By Steve Stajich
Full Disclosure: Just a few years back, I had certain feelings about awards and especially award broadcasts. There was always a vibe to the Oscars that made it feel as though a golden echelon of humanity got to live above the rest of us, concerned with campaigning for validation of their abilities even after they’d received ridiculous salaries and global attention for their work. The Emmys seemed to be the same, albeit on a smaller scale and having somewhat less impact on the planet.
Then about three years ago, I started to get nominated for a few awards for my theater writing and guess what? My attitude changed. Now I wanted to win a few, lose a few, and play whatever the game was. Productions of my plays outside of L.A. caused me to get attention for my work that I doubt will ever come right here “in town,” if you will. When a poster claimed I was an “award winning playwright” earlier this year, I thought, “Okay. They were smallish awards but they were given to me by some very nice people who were peers.” And if it helped sell tickets, then great!
So perhaps you should question any observations I make concerning last Sunday night’s Emmy Awards. That said, the Emmys this year seemed to be wrestling with at least three issues at the same time: The on-going dissonance between TV that is produced by networks and that which is produced and distributed by streaming sites, the hope of correcting past oversights of minorities by giving awards to artists representing those groups, and then Hollywood’s desire to keep bringing large audiences to the tent for their work despite feeling an obligation to fully state its resistance to the current administration in the White House.
The first two issues seemed to have been aggressively dealt with by last week’s Emmys. There were historical “firsts” for women, people of color, Muslim characters and storylines, and for the industry in general in terms of a “Best Drama” win for “The Handmaid’s Tale” which is distributed by a streaming site. But then something funny happened on the way to resisting our current President.
While jokes aimed at the President abounded, Emmy host Steven Colbert interacted with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer who made an appearance declaring something or other about the broadcast that was meant to align, I believe, with all the hokum (nee lies) Spicer was part of during his tenure. While reactions from the audience seemed to indicate that a memorable bit of comedy was in play, the laughs were not as robust as some had expected… and rightly so. That Spicer later attended the various Emmy galas and got more than his share of selfies with shiny stars didn’t help things much.
Some have said since that it was simply too early to use Spicer in a TV comedy bit. It wasn’t too early; it was wrong. I think it was just a little less wrong than when “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) yielded to the temptation to let the current President host that show when he was still running for office. But both mistakes were born of the same motivation: A desire to seek and get the free promotion that “viral” events get now in our Internet influenced culture.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni was among those bumped by the Spicer inclusion in the Emmys. “It was precisely and perfectly emblematic of Trump’s all-out, continuing assault on facts and truth itself. And it signaled Spicer’s full collaboration in that war, which is arguably the most dangerous facet of Trump’s politics, with the most far reaching and long lasting consequences.”
Possibly anticipating that the next morning’s reviews might be harsh because of his show’s earlier deployment of Trump as ratings bait, longtime “SNL” director Don Roy King spoke backstage at the Emmys about the importance of comedy in a fraught political environment. “This year it felt different, more important, like we were holding people accountable, doing some healing” King said. Actor Alec Baldwin won an Emmy for playing Trump on “SNL” and Bruni wrote that the idea for including Spicer at the Emmys was “reportedly” Stephen Colbert’s. It’s all just one big funny mash-up…
So, should collaborators get access that unquestionably helps to normalize Trump’s “assault?” I feel I can state with a degree of certainty that any more air time for Anthony Scarramucci – even in podcasts – won’t help anybody do anything. But with Spicer and the Emmys my concern is for whatever soul one can fret about when it comes to show business. You can’t sell me that “resistance” to Trump from that which is called “Hollywood” can also employ any viral stunt it wants and still deliver a clear message. Back in the early 70s, cranky old Bob Hope used to do comedy sketches with various senior comic actors who would pretend to be “hippies”… you know, stoned and wearing bad wigs and flowery pants. Hope would ‘dis’ the anti-Vietnam war movement in prime time, then smile and think he was pulling the nation together with his comedy. It wasn’t comedy; it was agitprop for war. If Hollywood now truly wants to resist, then it first has to resist temptation and – thank you Nancy Reagan – just say “No” to exposure for the other side.