Woody Harrelson's anti-vax joke raises questions about what we excuse in likable people

The goofball star's inebriated "SNL" stunt makes us wonder what we'll tolerate from conspiracy theorist friends

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published March 1, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

Host Woody Harrelson during the "Saturday Night Live" monologue on Saturday, February 25, 2023 (Will Heath/NBC)
Host Woody Harrelson during the "Saturday Night Live" monologue on Saturday, February 25, 2023 (Will Heath/NBC)

With most people returning to some semblance of normal and gatherings resuming, it's bound to happen to you sooner or later if it hasn't already: A "how have you been?" catch-up with an acquaintance begins pleasantly enough only to shrivel when they unexpectedly veer into conspiracy theory.

The last time you saw this person they were not frothing at the mouth. But during the past three years something shifted, and now they're parroting false, anti-scientific claims, unbidden. This may lead you contemplate the nature of your relationship – do you distance yourself from this otherwise decent, enjoyable person with whom you have much in common, or find a way to tolerate them?

This irritation may be fueling some of the outrage at Woody Harrelson over his Feb. 25 "Saturday Night Live" monologue.

Harrelson's "SNL" hosting gig, his fifth, is part of a media tour for his upcoming movie "Champions," a feel-good story in which he plays a coach training basketball players with intellectual disabilities. The actor is the most famous name in this "Bad News Bears"- style comedy from Bobby Farrelly, who directed him in 1996's "Kingpin," which lends an essentiality to his promotional efforts.

To the superficial moviegoer Harrelson is aptly cast. Many people know him as an environmentalist, hemp activist and all-around goofball. He's also an anarchist.

Anyway, Harrelson's "SNL" intro began very on-brand, with the actor jovially calling himself a "redneck hippie" who loves everybody, and also marijuana and booze. "I'm red and blue, which makes purple," he says. "I'm purple!" This elicited jubilant whooping and applause from the live studio audience, because who doesn't love our vegan bud Woody, even if he's channeling less "Cheers" than "Zombieland"?

Then Harrelson's odd-yet-harmless prattle took a sharp turn when he brought up a movie script he purported to have read in 2019 after "blazing a fatty" in Central Park. He said went something like this: "The biggest drug cartels in the world get together and buy up all the media and all the politicians and force all the people in the world to stay locked in their homes. And people can only come out if they take the cartel's drugs and keep taking them over and over."

"I threw the script away," he said. "I mean, who was going to believe that crazy idea? Being forced to do drugs? I do that voluntarily all day long."

The room's reaction to this was muted but approving anti-vaxxers went wild on social media, as did Elon Musk. Within the dismayed faction were those who expressed a kind of sadness along the lines of, "I really liked him," as if Harrelson suddenly dropped dead.

Many people know Harrelson as a environmentalist, hemp activist and all-around goofball. He's also an anarchist.

Maybe he is dead to those people. To others, he transformed into a version of that pal who's internalized a measure of fringe lunacy as truth. Experiencing that in person can be infuriating and complicated especially when overall, that person is genuinely likable, someone we'd like to keep in our lives. Harrelson's Monday night appearance as a guest on "Late Night with Seth Meyers," and a good deal soberer may have reminded us of that.

Actor Woody Harrelson during an interview with "Late Night With Seth Meyers" host on February 27, 2023 (Lloyd Bishop/NBC)Meyers, an "SNL" alumnus whose show is also executive produced by Lorne Michaels, was not going to press any mea culpa out of Harrelson despite the headlines his appearance generated. But he did offer the actor a side door to explain himself by setting up his history of hosting "SNL" beginning with his first time in 1989.

"Do you remember your first time hosting 'SNL'?" Meyers asked.

"Not even a little bit," Harrelson answered.

"Hold on, let me reframe it," said the host. "Do you remember much about last Saturday?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all, actually," the actor admitted. "Even then . . . I know that I left the after-after at six. So that's where my memory started . . ."

There you have it, friends. Your weed-head pal Woody was simply not himself that night.

But that's not quite true either. 

Those who expressed the greatest shock at Harrelson's wink at the bunk claims that Big Pharma controls the government, and the media may not have been aware that Harrelson is on record as a believer in several whangdoodle myths. In this, he is not alone.

Before the pandemic Harrelson was a 9/11 truther, along with Willie Nelson, Graham Nash, and Mark Ruffalo. People who like Harrelson probably like those performers too.

"Law & Order" viewers adored late actor and comedian Richard Belzer, a devoted conspiracy theorist who appeared several times on Alex Jones' show to discuss, among other topics, his skepticism regarding the circumstances surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination. Alec Baldwin shares in that doubt.

By now we're also familiar with the list of stars who were vaccine deniers long before COVID came along, a roster that has included Jenny McCarthy, Robert Kennedy Jr.Jessica Biel and Alicia Silverstone.

Truthers and anti-vaxxers demonstrate a type of extreme inconsideration, although they don't view it that way. Previously celebrity anti-vaxxers falsely linked immunization to a rise in conditions such as autism. In the COVID era Harrelson and other like-minded people believe in personal liberty at all costs. That's a price too high for those mourning loved ones lost in a pandemic that stretches on, in part, because of widespread vaccine hesitancy.

Truthers and anti-vaxxers demonstrate a type of extreme inconsideration, although they don't view it that way.

But there may be an emotional dissonance here because people honestly like Harrelson. Even now they'd love to kick back with him in his West Hollywood weed dispensary's Giggle Garden if given the opportunity. Honestly, the bar for forgiveness is pretty low these days. Harrelson isn't co-signing calls for violence by backing transphobia or soft-selling antisemitism as fellow recent "SNL" host Dave Chappelle did. He doesn't have a questionable media history that includes expressing admiration for incel guru Jordan Peterson, as "Shazam! Fury of the Gods" star Zachary Levi did before he supported a tweet slamming vaccine manufacturer Pfizer as "a real danger to the world."

Harrelson's long-established anti-corporate stance means he shouldn't be a fan of Musk, who also hosted "SNL." Would you believe that he's simply a "redneck hippie" who stepped outside his inebriated bubble for a little while? He only wanted to say hello to this world he wishes would get along and drunkenly rammed face-first into a major partisan fracture that hasn't healed. Honestly, who among us hasn't, et-cet-er-AHH, as he'd put it.

What we're contending with is a version of separating the art from the artist, except the artist isn't violent or abusive, merely devoted to perilously misinformed beliefs. The audience is left to weigh our affection for them against that troublesome aspect of who they are. You know, just like that hypothetical friend of yours.

And to be clear, Harrelson's coming out against COVID protocols on "Saturday Night Live" is not harmless, nor was it the first time he aired these views. A New York Times profile published a day before his "SNL" appearance includes a quote where he calls industry prevention protocols absurd.

"I don't think that anybody should have the right to demand that you're forced to do the testing, forced to wear the mask and forced to get vaccinated three years on," he says. "I'm just like, Let's be done with this nonsense. It's not fair to the crews. I don't have to wear the mask. Why should they? Why should they have to be vaccinated? How's that not up to the individual? I shouldn't be talking about this [expletive]. It makes me angry for the crew."

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Harrelson is not in the minority regarding these feelings. Much of the public is tired of masking too, which makes his broadcast TV mention of the "drug cartel" conspiracy especially alarming. A 2020 study by Reuters Institute confirms that prominent public figures play an outsized role in spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Their contributions may make up a small percentage of the count Reuters included in their sample but they have massive social media followings which lead to high levels of engagement.

Like a virus, these delusions have a way of trickling into our lives through an assortment of alleyways. Be assured that folks who don't watch "SNL" or may not even own televisions are likely aware of what Harrelson said and think it's brave, wonderful and validating. When you hear this at your next social event, you can weigh whether to push back against the fiction and inject conflict into an otherwise relaxing get-together, or simply change the topic.

People may decide to refrain from supporting Harrelson's movie in response to this, and it's an easy protest, albeit one with an impact that's tough to measure in an era where people aren't seeing movies in theaters for a variety of reasons. He won't stop being who he always was, meaning an actor who takes on crowd-pleasing projects and a guy who calls himself an "anarchist, Marxist, ethical hedonist, nondiscriminatory empath, epistemological deconstructionist Texan." The question is whether people can reconcile themselves with all those pieces.

Americans have a knack for overlooking far worse in other people, so Harrelson fans shouldn't stress on his behalf. But a few of them may be rethinking whether they'd have a few beers with him.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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