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Emmys: How Variety Shows Are Navigating the Political Divide

In these highly partisan times, politics can be a blessing and a curse for variety shows.

President Trump’s chaotic administration provides plenty of material for the comic-minded, but the news cycle is so frenetic that it can be a challenge for weekly offerings, let alone daily ones, to keep up with the political and cultural wars raging around the country. Get too topical and a show can quickly feel dated; one salty quip and the president might pounce, publicly calling for your ouster. Interview a progressive senator one week, and he might be ensnared in #MeToo controversy a few weeks later.

Even “Portlandia” sketches, mapped well in advance, seemed politically fraught this year; co-creator Fred Armisen’s Spyke fled to Canada in the opening episode of the IFC show’s final season. And “Drunk History” segments about female heroines such as Clara Barton had extra resonance in the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

“It’s certainly not hurting my show, but I’d rather the state of things be better,” says Sarah Silverman, nominated for her freshman season of bridge-building “I Love You, America” in the variety sketch series. “There’s plenty of fodder, but I’d rather not have the fodder.”

Believing people seemingly divided by politics aren’t all that different, Silverman travelled to states including Louisiana in her first season, interspersing discussions of gay marriage with fart jokes.

“People will not be changed if you just spew facts and polling numbers,” Silverman says. “Their porcupine needles come up. They don’t want to hear it. But if you appeal to their feelings, then you can have a conversation; feelings are what we’re made of.”

A pleasant surprise: that people on the right have been open to her show. “It’s what I hoped,” she says. “It isn’t a show where we trick anyone or try to get them to say something stupid. We let them talk, and if they say something stupid, that’s on them.”

She’s adding a cold open to her weekly Hulu series so upcoming episodes will be more current.

Tracey Ullman has sped up the production schedule for the third season of “Tracey Ullman’s Show,” airing on HBO Stateside in September and produced by the BBC, and gotten Trumpier. The changes, made at the suggestion of BBC exec Charlotte Moore, are designed to make Ullman’s weekly show more topical.

“It’s very good for my show,” Ullman says, calling politics “a global obsession right now. That’s what people are concerned about.”

In episodes previewed by Variety, the U.S. president will make appearances in the form of impersonator Anthony Atamanuik with Melania Trump being sent-up as a sexy “Westworld”-style robot. Ullman, first nominated for a variety show Emmy in 1987, will also be reprising her Angela Merkel and Theresa May characters, along with “national treasure” Judi Dench, spotted vandalizing a store in the second season of the show.

“I’m not coming at this trying to be manic or desperate about it,” Ullman says. “People feel like they’re under siege. Let’s do sketches and alleviate the pressure.”

“Tracey Ullman’s Show” frequently skewers European political figures, such as Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, above.
Courtesy of 20th Television

Samantha Bee has had to ditch “Full Frontal” material at the last minute due to breaking news and got caught in a political firestorm after she called Ivanka Trump “a feckless c—” during a segment on child separation earlier this year. Trump called for TBS to fire her and Bee quickly apologized for using the word to describe his daughter.

“I had always planned to do a topical show, but I can’t say I am grateful for all the news that is coming out of Washington,” says Bee, nominated for variety talk series and “Full Frontal’s” pre-taped special about Puerto Rico. “The volume of news is a problem. We have a little bit more time to sit back and do analysis than some other shows, but it’s a bit of a scramble if something breaks Tuesday afternoon and we have to do something for our show on Wednesday. There have been occasions when we’re thrown out an entire act.”

Exacerbating the challenge: The stakes involved in fierce political battles over issues such as health care, immigration or sexual harassment. “So much of the news is really impactful,” Bee says. “It’s not little fripperies. You want to take the time these stories deserve, but there is no time.”

Bee and Silverman both addressed sexual misconduct claims against fellow comic Louis C.K. on their shows in November. One week after those claims surfaced in the New York Times, another seemingly unlikely target emerged: Sen. Al Franken, who appeared on Silverman’s show three weeks before he was accused of misconduct. He resigned from the Senate a month later.

That jarring development aside, Silverman says “the first 10 episodes that aired from October to December are as relevant as ever.” She tries to avoid getting too caught up in the latest news, exploring root causes of division such as nationalism vs. patriotism, and folding in evergreen material. That’s a balance Ullman also seeks.

“The news cycle used to be 36 hours, then it was 36 minutes and now it’s 2 ½ minutes,” Ullman says. “Within the show there are sketches that seem perennial.”
“Portlandia,” by contrast, always tried to avoid topical material. “That is a real consideration we have [had] in the writers’ room,” says co-creator Carrie Brownstein, nominated for the show in sketch category and for directing “Portlandia’s” “Riot Spray” episode. “This is not a show that’s on nightly or weekly,” but planned months in advance. “We want it to be relevant. It’s tricky if something feels dated.”

Always intended to be about “how people are in relation to place,” “Portlandia” began in the more progressive Barack Obama years, satirizing white privilege and gender norms. “But it’s always in conversation with what’s going on culturally,” she says.

So angry middle-age rocker Spyke’s decision to flee to Canada in “Riot Spray” seemed fitting. He ends up returning to Portland and his old band (guest stars Henry Rollins, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Fugazi’s Brendan Canty) after a border guard portrayed by Terry Crews gives him an impromptu therapy session. Brownstein says the sketch revolves around aging and the tantalizing notion of escape, but concedes talk about moving to Canada has increased in certain circles since Trump was elected, making Spyke’s attempted exodus north more resonant.

“But people I know haven’t actually gone there,” she points out.

“Full Frontal’s” Emmy nominated special about Puerto Rico came together relatively quickly. The hurricane hit last September and by November, Bee’s staff began talking about doing a show on the conditions there; they traveled there in February and the one-hour special aired in March. “I was proud of that special,” Bee says. “We let the Puerto Ricans tell their story.” In this case, she wasn’t worried that the situation would have dramatically improved by the time her show aired.

Months after the president called for her ouster on Twitter, the talk show host is glad that particular controversy is behind her.

“I learned a lot from it,” she says. “I don’t know that I would want to experience it again.”

As for the heated political environment we live in: “I don’t think it has hurt my show,” Bee says. “I think it has hurt us all as Americans.”

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