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Emmys 2017: Stephen Colbert Will Still Do Anything for a Joke

Or, in the case of Sean Spicer, bring out anyone

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Is Sean Spicer funny? His acknowledgment that people find him funny—is that funny? Is he funnier now that he’s the former White House press secretary? “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period”: Was that funny at the time? Is it getting funnier as a constant punchline for everything in the eight months since? Was his very presence onstage at the Emmys Sunday night, making that joke himself, funny?

As a baseline exemplar of the Cheerful but Woke but Self-Effacing but Self-Aggrandizing award-show ceremony, the Emmys were lovely, actually. As a host, Stephen Colbert is way better at this than Katy Perry: brighter, funnier, cuddlier, sharper. “I’m glad you’re the white guy they have hosting the Emmys,” Anthony Anderson told him as the show kicked off. And indeed, as late-night talk-show hosts go, Colbert’s the golden mean between the righteous political firebrands (Samantha Bee, multiple 2017-Emmy victor John Oliver) and the oblivious take-your-mind-off-things hair-touslers (you know).

He’s the fiddler you want as Rome burns. “Liev Schreiber is playing a brooding chunk of meat” back to back with “Everyone loves streaming video—just ask Ted Cruz” is an excellent night’s work in this realm, a nice mix of apolitical and just political enough. Colbert kicked things off with an affable and goofy song-and-dance number (co-starring Chance the Rapper lamenting “the decline of the independent family-run store”). And he punctuated his opening flourish with a shrewdly pithy catchphrase that nailed the uneasy mix of political awareness and self-aggrandizement on display all night: “Tonight, we binge ourselves.” And then Spicer himself took the stage, and it was time to purge.

Melissa McCarthy’s face sums it up: welp. Colbert had some great bits Sunday night: His Westworld spoof, silly and cerebral, was the only time tonight that I was glad to be reminded that Westworld exists. He kept things moving, such that all three hours of these Emmys were mercifully free of the leaden, icky, infinite-sadness feeling most award shows of both greater and lesser prestige tend to give you. But bringing Spicer up in the flesh to reprise the “record crowds” line will be the night’s signature moment, both comedically and politically, for better and for worse. If you hated that joke, it was hard to love any of the rest of them.

The shows that won big, from Saturday Night Live to The Handmaid’s Tale to Veep to Big Little Lies (whose stars were described as everything from “girls” to “an incredible tribe of fierce women,” depending on who was hailing them), all had morbid Trump Administration overtones, but none of the victors hammered too hard at that in their various speeches. Kate McKinnon being cut short the second she hailed Hillary Clinton’s “grace and grit” kinda sums it up: It’s fairly obvious why shows like The Handmaid’s Tale or SNL are resonating at the moment, but the Emmys, at least, figure that it hits harder if the victors don’t hit that point too hard.

The randomly political mood might’ve been best summed up by the 9 to 5 reunion of Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin, who mixed pointed barbs about “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss” with Dolly’s ever-delightful jokes about her bustiness. Her crack about nicknaming her breasts “Shock” and “Awe” is an excellent example of the Comedy = Tragedy + Time equation in action. It is hard to know in 2017 what to laugh at, how loud to laugh, when to stop laughing, and who to laugh in the presence of. Spicer’s shock cameo was a jarring reminder of the polarized world this show was taking place in, and a jarring indication that some of that world’s most polarizing combatants would rather you not see them as combatants at all, not anymore.

Colbert, on the Emmy stage as on his resurgent talk show, doesn’t shy away from political brinksmanship, and he never tries to hide whose side he’s on. But his devotion, on this stage at least, is to the joke above all. In the midst of an impossible era, Colbert had an impossible job tonight: Entertain people who now very often feel profoundly guilty for wanting to be entertained at all. As a viewing experience, in the oft-reviled context of puffy award shows, he did a fantastic job. He just didn’t do the job a lot of people might’ve wanted him to do.