When I was first processing my genital HSV-1 diagnosis, nothing upset me more than an unexpected herpes joke. They were jabs that came out of nowhere, poking at my still-bruised ego as I tried to relax in front of Netflix.
Sure, there were the predictable Judd Apatow one-liners and reality television insults. I’m not expecting The Hangover to be a sensitive piece of film. But even well-intentioned, “progressive” television shows drill the goldmine of STI stigma for cheap laughs. Some of my favorite programs mock people with herpes, from Bob’s Burgers to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Now that I’ve been herpes-positive for seven years, herpes jokes don’t bother me as much as they used to. I recognize them for what they are: ignorant and easy. They say more about the people in the writers’ room than they do about me. But whether or not these jokes hurt my feelings, they’re worth dissecting as sources of stigma and misinformation.
This week’s episode of Saturday Night Live was a wonderful hot mess of post-election joy. There was something cathartic about watching Jim Carey and Maya Rudolph blast “You About To Lose Your Job,” echoing the horn-honking glee of my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Stuffed in the middle of this instantly classic episode, though, was a short sketch about a shitty boyfriend, played with icky charm by Beck Bennett, begging his girlfriend to take him back.
As “Keith” lists the ways he has changed, he reveals increasingly more horrifying pieces of information: He brought a loaded gun to a playground, he flashed his genitals at children, and he may in fact still be a teenager himself. The bit is absurd but not particularly creative, and in the middle of such a historic moment, it probably should have been cut for time.
I would have forgotten this sketch entirely if it weren’t for the herpes joke. A friend of mine who also has herpes texted me to warn me about it, and as I watched, I found myself more exhausted than annoyed. It’s 2020 and SNL is still writing sketches about a nightmare ex-boyfriend who takes “fistfuls of Valtrex just to get out of bed in the morning.”
Which, like, relatable, but I don’t think that’s the vibe that the SNL writers’ room was going for.
When Keith’s girlfriend, the wide-eyed Ego Nwodim, asks him if he has herpes, he stresses, “The old Keith did, but this Keith? Nah, he’s good.”
SNL’s “Take Me Back” sketch relies on and reinforces STI stigma in several ways. Keith’s herpes status is presented beside other “unforgivable” facts, putting his STI on the same level as being addicted to cocaine, secretly filming gay pornography, and wearing an ankle monitor because you exposed yourself on a schoolyard playground. All of these jokes are intended to communicate his poor character and undesirability, which taps on STI stigma, as well as old-fashioned homophobia, the dehumanization of addicts, and the shaming of sex workers.
His ex-girlfriend is (rightfully) furious that he never disclosed his herpes status to her. She exclaims with horror, “Now I probably have it too!” Then Keith replies, “Oh, you’d know if you have the kind I have,” which I don’t entirely understand.
While it’s true that HSV-1 and HSV-2 have key differences in outbreak frequency and symptoms, I’ll hazard a guess that SNL’s writers were not interested in discussing the nuances of herpes strains. Rather, it encourages the casual viewer to laugh and cringe: “Hah, herpes sucks! Boy, am I glad I don’t have that.”
When Keith’s girlfriend says they’re through, he responds, “How could you say that, baby?”
“You just told me you have herpes,” she sneers. “Had,” he corrects her. “Past tense.”
Stereotypes like Keith, lazily strewn throughout popular culture, are the reason why people with STIs are assumed to be deceitful, unfaithful, selfish, and reckless. It’s why so many people are afraid of being judged when they disclose their STI status. It’s why getting diagnosed in the first place can trigger an identity crisis and a severe drop in self-confidence.
“Take Me Back” doesn’t just tell us that Keith is a bad person who has herpes. It tells us that Keith has herpes, and so he must be a bad person.
What makes this sketch frustrating is its shimmer of realism. I’ve dated a Keith; many women have. That’s probably why the sketch made it to airtime. I’ve dated the dishonest, reckless asshole who begs you for another chance. There are jerks out there who wreak havoc on the lives of their partners, and sometimes those jerks even fail to disclose their STI status.
But most people with herpes are not gun-toting sex offenders. Every type of person has herpes, from the earnest boy-next-door to the coke dealer your friend can’t seem to break up with. That’s because herpes isn’t a reflection of your character, or even of your choices. It’s a super common STI that millions of people around the world live with.
Getting herpes is a lot like breaking your ankle—sometimes you break your ankle because you did something ill-advised like skiing, and sometimes you just trip going down the stairs. Either way, breaking your ankle doesn’t make you a bad person, and neither does getting herpes. But characters like Keith make the sheer normality of herpes even harder for folks to imagine.
The SNL sketch needs herpes stigma—our “Ew, get away from me” reaction—in order for the joke to land. And the joke itself contributes to stigma’s continued existence.
Herpes jokes don’t have to be bad. There are plenty of ways to joke about herpes without punching down on a stigmatized group and reinforcing negative stereotypes.
One of my favorite stand-up comedians is Drew Michael, who revels in his exploration of herpes with bad boy swagger. “Mostly the way I got it was just not being a loser,” he says. “I’m 32. If you’re 30, you better either be married or have herpes. Pick one!”
Rather than making fun of people with herpes, Michael focuses on the experience of having it. He suggests that maybe everyone should get herpes, because then they wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of getting it. “If you want, I’ll be in the back after the show. That’s my merch. I don’t have t-shirts, but I have something you can take home with you.”
Michael goes beyond poking fun at our fear of herpes and directly calls out the stigma that creates that fear. “Society imbues it with a source of shame for something that’s on your body, which I believe is body shaming… where’s my Dove ad campaign? Where’s that bottle of soap shaped like that shit? Where’s my brave Instagram post?”
It’s refreshing to hear someone joke about herpes without nastiness or judgment. Finally, we are the joke teller and not the punch line. As surprising as Michael’s set about herpes is, it’s also funnier and more interesting than the tired jokes on SNL. If you need more proof, read the dozens of comments on his posts. As one Instagram user said, “I’ve had it for 40 years. Honestly it’s not a big deal. Thank you so much @drewmichael for the laugh. It’s the first time I’ve actually laughed at a comedian talking about the ‘thing.’”
Saturday Night Live’s “Take Me Back” sketch suggests that mainstream comedy has made little progress on ending STI stigma. But up-and-coming comedians like Drew Michael show us the way forward: humor can be a great weapon against herpes stereotypes, too.
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