When Sunday night’s Emmy Awards began, it seemed like it was going to face the horror of the current political landscape head-on. The crux of Stephen Colbert’s opening sequence was that people are turning to TV escapism because the world is going to shit. Within a single minute, Julia Louis-Dreyfus called out Donald Trump’s Nazi fan base, Colbert implied that Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia amounts to treason, and Chance the Rapper made a guest appearance to come out against Trump’s transgender military ban and remind viewers of cops that evade indictment for killing black men. It was an admirably sharp-tongued opening for a network otherwise known for a lineup of shows designed to soothe the anxieties of Trump’s white male America.
That is, until it welcomed Trump’s former mouthpiece onto the stage. Colbert had former Trump spokesman Sean Spicer zoom out on a mobile podium, a nod to Melissa McCarthy’s shtick as Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Spicer grinned a charming, self-effacing grin as the audience gasped and screamed in disbelief. Yes, it was really him. Yes, he was there to make fun of himself. He was self-aware enough to know he was there as a target for jokes and humble enough to take it.
It was a sickening, cynical laugh grab, a fantastic “get” that was probably meant to make the Emmys look good for convincing someone other than an entertainment industry star to show up for a gag. But the main beneficiary of the joke was Spicer. America has barely heard from him since he left the administration at the dawn of the Mooch era, his brief and disastrous turn in the spotlight was very much over. Sunday’s sketch brought Spicer back into the public consciousness as an affable pal who’s in on the joke. If he, like us, sees the humor in the lies he spread and the aggressive attacks on the press he led, he can’t be all that bad, right?
Giving Spicer a platform for reputation rehabilitation belongs in the same category as Trump hosting Saturday Night Live during his campaign and Jimmy Fallon mussing the candidate’s hair on his show. To include members of a racist, xenophobic administration in light-hearted comedy bits is to obscure the depth of the harm they do. When people see Spicer or Trump as good sports with the maturity to laugh at themselves, Spicer and Trump become a little more “normal,” a little less “men with no shame or experience who stole the presidency and have threatened the very tenets of democracy.”
“This will be the largest audience to witness the Emmys, period—both in person and around the world,” Spicer said from his podium on Sunday, riffing on his obviously false claim that Trump had the most-viewed inauguration of all time. Colbert’s comedy routine let Spicer spin that statement as a kind of joke—not the first blatant lie of the Trump presidency, a deliberate whopper that immediately put an end to whatever responsibility the presidential press secretary once had to hew reasonably close to easily verifiable facts. When McCarthy played Spicer, audiences could come to terms with Spicer as an anti-freedom-of-the-press press secretary by laughing at him. Laughing with him only dulls the senses to his deeds.