At the Primetime Emmy Awards last year, host Jimmy Kimmel put as fine a point on the Donald Trump phenomenon as he could. “Many have asked who is to blame for Donald Trump, and I’ll tell you who,” Kimmel said. “He’s sitting right there: Mark Burnett, the man who brought us ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’ Thanks to Mark, we don’t have to watch reality shows anymore because we’re living in one.”
It was mostly in good fun because at the time, no one thought Trump was on his way to becoming the 45th president of the United States. And in the midst of a highly combative election cycle, of course politics were going to find their way into the show.
Flash forward nearly a year and here we are. Late-night talk-show hosts have moved from stride to gallop in dressing down the current administration. Such series as “Black-ish” have tackled the zeitgeist head-on while others including “House of Cards” and “Veep” feel less and less like fantasies. “Saturday Night Live,” meanwhile, is having a banner season addressing the ongoing state of affairs in Washington, tapping talents like Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy to send up key figures like Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer.
If calling out Burnett was getting political, they probably don’t have a word for what’s in store this year.
The chief reason might be the emcee himself: Stephen Colbert. The “Late Show” host was battling dwindling audience interest this time last year. He didn’t gain traction with the TV Academy either; the group failed to recognize him for his first year in David Letterman’s spot, after having consistently nominated him for “The Colbert Report.”
But in the wake of Trump’s election, Colbert and his writers have turned things around to lead the charge while reigning atop the late-night ratings mountain. “The Late Show” should push into the outstanding variety talk category, but more importantly, Colbert is poised to drop the mic on the Emmys like no host before.
Colbert has taken considerable aim at Trump on his show as of late, building to a salvo during his May 2 monologue that finally caught the commander-in-chief’s attention. “You talk like a sign-language gorilla who got hit in the head,” Colbert said of Trump. “In fact, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.”
Trump responded in a Time magazine interview by calling Colbert a “no-talent guy” who struggled with ratings until he had a boogeyman like Trump to bat around. He declared his own Sept. 22, 2015, appearance on “The Late Show” to be Colbert’s highest-rated episode to date. Colbert delighted in pointing out that, in fact, Jeb Bush’s earlier appearance outmatched it. “That’s right,” Colbert said during his May 11 monologue. “You got beat by ‘low energy’ Jeb.”
Clearly the stage is set for fireworks on the Emmys stage. But who can say where we’ll be in four months’ time? Just look at last year’s awards season.
At the Golden Globe Awards last January, there were some jokes about the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. representing a sort of three-headed boogeyman for the incoming regime (Tinseltown, immigrants and journalists). The show’s emcee and chief Trump normalizer Jimmy Fallon got in a few weak jabs. But with Trump’s inauguration on the horizon at the time, winners seemed mostly cautious.
Everyone except Meryl Streep, that is. Without mentioning Trump by name, the Cecil B. DeMille Award recipient went straight for the jugular in her prepared remarks, noting her heartbreak over the commander-in-chief seemingly mocking a disabled reporter and then calling on support for the Committee to Protect Journalists, “because we are going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.” The rousing moment likely helped the actress seal an Oscar nomination for “Florence Foster Jenkins” at a time when she appeared to be on the bubble.
By the time the Screen Actors Guild Awards rolled around three weeks later, immediately following Trump’s signing of an executive order banning travel to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries, everyone had to comment. The night’s most emotional speech belonged to “Moonlight” star Mahershala Ali, the first Muslim actor to win a SAG Award (and later, an Oscar). “We kind of get caught up in the minutiae and the details that make us all different,” Ali said. “I think there’s two ways of seeing that. There’s an opportunity to see the texture of that person, the characteristics that make them unique, and then there’s the opportunity to go to war about it and to say that that person is different than me and I don’t like you so let’s battle.”
Winners were again mostly restrained at the Oscars a month later, though Trump’s actions may have helped secure a foreign-language film victory for “The Salesman.” Director Asghar Farhadi, whose earlier film “A Separation” previously won an Oscar, refused to attend the ceremony due to the travel ban.
This year, nomination voting for the Emmys happens during the second half of June. Final voting happens the second half of August. Given the mercurial nature of this administration, no one can say what will be happening in Washington at that point, but whatever it may be, it’s sure to have an impact far more than normal (because really, nothing is normal anymore).