john oliver russell howard dustin hoffman sexual harassment

John Oliver Explains What He Wanted From His Dustin Hoffman Interview, and Why the Result Made Him Feel Sad

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After John Oliver publicly questioned Dustin Hoffman during an anniversary screening of Wag the Dog, asking about the allegations of harassment and assault being made against him, the response online was forceful. A lot of people were supportive of Oliver, and grateful that he wasn’t willing to ignore these questions for the sake of decorum. Others thought it was inappropriate to bring up sexual harassment at what was essentially Hoffman’s job. And on that point, we all basically agree–it is inappropriate to bring sexual harassment into the workplace. If only Hoffman himself had respected that sentiment when it came to the women he worked with over the years.

In an interview with fellow English comedian Russell Howard, Oliver explained that the questions weren’t the ambush a lot of people thought. Hoffman himself might not have known they were coming, but the organizers of the panel did.

“I felt it was unavoidable and I had spoken to the organizers of this event twice before when it was clear he might be there,” he told Howard. “I said ‘If he is going to be there, I have to ask him about this. I understand you might not want your event to be about this, so you might want to get someone else,’ and they said ‘No no, we want you to do it.’ And then when he confirmed, I said ‘I am going to ask him.’ So it was a collision course was set at that point.”

Oliver says he “felt like he had to bring it up.” But from the sound of it, he’s not totally happy with how the whole thing played out.

I knew that the stories were out there and that there were a few more coming, so it felt unavoidable, that we had to have a discussion about it. It wasn’t ideal but it became such a big story – but it became about my questions rather than his answers. But the questions weren’t particularly remarkable, but his answers were kind of, not great. So I think that was the point of it. But it didn’t really go anywhere constructive, so the whole thing just made me feel sad.

I get what he’s saying, but ultimately, the fact that Oliver even asked those relatively unremarkable questions is, itself, remarkable. As he says, that’s the point. That interview got such a big reaction because there is a longstanding precedent of people not asking these questions, of opting for politeness over calling out abuse. The standard is to avoid risking offending alleged abusers at the expense of their accusers.

I get that John Oliver wanted the interview “to become something more constructive,” but it was clear from the encounter that Hoffman is not in a place to talk constructively in any way that benefits his alleged victims. But at least Oliver made sure Hoffman and standard ideas of propriety don’t get to set the guidelines of this conversation.

So Oliver can joke that he “tried and failed” to do something important, but standing up to sexual harassment is no joke, and we’re glad to have Oliver on our side.

(The Russell Howard Hour via Uproxx, image: screencap)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.