Stephen Colbert hosted the Emmy Awards Sunday night and brought along with him a very special guest: former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Colbert’s monologue was otherwise a zippy, clever introduction to the night’s proceedings, a song-and-dance acknowledgment that reality is a dumpster fire, so all the more reason to escape into television’s offerings, even its most dystopian ones. There were well-timed cameos from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Veep‘s Selina Meyer (“Imagine if your president was not beloved by Nazis”), The Americans‘ Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (“Even treason’s better on TV”), Chance the Rapper (a fan of Brooklyn Nine-Nine who is still holding out for “the one where the cop gets convicted”). Colbert mocked the notion that the purpose of his show, The Late Show, was to be noble rather than comedic (“You know what they say: Importance is the best medicine”) and taunted the president for his obsession with television, ratings, and the Emmys– or, more to the point, Trump’s Emmy losses.
But then, Colbert asked if there was any way to tell just how big the audience was for the Emmys telecast. How could he ever get a headcount? Out rolled Sean Spicer, behind a podium, beaming.
“This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period, both in person and around the world,” Spicer said, smiling wide, because, get it? That’s exactly what he said about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration, despite unimpeachable photographic evidence to the contrary.
“Wow, that really soothes my fragile ego,” said Colbert. “I can understand why you’d want one of these around. Melissa McCarthy, everybody! Give it up!”
It was a night of cognitive dissonance, summed up quite well by the Spicer bit: The arts are the resistance, except for when they’re not, and certain shows and individuals can be forgiven more quickly than others, for reasons unclear. As Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Rachel Bloom, who provided a musical introduction for the accountants, might put it: Don’t think about it too, too hard.
Saturday Night Live infamously invited Trump to host the show in November 2015, by which point the presidential hopeful had already maligned Mexican immigrants as a bunch of drug dealers, criminals, and rapists and had dismissed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as “not a war hero” because McCain was a prisoner of war, and Trump said he likes “people who weren’t captured.” There were protests around SNL‘s choice — the show seemed to take an RTs-are-not-endorsements stance on the whole thing — but viewers and critics moved on. Last year, the series enjoyed its highest ratings in years. And at the Emmys Sunday night, Alec Baldwin won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of Trump — even though, one could argue, Baldwin’s is not even the best Trump impression on television. Kate McKinnon, cast member and Hillary player, won as well; Dave Chapelle and Melissa McCarthy both won their Guest Acting categories for their SNL performances, and the show took home Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.
Jimmy Fallon got sent to TV jail for a year for fluffing then-candidate Donald Trump’s hair. Fallon interviewed Trump without veering from his standard operating procedure, which mostly involves humanizing A-listers by forcing them to play slumber party games. But there was no cute-ifying Trump, whose candidacy was already laden with vitriolic hate speech, lauded by Trump’s fans as candor. Fallon, a comedian, was trying to tell a joke; his finger was too far from the populace’s pulse, though, and the miscalculation hurt him, badly. Still, even though Fallon’s entire job is to make his audience laugh, he was reamed out ’round the internet for failing to realize the gravity of Trump’s campaign trail remarks and the Tonight Show‘s host’s own role in — as would become the allegation of the day — normalizing such egregious, dangerous attitudes.
Sean Spicer was funny completely by accident, largely because he was about as ill-suited for his job as could be. For the task of calmly relating a coherent message to the public about the goings-on of the administration, Trump selected an easily flustered, inarticulate, uninformed ex-Easter bunny. Spicer spent 187 days pathologically lying on behalf of a pathological liar to a room full of professional fact-checkers. It did not go well.
It should go without saying that it undermines our democracy to declare, from a position of supposed authority, that the truth is whatever the Commander-in-Chief says it is. To be so reckless with reality in the hopes that your followers will just believe whatever you tell them to believe is some disturbing, Gilead-level shit. (Everything is fine, though, because The Handmaid’s Tale won so many Emmys!) Spicer’s been out from behind the press podium for all of eight weeks and he gets to just roll into the Emmys and act like he’s in on the joke?
Colbert leap-frogged over Fallon to the top of the late night ratings only after Fallon’s Trump-toussle misstep. Colbert went left while Fallon tried, in vain, to stay center, and viewers clamored for more. It will be interesting to see if Colbert’s too-friendly bit with Spicer undercuts whatever anti-administration takes he dives into next. Maybe all Trump has to do to get kindly treatment from The Late Show is leave the White House, wait two months, and then pretend to be able to laugh at himself.
Other notable moments from the night:
- As Colbert pointed out in his monologue, “This year, for the third year in a row, this is the most diverse Emmy nominees in history. This is impressive. I didn’t know you could applaud while patting yourself on the back at the same time.”
- Donald Glover became the first black person to win Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for Atlanta.
- In a strange acceptance speech, Alec Baldwin made the case for the importance of the arts by suggesting that they are somehow more important than legislation — that, on one’s deathbed, a memory of a favorite song or TV show will linger long after the memory of a Supreme Court decision is gone. That seems… not entirely accurate. I can think of at least one person who probably thought very hard about a Supreme Court decision through her final days. Anyway, it is possible to value the arts and be invested in policy at the same time; this is likely something Baldwin, too, does regularly.
- Dave Chappelle and John Oliver — whose Last Week Tonight took home two awards, including Outstanding Variety Talk Series — gave shoutouts to D.C. Public Schools, which did not go unnoticed.
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus made history, winning Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her portrayal of Selina Meyer on Veep. It was her sixth consecutive win; she has now won the most awards for the same role of any performer.
- Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe won Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None. In doing so, Waithe became the first black woman to win that award. Ansari ceded the mic to Waithe, who ended her moving, passionate acceptance speech by thanking “my LGBQTIA family. I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day, when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape, and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it. And for everybody out there that showed us so much love for this episode, thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago. We appreciate it more than you could ever know.”
- Riz Ahmed, winning Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for The Night Of, called attention to South Asian Youth Action and the Innocence Project. “If this show has shone a light on some of the prejudices in our society, the xenophobia, some of the injustice in our justice system, then maybe that’s something.”
- Accepting together for Big Little Lies, which won Outstanding Limited Series (along with a bunch of other awards for its cast and director), Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, who won Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series or Movie, implored the powers-that-be in the room to produce more complex, meaty roles for women. “Bring women to the front of their own stories,” Witherspoon said. “And make them the hero of their own stories.”
- During her earlier acceptance speech, Kidman spoke about domestic violence. (In BLL, her character is married to an abusive man with whom she has two children.) “We shine a light on domestic abuse,” she said. “It is a complicated, insidious disease. It exists far more than we allow ourselves to know. It is filled with shame and secrecy, and by you acknowledging me with this award, it shines a light on it even more, so thank you, thank you, thank you.”
- The Handmaid’s Tale won Outstanding Drama Series and nabbed eight wins in total, including Outstanding Lead Actress for star Elisabeth Moss. Quite the coup for Hulu, which until this year had never won an Emmy. (Last year, the streaming service earned only two nominations.) Author Margaret Atwood, wearing Handmaid red, joined the cast onstage to accept final award of the night.