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Roseanne, Dan Harmon and the End of Hollywood’s Twitter Era (Column)

This week, Dan Harmon, the creator of “Community” and “Rick and Morty,” apologized for a video he made in 2009. That video, which depicted the sexual assault of a baby doll, was meant as a parody of “Dexter” and, Harmon said in his apology, had never been meant to still exist in 2018; he’d taken it down shortly after posting. It was the latest iteration of a recent trend of social media roiling Hollywood, and it led to Harmon making a very wise decision: deleting his Twitter. It’s an acknowledgment that the freewheeling openness of the social media age, if it was ever congruous with the corporate entertainment industry, isn’t anymore.

Though Harmon deleted the clip, the internet, of course, is forever. A video, once uploaded, can’t be made to go away once remembered and, crucially, saved by an internet user. But the recirculation of Harmon’s video seems fueled in large part by a dollop of bad faith. Polygon has a good summation of how Harmon’s video traveled the right-wing web, used as an example of liberals’ hypocrisy. After all, the argument goes, don’t liberals criticize conservatives for stances and philosophies far less offensive than this “joke”? Wasn’t Roseanne Barr fired for something less egregious?  

To get this excised over the relative unfairness of Harmon’s and Barr’s cases, though, one must believe, or pretend to believe, that Harmon is a literal pedophile, just as one would have needed to take “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn’s miscalculated and outlandish jokes as statements of fact in order to suggest he wasn’t just distasteful in the past but a potentially criminal bad actor. Harmon’s video demonstrates a less-than-thought-through comic philosophy, a bristly sense of himself as the arbiter of what is acceptable that badly needs the intervention of other voices, and an overeagerness to play on the edge of reason for attention’s sake. In short, it’s not an endorsement of pedophilia: It’s Dan Harmon. In the same way, the James Gunn who has been picked apart in miniature for tweets that are genuinely gross is also a fellow who’s long talked about his regrets over his past sensibility and his evolution forward. And Trevor Noah, whose ugly and offensive tweets from early in his comedy career emerged when he was first hired at “The Daily Show,” is a comic whose attempts at playfulness to this day don’t always work and who is openly a work in progress. Trying to exert career consequences for a video in which Harmon’s flaws, ones his current employers at Cartoon Network have accepted, are on full display, seems like an obvious canard. No one has to like Harmon’s humor or, for that matter, Gunn’s, but it’s hard to believe anyone really believes someone who has made a career of joking, often for the mere sake of causing offense, could seriously be endorsing pedophilia.

But many people seeing the video, in the manner of the viral social web, may have no real idea who Harmon is, just as Gunn may have entered people’s consciousness only when a stir over his years-old tweets was catalyzed by right-wing provocateur Mike Cernovich. Context, for an audience on the right still bruised over the firing of Roseanne Barr, is key here, at least for the sake of understanding the stakes. The full context of Harmon’s career reveals a prankster one can like or not while understanding he is fueled primarily by irony. He’s only kidding. The full context of Barr’s career, and her life online before her May firing for a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, reveals an individual whose political speech outside the safe context of her sitcom tended towards the volatile, the verifiably false, and the troublingly intolerant. She was dead serious.

And Barr was in the clear at ABC, no matter how many times she referenced QAnon or crisis actors, until she wasn’t. The ease of typing a racist jibe on Twitter, when guardrails would have kept her from ever uttering it on a talk show or on “Roseanne,” along with the swiftness with which the remark circulated and was shared, demonstrated the power of Twitter (abetted by those doing the tweeting, of course) to undo careers. The fact that Barr was finally undone after months’ worth of tolerance by ABC executives helped fuel a sense on the right that in any mistake (or joke gone wrong, or video regretted) lies the seeds of someone’s downfall, and a determination to make use of a perceived puritanical intolerance by getting various people fired. This mentality gets a couple of key things wrong. if Hollywood had really become the nervous and overly cautious place the right imagines, Barr would never have been hired for the reboot of “Roseanne.” But it gets the big contours right, including the touchy willingness of Hollywood, skittishly trying to make its way through an era in which discontent has been effectively weaponized by the well-meaning cultural left, to make decisions in order to prevent the appearance of offense.

Context matters for observers trying to make sense of the manner in which Hollywood seems to be moving away from social media. It matters far less to executives tasked with managing the appearance of valuable properties, and it falls away entirely on social media, where Barr and Harmon and Gunn fell into similar traps. Barr evidently thought she was speaking to one audience on her mainstream sitcom that was as popular as it could be and then some and to another on her social media channels; one outlet was for occasional sly dog whistles, and one was for screaming. Harmon and Gunn presumed that the creative process, a messy skin-shedding by which one tries out not just different jokes but different personae and identities over time, could play out in public, and it could be understood as a process of trial that necessarily included some serious errors.

The solution, for everyone involved and everyone not yet involved, seems to be scaling back on social media. The rewards of openness–access that runs both ways between talent and fans, a window into the creative process–can only exist in a marketplace in which context is understood and appreciated. That Twitter strips away context, that it rips jokes and statements out of time and presents them as individual links that make a botched witticism seem as potent and nasty as a destructive piece of politicized hate, is part of its value proposition. And it’s trained all of us, but especially power users on the right, to see a flattened world, where sensibility and meaning matter less than how offended one can purport to be. If more and more creators walk away from Twitter and similar platforms, it’ll be a potent demonstration of how the promise of the social web — openness and accessibility — cannot jibe with the artist’s need to work things out. The Twitter era looked like a utopia for artists, desiring easy reach to their audiences; the fact that that audience now includes not just fans but all of us, active detractors and neutral readers unfamiliar with the sweep of any artist’s life in public, makes it impossible to sustain. Rian Johnson, the director of “The Last Jedi” (a film often maligned in deeply personal terms by “Star Wars” fans online) recently deleted years’ worth of tweets. He’s surely the first of many; the age of unfettered access, it seems, is over.

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