Sean Spicer’s Emmys appearance this week was many things, but it was not, most importantly, very funny. The former White House press secretary emerged, with perfect timing, to tell American viewers that this was "the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period," before vanishing just as suddenly. The bit was meant to be a farcical replication of his short tenure as American power’s most hapless, witless mouthpiece (an achievement subsequently beaten by all of his successors). And here he was again, doing the exact same thing, but this time self-conscious and self-aware. He knew what he was saying was stupid, but this time it was a joke. It was not a very good joke.
What makes the Trump administration so funny — dangerously, nihilistically, murderously funny — is that Spicer’s pronouncements from the White House were more self-referential and self-aware than his Emmys cameo, and were taken far less seriously. Last Sunday's performance brought diminishing returns. This is why Melissa McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live parodies of his press conferences were, in the end, also turgidly unfunny: they never found a good punchline, and trailed off after 10 or so minutes, because they were trying to parody what was already parodic and make a serious point at the same time. In one of his press conferences, Spicer made a reference to the SNL skits, and it was funnier than anything McCarthy had ever done. A kind of Baudrillardian emptying-out has taken place: political comedy has been left behind, still hopelessly trying to fix phenomena to their meanings.
This isn’t why so many people are upset that Sean Spicer made his surprise appearance on national TV last weekend. In the Guardian, Jessica Valenti asks if we are "really so easily distracted? So desperate for a reprieve from the awfulness that we will pretend as if this person didn’t bolster the reputation and agenda of a monster? Shame on us."
In Time, former Obama speechwriter David Litt fumes that "this wasn't an apology tour. This was a bragging tour. This was an I'm-getting-away-with-it-right-now-because-I-let-the-American-people-down-and-you're-applauding-me-for-it tour." The fault, he concludes, lies with "whoever decided to bring Spicer on in the first place." It’s a consistent theme. People aren’t just upset that a Trump propagandist was ushered back onto TV; they feel let down. How could Stephen Colbert do this to us? Wasn’t he supposed to be on our side?
We’ve seen this kind of disappointment before. When Conan O’Brien took a brief tour around Israel and occupied Palestine, posting photos of himself with Palestinian children in a refugee camp one moment, being hugged by the IDF soldiers that might arrest or shoot them the next, people were appalled. And not just in the West. Even Israel’s liberal Ha’aretz newspaper concluded that by ignoring the persistence of Palestinian struggle and presenting the two nations as equal opposites, as if there weren’t a brutal military occupation being imposed all around him, O’Brien played into Netanyahu’s hands.
It’s one thing for a craven journalist or witless musician to take a cheerful tour to Israel; when a comedian does it, it’s a betrayal. When Tina Fey responded to the attack in Charlottesville by suggesting people fight fascism by staying at home and eating an entire sheet cake, there was a similar hue and cry. Fey was abandoning her duties as a comic and a satirist; she wasn’t just wrong, she had let the movement down. As if a millionaire culture-industry star would normally be expected to slip on a black mask and start brawling with neo-Nazis.
For vast swaths of the liberal public, comedians have been almost deified: Jon Stewart is the sanest voice in America; John Oliver its most trustworthy source; Samantha Bee its most profound polemicist. Late-night hosts, as Chapo Trap House's Felix Biederman once observed, are to the liberal imagination what the troops are to conservatives. They’re brave and selfless, putting themselves on the line to fight evil every day so we can sleep safe at night, and frankly they don’t get paid enough. When these comedians reveal themselves to be basically as clueless as anyone else who receives enormous sums to go on TV, the response is a cacophony of disappointment. We put our faith in you! Liberals turned the court jesters, the only ones allowed to speak the truth to the king, into the leaders of a phantasmal political movement that leaches from the glowing screens every night. But they have forgotten why kings kept their jesters around in the first place.
That word — truth — is the really important one. Somehow, it’s become a commonplace understanding of comedy that it works by revealing the truth behind fabrications and getting at what’s really there. It’s why so many people insist that Bill Hicks and George Carlin were actually philosophers, that their rants about fat people and how we’ve all become metrosexual pussies who go to the mall were fundamentally part of the same discursive universe as Kant and Hegel. The comedian is somewhere between a scientist (working, methodically, by mistakes and inversions, to get to the raw facts of the matter) and a shaman (a mystical fearless spirit seeing through the world of illusions to a higher truth beyond).
The latest, bravest movement-leading late-night comedian is Jimmy Kimmel, with his nightly broadsides against Republican assaults on Obamacare. Kimmel isn’t just commenting on the discussion, but reshaping it. The "Jimmy Kimmel Test," that no new health bill should strip away the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, has become a useful shorthand for measuring the relative evil of any new proposal. But Kimmel’s stance here is unusual: what he’s not adopting is the position of the abstracted comedian-commentator, the observer of earthly things from above and beyond, a linguistic figment in a body of words. He still cracks jokes, but here he’s the father of a five-month-old child who needed emergency open-heart surgery at birth; he’s a political subject, stuck in a perishable body that time or politics could kill at any moment.
This is not to say that comedy can never be used for progressive political ends. It’s just that not all comedy should be considered inherently progressive. There’s an interesting parallel with literature: in his later years, Friedrich Engels was regularly approached by young socialist writers who wanted him to read their manuscripts—didactic little stories about heroic workers who banded together and triumphed over their evil bosses. Engels would tell these writers to go away and read some Balzac, who was a monarchist. Comedy can poke at the truth, but that’s far from its highest function.
Samuel Beckett, who was probably the funniest writer of the 20th century, devised a classification of laughter into three modes: the bitter, the hollow and the mirthless, each one greater and higher than the last. Our world is not a happy one. It deserves a better kind of laugh.