When satire becomes its own kind of whisper network

On a 2005 episode of "Family Guy," Seth Macfarlane made a joke that seemingly referenced Spacey's sexual misconduct.
Image: al selb/los angeles times via getty images/pete pavorich pool/getty images

The first person to technically break the Kevin Spacey sexual misconduct story was a 1-year-old animated boy named Stewie.

In a 2005 episode of Family Guy, Stewie runs through a giant crowd crying, “Help! I’ve escaped from Kevin Spacey’s basement! Help me!” As a diaper-wearing fictional child, Stewie doesn’t have enough credibility to say, publish his story in Buzzfeed like Anthony Rapp did Sunday night, alleging that Spacey sexually assaulted him when he was fourteen. Still, creator Seth MacFarlane’s joke did what journalists either won’t do or simply can’t afford to risk: It whispered an otherwise silent story to the national public.

If there’s one non-misery-inducing pattern we can glean from all the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys and Kevin Spaceys of the last year, it’s that satire is its own kind of whisper network. What it lacks in credibility it makes up for in sheer velocity, moving faster than journalism or the legal system could ever hope to run.

Here’s the Family Guy clip, which made the Twitter rounds Monday morning:

It’s unclear if Macfarlane produced that bit that dialogue with the intention of tipping off journalists or opening a dam of allegations. My guess is probably not. The Buzzfeed story was published a soul-crushing twelve years later. If nothing else, the joke may have a raised a few questions for curious viewers and actors already familiar with the rumors: What, exactly, was Kevin Spacey up to?

Compared to other countries, America has a long history of legally protected satire and parody.

The Harvey Weinstein story followed a similar pattern with much more devastating dimensions. At the 2013 Oscars, Seth Macfarlane introduced the Supporting Actress category with a joke: “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” In 2017, the comedian described the joke as something he did on behalf of his friend, Jessica Barth, and that it “came from a place of loathing and anger.”

In 2012, 30 Rock made a similar joke about Weinstein. In the mid- 2000s, Entourage modeled a whole character after the producer. Only in 2017 did small portions of Weinstein’s violence, slowly merging together to become a heartbreaking monolith, officially come to light in publications like The New York TimesandThe New Yorker. Until then, actresses had only one source they could rely on for information about Weinstein: an informal whisper network, which included leading, ominous jokes like these ones.

Comedians are sometimes better at breaking news than traditional journalists for two reasons: they’re held to entirely different, non-journalistic standards, and they’re simply less legally vulnerable. Men like MacFarlane aren’t expected to fact-check or locate multiple sources or interrogate the accused. They, can, in short, do whatever the hell they want. And if the stories they produce are presented as satire, then it’s largely protected and exceedingly difficult for those who are skewered (or sometimes slandered) to take legal action.

“Basically, they [those accused] would have to prove that the statement was intended to be a statement of fact, not just opinion or rhetorical hyperbole, and that it was made with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth,” Chip Stewart, an Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Journalism at Texas Christian University, told Mashable. “That’s a high bar.”

Compared to other countries, America has a long history of legally protected satire and parody. Powerful people will still do everything in their power to stop these stories and jokes from getting out. Since it’s rare for comedians to be found guilty, sending them to court  – and forcing them to suffer legal fees – is often the harshest penalty the accused can inflict on their accusers.

“Think of what Bob Murray is doing to John Oliver and HBO right now. That’s a surefire loser of a defamation lawsuit, but Oliver and HBO still have to pay their attorneys to fight that thing off in West Virginia courts,” Stewart told Mashable. “Even then, there’s very little benefit for celebrities bringing these kinds of lawsuits. They would be opening up the door to detailed discovery and fact-finding on their personal lives, and doing so in a very public manner, possibly even in open court.” 

Comedians also have a currency journalists don’t: In today’s political climate, celebrities are more trusted messengers than journalists. They’re almost always more likable storytellers (no offense, good journos), especially when they’re men.

It was Hannibal Buress who “broke” the Bill Cosby story, even though women has been speaking up for years. After Buress’ infamous Cosby set, the allegations took on new meeting: if Buress, a deeply lovable dude best known for playing a pushover dentist, said something was wrong … well, then, something was wrong. 

Jokes about O’Reilly, R. Kelly and Bill O’Reilly sometimes similarly preceded any court cases and even investigative journalism.

The most courageous storytellers will always be the victims themselves. Way farther down the list are journalists and their comedian allies, who can and should play separate roles. We should be thankful that we have a culture where famous people get to roll up on stage and expose whoever the hell they want. We should also be grateful that there will be far less glamorous journalists in the audience to fact check those accusations, slowly, painfully, judiciously.

Seth Macfarlane is no social justice warrior from Barnard. His humor occasionally straddles the line between advocacy and exploiting a painful situation for profitable yucks.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a role to play. It’s excessively painful for victims to speak out. It’s easier when others, even others like him, can speak with them. The least we can do is listen.

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