Saturday Night Live won 11 Emmys Sunday night, including three for acting (Alec Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy and Kate MacKinnon) and one for overall best Variety Sketch Series, beating out newer, fresher series like Billy on the Street, Documentary Now!, and Portlandia. It is inarguable that it carried this category because of its political satire—Baldwin portrays Donald Trump; MacKinnon, Hillary Clinton; McCarthy, Sean Spicer—and that SNL has a history of providing gallows humor in light of White House-imposed despair.
One of its best sketches was McCarthy portraying Spicer, the former White House Press Secretary who dispensed with the Trump Administration in July. His resignation was not over the many lies Trump entrusted him to spout to the public, in service of the president’s xenophobia, racism and, most of all, ego; Spicer quit (or, was speculated to have been pushed out) because of the arrival of his foe, Anthony Scaramucci, as communications director.
During the nearly six months Spicer acted as Trump’s mouthpiece, he spent an inordinate amount of time defending the assertion that the Obama Administration wiretapped Trump; and lied multiple times to the press about trivial embarrassments like inauguration crowd sizes, as well as more existential issues, such as whether the term “ban” actually means the definition of “ban.”
During his tenure in public office, Spicer told an Indian American woman that the U.S. “allows [her] to be here,” two months after acting in service to and defending Trump’s Muslim ban; he started a feud with the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, and downplayed the genocidal tactics of Hitler in comparison to genocidal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Sean Spicer’s behavior during his record-short time in the White House ranged from utterly pathetic to disrespectfully evasive to downright despicable, but all of his behavior could be defined as blindly loyal to his boss as well as profoundly unconcerned about the citizens most affected by his boss’s actions. Call him a stooge, but do not absolve him for “just doing his job.”
Spicer, though, is on a redemption tour, and the powers that be are allowing him to embark upon it. Last week, Spicer was appointed as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, despite having a middling resume (at best) as a campaign operative. The same day, he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where he was cheekily introduced as having “survived one of the worst jobs ever”; and both brushed off the lies Spicer was tasked with conveying with an infuriating mirth. Spicer defended Trump’s lies by saying “he’s the president, he decides, and that’s what you sign up to do.”
During Sunday night’s Emmys, Spicer made a cameo on an awards show that repeatedly patted itself on the back for its diversity. “Colbert thought it would be funny and surprising, and that’s what mattered most,” wrote CNN, citing a source familiar with the production, on the decision to include Spicer. It was indeed surprising that Stephen Colbert would let him roll in for the sake of a “joke” that riffed on the most innocuous of Spicer’s many infractions. It was surprising that so many smart people in the audience seemed to find his appearance hilarious, or at least reacted as they thought they were supposed to. That is, perhaps, with the exception of Melissa McCarthy, an actor who perhaps knows more intimately the vagaries of Spicer’s tenure as press secretary, and looked embarrassed on behalf of Hollywood.
Yet “Spicey” as a comedic foil and as gallows humor worked on SNL and elsewhere because spoofing him doesn’t require collusion. The Emmys, supposedly run by “liberal Hollywood,” hosted the man who announced to the world that Muslims would be banned, that the wall would be built, that Hitler “didn’t sink to using chemical weapons.” His appearance embodied the limitations of a television industry that is so performatively gung-ho about inclusion, at least until there’s a chance to make a cheap joke. (Before you bring up Jeb Bush at the Oscars—at least he was long-neutered by that point.)
At the after-ceremonies, celebs like James Corden kiki’d with Spicer, taking selfies and cheesing. Alec Baldwin told the press that he was “held to do certain things... we might have been super critical of, in order to do his job,” and jokingly compared the Spicer’s career with his own “jobs... you shouldn’t admire or respect me for, either,” as if lying to the American people were the equivalent of The Boss Baby or Aloha. A source told CNN that Spicer “could barely eat at the Governor’s Ball, he was so popular.”
One of Saturday Night Live’s best skits this year was a spoof commercial, in which Scarlett Johansson portrayed Ivanka Trump, and advertised a signature perfume called “Complicit.” Shot in soft lighting, a voiceover cooed, “She’s beautiful... she’s powerful... she’s Complicit.” It was the first line that came to mind watching Spicer cart himself out onto the Emmys stage, a cheap trick deploying an inexcusably predictable joke. If an industry meant to critique is so quick to redeem a peabrain “just doing his job” like Sean Spicer, how far will its standards recede? If their intent is solely to entertain, then we know the answer.