Last year, Sacha Baron Cohen used various disguises to pull off the most startling political humor of the Trump era on the Showtime series “Who Is America?”; and on Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You,” Nathan Fielder turned elaborate real-world stunts into unexpectedly emotional and intricate narratives. These artists expanded the ambition of the prank show while still clinging to its queasy-making juvenile roots.
The latest sneaky star of this new wave, the comedian Jena Friedman, introduces a gonzo feminist perspective in her Adult Swim show, “Soft Focus With Jena Friedman” that doesn’t just crack jokes about misogynist violence. It offers the giddy pleasure of payback.
Last year, Friedman, in character as an unflappable news reporter, did a biting segment on campus rape in which she persuaded three college frat brothers to drag around life-size female dolls called Cannot Consent Carrie. And in a bracing episode last month she built a more elaborate mousetrap involving sexual harassment in online gaming. The bit’s conceit was, If men knew what being victims of sexual harassment and abuse felt like, would that change anything?
Morally questionable humiliation has always been a part of the prank show, and the newer versions often make explicit a meanness that was always a part of “Candid Camera” and “Punk’d.” No one parodied this more brilliantly than Dave Chappelle when he imagined a show called “Zapped” in which, adults prank their kids by, for instance, having a doctor soberly tell them their parents are dead. Stop crying, toddlers, you’ve been zapped!
Prank comedy has been dominated by men tapping into their inner Jerky Boy, and Fielder and Cohen have been criticized for making women the butt of their jokes. Friedman not only flips this script, she also represents a departure for Adult Swim. In a 2016 investigation about gender disparity at the channel, Splitsider’s Megh Wright reported that it had never run a series solely created by a women. Responding to a thread on Reddit on the resulting controversy, Mike Lazzo, an executive at Adult Swim, wrote, “Women don’t tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that’s probably why we (or others) have so few female projects.”
Friedman makes a mockery of this sentiment. She has always gravitated toward conflict, whether arguing politics on Twitter or turning deadly serious subjects like Ebola and rape into stand-up fodder. Like Fielder, she maintains a flat equanimity, but also employs a slippery charm to ingratiate herself with subjects and her audience, sometimes glancing at the camera, Ferris Bueller-style, as if to say, “See what I just did?’
After Rachael’s story came out in September 2016, police started getting more complaints about Larry.
Within two weeks, another 16 women and girls had come forward.
By November, Larry was charged with sexually abusing a child under the age of 13.
Even then, many wondered: How could the parents of these girls have been in the room while Larry abused their child – and not know it was happening?
For their part, the parents are asking themselves the same question.
They’ve seen all the comments online: how the parents are to blame; how they must have been so obsessed with their kids’ gymnastics careers that they just looked the other way.
And the moment Rachael Denhollander spoke out publicly about her abuse, their lives changed, too. Suzanne Thomashow remembers showing her daughter, Jessica, the IndyStar article. Suzanne remembers Jessica reading it and then saying, “Mom, that’s what he did to me.”
Suzanne says, “That was when we figured it out. That was when she figured out that she’d been assaulted.”
For Larry Nassar, the beginning of the end comes in the summer of 2016, thanks to three things:
- a tough police detective,
- a dedicated team of journalists in Indiana, and
- a homeschooling mom from Kentucky.
That mom is Rachael Denhollander. She’s also a lawyer and a devout Christian.
If you’ve seen coverage of the Larry Nassar case, Rachael’s face is probably a familiar one.
Back in the summer of 2016, an article on Facebook caught her eye.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing the article come through,” she says.
It was this big investigation in The Indianapolis Star about how USA Gymnastics had been covering up complaints of sexual abuse against coaches — coaches who were able to move from gym to gym, abusing kids.
Rachael had been waiting for that moment for 16 years.
Because Rachael had also been abused — not by a coach, but by Dr. Larry Nassar, back in 2000 when she was a high school gymnast.
When Amanda Thomashow was a graduate student at Michigan State University in 2014, an old cheerleading injury started to flare up. Amanda’s mom Suzanne is a pediatrician, so she recommended a doctor she’s known since medical school: Dr. Larry Nassar.
Amanda frantically called her mom after the appointment to tell her what happened.
“I think my words were, that’s disgusting. It was repulsive,” recalls Suzanne. “I could not fathom what had just happened and what she was telling me. It was like, ‘what? He did what to you?’ And she repeated it to me a couple of times that I said, ‘well, that’s just not okay. It’s not okay.'”
After she talked to her mom, Amanda decided to make a formal complaint about Larry, which triggered two investigations.
Chapter 1: The Police Interview
After Amanda’s complaint about Larry, Michigan State University police detective Valerie O’Brien asked him to come in for a chat.
We got the tape of this police interview through a public information request.
It’s dated May 29th, 2014. The full interview lasted two and a half hours. We edited it down to a 20-minute version, which you can see below. (Note: Contains content that will be disturbing to many readers.)
Larry’s genius in this police interview is that he flips the script.
Instead of denying anything, he admits it; he says he did touch her breasts and vagina, but says it wasn’t sexual. It was medical.
This is Larry’s playbook. He hammers his credentials and bombards the investigator with complicated medical terms about his techniques.
In the video, you hear Larry describe his version of what happened at his appointment with Amanda. We also have Amanda’s version, as she told it to us.
We want to play Larry and Amanda’s stories side by side so you can hear for yourself how Larry got people to believe him, not Amanda. How he constructed an alternate reality, one where he’s not abusing these girls…he’s healing them.
Toward the end of the interview, Detective O’Brien starts reassuring Larry.
She tells him, “You should take a polygraph to prove your innocence.”
He never does; the test operator tells the detective that a polygraph wouldn’t work in this kind of case.
What he does do is send police several follow-up emails, with PowerPoints about his techniques. (Just like the PowerPoints he gave Meridian Township police in 2004. Note: These contain images that will be disturbing to many readers.)
When the interview’s over, Detective O’Brien thanks Larry for coming in so fast. They shake hands and she walks him out.
The MSU police chief denied our requests for an interview with O’Brien, saying the report has to speak for itself. O’Brien still works for MSU Police, and has since been promoted to Assistant Chief.
So now, Larry had talked his way out of two different police investigations. Once in 2004. And now, again, in 2014.
But with Amanda’s case, it wasn’t just police who let Larry go.
Chapter 2: Title IX
Since Larry was a university employee in 2014, Amanda’s report triggered a federally mandated Title IX investigation.
Title IX investigations look into whether somebody broke a school rule — in this case, Michigan State University’s sexual misconduct policy.
These investigations are done by school staff, not by police.
Two months after she reported Larry, Amanda remembers a school official called her in for a meeting. They wanted to show her the results of the Title IX investigation.
Amanda Thomashow around the time of her abuse.
Courtesy of Amanda Thomashow
She says, “I mean, I was really nervous, but I thought that there was going to be some sort of trial or something like that. That’s what the information was that I was going to get, was that like, ‘okay, we realize that this was sexual assault. Like, these are your options going forward.'”
Amanda meets with a woman named Kristine Moore. She’s the Title IX investigator.
And as Amanda remembers it, Moore sat her down and pulled out a sheet of paper. She put it on the table, pointed to a simple diagram of a human body, and explained why Larry’s treatment was medically sound. Amanda says Moore told her they interviewed four female experts about Larry’s technique.
There’s something you should know about these four women Kristine Moore interviewed: they’re not patients of Larry’s, they’re all doctors or athletic trainers. And they all worked with him at MSU. One was even a close friend of Larry’s.
Amanda explains, “But she had phrased it as she went to, you know, she talked to four female experts in the field and they all said that what he did, while it wasn’t what they would do it, it wasn’t sexual and that I had not been sexually assaulted. That it was medically sound.”
Then, Amanda says, Kristine Moore handed her an information packet on sexual assault and told Amanda about a support group on campus for sexual assault victims.
And then Amanda remembers Moore apologizing, profusely.
“‘I’m so sorry. There’s nothing more I can do.’ And I told her, ‘don’t apologize to me. You’re not sorry.’ And I slammed the door and I walked out.”
What Amanda didn’t know in 2014 is that MSU didn’t give her the full report.
Kristine Moore kept one of her findings out of Amanda’s copy.
Sources shared that confidential section with us this year. In it, Moore sounds some major alarms.
Moore said the treatments were “medically sound” but what Nassar was doing could get the school sued.
Of course in hindsight, we know MSU did get sued. This summer, the school settled for half a billion dollars. In that lawsuit, about 500 people said they were abused by Larry Nassar, and that MSU could have stopped him sooner.
But back in 2014, with Amanda’s case, the Title IX investigator simply said that Larry is exposing patients to “unnecessary trauma.”
Moore’s report concludes the university must address the fact that one of the school’s doctors is not getting patient consent, and patients may mistake his practice for “inappropriate sexual misconduct.”
We asked to talk with Kristine Moore, but she declined our request. Since the 2014 investigation, she’s been promoted to a position as one of the university’s top lawyers.
After less than three months on leave from his job at Michigan State University, Larry was allowed back to work. With conditions. He’d have to follow basic medical guidelines: wear gloves, get consent, have a chaperone in the room. In other words, really basic things that any doctor working with minors in their private areas should do.
But nobody at MSU ever actually checked to see if Larry’s doing any of those things.
That means young girls and women kept streaming into Larry’s treatment rooms…not just at MSU, but at USA Gymnastics and local gyms, and a nearby high school. Even at his home, where Larry “treated” patients on a massage table in his basement.
Some 70 survivors say they were abused by Larry after MSU cleared him to go back to work.
It would be two years until another MSU police detective would bring Larry in again. This time, he wasn’t getting away.