Stephen Colbert kicked off Sunday night’s 69th Emmy Awards in characteristic style — with snark, a clip from cable news, and jazz hands. The question with Colbert’s monologue was not if he would get political, but instead just how political it would be: As “The Late Show’s” host, in this particularly turbulent political climate, he’s found a sweet spot that engages regularly with politics but steers clear of the “Colbert Report” persona that made him famous. The opening of Sunday night’s Emmys was the perfect expression of his current style. It was also genuinely hilarious, with a gloves-off sass that took on both the White House and Hollywood in general.
The defining moment, in the final minute, was when disgraced former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer wheeled out a podium onstage in order to assure Colbert, jokingly, that the ratings for the night’s broadcast would be great. The camera quickly cut to an amused Melissa McCarthy — who famously impersonated Spicer on “Saturday Night Live” in an impression so ruthless that it caught the attention of the Oval Office — as well as picking up on shocked and/or horrified expressions from audience members Anna Chlumsky, Julie Bowen, and Sarah Hyland. Rumors had swirled about a big surprise during the monologue, but most of the guesses had assumed that it would be a politician beloved by Hollywood. Colbert subverted expectations: It was instead a politician reviled — or at least looked down upon — by that same audience.
What a fascinating and destabilizing note to begin an evening on. Colbert heaped scorn on the president and his administration — but he also needled, provoked, and challenged the audience in front of him, too. A couple of his remarks in the opening monologue were so niche, about Hollywood, that it would fly right over most viewers’ heads — but it seemed to be important to him to establish a tone that let no one, and nothing, off the hook.
This was clearest in the way that Colbert praised and then joked about diversity in Hollywood. When he pronounced this years’ Emmy nominees as the most diverse in history, he mocked the audience for its dutiful, self-serving applause — “That’s impressive. I did not know you could applaud while patting yourself on the back at the same time.” And after singling out a few stellar African-American actors, he tacked on Bill Maher’s name to the list, as an acrid, sly jab at the HBO political comedian’s use of the n-word to describe himself earlier this year.
Colbert advanced the idea, in his monologue, that whether we like him or not, Donald Trump is the television star of the year — every show was influenced by or responded to this former reality TV host, who himself watches a prodigious amount of TV. And, a little jokingly and a little seriously, Colbert held the audience responsible for where Trump ended up. He chided them for not just giving the man the Emmy he so clearly wanted. “I thought you people loved morally compromised antiheroes!” he said, in mock seriousness.
And then — almost as if it really was just another “The Daily Show” segment, when Colbert was a correspondent — Colbert cut to a clip from the debates, where Trump makes a point of declaring that he still wants that stupid Emmy. (Hyland, in a charming moment, laughed so much and so incredulously that the camera cut to her.) It’s natural to see Colbert throwing to a prepared clip, but it is unheard of for the Emmys: For a quick second, the entire viewing audience was handed the textual evidence for Colbert’s argument.
In an illustration of how confident Colbert is when he can wrap his commentary in a nonthreatening format, the monologue ultimately had fewer jabs about politics than the opening number, “Everything is Better on TV.” As Colbert sang and danced his way through a backlot, “Veep,” “The Americans,” “This Is Us,” and extras dressed like Handmaids, he laid the criticism on thick: jibing about transgender service members in the military, American health care, and the Trump administration cozying up with Russians. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, playing her “Veep” character, snapped an observation that a president who wasn’t loved by Nazis might be a fun one to have around.
With all of this clear criticism of the Trump administration — and even less tolerance for conservative talking points than ever before — it was curious, and possibly even frustrating, that Colbert would allow the Emmys to become a platform for what may or may not be the Sean Spicer Rehabilitation Tour. (Spicer was on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” this past week, which indicates an attempt to improve his public image.) Spicer was so spectacularly bad at his job — a job that the president’s impulsive doublespeak made nearly impossible — that he had been the laughingstock of conservative, liberal, political, and apolitical media for months (eclipsed only barely by Anthony Scaramucci, who has also started a comeback tour). Colbert offering him a platform — I mean, a podium — lends free publicity to a press secretary who tried to make excuses for Trump’s toxic agenda.
But I’m not convinced that Colbert lent him that podium to praise him. If anything, Spicer’s sheepish return to the spotlight was immediately the night’s most embarrassingly desperate attempt to be cool — in a room full of people who do nothing except try to convince other people that they are cool. Spicer is pathetic, and Colbert’s cut to him seemed to highlight it, not detract from it; even his one line, delivered with a painful lack of charm, mocked no one except Spicer himself. Maybe Colbert has his eyes on the bigger picture, too. Maybe by bringing Spicer in on a podium, he is asking TV to confront the thing they are (rightfully) mocking — and asking Spicer, a man who volunteered to serve in Trump’s xenophobic, racist administration, to face the sheer glittering majesty of this year’s Emmy nominees. TV is, after all, supposed to bring us together.