Nothing new can be said about Anthony Weiner’s political future. Either he will resign or he won’t. But few people have discussed how this scandal might affect Congressman Weiner as a comedian. Will his famous comic persona ever return, or are his joke telling days over? Will he ever tweet again? And is it remotely possible that all this scandal was an Andy Kaufman-style stunt of conceptual comedy gone awry?
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the past week has been the flimsiness of Anthony Weiner’s political support. Over the past year Weiner has emerged as one of the most visible presences in Congress, and the media has portrayed him as a rising star and possible liberal savior, all thanks to his public antics and sense of humor. Yet since Monday, his Democratic colleagues have been falling over one another in a rush to distance themselves from him, and prominent members of his own party are calling for his resignation. No major politician has come to his side. The New York Times has run multiple stories about how isolated and unliked Weiner was on Capitol Hill, which indicates someone in the Democratic leadership wants the story framed that way.
We know how political sex scandals tend to play out, but if we want to see whether Weiner is over as a comedian, we’ll need to compare his actions to previous comedy sex scandals. As comedians go, the public has shown itself to be more forgiving, though not by much. There is no shortage of examples: Eddie Murphy, Woody Allen, Fatty Arbuckle. Weiner’s fate probably lies somewhere between David Letterman and Pee Wee Herman. Letterman is almost an anti-cautionary tale. His sex scandal happened only eighteen months ago. He was blackmailed for sleeping with staff members and was forced to make a public apology, but he kept his job, and the public quickly moved on. Pee Wee Herman, who was caught masturbating in an adult movie theater in 1991 (historians of pornographic technology will note that happened to be the year the world wide web was invented) sent the Pee Wee’s character underground for almost a decade, despite widespread public support.
But like Newt Gingrich, even Pee Wee Herman has returned.
Whether or not he survives as a politician, the scandal will not be what gets in the way of Weiner’s comedic future. One of the many, many pun jokes has been the possible future of a “Spitzer Weiner” TV program. Weiner himself might prefer a program more along the lines of “Weiner Stewart”, but that could be a hard sell. He might not be able to beat the competition in the straight-comedy world, but he’ll find a comfortable place as comic relief in cable news no problem.
Or, maybe we’re just not getting the joke. Considering Weiner’s high opinion of his own comedy skills, it’s possible he thought that throughout his encounters on Twitter he was still just being funny. He implied as much in his news conference, as the Times reminded one of the recipients of his sexts:
Mr. Weiner, at his news conference on Monday, said he had sent Ms. Cordova the underwear photo “as part of a joke.” But Ms. Cordova said the image was not in keeping with the tenor of their previous interactions. “I still didn’t get the joke part of it,” she said.
When Weiner first got caught, he tried to rely on his comic skills to get him out of the jam. According to an analysis in Slate:
When the sex photos surfaced last week, and Weiner was still maintaining that his Twitter account had been hacked, he tried to brush the whole thing off as a joke on his name. While denying to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he was responsible for sending the photos, he repeatedly linked his name to the mysterious hacker’s purpose: “When you’re named Weiner, this happens a lot.” “When you’re named Weiner, it goes with the territory.” By my count he mentioned his name five times in the space of a four-minute segment. “We have to get to the bottom of this,” he added, repeating the sentiment at least six times.
A lot has been written this week about the psychology of politicians when a scandal breaks. Lying is a common reaction. It’s almost expected. Turning it all into a joke is something new. Could something else be going on?
One of the justifications behind the calls for him to resign is his alleged misuse of government resources for personal pursuits on social networks, but Weiner had always used Twitter for one liners and hashtag sarcasm. He appears to have kept that up as his communications grew more forward. This week we learned that he would discuss the Daily Show and Colbert Report with the women he interacted with (her: “to get us in the mood, first we watch back to back episodes of the daily show and Colbert report,” him: “with me behind you can’t we both watch the Daily Show?”). In his own mind, his sexts might have just been a letchier extension of his comic persona: his blue material.
Now I’m not saying this is justified by the evidence, I’m not saying it’s likely, but is it at least remotely possible that Weiner conceived this all as an elaborate conceptual joke? Like Andy Kaufman’s decision to mud wrestle women, Weiner’s foray into tweeting crotch shots and its inevitable fallout could be an attempted transition from laugh-out-loud funny to head-scratching funny, a giant stylistic leap into the avant-garde. If we are allowed to believe that maybe Andy Kaufman’s death was a hoax, then we could also entertain that somewhere behind all this is an elaborate prank. Stripped of all its complications and consequences and broken into little pieces, Weiner’s online acts are not unfunny — as a concept. The deluge of late night comedy about Weiner is proof that it’s very easy to laugh at what he did — as a concept. And it’s a tidy concept: a congressman who randomly direct messages pictures of his genitalia to unwitting followers is a pitch perfect absurdist parody of modern politics. It just gets complicated when it’s real and real people are involved.
Put another way, for a politician to do this is wrong and offensive, but for a comedian to do it would be controversial, but to some audiences, hilarious and brilliant.
For example, when Republican congressman Chris Lee took his shirt off and sent the pic to someone he contacted on craigslist, the image was lewd and mortifying, and his political career was over. But male toplessness is a reliable comedy staple, practiced by Mike Myers, Tracy Morgan, Will Ferrell. And theoretically, Anthony Weiner.
Ditto the most offensive and troubling component of this scandal: the crotch shots. Celebrity crotch tweeting and texting has become an epidemic, one that clearly must be stopped, but it parallels a more accepted rise in male full-frontality in recent movie comedies. There’s Borat, Jackass 3D, and the Hangover photo reel. When Forgetting Sarah Marshall came out, Judd Apatow vowed to put male full frontal nudity in all his films. Considering how much comedy Weiner’s crotch shots have inspired, is it unthinkable that Weiner knew they were funny (trendy, even) when he sent them? (And if it’s not a joke, how do you explain the manscaping?)
What I’ve argued is unquestionably no more than a case of devil’s advocacy. There’s almost certainly no way Weiner had anything other than the usual politicians’ psychosexual recklessness in mind when he sent those pictures. But he could still choose another path. Imagine this alternate reality, where a promising young politician walks away from public office and all its encumbrances to dedicate himself wholly to a life in comedy’s margins. A place where he might actually have the chance to make a difference. All Anthony Weiner has to do is take the leap.
Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.