Cellar. Both Lauer and CK have worked in their respective industries for decades, and have amassed a distinct level of fame. They used that fame to harass, abuse, and inflict pain on women. And now they seem to have no problem showing their faces in their industry again.
This is where Lauer’s words feel telling. I can’t know anyone’s motivation for attempting to return to the spotlight, whether it’s a play for more money, or about personal “redemption,” or if they just miss this job so much they don’t know what to do with themselves. But on some level, it seems that these men think the world needs them and their work. That these industries are somehow lacking in their absence, or that these audiences clamor for new material. They don’t just want to be back in the spotlight. They think we need them to be.
What’s more, structures are in place to allow these men to thrive. Take Chris Hardwick, who was recently accused by his ex-girlfriend Chloe Dykstra of physically and emotionally abusing her, and blacklisting her career when she ended the relationship. Though he was dropped by San Diego Comic-Con panels and briefly erased from Nerdist, the site he helped found, he’s already back hosting Talking Dead after AMC said, “we believe returning Chris to work is the appropriate step.” AMC had temporarily replaced Hardwick with actress Yvette Nicole Brown. They could have kept her, or picked, you know, literally anyone. But they were working under the assumption that these men are necessary.
The entertainment world is lacking. We will never see the work of the women who quit because they were abused, or never even tried in the first place because of the harassment and prejudice they faced. We’ll never know what brilliance we are missing out on because of men like this.
No, there’s not going to be a law saying you can’t show up at an open mic, or appear on TV, or start a new restaurant, or write another book, or anything after you’ve been found out to be an abuser. But part of me thinks that’s all these guys should get. If you’ve had a successful, decades-long career that’s earned you fame and fortune, and you use it to abuse those around you, that’s it. You had your time. It’s more than most people get. And now instead of going to jail or facing any sort of legal repercussions, you just don’t get to do the thing you love anymore. Keep your money and your friends and family and fancy apartments, find other work to do and ways to give back to the community. You just don’t get to do this.
That’s how things might look, if these men felt any shame. But even if they don’t, present history has proven Lauer’s assumptions wrong. New hosts have been hired. New comedians take the stage. Nerdist is plugging along without Hardwick. Life marches on, if not better, then at least without any recognizable differences with these men’s absences. Perhaps that is what they’re reacting against. After living for so long under the assumption that they were necessary, they are reckoning with the fact that they aren’t. Not only don’t we need them now. We never did.