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The Funny Pulpit

Recently we were reminded twice that late-night talk show hosts have the power to deliver important political speeches. Their humorous takes on news and newsmakers affect public perceptions. Mostly the hosts confirm the biases of their fans. Now and then, however, bits from their routines make news on their own, and the wider distribution of their remarks through YouTube and journalistic channels can rattle the reputations of government officials.

Colbert Gives It Up

Way back in 2005, during the reign of the Stewart, Stephen Colbert added the word “truthiness” to our lexicon. It became a contemporary touchstone for people concerned about the tortured relationship between the truth and the public world. A year later Colbert blistered an audience of White House correspondents into an embarrassed silence, indicting them along with President Bush for assaults on the ideal of truth.

Colbert’s opening monologue for the Emmy Awards show night was a customary occasion to review the past year on television. Late show hosts often serve as award show hosts because the formats share the purpose of pumping up audience curiosity about celebrity careers.

The first jokes Colbert told were about the anxiety and vanity of those in the audience in the Microsoft Theater, standard award show schtick. A musical number featuring women who stripped off “The Handmaid’s Tale” style garments to form a chorus line included a reference to President Trump as a traitor.

Colbert paid tribute to first responders during the hurricanes: a feel-good-about-America moment which he concluded with cutaways to comedians Billy Eichner and Louie Anderson. A politician or old-school emcee would have cut away to one or more of those responders, prompting a standing ovation.

A gaggle of television industry jokes. A swipe at Senator Ted Cruz and his porno kerfuffle, a popular topic among the late-nighters. Ritual shout-outs to nominees, with special praise for African-American nominees, whom Colbert patronizingly dubbed “talented.”

Then back to the main topic of the evening, the television star in the White House:

COLBERT: But if we’re honest with ourselves — and as artists, I think we have to be honest with ourselves — we know that the biggest TV star of the last year is Donald Trump. Yeah. No, you may not like it but he’s the biggest star. You know, and Alec Baldwin [about to win an Emmy for his Trump caricature], obviously, you know.

[APPLAUSE]

And we all know the Emmys mean a lot to Donald Trump. Because he was nominated multiple times for “Celebrity Apprentice” but he never won. Why didn’t you give him an Emmy? I tell you this. If he had won an Emmy, I bet he wouldn’t have run for president. So in a way this is all your fault.

I thought you people loved morally compromised antiheroes. You like Walter White. He’s just Walter Much Whiter. And he never forgave you and he never will.

Colbert tossed the pulpit briefly to fellow late-night Trump critic Seth Myers for a gag involving marbles in his mouth. A news clip traced the running joke back to Hillary Clinton:

::CUTS TO VIDEO OF HILLARY CLINTON AND MR. TRUMP AT A PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE::

CLINTON: There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged again.

TRUMP: Should have gotten it.

::END TAPE::

COLBERT: But he didn’t. Because unlike the presidency, Emmys go to the winner of the popular vote.

Colbert ran the joke into the debatable proposition that the 2016 election was unjust because the popular vote winner lost in the electoral votes. But this was no debate, it was a show where debates provided clips for topical jokes. (Of course, the nominal candidate debates were not actual debates either, for the most part.) No one was there to rebut Colbert with the fact that the election rules are known far in advance to contestants. Just as baseball games aren’t won by the team with the most hits, presidential elections don’t go to the popular vote winners.

Next, Colbert indulged in ironic self-deprecation: "Where do I find the courage to tell that joke in this room?"

Haha, we get it, the room is packed with liberals and it takes no courage at all.

It was time for the grand finale:

COLBERT: Of course, what really matters to Donald Trump is ratings. You’ve got to have the big numbers. And I certainly hope we achieved that tonight. Unfortunately, at this point, we have no way of knowing how big our audience is. I mean is there anyone who can say how big the audience is? Sean, do you know?

::SEAN SPICER ROLLS OUT ON A PODIUM::

SEAN SPICER: This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period. Both in person and around the world.

COLBERT: Wow, that really soothes my fragile ego. I can understand why you would want one of these guys around. Melissa McCarthy, everybody. Give it up!

With this cameo stunt Colbert spoke power to truth, just as Spicer had done as White House press secretary. The host was not wielding the fearsome power of government, nor the discomfiting power of the satirist (cf. the Emmy-winning Veep), nor the crusading power of the editorialist to hurl facts at truthy arguments (cf. the Emmy-winning John Oliver and, often, Colbert on his own program). Instead, Colbert relied on the beguiling power of entertainment to shape our understanding of what really matters. Make us laugh and we’ll forgive anyone and anything. Except, among others, McCarthy, who won an Emmy for her impersonation. She told a reporter afterward that the rolling podium was "not his joke to make."

Kimmel Takes It Back

Two nights after Colbert’s rehabilitation of Spicer Jimmy Kimmel, who had Spicer as a guest on his show the week before, used his monologue to lace into Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA).

Kimmel recounted the backstory: in May, after expensive emergency surgery had saved his newborn son’s life, Kimmel had advocated that “No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life.” At the time, Congress and those who pay attention to Congress were discussing repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. Senator Cassidy, a physician, spoke about how important it was that any new system pass what he labeled “The Jimmy Kimmel Test:” that insurance would cover the costs of congenital heart disease in the first year of an American child’s life. That won Cassidy a slot on Kimmel’s show.

But that was then. The latest repeal and replace bill bears Cassidy’s name.

KIMMEL: Now, I don’t know what happened to Bill Cassidy. But when he was on this publicity tour, he listed his demands for a health-care bill very clearly.

“Publicity tour” is show-biz speak for “campaign.”

KIMMEL: These were his words. He said he wants coverage for all; no discrimination based on preexisting conditions; lower premiums for middle-class families; and no lifetime caps. And guess what? The new bill? Does none of those things.

So not only did Bill Cassidy fail the Jimmy Kimmel test, he failed the Bill Cassidy test. He failed his own test. And you don’t see that happen very much.

“Listen,” Kimmel went on, launching into full populist mode in his smart-aleck-being-sincere-for-a-second manner:

Health care is complicated. It’s boring. I don’t want to talk about it. The details are confusing, and that’s what these guys are relying on. They’re counting on you to be so overwhelmed with all the information you just trust them to take care of you, but they’re not taking care of you. They’re taking care of the people who give them money, like insurance companies. And we’re all just looking at our Instagram accounts and liking things while they’re voting on whether people can afford to keep their children alive or not.

Most of the congress people who vote on this bill probably won’t even read it. And they want us to do the same thing; they want us to treat it like an iTunes service agreement. And this guy, Bill Cassidy, just lied right to my face.

Kimmel went to a clip from the May guest spot, when he asked Cassidy if he believed that “every American regardless of income should be able to get regular checkups, maternity care, etc., all of those things, that people who have health care get and need?” Viewers saw and heard the Senator say “Yep.”

KIMMEL: So “yep” is Washington for “nope,” I guess. And I never imagined I would get involved in something like this. This is not my area of expertise. My area of expertise is eating pizza, and that’s really about it. But we can’t let them do this to our children, and our senior citizens, and our veterans, or to any of us.

The host urged his television audience to phone Cassidy’s office. The main number for the Capitol flashed on screen. Kimmel concluded:

KIMMEL: Senator Cassidy, you were on my show. You seem like you’re a decent guy. But here’s the thing: Nobody outside of your buddies in Congress wants this bill. Only 12 percent of American supported the last one, and this one is worse. Right now, there’s a bipartisan group of senators working to improve the health-care system we have. We want quality, affordable health care. Dozens of other countries figured it out.

So instead of jamming this horrible bill down our throats, go pitch in and be a part of that. I’m sure they could use a guy with your medical background. And if not? Stop using my name. Okay? ’Cause I don’t want my name on it. There’s a new Jimmy Kimmel test for you; it’s called the lie detector test. You’re welcome to stop by the studio and take it anytime.

At this writing, Cassidy had responded on CNN, expressing regret that Kimmel did not understand his bill, but was not yet scheduled for a return visit to the program.

Civic Vertigo

Here’s a contextual rim shot for these two funnyman performances: a Pew Research December 2016 survey found that 64% of adult Americans agreed with the proposition that fake news causes a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current events, with another 24% selecting “some” confusion.

In our mobile/digital funhouse, time and space shift constantly and the orienting cues of architecture –courtroom/night club/town hall/church/middle of Fifth Avenue– go ignored because our faces are glued to our screens. This scrambles our sense of who’s in charge, what’s to believe, and how we should respond to what is said. We have fallen into a habit of depending on late-night talk show hosts to stand up for truth in politics. That is both a source of comic relief and a cause for serious concern.