Repent, Sinners

Late night hosts helped paint one of the pandemic's greatest villains as one of its greatest heroes. Now they should help take him down.

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Andrew Cuomo should resign. The list of reasons he’s unfit to serve gets longer by the day; the six women who accused of him sexual harassment are only one subsection. So far the governor has refused to step down, spurring legislative leaders to launch an impeachment investigation. This provides an opportunity for those who boosted Cuomo’s image early in the pandemic to atone for their mistakes.

Alex Pareene proposed in The New Republic last month that there are two Andrew Cuomos. There’s Andrew Cuomo the newspaper character, whose corrupt and belligerent leadership has been the subject of extensive coverage for almost his entire time in office. Then there’s Andrew Cuomo the television character, a gruff but charming figure who has the grit and know-how to get things done in a crisis. Since television is ill-equipped to capture the mundanity and complexity of Cuomo’s corruption, news consumers familiar with the latter Cuomo—that is, most news consumers—are only now meeting the newspaper Cuomo, who bullies lawmakers and (allegedly) molests his female aides.

Cuomo was able to craft his image as America’s Governor thanks in no small part to late night comedy. He was a regular fixture on the talk show circuit all spring and well into the summer, the self-serving nature of his appearances clear from the start. In April, self-identified “Cuomosexual” Trevor Noah lauded Cuomo’s honesty and asked about the personal toll of being responsible for so many lives. ("You're not responsible for the deaths, but you're responsible for the lives of the people and keeping everybody safe.") In May, Seth Meyers gave him a platform to criticize Congress’s corporate bailout and riff about his brother. Stephen Colbert—who previously said Cuomo was “doing a good job” in a segment about the governor’s nipple piercings—asked him softball questions about his father and his brother. Jimmy Fallon, whose writers were later dispatched to “make Cuomo cool,” offered the most slavering performance of them all: “Right out of the gate, you were there for us,” he said in a May interview. “I can't thank you enough. The word 'Cuomo' just makes people happy now. It's just the actual word now, it's going to be put in the dictionary. It makes people happy. I thank you. You make me sleep better at night. I look forward to hearing you talk. And thank you for being honest with us and giving us the facts, and being a true leader at this moment."

To their credit, a few hosts responded to the recent revelations with mild-to-full-throated criticism. Trevor Noah, who said he was disgusted by the governor’s conduct, knowingly chided “all those people who praised Cuomo so highly last year.” Jimmy Kimmel said Cuomo’s “done the impossible: he made Bill de Blasio the second-most-hated politician in New York,” which was roughly Colbert’s take as well. Seth Meyers threw some meaningless barbs before moving on. Samantha Bee, whose Full Frontal called Cuomo “America’s Dad” in March, harshly condemned his early handling of the pandemic, his reopening policies, and his behavior towards his female staffers. Jimmy Fallon has yet to comment. (John Oliver also laid into Cuomo last week, but I’m leaving him out of this discussion because he was smart enough not to participate in the OG hagiography.)

That Bee segment comes closest to what these people owe New Yorkers: unequivocal calls for Cuomo’s resignation. They may not have created this monster, but they did help turn him into a hero, and they did so well after he was responsible for widespread death and suffering. As Bee and Noah discuss, the nursing home coverup that set off Cuomo’s slow-motion downfall is only half of that scandal. The other half is a March 25th order requiring nursing homes to admit patients from hospitals even if they were Covid-positive. (When I’m not writing about comedy, I write various materials for an elder abuse law firm in New York, so I’ve been following this story for some time.) Here’s ProPublica in June 2020:

In the weeks that followed the March 25 order, COVID-19 tore through New York state’s nursing facilities, killing more than 6,000 people — about 6% of its more than 100,000 nursing home residents. In all, as many as 4,500 COVID-19 infected patients were sent to nursing homes across the state, according to a count conducted by The Associated Press.

[…]

States that issued orders similar to Cuomo’s recorded comparably grim outcomes. Michigan lost 5% of roughly 38,000 nursing home residents to COVID-19 since the outbreak began. New Jersey lost 12% of its more than 43,000 residents.

In Florida, where such transfers were barred, just 1.6% of 73,000 nursing home residents died of the virus. California, after initially moving toward a policy like New York’s, quickly revised it. So far, it has lost 2% of its 103,000 nursing home residents.

At the end of March, the Cuomo Administration also slipped into state budget legislation a provision that granted nursing homes broad immunity from civil lawsuits. Crafted with input from healthcare industry lobbyists, this liability shield protected nursing homes from coronavirus-related lawsuits and even ordinary malpractice claims. It was repealed in August 2020, but not retroactively: nursing homes are still in the clear for any malpractice that occurred at the pandemic’s height. New York Attorney General Letitia James harshly criticized the shield in a report released last month, arguing that it may have incentivized for-profit nursing homes to make financially motivated staffing and admissions decisions. (Facilities get reimbursements from residents’ insurance providers, so every empty beds is money on the table.) The report also found widespread failures in nursing homes’ infection control practices, describing one that intermingled Covid-positive residents with the general population until mid-May.

New York’s nursing home Covid-19 death toll currently stands at 15,430. Many of these deaths, possibly thousands of them, were preventable. If they were the whole story, that would be enough. If Cuomo’s sexual misconduct were the whole story, that would be enough. If his refusal to vaccinate incarcerated people were the whole story, that would be enough. If his refusal to cancel rent were the whole story, that would be enough. There’s no ambiguity here. It takes a deliberate effort to spin this narrative into one of heroism rather than villainy, but Cuomo pulled it off. Comedians helped him.

One great contradiction of late night comedy is that the form is fundamentally reliant on exaggeration but averse to bold moral stances. Fortunately there’s nothing bold about calling for Cuomo’s resignation. In a just world he would be stripped of his wealth and station and forced to live in a Crown Heights two-bedroom with no job, no insurance, and nothing to do all day but try to navigate a byzantine unemployment system. Given the circumstances, stepping down is a pretty tame demand, one most late night hosts are well within their rights to make as his constituents. They should do it for their neighbors, their employees, their viewers, the dead and their families; they should do it to protect the people still working under a powerful, vengeful abuser; they should do it because theirs are the voices a fame-monger like Cuomo actually cares about. But most of all they should do it because it’s right and it’s their job.


Elsewhere,

-Roastmaster General Jeff Ross looks conspicuously absent from Comedy Central’s “Hall of Flame: Top 100 Comedy Central Roast Moments,” a weeklong event airing later this month. This could be a sign that the network is distancing itself from Ross in the wake of last year’s Vulture’s exposé, which might in turn remove one incentive comedians have not to speak about the allegations against him. Meanwhile The Comedy Store remains firmly on Team Ross: he’s headlining at one of the venue’s drive-in shows later this month. (Neither Comedy Central nor the Comedy Store responded to requests for comment.)

-As predicted, at least one NYC club owner who spent months insisting he’d produce safe indoor shows if only the state let him appears intent on disregarding the new safety guidance:

-I haven’t finished the new James Acaster special yet—it’s two hours long!—but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen so far. You can check it out on Vimeo for a cool eleven bucks.

-Dad’s Garage, the Atlanta improv theater that pays its talent, recently launched a streaming platform for the material it’s been producing throughout the pandemic. You can purchase individual shows á la carte or subscribe for $15/month. The service is still in its infancy, but I’ll be very interested to see how it grows and what lessons it offers improv/sketch practitioners looking for new revenue models.

-I laughed real hard at this video:

Okay bye!