I was just kidding is often a defense offered onstage by stand-up comedians who have, in some way, pushed past performance into something more threatening or upsetting. When Daniel Tosh heckled an audience member with a menacing monologue about how it’d be “funny” if she “got raped by, like, five guys right now,” he claimed afterwards that he was trying to weaponize the “awful things in the world” by making jokes about them. The joy of comedy, after all, is that you can make light of anything, right? But that defense falls flat when a “joke” is targeted to harass, degrade, or even assault a particular person or group—in such cases, “comedy” becomes an excuse to abuse an imbalanced power dynamic. Franken, with all his years in the comedy community, could lay claim to knowing what was funny and what wasn’t, and could plausibly pressure Tweeden into kissing him as a form of unnecessary “rehearsal.”
In a statement, Franken disagreed with her account without providing specifics, saying only, “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann.” Franken has been criticized for sexist humor (in a much less severe sense) when he first ran for Senate in 2008. Then, an article he wrote for Playboy in 2000 titled “Porn-o-Rama” came under fire for its explicit content (in it, he fantasized in explicit detail about visiting a fictional futuristic sex institute).
He was also critiqued for a series of rape jokes he made about the journalist Lesley Stahl that were reported in a 1995 New York magazine piece about Saturday Night Live. Suggesting lines for a sketch, Franken said at a script meeting: “And, ‘I give the pills to Lesley Stahl. Then, when Lesley’s passed out, I take her to the closet and rape her.’ Or, ‘That’s why you never see Lesley until February.’ Or, ‘When she passes out, I put her in various positions and take pictures of her.’” At first, Franken refused to apologize for what he considered “his job,” that is, writing humorous content. As he later recounted in his autobiography, he said he was sorry, but considered the apology a little white lie.
It was meant to be funny has been used as the defense for supposedly ironic racism that more often than not feels like button-pressing that’s meant to be emptily offensive. It’s been used to justify “telling it like it is” in ways that work to silence women. And, of course, it’s been used since time immemorial as cover for “goosing” (or whatever other euphemism you might think of) and grabbing people without their consent. Perhaps Franken’s defense could fall into this category—that he was mocking such casual sexism, that he was just pretending to be a thoughtless pig, perhaps for the benefit of giggling onlookers.
In practice, it’s hard to tell the difference. Franken has long positioned himself as a paragon of virtue in the comedy world, the long-married (42 years now) straight-arrow who worked at SNL at the height of its debauchery and never thought of straying from his marriage. The picture Tweeden provided flies in the face of all that. Would Franken claim he was mocking his own penchant for creepiness? As with so many “jokes” about this kind of behavior, it seems there’s no daylight between mockery and the real thing.