Sean Spicer at the Em­mys is re­ally no laugh­ing mat­ter

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - BALANCED VIEWS - Leonard Pitts Jr.

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 views@states­man.com along with a photo of your­self and a short bio. Sub­mis­sions should not ex­ceed 650 words.

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