Something strange happened at the Emmys last night, and it started with Stephen Colbert.
Colbert was always an interesting choice to host the Emmys. A Daily Show veteran, Colbert really took off with The Colbert Report, in which he played a fictionalised version of himself in a parody of former Fox News pundit and host Bill O’Reilly. The gig would eventually lead to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
The past couple of years have been politically contentious, to put it mildly, by US standards; the Trump era, which really began the day he announced his intention to run for the United States Presidency by labelling Mexicans rapists, has been one of simultaneous outrage (by some) and delight (by others). Lines of division have never been clearer. And few have benefitted from this as visibly as Colbert.
The Late Show’s writers are probably the best in the business; Colbert’s monologues are sharp, often on-point, and alleviate the ridiculous into the sublime. But Colbert’s popularity can also be partly ascribed to a quality which his writers flesh-out: Colbert’s archetypal American dad demeanour. He comes across as a loving father and loving husband, the charming, affable face of a stable white home brewed with Americana—a tether in a ridiculous age. He is Such a Dad. His unapologetic professions of Catholic faith are a dollop of cream on top.
But he’s Such a Dad going full blast against Trump and the Trump administration, too, sparing nobody. Trump is easy—though not all late-night hosts are doing it properly—but Colbert’s also gone for his staff, past and present: Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Reince Priebus, Anthony Scaramucci…and Sean Spicer.
Spicer was easy money, really, for Colbert; an affable man working for a blistering White House, Spicer somehow managed to say that Hitler did not gas people (for a White House that downplayed how Jews were targeted in the Holocaust, no less), become a joke by hiding from reporters “in the bushes,” try to ascribe meaning to Trump’s covfefe, and lie about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd in the space of just over six months.
“You've got to have the big numbers. And I certainly hope we achieve that tonight,” said Colbert last night, referencing Trump’s obsession with his inauguration crowd size. “Unfortunately, at this point, we have no way of knowing how big our audience is.”
Nobody, I think, suspected that he would then bring Sean Spicer out onto stage, simultaneously horrifying some audience members (as SNL Spicer impersonator Melissa McCarthy was) and delighting others (House of Cards’ Kevin Spacey).
The TV industry understands the importance of light. It understands that shooting a scene in soft lighting gives it a completely different feeling than shooting it in bloom. It understands, in other words, the kind of light it was casting on Sean Spicer yesterday.
Out rolls Spicer with his SNL podium, wrestling power back from satire. Out he trots his line. Obviously it’s a barb against his former employer. Obviously it casts him in a good light.
But Spicer was also the face of Trump’s Muslim ban. Spicer is the man who tried to defend Trump’s wall. Spicer is the man who defended the US President against his nomination of known racists like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or proven traitors like Michael Flynn, or acts of obvious nepotism over meritocracy that have thrust the Trump family in the spotlight and rebranded the Trump name.
It is immediately shocking that Colbert would whisk Spicer out, even if the call was ultimately his producers’. In retrospect, however, the signs were there.
The United States is very, very good at drawing the lines. Spicer is now a Visiting Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School—an honour originally reserved for Chelsea Manning, but vetoed by current administrators.
With Trump, we see former president George W. Bush, a war criminal, cast in a favourable light. We see LGBTQ+, progressive icons post pictures of themselves with the likes of these war criminals, forgetting that they have destroyed a region and millions of lives over lies for profit, and then interviewing them on their hit television shows.
Above: Point of pride. (Instagram / theellenshow)
David Frum, Bush’s former speechwriter, is now a respected Senior Writer at The Atlantic, working alongside people like Ta-Nehisi Coates in the so-called anti-Trump “Resistance”—the one that dictates the status quo is the only viable alternative to the fascism Trump posits. Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, enjoys her time on the boards of several Fortune 500 corporations and remains at Stanford.
John Yoo, who wrote the Torture Memos and subverted Geneva Conventions for the sake of torturing Iraqi civilians, is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.
Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, who engineered George Bush’s contentious win in 2000, broke several international laws, and promoted waterboarding remain a staple of cable news—proven statesmen from a better past.
And Ari Fleischer, who served as White House Press Secretary during the first two years of the Bush administration, makes millions as a media consultant to the NFL. His successor, Scott McClellan, is Vice President for Communications at Seattle University—hardly the cushy gig of his predecessor, but then again.
It goes back to Henry Kissinger, even, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Nixon and Gerald Ford and one of the most controversial public figures of the last century. In a time period where he was illegally bombing Cambodia, a neutral country in the Vietnam War, planning the coup d’état that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected leader Allende and installing a dictator in his place, he was being dubbed Super K and portrayed as an unlikely sex symbol—finally winning a Nobel Peace Prize for ending a war he’d actually extended and which wouldn’t cease for another two years.
And Colbert, who uses his show to promote the American narrative of peace and goodwill (recently saying that the United States was “not alone” in its fight against “evil”), made a stunning joke—if it can be called that—in February.
He played a clip of Trump returning fire in an interview with Bill O’Reilly regarding his alleged collusion with Russian authorities to win the 2016 election in which Trump asks, “You think our country’s so innocent?”
“Oh, I know the answer to this one,” says Colbert. “Yes.”
The crowd goes wild.
In retrospect, maybe, the only surprising thing is, for a second, you had hope.
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