It was Stephen Colbert’s idea.
The decision to invite former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer onto the stage of the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards to crack a few jokes at his own expense was the idea of the host, a man who had garnered much praise for his steadfast comedic and ethical stance against Donald Trump’s administration, as well as his own regret over having had Trump on his show as a guest during the Presidential campaign. While Jimmy Fallon ruffled hair and paid the price, Colbert marched on as the new statesman of late night, the steady hand of authority and understanding, as reliable as you can get.
It was Colbert’s idea to let Spicer be in on the joke that was his brief run as Trump’s mouthpiece. He was cheered and laughed along with, and became the backstage selfie buddy of the night. It didn’t matter that the routine, a weak retread of territory Melissa McCarthy had already covered when impersonating him on SNL, wasn’t very good. The crowd ate it up and it undoubtedly went a long way to rehabilitating his image. The man who tried to ‘All Lives Matter’ the Holocaust, the man who said Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons when talking about the Assad regime, the man who voluntarily worked as the mouthpiece for a white supremacist administration. Now, as Lawrence O’Donnell noted on Twitter, he’s got enough of a goodwill bump to increase his lecture circuit fee, but not before spending the night posing with the same stars who vocally oppose the man he aided in his insidious regime.
It was Colbert’s idea. According to CNN, he thought ‘it would be funny and surprising, and that’s what mattered most.’ This was a line from an article on whether the Emmys helped Spicer to rebrand. The short answer is yes.
I’m not sure why this particular instance upset me so much. Why expect better from another white male talk show host who has to worry about ratings and being a good sport, just like the rest of his colleagues? He wasn’t even the one who had Spicer on his show for a sit-down interview: That was Jimmy Kimmel. Still, Colbert has benefitted from being seen over the past several months as the antithesis of his timeslot competitor, Jimmy Fallon. He’s serious but not solemn, a careful judge of mood and tone, and someone with a strong clear vision for how comedy can highlight and interrogate the political administration of a reality TV show judge.
Previously, Colbert had invited Anthony Scaramucci onto his show for an interview, his first following the torrid ten days he spent in the Trump administration. Scaramucci was an obvious character, a borderline caricature who seemed to model himself off latter-day David Mamet plays. He wanted to be a star and he so desperately craved the redemption of the public, which was why the Colbert interview could have gone very wrong. It didn’t for two reasons: The audience wouldn’t let Scaramucci off the hook - they booed him almost immediately - and Colbert knew what he was up against. There’s evident frustration in Colbert’s face as he tries to get Scaramucci to answer questions and engage with a conversation beyond his desire to get better press. It’s not an entirely successful interview, but in the current spectrum of modern day American late-night, it’s probably as close as we were going to get to a confrontation.
It’s hard to truly understand the potency of celebrity and its ecosystem with this administration. Trump is a celebrity, and even as the most powerful man in the world, he seems more concerned with increasing his celeb clout and engaging with that world than being President. He liked to join in on celebrity gossip on The View, chat sex with Howard Stern, and tweet his anger at Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattinson. It fulfilled his craven need to be an authority of celebrity. If Warren Beatty was the King of Hollywood, Trump wanted to be the lord of New York, sneering at those Hollywood liberals but still hungry for the Emmy.
His administration is full of media savvy figures who enjoy the limelight. They understand its power as a tool to soften hard edges, make the darkness more palatable and add a primetime sheen to their own images. Ivanka Trump makes her voice sweeter and says she doesn’t know what ‘complicit’ means because she knows it works. She learned it from the best.
Late night and political satire is in an impossible place, trapped between the need to satirise walking parody without downplaying the daily dangers of the temperamental toddler with access to the nuclear codes. Yet they’re also in the business of television, and ratings trump all else. It’s why CBS’s Les Moonves bragged about Trump being great for those numbers despite the damaged he caused. Colbert is not immune to this, and his own fate as host of The Late Show was called into question when his early numbers struggled to get out of their slump. What got him out of that was his decision to take a decisive stance. No bullshit, no cute fun and games, and no hair ruffling: Here are the problems, here are the dangers, and we laugh because it’s preferable to crying. Colbert became the man who knew what he was doing, and right at a time when we could have used a few more of them.
Colbert’s choice to have Spicer at the Emmys isn’t just a joke that didn’t land. It’s now the new norm. This is how it will go. Members of Trump’s administration - the secretaries, the staffers, the beleaguered spokespeople and maybe even his own family - will work for him, enable him at every step, lie and smear and spew all manner of bigoted bullshit for a hefty paycheque. They’ll quit or get the sack and wait for the right talk-show gig. Colbert adds an element of gravitas, but Kimmel will bro out. Corden will laugh and hug and Fallon will laugh harder. It’ll be awkward but they’ll get credit for laughing along and being such a good sport about it all. There will be no condemnation of their bigotry or assistance in a white nationalist government. There will be no ramifications for aiding in the destruction of healthcare, environmental policy, world relations, or empowering the KKK. All it will be is a quick pat on the back and the assumption that they’re now our friends.
Anyone who took a selfie with Spicer should think long and hard about why their steadfast opposition to Trump doesn’t count when they think the man who willingly followed his orders for profit and politics is a fun selfie buddy. I’m not ready to laugh with Spicer or the cronies who let white nationalism dominate the White House, and I’m not sure Colbert should be given an easy ride for assisting in this attempt at PR rehab, not if we’re still rightly holding Fallon’s feet to the fire. If he wants to pal around with Trump’s babysitters for a funny surprise, he’s free to do so, but the time for playing ignorant on the ramifications of this softening act has long passed.