"Was nothing real?"
-Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show"
Funny covers a multitude of sins.
That has long been my go-to explanation of a dynamic unique to comedy. Meaning the fact that you are allowed to be crude and shocking, to transgress all kinds of isms, all bounds of propriety, if you can get a laugh in the process.
Sean Spicer got a laugh out of me last Sunday night.
He rolled that podium onto the Emmy Awards stage and I cracked up. Nor was I the only one. Indeed, the surprise appearance of the former White House spokesman set off a roar from the audience of beautiful people, though when the camera found Melissa McCarthy, who has memorably lampooned Spicer on "Saturday Night Live," her smile seemed inscrutable and not quite amused.
I like to think she instinctively understood what some of us didn't get until later. Namely, that this was no laughing matter."This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period," cried Spicer, "both in person and around the world!" It was, of course, a send-up of his first full day on the job, when his notoriously thin-skinned and insecure boss, Donald Trump, sent him out before the press corps to insist, against verifiable fact, that Trump's inauguration was the most widely viewed of all time.
The incident was an early indication that this White House would not be bound by fact. That would be driven home by a subsequent blizzard of presidential lies and by enablers like Spicer, who would then go out and insist, with a straight face, that the president's hogwash was true.
Now here was Spicer, effectively declaring himself in on the joke. And being enabled by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, many of whose members reportedly mobbed him at the after-party. Talk show host James Corden even planted a kiss on his cheek. It was almost anticlimactic the next day when Spicer told the New York Times that "of course" he regrets haranguing reporters about the size of the inauguration crowd.
One wonders what, exactly, we are supposed to do with that. Are we supposed to laugh off all those times he stood there insisting right was left, lies were truth and two plus two equaled macadamia nuts?In a way, it makes sense that Spicer sought redemption in a room full of actors. An actor, after all, must dedicate himself to a fiction, make himself believe the lie in order that he might sell it to you.
But an actor is only trying to convince you he's a superhero or starship captain. Spicer was trying to convince America that the most prodigious liar in presidential history was some oracle of consistent truth. The press secretary was selling bovine excreta, knew he was selling bovine excreta, yet acted like you were the fool if you did not acknowledge it as gold.
And now he walks out onstage, does this comedic bit, and we're supposed to treat it all as some harmless, meta joke? That feels cynical and slimy. It feels bereft of principle. And it suggests we have crossed the line between laughing at a joke and being one.
I mean, who's laughing at whom here? Are we laughing with him about the fact that you can no longer trust a word the White House says — or is he laughing at us for how little that apparently means? Maybe we're all the butt of this joke. Maybe truth is the butt of this joke.
I'm disappointed in the Television Academy. I'm also embarrassed that I laughed. Sean Spicer is one of the reasons we live in a nation filled with millions of angry, frightened, and deeply misinformed people. And yes, funny does, cover a multitude of sins.
That's not one of them.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.