When Sean Spicer, the disgraced former-press secretary for Donald Trump’s White House, came out on stage at Sunday night’s Emmy Awards pretty much everyone in the audience lost their shit laughing. It was involuntary “Oh my god, I can’t believe he’s here!” laughter, perhaps, but it was laughter all the same. It was reprieve for the second-most ridiculed man on the planet.
You can see him up there, ham face slick with sweat under the studio lights, cramping with happiness. He’s thinking: They’re laughing with me now.
Laughter is complicity. “Spicer is on a redemption tour,” wrote Julianne Escobedo Shepherd for Jezebel, “and the powers that be are allowing him to embark upon it.”
Not all celebrities were up for the gag:
(Imagine being in a position where you’re being highroaded by JD from Scrubs.)
But one person who was into it was British talk-show supplant and loud-laughing sycophant James Corden, who was pictured kissing Spicer on the cheek on Variety’s Instagram page, a post which quickly circulated online.
“To be fair, everyone was kissing ass last night at the Emmys,” Corden said opening monologue of his show Late Night… on Monday. “I just happened to kiss the biggest one there!”
“Anyone ever have that feeling when you get a little drunk and then wake up the next morning and think ‘Oh God, who did I kiss last night?’ It’s a bit like that.”
Only, it’s not like that, is it, James. It’s not like that at all. Nothing in Hollywood is an accident and nothing happens at an awards show without it being cleared by everyone and their press team, their management, the event sponsors. This is not “Whoops. Had one too many beers and kissed someone from the accounts team” but it is “I want to align myself with the comedy highlight of the night”. It was a calculated risk that backfired spectacularly from a man who knows that the Trump administration will not affect him in the slightest.
American comic (and host of the Emmys) Stephen Colbert has been criticised for his part inviting Spicer to join in the celebrations at an awards show which has - besides that - been praised for its diversity. Colbert’s keeping schtum about his role, but an Emmy insider told Vulture: “We had eyes wide open that… there would be people who thought we shouldn’t do it. There was no expectation everyone would love this.”
Politicians want to be seen to be human. What better way of humanising than allowing them to yuck it up with the rest of us? Now that they’re in on the joke, now they’re off the hook. Think in Extras, how novel it was to see celebrities poking fun at themselves. Look! It’s Keith Chegwin from the telly! He’s saying racist things but in a funny way! What a guy. I like him.
Somehow, we’ve allowed comedy and the ability to ‘not take yourself seriously’ to be enough to absolve some of the people worst to blame. An apparent good sense of humour presents us the argument that total scumbags must be good blokes after all. Nobody evil can be funny, can they?
This kind of self-depreciating political rhetoric is designed to trick you. It’s soundbites over policy - as so much modern politics is - but there’s something even bleaker about allowing someone their obvious failures, misgivings, and fuck-ups just because ‘they are a bit funny’ than being swept away by grand declarations designed to inspired man’s worst instincts and desires.
And when we see something bad or evil or scary - especially if it doesn’t affect us directly - our first instinct is to laugh at it, to strip it of its power through humour. But politicians know what we want to do and they let us do it. Donald Trump has become hacky stand-up fodder in the same way that airplane food or your mother-in-law was: that only serves his MO. People end up half-forgetting his declarations of racial segregation or assurances of mass destruction because he is very orange and some twee lads on Twitter think it’s funny to call him ‘Wotsit Hitler’.
We tell ourselves that evil can’t be a danger if it’s silly. If it’s got hair like tumbleweed or stands like Mr. Burns or is called Boris. That’s a position of power and privilege and ignorance. When producers allow Donald Trump to host Saturday Night Live twice or allow Boris Johnson to present Have I Got News For You four times, they are letting us fall for the oldest trick in the book. ‘If we are chuckling at [Boris],’ wrote Jonathan Coe in the London Review of Books, ‘we are not likely to be thinking too hard about his doggedly neoliberal and pro-City agenda, let alone doing anything to counter it.’
Boris Johnson’s misdirection - that this bowl-headed toff can’t possibly be dangerous because look at him! - coupled with his cynical pandering to big business was a large part of what saw him elected as Mayor of Actual London in 2008. This is how you get a child to get a jab from the doctor, not how we should allow politicians behave.
But the “no politicians in comedy and light-entertainment” rule should also extends to left-leaning politicians, too. As absolutely infuriating as it is, and regardless of whether Corbyn is game for a laugh, there is no better way to create an us-versus-them divide than to exclude someone because of their political beliefs - something Donald Trump (someone who has known no real exclusion in his seventy-odd years as an inherited billionaire), his party and the alt-right have used to extreme effect in recent years. Where we can help it, we should just excise them all completely. Just invite none of them on anything ever again.
Far better that than having producers feeling the need to have Jimmy Fallon pander to Donald Trump, literally ruffling his hair, going puce laughing at his jokes, offering hate-speech an equal platform in ‘the interest of fairness’.
Comedians and talk-show hosts pretend to be aghast at people like Trump and Spicer are then all too quick to welcome them in with open arms when it suits a punchline. If satire is supposed to challenge the powerful, and then allows the powerful to be in on the joke just a few months down the line, that’s nothing more than collusion.
Allowing politicians a platform to win votes based on image, rather than policy and ethics is often disingenuous - and there’s always someone else writing their jokes anyway.