‘The Horrible, Juvenile, Frat-Boy Behavior Is Off-the-Charts’: ‘Burn It Down’ Author Maureen Ryan on the Bullies, Creeps and Cosbys of the Comedy World
Burn It Down has been living up to its title since before it was released a couple of weeks ago. The new nonfiction book by veteran TV critic and reporter Maureen Ryan — subtitled Power, Complicity and A Call for Change in Hollywood — exploded into the zeitgeist a week before its early June pub date with a bombshell excerpt in Vanity Fair, all about the “poisonous culture” behind the scenes at Lost. While the show was lauded at the time for the racial diversity of its cast, Ryan’s sources reveal racist commentary and jokes in the writers’ room and a tiered pay scale for its stars, with the highest occupied only by white performers. Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof — who spent most of the spring being feted for his latest project, Peacock’s Mrs. Davis, which he co-created with Tara Hernandez — was to have appeared on a writers’ panel at the ATX TV Festival the week of the excerpt’s publication, but given the fallout it created, he did not end up keeping that appointment.
Ryan’s Burn It Down reporting wends through other dramas, too, including Nancy Drew, Sleepy Hollow, The X-Files and Mad Men, as well as allegations of abuse, and worse, against entertainment figures like Scott Rudin, Les Moonves and Harvey Weinstein. But when Ryan (who, full disclosure, is a friend) spoke with me earlier this month, we focused on what she’d uncovered about the world of comedy, which is filled with a bevy of its own bullies and Weinsteins (see: Bill Cosby) and the toxicity of which is legendary (read: comedians are, broadly, better known for their bite than their kindheartedness). It’s something she’d given considerable thought to — there’s a deep dive into the cultural issues at Saturday Night Live in the book — and something she had no problem discussing in no uncertain terms.
On Sitcom Writers’ Rooms
I do think a certain amount of the defensiveness around comedy comes from some very real things: It’s scary to put yourself out there to pitch a joke. Comedy writers are a tough crowd. To write a script and just get constant rejection is difficult. But I don’t think the answer is to make sure we’re sifting for the most narcissistic and/or oblivious and/or cruel people who are so obsessed with their own personal success or their own ideas of comedy that nothing else breaks through.
A lot of people go into comedy because they want to connect. They want to make people laugh. But all too often we’re holding up, as examples, people who lack maturity. And then as they rise, that lack of maturity, that lack of considered judgment, that lack of consideration for other people get more and more protected; that becomes their identity. So the amount of horrible, juvenile, frat boy behavior, it’s off-the-charts.
If you’re going to put yourself in a situation where not only are you around other people, but you have control over their careers or you can affect them financially, mentally or physically, then observe common-sense rules of decency. This is the thing I return to in the book again and again. I’m going to pull an example at random. If you’re the showrunner of a comedy program, do not distribute a nude image to your staff. If your staff says — and I find it hard to believe — “Hey, boss, send me some nude imagery. You are my boss and we are here in the workplace, and I’m asking you to send me these nude images.” What I can do if I’m the boss is say, “Employee, I shall not do that. If you wish to pursue nude imagery, particularly of a celebrity who had those images released against that celebrity’s will, you may look for those images, but I would urge you to think twice about it because the release of images without the subject’s consent is extremely upsetting and traumatic for that person.” But that's just me as a boss.
If you’re going to be a boss, then be a boss. Accept that people want to know when they have to be there, when they can leave, if they can have a life while still working for you, what the job requirements are and how you will enforce discipline, what the rules are. It doesn’t have to be a free-for-all. And you can still tell jokes.
On Jeff Garlin
Why would Jeff Garlin get cast on Never Have I Ever? If your argument is, “Jeff Garlin needs the money”: He’s been an EP and an actor on Curb Your Enthusiasm for over 10 seasons, he was a lead performer on The Goldbergs for nine seasons. He’s a touring comic. He does specials as well. He’s made his own film. He was in Babylon. The man has made many, many, many millions of dollars over the years. So I cannot see that piece of casting as anything but powerful people in the industry deciding, “Our guy got a raw deal.”
We’re still seeing this happen. It’s like, “The important thing in this situation is that the famous man who is enduring temporary reputational damage for choices he actively made: we must pay attention to him.” Must we?
People’s first story about allegations against him came out in 2005. You might brush People off as a source, like, “Well, celeb gossip.” But it’s rigorously fact-checked and lawyered and reported. I was aware of that story, and it kept dying. I think it’s because people didn’t want to think it was true. I got a promo copy of Mark Whitaker’s Cosby biography years later, in 2014, and the allegations aren’t mentioned anywhere. It just goes to show you the level of willful choices that were made to keep people oblivious.
Regarding the Cosby stuff that’s happening now: I wish them all the luck in the world. Heroes do walk among us. They shouldn’t have to have suffered what they suffered, but they’re willing to take their suffering and do something. Some just live their lives and never talk about it again, which is absolutely their right. But so many of them are doing things to make the world better.
I can only imagine how many complicated feelings Hannibal Buress has about his part in the story. But quite understandably, a lot of survivors — especially a lot of Black women survivors — were like, “How is it that we don’t get listened to? Why are we not taken seriously in the same way?”
On ‘Saturday Night Live’
Saturday Night Live being a terrible workplace for many people was sitting there in plain sight for nearly 50 years now. It could have been funny without people being launched into environments that even people who were happy to get the job described as a Mad Max Thunderdome situation.
I’m also about 97 percent sure that, for about a quarter of a century, there were no out queer performers on SNL. This is the kind of thing I run into a lot — who didn’t we hear from? What kind of funny didn’t we get? It was an environment where, if you had any historically excluded identity, whatever nightmarishly competitive scenarios were playing out, you were more likely to end up on the losing end. If someone is funny and talented as Natasha Rothwell only lasts a season, if the few Black women who get on staff don’t last, these are your warning signs.
When people were protesting Andrew Dice Clay being on SNL, Lorne Michaels called the protest “sadly humorless.” I’ve thought about that quote so often. This all happened over 30 years ago, but I’ve encountered that: “You’re just humorless. You don’t have a sense of humor. You just need to learn how to take a joke.” Who gets to decide what humor is? The framing of all of those statements is, “I know what’s funny. I know the rules of what you should laugh at and find amusing. And you’re not obeying the rules.”
But I object to this whole idea that what a bunch of white guys who went to Harvard think is funny is the universal definition because they all went on to work on all the comedy shows. That’s a very narrow slice of humanity.
And by the way, I should add, there is diversity in comedy: Not everyone went to Harvard. Some people went to USC.
On Louis C.K.
When Louis C.K. won a Grammy for his comedy album, Sincerely, Louis C.K., Julia Wolov, one of the survivors who spoke out about his damaging behavior, said, “Nobody cares. That’s the message this sends.” I read that interview and thought, “I don’t have a comeback for that.”
There are a lot of people who make money off a successful touring comic who sells out arenas. So everybody decided, “He’s just going to be back and more successful than ever.” I’m not saying Louis C.K. never should have done comedy again. I’m saying, use your position and status and writing and comedy skills to examine what you’ve done — in the painfully funny way he’s known for — and make amends.
The thing that always gets me about Louis C.K. is that he could get to people that wouldn’t listen to someone like me, a humorless harpy. There are so many people who think he’s the funniest person in the world. He’s a very skilled writer. He’s very smart. Imagine if he had turned his skills to, “What made me think I could do that, that I should do that, that I should not only do what I did, but that I should, with others, over a period of years, cover it up.” Really excavate the truth. Really live up to that truth-teller moniker that so many in comedy think that they have, or that he actually specifically got. He would get so many awards, and they’d be like, “Oh, he’s so truthful and honest. And it’s blunt and it’s painful, but it’s funny.” And he didn’t.
One thing I always wanted to get into with the book is, there isn’t going to be a mass disappearance of people who’ve been accused of misconduct. Some people go away, but it’s never for that long in most cases. So what do we do? If you have millions of dollars and a lot of high-level contacts and connections, you atone by getting these people management contracts. Give your mailing list to somebody else. Let them use your website to drop their specials or their work.
Or, if those people don’t want to talk to you ever again, or have anything to do with you or your team, create a fund. Create a non-toxic festival for comedians where people can get opportunities that will get them noticed. Because to get paying work in comedy is unbelievably difficult. It’s so hard to get regular gigs, to get paid to go on the road. So if you’re someone like Louis C.K., or any number of other transgressive people, what you can do is help people out. Help them get the platforms and opportunities to get noticed and get work and get paid.
Instead, a few years later, he’s going on these sold-out comedy tours, releasing a comedy album, making light of his own situation. What makes me insane is when it becomes about how these people suffered because they had to take a timeout from their career and endure some temporary reputational damage. Well, I guess you should have made different choices, but now you continue to make the same choices that help only you.
On the Idea That Comedians Need to Be Able to Say the Uncomfortable Thing
It's really funny to me that so many people in comedy want this “brave truth-teller” mantle, and they want a prize and a ribbon for being so brave. Okay, Mr. Brave Pants, why don’t you listen to what I have to say about what you just did? “You’re canceling me. I’m just saying words.” Your definition of bravery is, you get to say whatever you want to whoever you want, whenever you want, and maybe off-stage you even do what you want and anyone who calls you on it doesn’t appreciate comedy and is anti-laughter. I think true bravery is listening to people who say, “That was fucked up, and here’s why.”
One of the things that makes me insane is, why is anyone creating anything? Why are you telling jokes? ‘Cause you have questions about the human condition. Life is weird. Life is hard. Life is messed-up. And people who can mine that for laughs and make me feel seen and make me cry with laughter: bring it. I love it so much. But I feel like there’s a strain of comedy now, in some circles, that says, “I absolutely will not contemplate what it is that I’m doing or saying.” Isn’t the point of creation to evolve as a creator? Isn’t that one of the goals? Are you going to do the same club act now that you were doing in 1985? “I had 10 jokes that worked in 2006, and now that’s the only kind of thing I do”?
Curiosity about the human condition should be a baseline for doing comedy — or creating anything, really. If you’re so driven by curiosity about the messed-up, ridiculous nature of the world that you’re going to try to make a career in comedy, then you have to be open. You do have to put yourself out there. Yes, at times you should make the world uncomfortable. But sometimes the world is going to make you uncomfortable, too.