Days after hosting an awards show defined by the ongoing #MeToo moment and its newly announced action group Time’s Up, Seth Meyers had an equally uncomfortable job to do on Wednesday night. His show, Late Night With Seth Meyers, had booked a guest to promote a current film, a routine part of both the feature film press cycle and late night’s unofficial status as a public relations platform for celebrities looking to solidify their image and share their work.
This guest, however, prompted a significant break from that routine. The prolific actor and filmmaker James Franco is in the middle of an awards-season campaign on behalf of The Disaster Artist, which Franco starred in and directed. But on Sunday night, as Franco took the stage to accept his Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy, several women took to social media to decry what they saw as the hypocrisy of Franco wearing a Time’s Up pin. The actress Ally Sheedy, in a tweet that has since been deleted, expressed her displeasure; so did Sarah Tither-Kaplan, who has since elaborated on her allegations along with four other women in an article published in the Los Angeles Times.
On Tuesday night, Franco had appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to do what charismatic auteurs are supposed to do in the windup to the Oscars: boost both their movie and themselves, basking in their moment while hoping some of that charisma will rub off on their current project. At the end of the segment, Colbert confronted Franco about the pin controversy and the Twitter allegations from Sunday evening. In the process, Colbert demonstrated a continuing shift in the expectations for and behavior of late-night hosts — and guaranteed that 24 hours later, Meyers would as well.
Late night is currently filled with entertainers who derive as much of, if not more of, their appeal from their convictions as their comedy. With that appeal has come pressure to uphold a reputation that’s built on a more adversarial relationship to power: calling a sitting U.S. senator a liar on national TV, for example, or delivering monologues with sweeping summaries like “Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Systemic Sexism.” To maintain audiences, these hosts now have to shore up their rhetorical high ground by having tough conversations when the circumstances demand it — like when the costar of the Access Hollywood tape drops by the Ed Sullivan Theater. This transition has not been cynical; each host has given every indication their stated beliefs are sincere. But it serves an undeniable purpose in steering their shows, many of them decades-old legacy properties, in a new direction.
Unsurprisingly, Colbert probed Franco while he had the opportunity. “You got criticized for wearing that,” he began. “Do you know why?” Though Colbert mentioned he’d given Franco fair warning backstage, the question still represented a definite break from his de facto obligations as a public relations aid. In his time at The Late Show, Colbert has a pre-established pattern of veering off an interview’s unspoken agenda; in November, the host asked Ben Affleck to account for his relationship with Weinstein and his own misconduct allegations in the middle of the press tour for Justice League (in which studio Warner Bros. was attempting to continue capitalizing on Wonder Woman’s pop-feminist bona fides, no less):
Meyers piggybacked off Colbert’s strategy, directly referencing the interview by way of introducing his own line of inquiry. Before discussing Franco’s film, the ostensible topic at hand, Meyers spent two and a half minutes posing straightforward, often awkward questions about the women’s statements.
Franco’s answers on both shows were predictably unsatisfying, performing the frantic ballet many self-proclaimed male allies are forced to improvise when they themselves come under fire: “There are stories that need to get out,” he told Meyers, but also “I have my own side of the story.” To Sheedy’s specific concerns with him, Franco could only give a half-hearted “I don’t know.”
More atypical is Colbert and Meyers’s mutual decision to open the conversation at all. It’s important to note that Meyers didn’t entirely play the role of prosecutor, subsequently moving on to a more conventional chat that Franco showed up at 30 Rock to have. In previous eras, however, a host like Meyers would be much more unambiguously on the side of his fellow public figure rather than his skeptical audience. Smoothing over scandal, after all, is part of the image-burnishing job.
The fact that late-night hosts are even in this position speaks to the growing reach of Hollywood’s anti-harassment groundswell, which began with Weinstein, a man whose influence had finally waned enough for accusations not to be immediately suppressed. The movement has since spread to encompass celebrities still enjoying the spotlight and the protection it affords — so much so that they’re asked to answer for alleged indiscretions at the same time as they’re attending fancy galas and fronting multibillion-dollar enterprises. Within entertainment, #MeToo has even trickled down to smaller-scale forums of arbitration: Outside the much higher-profile late night system, the TV writer Dan Harmon has publicly apologized for his own past as a harasser, both on Twitter and his popular podcast, Harmontown — scrutinized guest and scrutinizing host here being one and the same. Such rapidly achieved, far-reaching resonance transcends any individual performer or host.
But what those hosts have chosen to do with this moment is telling in its own right. Across the industry, there’s now an incentive that can at least partially offset the peace between wealthy, mostly white men and the institutions that back them. The way comedians choose to balance those incentives is often surprising. Television personalities are still television personalities, and casting guests in a flattering light will always be part of the job. Yet the job of the late-night host in 2018 is different than it’s ever been, a shift that began with its relationship to electoral politics and is now expanding into the rest of the culture. In that sense, late night is just one of many pop cultural constants — awards shows and red carpets among them — forced to renegotiate their position in this unprecedented moment. By now, hosts are used to taking swipes at an offscreen villain. Now that the conversation has moved to their home turf, it’s time to relitigate the rules once more.