It wasn’t supposed to be a symposium on sexual harassment. When Dustin Hoffman showed up at the 92nd Street Y for a film panel Monday night in honor of the 20th anniversary of “Wag the Dog,” he no doubt thought it would be a celebratory affair, full of back-patting and softball questions. But midway through the hour-long discussion, moderator John Oliver brought up groping allegations that were leveled against Hoffman last month in a Hollywood Reporter guest column written by Anna Graham Hunter, who was a 17-year-old intern when she met the Oscar winner on the set of his film “Death of a Salesman.”
The back-and-forth quickly became squirm-inducing, especially when Oliver took Hoffman to task for what the “Last Week Tonight” host deemed a lackluster apology.
“It’s ‘not reflective of who I am’ — it’s that kind of response to this stuff that pisses me off,” Oliver said as the audience reacted with nervous giggles and a few gasps. “It is reflective of who you were. If you’ve given no evidence to show it didn’t [happen] then there was a period of time for a while when you were a creeper around women. It feels like a cop-out to say ‘it wasn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”
Some in the audience didn’t think this was the time or the place. “Move on. Let it go,” one woman shouted. Hoffman, who said he does not remember the alleged victim, likewise remarked that he felt blindsided by the interrogation.
A film panel isn’t the usual place to have this kind of discussion, so the awkward exchange between the actor and the late-night host raises a question: When is a good time and place to ask about these kinds of allegations? And is a comedian the right person to do it?
Increasingly, late-night hosts who get coveted access to big-name stars are asking tough questions. No longer can A-listers assume that their publicity rounds will include easy conversation and goofy guessing games. Ever since Jimmy Fallon launched a thousand angry tweets by tousling Donald Trump’s hair, late-night hosts have had to pivot away from being simply entertainers. These days, as sexual misconduct dominates the cultural conversation, they have to be gatekeepers of accountability, too.
In this new era, Stephen Colbert has emerged as the interviewer most comfortable with discomfort. When Ben Affleck showed up on the “Late Show” in mid-November — ostensibly to talk about his role as Batman in “Justice League” — Colbert asked the actor about sexual abuse in Hollywood long before he broached the subject of superheroes.
“This is a comedy show, correct?” Affleck asked when the host brought up the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, which kicked off this current flood of accusers stepping forward.
Colbert sounded a bit like a teacher as he explained, “This is a comedy show right now, but we also talk about the subject of the moment.” Then he grilled Affleck about Weinstein — who produced a number of Affleck’s films — before moving on to more personal stories, including the claim by former TRL host Hilarie Burton that Affleck groped her in the early 2000s. There was no getting out of responding.
“What I was accused of by a woman was of touching her breast while I gave her a hug,” Affleck said. “I don’t remember it but I absolutely apologize for it. I certainly don’t think she’s lying or making it up.”
Colbert finished the line of questioning by noting ominously, “Eventually, everything comes out.”
“I think so,” Affleck was quick to agree.
After all that, disgraced former “Today” co-host Billy Bush probably could have guessed that he wouldn’t get a pass on the “Late Show” Monday night — even after he published an op-ed in the New York Times trying to repair his image by praising women who have come forward with stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
Almost immediately after Bush sat on the couch, Colbert informed the man best known for laughing along as Donald Trump bragged about groping women that they were going to roll the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.
“Can we make a deal that it’s the last time, or no?” Bush pleaded.
Colbert also described Bush’s behavior on the bus as “boorish and sort of callow” and asked point-blank, “How do you feel about NBC firing you?”
The trend is an extension of late-night hosts becoming more confrontational in political issues, as Jimmy Kimmel is being compared to Walter Cronkite after speaking out about health care and gun control, and Seth Meyers goes viral every time he takes on Trump.
Last week, Kimmel got into a Twitter feud with Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican nominee for U.S. Senate who has been accused of preying on teen girls when he was in his 30s. After the host sent a comedian down to one of Moore’s events, causing a disruption, Moore invited Kimmel via a tweet to come down to Alabama where he could mock the candidate’s Christian values “man to man.”
After a brief exchange on social media, Kimmel finished the conversation during his show that evening, where he said he would gladly accept Moore’s invitation.
“If you’re open to it, when we sit down, I will share with you what I learned at my church,” Kimmel said during his monologue. “At my church, forcing yourself on underaged girls is a no-no. Some even consider it to be a sin. Not that you did that, of course. Allegedly.”
It’s not that late-night hosts haven’t spoken truth to power before. David Letterman was famous for asking pointed questions — even if he usually delivered them with his signature sly grin — but there’s an expectation now that when a host has the chance, he needs to take advantage of the opportunity or suffer the consequences on social media.
“This isn’t fun for me,” Oliver insisted during the “Wag the Dog” panel. But he said he felt he had no choice but to bring up the “elephant in the room.”
“The easy way is not to bring anything up,” Oliver said. “Unfortunately that leaves me at home later at night hating myself.”