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I’ve never been one of those people who denies that they watch television. I’m wound fairly tightly so I like TV as a way of relaxing after a hard day of angsting over…everything. The problem, since November 8, has been that while television coverage in these dark days only adds to my angst, I can’t look away either.
I watched the Emmys on Sunday night but if anyone was looking for relief from political news they didn’t get it. Whenever an awards show takes place during a hyper-charged political period topical speeches and impassioned commentary seem to define the show and this one was no exception.
Host Stephen Colbert quipped to his all-star audience, “If President Trump had ever won an Emmy for his Celebrity Apprentice, he might never have run for president. So, in a way, it was all your fault.”
The Crown’s John Lithgow praised his character Winston Churchill’s leadership in his supporting actor acceptance speech. “In these crazy times, his life reminds us what courage and leadership in government looks like.”
A tearful Kate McKinnon thanked Hillary Clinton, the main subject of her own political satire on Saturday Night Live (SNL), for her “grace and grit”, while Alec Baldwin opened his acceptance speech for his SNL performance as Trump with a dig about POTUS: “At long last I suppose I should say, here, Mr. President, is your Emmy.”
Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda took a stab at Trump, too. “In 1980, we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigot boss,” Fonda opened. “And in 2017 we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigot boss,” Tomlin added.
Atlanta’s Donald Glover gave Trump a shout-out for activating him. “I wanna thank Trump for making black people the number one most oppressed group. He’s the reason I’m probably up here.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus won for her role on Veep, the HBO comedy about incompetence in the White House, and included a reference to POTUS. “We did have a whole story-line about impeachment but we abandoned that because we were worried someone else might get to it first.”
For those who think celebrities should keep their opinions to themselves, I disagree. They may be rich and famous now but they started out as ‘just folks’. Now that they have some influence and a platform, why shouldn’t they use it to advocate for others? Why should they be restricted to what they do any more than the rest of us?
The Emmys were just a continuation of what we’ve seen from celebrities and late-night talk show hosts since the American election last November. Trump has been fodder for comedians from the beginning with the first joke being his candidacy. Back then we were all laughing over a blustery and inexperienced reality star running for an office that requires moderation, diplomacy and some serious smarts. Well, who’s laughing now?
Now that the ‘you’re fired’ Donald J. Trump is the ‘you’re hired’ President Trump, late-night hosts have been enriched, emboldened and alarmed by his non-existent policies, his incoherent speeches and his semi-literate tweets. Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Myers, John Oliver (who came out on top at the Emmys) and Samantha Bee lead the field with their clever jabs and whip-smart political analysis.
To some extent they are following the Jon Stewart model. The former Daily Show host was a surprise guest on Dave Chappelle’s Radio City Music Hall Show in the week before the Emmys and had some harsh words for Trump on his response to Charlottesville and white supremacists. One of the milder ones included: “I don’t think everybody who likes Trump is a Nazi,” Stewart said, “but everybody who is a Nazi sure does seem to like him.”
Old-time host Johnny Carson barely hinted as to how he identified politically and plenty of people miss those kinder, gentler days. I still like Carson but he seems almost quaint and irrelevant today. But even back then, Dick Cavett, who had been a writer for Carson, became famous for his dogged coverage of Watergate. At the time it was strange territory for a late-night talk show host. Cavett was a combination of comedian and controversial conversationalist and his approach mirrors most closely the approach of talk-show hosts today.
Jimmy Fallon, and to a lesser degree Jimmy Kimmel, follow the Carson model. Kimmel’s ratings have gone up since he became more of a hybrid of the Carson and Cavett models of utilizing both pop culture and politics to make his mark on the late night landscape.
Right-leaning late night show comedy hosts are almost non-existent. Maybe Conservatives just aren’t funny but political humour, in particular, seems to have an inherently liberal bias. An author named Alison Dagnes spent years looking into this question for her 2012 book, A Conservative Walks Into A Bar. After talking to dozens of comedians on both sides of the political spectrum she came to the conclusion that the genre has always been aimed at taking down the powerful. She concluded, “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg.”
Humour is a creative art that aligns with a specific culture at a specific moment in its history and right now the stars seem to be aligned with the liberals. Could it be that American political satire is biased toward liberals in the same way that American political talk radio is biased toward conservatives? As researcher Dannegal Young noticed, this is a kind of ambiguity that liberals tend to find more satisfying and culturally familiar than conservatives do. In fact, a study out of Ohio State University found that a surprising number of conservatives who were shown Colbert clips were oblivious to the fact that he was joking. In contrast, conservative talk radio humour tends to rely less on irony than straightforward indignation and hyperbole.
A conservative researcher reacted with annoyance saying that the explanation was just another way of saying that liberals are smarter than conservative types. She maintains that there’s nothing inherently better about liking ironic jokes over exaggerated ones. And maybe there isn’t. The fact that I don’t see anything even mildly amusing about Bill O’Reilly may not mean that he isn’t funny but that I’m just not hard-wired in a way that enables me to see it.
I consider late-night talk show hosts to be the new truth tellers. They can be vicious but they are always fearless.
A couple of years ago, while most of the media chose to criticize protesters as well as police following a grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who choked a man named Eric Garner to death, Stewart excoriated the police and the people who seemed to be more upset about their Christmas shopping being inconvenienced than by the death of a black man. He compared America’s justice system to apartheid.
Sometimes they go over the line as when Samantha Bee referred to a young Trump supporter’s hair cut to a Nazi when he was actually going through chemotherapy. Colbert was scolded as homophobic for saying, “You talk like a sign language gorilla that got hit in the head. In fact, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s c–k holster.” I don’t like it when any of the hosts mock Trump’s weight, or hair style or the hue of his skin. Those are cheap shots. In his own words Trump demonstrates every day who and what he is. No hyperbole is necessary but reminding us of each and every outrageous outburst is. With any luck they can mock DJT into resigning or his base into re-thinking its support.
What was once innocently political has become more definitively politicized. With the terrible consequences of a Trump presidency becoming more and more evident, late-night wise-cracking has taken on a new gravitas. Yuk-yuks don’t cut it when the stakes are so high that they include the gutting of healthcare for Americans and/or the looming possibility of nuclear war for all of us.
As one commentator said a day or so after the Emmys, “Those who say that celebrities only exist for our entertainment are being elitist, placing themselves in the position of king and the celebrity as jester. But they forget that the jester was the king’s most valued adviser.”
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Following a career in the hospitality sector and the acquisition of a law and justice degree in her 50s, Dale embarked on a writing career armed with the fanciful idea that a living could be made as a freelancer. To her own great surprise she was right. The proof lies in hundreds of published works on almost any topic but favourites include travel, humour & satire, feature writing, environment, politics and entrepreneurship. Having re-invented herself half a dozen times, Dale doesn’t rule anything out. Her time is divided equally between Muskoka and Tampa Bay with Jim, her husband of 8 years and partner of 32 years. Two grown ‘kids’ and their spouses receive double doses of love and attention when she’s at home.