Sean Spicer at the Emmys is really no laughing matter
Funny covers a multitude of sins.
That has long been my go-to explanation of a dynamic unique to comedy. Meaning the fact that you are allowed to be crude and shocking, to transgress all kinds of isms, all bounds of propriety, if you can get a laugh in the process.
Sean Spicer got a laugh out of me Sunday night.
He rolled that podium onto the Emmy Awards stage and I cracked up. Nor was I the only one. Indeed, the surprise appearance of the former White House spokesman set off a roar from the audience, though when the camera found Melissa McCarthy, who has lampooned Spicer on “Saturday Night Live,” her smile seemed inscrutable and not quite amused.
I like to think she instinctively understood what some of us didn’t get until later: that this was no laughing matter.
“This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period,” cried Spicer, “both in person and around the world!” It was, of course, a send-up of his first full day on the job, when his notoriously thin-skinned and insecure boss, Donald Trump, sent him out before the press corps to insist, against verifiable fact, that Trump’s inauguration was the most widely viewed of all time.
The incident was an early indication that this White House would not be bound by fact. That would be driven home by a subsequent blizzard of presidential lies and by enablers like Spicer, who would then go out and insist, with a straight face, that the president’s hogwash was true.
Now here was Spicer, effectively declaring himself in on the joke. And being enabled by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, many of whose members reportedly mobbed him at the after-party. It was almost anticlimactic the next day when Spicer told the New York Times that “of course” he regrets haranguing reporters about the size of the inauguration crowd.
One wonders what, exactly, we are supposed to do with that. Are we supposed to laugh off all those times he stood there insisting right was left, lies were truth and two plus two equaled macadamia nuts?
In a way, it makes sense that Spicer sought redemption in a room full of actors. An actor, after all, must dedicate himself to a fiction, make himself believe the lie in order that he might sell it to you.
But an actor is only trying to convince you he’s a superhero or starship captain. Spicer was trying to convince America that the most prodigious liar in presidential history was some oracle of consistent truth. The press secretary was selling bovine excreta, yet acted like you were the fool if you did not acknowledge it as gold.
And now he walks onstage, does this comedic bit, and we’re supposed to treat it all as some harmless, meta joke? That feels cynical and slimy. It feels bereft of principle.
I mean, who’s laughing at whom here? Are we laughing with him about the fact that you can no longer trust a word the White House says — or is he laughing at us for how little that apparently means?
I’m disappointed in the Television Academy. I’m also embarrassed that I laughed. Sean Spicer is one of the reasons we live in a nation filled with millions of angry, frightened, and deeply misinformed people. And yes, funny does cover a multitude of sins.
That’s not one of them.
At this shank end of a summer that a calmer America someday will remember with embarrassment, you must remember this: In the population of 325 million, a small sliver crouches on the wilder shores of politics, another sliver lives in the dark forest of mental disorder, and there is a substantial overlap between these slivers. At most moments, 312 million are not listening to excitable broadcasters making mountains of significance out of molehills of political effluvia.
Still, after a season of dangerous talk about responding to idiotic talk by abridging First Amendment protections, Americans should consider how, if at all, to respond to “cheap speech.” Do you have a submission for Viewpoints? Have something to say about politics, history, arts, technology, business, development, popular culture, science or other issues affecting Central Texas? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org along with a photo of yourself and a short bio. Submissions should not exceed 650 words.