You could be excused for mistaking last night’s 69th annual Emmy Awards for a Comedy Central election-night special.
After all, there was Stephen Colbert, the man who — with Jon Stewart — put “fake news” on the map long before the Trump Administration was a twinkle in Vladimir Putin’s eye. And there were Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon, accepting golden trophies for their cutting and hilarious depictions of President Trump and his chief 2016 campaign rival, Hillary Clinton, on “Saturday Night Live.”
But the moment that parody congealed into self-parody was obvious to anyone watching the show from home, and many who were there attending in person.
It was when Sean Spicer, former communications director and chief spokesperson of the Trump White House, took the stage behind a wheeled podium made famous by his doppelganger, Melissa McCarthy, in a series of “SNL” sketches. Spicer proceeded to do a quick bit in which he mocked himself hyping Trump’s overinflated inaugural headcount, before being dismissed by Colbert saying, “Melissa McCarthy, ladies and gentlemen.”
A cut to the actual McCarthy in the audience appeared to show she wasn’t entirely amused by the surprise cameo. And for good reason: The star was an active and public Clinton supporter, and her performance as Spicer was sharpened in no small part by her recognition that it purportedly rattled Trump himself to see his chosen mouthpiece embodied by a woman.
Indeed, McCarthy’s “SNL” skits probably accelerated Spicer’s exit from the national stage, contributing to the perception — the reality — of a White House in chaos.
Which is why the Emmys enabling Spicer’s rehabilitative return to the national stage was so ugly.
Spicer was the mouthpiece of a president who will likely go down as one of the nation’s worst. Trump’s practices, which have vastly harmed our democracy, have been brilliantly exposed and savaged through comedy.
And then last night — even as the series that made that satire possible was showered with awards — those practices were softened, made warm and fuzzy. Or, to use the term that’s become the go-to expression to define how we’ve become numb to and tolerant of previously abhorrent phenomena, “normalized.”
Which brings up the bigger question highlighted by last night. We live in an era where fact and fiction, comedy, commentary and coverage have all converged into a mutant chimera of content — where “newsertainmedy” has gone mainstream. Even journalists who are studiously solemn and self-important in their traditional media personas engage in snarky commentary on Twitter.
And in the era of simultaneous corporate ownership of news and entertainment media, the line between the targets and performers of satire are increasingly blurring.
NBC, the network behind “Saturday Night Live,” is also the network that elevated Trump by casting him as the host of a reality show, “The Apprentice.” It’s also the network that was slammed for sitting on the hot-mic audiotape of Trump boasting about grabbing women by their genitals, because it also featured its “Today” show host Billy Bush — himself the nephew and cousin of presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and the cousin of Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate Trump mercilessly satirized into extinction as “Low Energy Jeb.”
So perhaps McCarthy’s flatly bemused expression is an appropriate one for all of us right now as we watch the spectacle of this joke of an administration alternately condemning and cozying up to those making jokes about them.
Maybe, ultimately, the joke is on us.