It sure can be uncomfortable when the shoe is on the other foot.
Jimmy Kimmel has gotten a lot of attention for his on-air commentaries on health care this week, and deservedly so. In laying out the stakes very plainly but cogently, and with a dash of folksy humor, his health care segments have actually recalled the work of an American icon, Jimmy Stewart.
In many of his movies, Stewart would go up against powerful forces who were pushing around the little guy — regular citizens just trying to get by. With heartfelt sincerity and plain speech, Stewart’s characters would point out how unfair and ultimately un-American his foes were.
Of course, Stewart was not the only actor to play this kind of character over the years. The “how dare these big shots hurt my fellow Americans” speech is staple of law dramas on TV and many mainstream movies over the years. The hero is usually a normal guy who doesn’t quite understand all the fancy ins and outs of a policy or pal around with all the fat cats in City Hall. But he knows when a moral principle is being violated and a community is being harmed. He may not be slick, but he knows right from wrong.
Movies like “A Face in the Crowd,” among other pieces of popular entertainment, show how this kind of archetype — the non-fancy person speaking truth to power — can become distorted and perverted. It’s hard not to think about that movie these days, especially when our president is a former reality show character who was dismissed by many as a blowhard and a buffoon — until he became the most powerful man in the world.
Well, turnabout is fair play. And the difference is, unlike the president and his lackeys, and unlike the oily politicians pushing the harmful Cassidy-Graham health care legislation, Kimmel has the facts on his side. Dismiss him as a comic or late-night guy who shouldn’t be taken seriously, if you will. But again, that argument falls flat when the guy from “The Apprentice” is in the White House.
Speaking of media types, last night, Kimmel laid into “Fox and Friends” host Brian Kilmeade for his show’s statements about the legislation. Kilmeade responded today by saying that Kimmel should talk to experts on the topic rather than call out Kilmeade’s attempts to interview (or in Kimmel’s telling, befriend) the ABC host.
Too late. Kimmel already did, as his commentaries made obvious. And he has repeatedly cited dozens of health care organizations that have come out against the bill. Both times he spoke up on the topic this week, Kimmel expertly took apart the bill’s authors and proponents. The way he delivered the monologues was masterful — impassioned yet utterly reasonable — and the research he and his staff did made his case extremely difficult to refute.
Unless you’re willing to lie. And Sean Spicer was.
To loop in one of the the other controversies of the week, the Emmy team really misread the room when it came to Spicer. Melissa McCarthy’s Spicer routines on “Saturday Night Live” worked because they were both savage and funny. Spicer’s Emmy bit was neither.
The old maxim that comedy should generally punch down has of course evolved. There are so many power vectors these days that it’s more accurate to say that an awareness of context is called for when taking on issues of importance, comedically or dramatically. Kimmel understood the context he is operating in; those who put Spicer on stage did not.
Kimmel’s own son has been through some terrifying health trials, a situation he talked about months ago in an effective and moving way. Instinctively he got, once again, that this topic calls for seriousness and honesty. It really didn’t seem like he was playing a part; this matters to him.
Trump got where he is, in part, by playing a role — that of the guy who is willing to speak truths that others obscure or lie about. Of course Trump is a liar, through and through. But he played truth-teller well enough to fool some of the people some of the time.
What Trump doesn’t have — and what Spicer doesn’t have — is what gives Kimmel’s words their power. Kimmel’s sincerity, plus a willingness to use the words “lie” and “liar” from which much of the media cravenly shirk, has turbocharged his energetically delivered messages. Which have the additional merit of being true.
Kimmel really doesn’t have much to gain by wading into this difficult, fractious, stress-inducing debate. There’s not a huge upside, financially or for this reputation. There is a purity to his motives that makes the stances Kimmel has taken admirable.