Why Tina Fey’s Great News Episode About Sexual Harassment Is So Good

Photo: NBC

The NBC sitcom Great News frequently builds its comedy around workplace issues and slides cutting jokes about public figures into its dialogue. (My favorite from last week’s episode was the perfectly casual reference to Eric Trump’s tooth sharpener.) But one of the best comedies on television really outdid itself Thursday night with “Honeypot!,” an episode about sexual harassment that happened to air in the midst of a snowballing Harvey Weinstein scandal.

The internet has frequently bowed down before 30 Rock’s ability to call out the misogynistic, abusive actions of male celebrities, including Bill Cosby and, yes, Harvey Weinstein, long before the media fully reported on them. This half-hour of Great News — a comedy created by former 30 Rock writer Tracey Wigfield and executive-produced by 30 Rock vets Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, and David Miner — is a sharp reminder of just how much DNA these two shows share.

Co-written by Fey and Sam Means, another 30 Rock vet who also writes for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Honeypot!” focuses on inappropriate behavior committed by Diana St. Tropez (Fey), the head of MMN, the cable network that employs every character on Great News. While it coincidentally airs at a time when Weinstein is finally being exposed for his decades of alleged abuse of women, the episode is most clearly meant to evoke Roger Ailes, the late head of Fox News, who resigned from his role after more than two dozen women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. In one scene, Portia Scott-Griffith — Nicole Richie’s self-promotional anchorwoman, who has name-dropped Ailes in previous episodes — calls him out specifically. “My mentor Roger Ailes had been whipping it out in front of women for decades,” she says. “By the way, bad penis. It’s actually why they started calling penises junk.” As a light sitcom, this episode came to play. But also, it totally did not come to play.

As we learn, Diana is committing a vaguely Ailes-esque sin aimed at several men on staff, demanding that they do absurd but degrading things, like bending over to pick up her pens or eating bananas in front of her. But Portia and Katie (Briga Heelan), a producer, are reluctant to report Diana for a number of reasons. For one, Diana recently announced that she’s been promoted, and will soon become the COO of the conglomerate that owns MMN (as well as Nerf and Lockheed Martin), so she’s got one foot out the door anyway. More important, the women simply don’t believe that their empowered, fully leaned-in idol would do something so awful.

“How many more men have to come forward before you believe us?” asks Wayne (Sheaun McKinney), a cameraman whom Diana forces to dance in order to get an equipment upgrade.

“In the words of the Cosby jurors: ‘Duh, I don’t know. More than 60,’” Katie responds.

“What would you even report?” she asks. “What were you guys doing in her office, in the middle of the day, alone? I’m just saying: What were you wearing?”

“I dress sexy because it makes me feel good,” Gene (Brad Morris), a fellow producer, objects. Gene is wearing the same thing he wears in every episode: a pair of nondescript jeans, a button-down shirt that may actually be beiger than beige, and a yarmulke.

Katie eventually does confront Diana, who trots out the usual list of reasons why her behavior is perfectly okay. “That wasn’t sexual harassment. They wanted it.” It was just “locker room talk.” Then she appeals to Katie’s sense of sisterhood: “Us gals gotta stick together, right?” The only argument missing is, “I came of age when it was common to force underlings to eat bananas in front of their bosses. That was the culture then.” I can almost guarantee that if Fey and Means had written this episode after Weinstein released his apology, they would have tossed it onto Diana’s dung heap of excuses, too. Diana caps the whole thing off by asking Katie to give her “the pervert’s high-five,” which … you know what? If you haven’t seen the episode yet, I’ll let you figure out that one yourself.

In this scene and others, “Honeypot!” flips the script on the way we think about sexual harassment. By putting women in the roles of aggressors, victim blamers, and deniers, Great News underlines how strange it sounds to jump to the defense of someone in power who’s clearly harassing others. If the episode tried to tackle similar material but cast the head of MMN as a man, it would not have been nearly as effective at making this point, nor as funny. Why? Because we’re so used to seeing men do these things — in the news, on TV shows, and in our own workplaces — that watching those well-known situations in a half-hour sitcom might have seemed too played out and potentially too didactic. By pushing the story line into unexpected directions, it is more pointedly satirical and it makes us reassess the way we handle such abuses.

“Honeypot!” also amps up the ridiculousness of Diana’s actions. Eventually, she even harasses Andrea Martin’s Carol — mother of Katie, head of the interns, and perpetual wearer of Chico’s capri pants — by forcing her to play Go Fish with a deck of nudie cards. “I won by getting four butts,” Carol confesses, deeply ashamed. Again, this is funny purely for the most basic reason: The word butt is funny! But the absurdity of Diana’s behavior also speaks to the fact that it’s absurd and gross when men ask women to watch them shower like that’s a perfectly reasonable request.

But Diana does not actually think any of this is reasonable. In a brilliant third-act twist, she reveals that she actually hates harassing her employees. She was just trying to commit enough outrageous and offensive acts for someone to report her to HR, thereby enabling her, like Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and others before them, to leave her job while collecting a massive payout. “I have fought for workplace equality for 25 years,” Diana says. “I just want what the men get: $40 million to go away.”

That’s a hilarious and darkly delicious kicker because it tells us several things. First, it reminds us that men often do walk away from their heinous behavior with at least some type of monetary reward, which is disgraceful. (This is also reportedly an issue in the Weinstein case.) Second, it points out that even when confronted with blatantly immoral behavior, a group of employees will still often be too meek to say anything about it. Third, it suggests that we rarely hear stories about powerful women sexually harassing their employees because they don’t do it nearly as frequently as men do. (Or, as Diana puts it, “I really don’t understand what men get out of it. That and golf: Why?”) And then there’s the very last exchange between Diana and Katie, which goes like this:

Diana: “Maybe someday, when you get to be in my position, we’ll live in a world where a woman can be a creep and go home with a huge, golden parachute.”
Katie: “That sounds like a world worth fighting for.”

It’s a fitting punch line that reminds all of us that women, and men, really should fight for something better.

If you agree, do me a favor: Don’t give me a pervert’s high-five.

Tina Fey Wrote a Great News Episode About Sexual Harassment