Does the word herpes make you uncomfortable? Well, get over it, because the new Hulu show Future Man uses it 17 times in the first two episodes alone. The show is a surprisingly hilarious take on what would happen if the cure for herpes caused the end of the world, which seemed like too funny a premise for the creators to pass up. As co-creator Kyle Hunter told reporters at New York Comic Con, "We were just trying to look for the silliest possible end to humanity." Unfortunately, for a lot of people, herpes isn't necessarily a funny topic — not yet. I have a firm belief that before you can make jokes about something that is deeply stigmatized, you have to destigmatize the thing. But, fortunately, Future Man kind of does exactly that.
Sure, there are some cringey moments (after all, Seth Rogen is an executive producer), but those moments don't have anything to do with herpes. And while the plot does involve Josh Hutcherson's character traveling back in time to stop a doctor from ever getting herpes, it's worth noting that he's not trying to stop him from getting herpes because it's "gross" or "weird." It's that he doesn't want Dr. Kronish to be inspired by his own STD to try to cure mankind and start a research process that eventually leads to a weaponized super-cure. Do I wish that the implication wasn't "curing herpes sort of ends the world"? Yes. But, while herpes may be the start of the downfall of Earth in this fictional world, it's also not the butt of the joke.
One can only hope that audiences get that. Unfortunately, we live in a world that isn't used to saying or hearing the word herpes — so much so, that when the topic does come up in popular culture — very often in a negative context — people have a tendency to laugh at it, not with it. "Did you ever think that you would say the term herpes so much?" the NYCC panel moderator asked the cast. The audience guffawed. Herpes, how funny!
Herpes in real life, and in the show, is a serious issue — and a pretty common one. One out of every six people has herpes, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. As Dr. Kronish says, "It's called Herpes Simplex, but there's nothing simple about it." Not that herpes itself is life-threatening — and for many people who have it, outbreaks can be rare. But the stigma absolutely is dangerous. It's that fear of society and loved ones rejecting you that makes you feel unlovable after getting herpes.
I would know. I wanted to kill myself when I got herpes after my first ever sexual encounter. And, yes, I both asked him if he'd been tested and used condoms, but, guess what? Herpes is very often not part of standard STD testing and condoms don't prevent it! But, herpes is such a hush-hush topic outside of horrific sex-ed slide shows that not a lot of people know that.
Even when I asked questions about the show's herpes premise at my Comic Con interviews, my fellow reporters glared at me. The cast and crew answered as if it were NBD to talk about, and it should be. But, later, my friend overheard one of the reporters who had been at my table making fun of my questions and telling his friends he thought I was taking everything too seriously. "What, does she work for Herpes Magazine?" he asked, according to what my friend overheard. (I don't. But if such a thing were ever to exist, sign me up as a contributor, please.) Another reporter mentioned she couldn't post a Snapchat of Josh Hutcherson to her outlet's channel because he said "herpes" in it.
While the herpes stigma is alive and well, the people behind Future Man are conscious of how the disease can be portrayed in a negative light. "As someone who, and I don’t know if I should be admitting this, but I’m going to break the stigma," co-creator Ariel Shaffir said at NYCC. "As someone who himself has herpes, I don't feel that [the show is shaming herpes] at all."
Star Haley Joel Osment agreed in another NYCC interview. "I think Dr. Kronish has a very good attitude about it," Osment said. "[He has] the best of intentions in distigmatizing it and curing it and not stigmatizing people who have it. It’s just that [his] good intentions go completely off the rails." And Hutcherson made sure to note, "Herpes itself is not what causes the end of mankind; it is the cure for herpes that leads to a super cure for all diseases that is then weaponized and used to kill off people that they don’t want around any more." So there's that.
Not only is the disease itself more of a backdrop to the show than a defining feature, but you forget after awhile that the characters are even talking about an STD. And, when they do talk about it, it's always in a way that notes how commonplace it is. After all, a lot of people have herpes, and that's okay. They're not "dirty" or "slutty," they're just people who have an STD that runs in the same family as chicken pox.
The world of Future Man takes herpes seriously, but also treats it as if it's not a big deal, and the viewer hopefully will start to think so, too. Frankly, it's rare to hear the word "herpes" at all in media to begin with, let alone in an instance that isn't negative. Never forget the joke in Pitch Perfect where Brittany Snow's character finds out she has nodes on her vocal chords that will affect her ability to sing. Rebel Wilson’s character chimes in, "Well at least it’s not herpes,” as if an actually threatening vocal chord issue and a (usually mild) skin condition are at all the same.
All in all, Future Man is a funny show (seriously, go watch it), but it also does work to help destigmatize herpes, if only by starting a conversation and forcing its audience to get used to hearing that word. Maybe, by the end of the 13 episodes, it won't be such a big deal to viewers anymore, either.