Everything started so well.
Stephen Colbert, a talented song-and-dance man, started the 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards with a charming, tightly choreographed musical number featuring an array of TV’s favorite faces. Julia Louis-Dreyfus showed up as a president who’s “not beloved by Nazis.” Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys donned wigs to joke about treason. Even Archer popped up — as Colbert slid into animated form — and made a quick, always welcome “phrasing!” joke.
Titled “Everything Is Better on TV,” the sly song cleverly poked fun at how, thanks to too much TV, it’s easier than ever to ignore the world’s problems by getting lost in great, Emmy-nominated shows like “Veep,” “The Americans,” and “Archer.” Rather than engage in the political madness out there — as Chance the Rapper earnestly asked viewers to do in an extended bridge of the song — Colbert’s opener joked that we can still be happy if we only think about fictional narratives.
The number was so overtly tongue-in-cheek it worked. From Colbert’s grinning face to Chance’s human pleas, the song set the tone for what wanted to be a light, fun, “let’s not take these TV awards too seriously” ceremony. Everyone in the room and watching at home was given permission to feel OK about taking one night off from real-world problems in order to honor these deserving artistic accomplishments.
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But then Sean Spicer showed up, and it didn’t feel OK anymore.
Like a car wreck of emotional whiplash, Spicer was wheeled out on a podium, a la Melissa McCarthy’s Emmy-winning “SNL” impression of him, and made just a few brief comments before disappearing. He promised Colbert huge ratings for the night’s telecast (which have been on the decline for three consecutive years), and not-so-subtly referenced his first day in the Trump White House via some choice verbiage.
It wasn’t much, but the damage was done. The sheer impact could be seen on the faces of not just the stunned crowd members, like Julie Bowen and Anna Chlumsky, but the distinctly uncomfortable McCarthy, who was clearly less enthused to see the man behind her mockery.
But she wasn’t uncomfortable out of embarrassment over coming face-to-face with Spicer. She, like many viewers at home, was turned off by his presence at an awards show where he didn’t belong. Minutes earlier, viewers were told this was going to be a place where liars were mocked, not elevated. Colbert’s “Wizard of Lies” joke was a better fit for the room (which he dropped right after the commercial break, almost like an apology), and yet it was too little, too late.
Colbert popped the bubble he created. His opener built a safe space for the audience to have a good time, and then he invited reality inside immediately after locking the doors. And it wasn’t like Colbert only attacked Trump’s policies via the opening song and monologue; he’s made a career out of railing against the administration’s lies on “The Late Show,” and yet he warmly welcomed a man complicit in spreading them to the Emmys. (To say this felt like something Jimmy Fallon would do, not Colbert, draws to mind out-of-balance comparisons, but remains kind of true.)
Giving “Spicey” a genial platform is a confusing move outside of the Emmys, but one that came to symbolize the show’s many faults. Whether you’re a liberal or a conservative — and let’s not ignore that the Emmys audience is largely liberal — Colbert’s joke (which was “meh” at best) put things permanently off-kilter for the rest of the evening.