What to Learn from Failed Harvey Weinstein Humor

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Professor of Marketing, Messiah College

People find humor in practically everything, from natural disasters to terrorism, which makes me ask: Can absolutely anything be framed as funny? Two A-list celebrities recently answered that question, “No,” thanks to their failed attempts at Harvey Weinstein humor. Fortunately, their fiascos can teach the rest of us how to avoid our own individual and organizational comedic catastrophes.

The first celeb to flop was someone who knows comedy, Late Late Show host James Corden. At the Foundation for AIDS Research gala, Corden cracked several off-putting comments that included references to Weinstein’s now infamous naked massages and open baths. A couple of days later, Corden took to Twitter to offer an apology: “I am truly sorry for anyone offended, that was never my intention.”

Just as surprising was the gaffe by Sunday Night Football announcer Al Michaels, who quipped “Let’s face it, the Giants are coming off a worse week than Harvey Weinstein, and they’re up by 14 points.” Michaels isn’t known for being funny; rather, his reputation is as a rock-solid, super savvy analyst who never commits a verbal faux pas. NBC producers, however, apparently called his attempted humor “no good,” and Michaels apologized later in the game for his comments.

If communication professionals like Corden and Michaels can so easily stumble, it seems inevitable that each of us will at some point slip-up, simply because we wanted to add a little levity to the lives of those around us. There’s no guarantee against such flops; however, understanding the specific oversights of the ill-conceived Weinstein humor might help us avoid our own comic tragedies.

1. Too soon: There may be some truth to the saying, “Time heals all wounds”; however, there are certain things at which we should never laugh, while other events become more ripe for ridicule as weeks, months, and years pass. Most of what Weinstein did falls into the “never funny” category, but regardless, the wounds were still too fresh when Corden and Michaels opined.

2. Too insidious: Again, perhaps after enough time has passed some of the least objectionable things Weinstein did might be worthy of a chuckle; however, most of his actions should never elicit laughter, namely sexual assault and rape. For the foreseeable future, to crack a Weinstein joke will be to make light of some extremely vile acts and to disregard the fates of his victims.

3. Too widespread: It may be easier to rationalize ridicule when only one or two people are affected, but that’s certainly not the case for Weinstein. Dozens of women already have described their disturbing accounts, with more deciding to share their stories daily. The impact of the humor, however, goes beyond Weinstein’s own victims. When people joke about Weinstein, they are downplaying sexual violence and scorning the hundreds of thousands of others who have suffered similar abuses at the hands of their offenders.

4. Too easy to replicate: Similar to the prior point, Weinstein’s actions are unfortunately very easy for potential predators to emulate, which makes it even more dangerous to diminish them. The last thing our world needs are a horde of debauched copycats acting out the same debased behavior.

5. Too divisive: As suggested above, what Weinstein and other degenerates like him do runs directly down gender lines: Men are typically the offenders and women their victims. Related humor, then, tends to follow the same divide, pitting the sexes against each other. It’s probably no coincidence that the two celebrities responsible for the Weinstein-related gaffes were both men.

Humor is a very effective communication tool when well-conceived and carefully delivered. It’s also the cause of great angst when misused. Perhaps from the attempted Harvey Weinstein humor we can learn how to avoid our own comic errors, which bruise our brands and deepen the pain of those who are already hurting.

About the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah College, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing. Before entering higher education, he worked as a corporate sales analyst for a national broadcasting company and as a partner in a specialty advertising firm.