Joking After Charlottesville

On Monday, Anthony Scaramucci appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. He was ready to laugh. The host—and the host’s audience—were not.

Anthony Scaramucci was a guest on <i>The Late Show With Stephen Colbert</i> on August 14, 2017.
Anthony Scaramucci with Stephen Colbert on August 14, 2017 (CBS)

“I’m not allowed to joke anymore. I’ve learned that.”

All evidence, however, to the contrary. Anthony Scaramucci, the former communications director for the Trump White House, had come to his appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Monday night prepared to be charming. He had come prepared to be self-deprecating. He had come prepared to make light—of his short tenure at the White House (“I didn’t think I’d last too long, but I thought I’d last longer than a carton of milk!”); of the New Yorker interview that led to his firing (“This conversation’s off the record! It’s off the record!”); of the combative relationship he’d fostered with his fellow White House staffers and with the media who document their doings (Scaramucci brought Colbert, as a cheeky nod to all that, a Bowie knife in a glass case).

Scaramucci’s appearance had been booked last week (in an ironic twist—a mixup, apparently, on the part of Scaramucci’s communications team—he had agreed to two “exclusive” interviews post-firing, one with Colbert, and the other with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos). The interview with Colbert had been scheduled, in other words, before the tragedies of Charlottesville. It had been set before Scaramucci’s former boss had made his “on many sides, on many sides” hedge about the source of the hatred and violence—and before the events of a weekend had adopted the dimensions of a national moral crisis.

Scaramucci, however, seemed not to have fully calibrated for that new reality. He had come prepared to treat the appearance as he and his PR team had originally intended it—a bold first step in a brand-rehabilitation tour—and he stuck, again and again, to that script. Scaramucci yukked. (“I’ll pretend those are ‘Mooches’ and not boos, Stephen,” he said, good-naturedly, as the studio audience expressed its displeasure when he walked onstage.) He brought a pair of sunglasses for full Mooch effect. While taping the appearance, he posted a selfie outside of a bathroom on the Late Show set. “It’s not where you’ve been, it’s where you are going,” he tweeted, as a caption to that photo.

Colbert, however, had adjusted to the new state of affairs. He had devoted his monologue, on Monday, to Charlottesville—its hatred, its violence, its aftermath. And he had in particular condemned President Trump for his “many sides” comment. Colbert was doing what late-night comedians, more and more commonly, are doing: serving as arbiters, not just of humor but of morality. “It is difficult to express how heartbreaking it is to see something like this happening in our country,” Colbert noted. “But here’s one thing that’s not difficult to express: Nazis are bad. The KKK: I’m not a fan. That wasn’t hard. That was easy. I enjoyed saying it.”

The host brought that spirit into his interview with the man who had been so famously eager to join the Trump administration. He tried to talk with Scaramucci—not about “the Mooch,” but about the events of the past weekend. “I said no gotcha questions, I promised you no gotcha questions,” Colbert told Scaramucci, at the outset. “But I’m gonna lead with one: Nazis—good or bad?”

“Super bad,” Scaramucci replied.

Colbert asked Scaramucci about the statement the president finally issued on Monday, the one in which he personally condemned neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other white-supremacist hate groups.

“It was late, I’m not going to say that it wasn’t,” Scaramucci replied. (He had also criticized Trump to that effect in his interview with Stephanopoulos.) “But he did go to the White House today and he did make a statement,” Scaramucci continued, “that was very declarative against it.”

Colbert pointed out that the president’s “on many sides” comment had apparently been added, as his own ad-lib, to his official statement in response to Charlottesville. “Which one of them do you think he meant,” he asked Scaramucci—“the one that was written down, or the one that he just comes up with, in the moment?”

Scaramucci’s reply? “You guys have been super-rough on me,” he said. “You’ve been super-rough on him. But he is a compassionate person.”

Scaramucci defended the president as someone who was, in his comments about Charlottesville, simply “wearing his heart on his sleeve.” He talked about how the president had given up his “luxurious lifestyle” to become the president in the first place. He talked about the sacrifices the president has made to be in a position of leadership. And he talked about the sacrifices he himself had made to be there: “Being a communications director is a difficult job,” Scaramucci interjected, at one point, grinning.

Later, Colbert moved on to Scaramucci’s former White House colleague, Steve Bannon. He asked Scaramucci whether Bannon should be fired. Yes, Scaramucci replied—at least, he thought so. “Is Steve Bannon a white supremacist?” Colbert asked.

“I don’t think he’s a white supremacist, although I’ve never asked him,” Scaramucci replied. And then: “What I don’t like though is the toleration of it. It’s something that should be completely and totally intolerated.”

He added: “Most people in this audience, and perhaps your family, and definitely my family, has experienced some level of discrimination. And so I find it disgusting and reprehensible. And I will renounce it every living day of my life.”

There was a distinct teeth-pulling quality to all this: Colbert kept trying to talk about the world; Scaramucci kept trying to talk about himself. The Late Show versus The Mooch Show. Scaramucci answered Colbert’s questions—again and again, though, he tried to bring things back to the thing that had brought him to The Late Show to begin with: his own reputation. His own apparent desire to be seen and known not just as Anthony Scaramucci, fired communications director for an embattled White House, but also as “the Mooch”: whimsical, delightful, slick of suit and even slicker of words. A media event unto himself. A distracting laugh.

At the end of the interview, Scaramucci brought out the Bowie knife he had enclosed in a glass case for the occasion. “I got gifts for Stephen, okay?” he said, pulling the sunglasses he had also brought as a prop out of his jacket pocket. “After he hit me so hard for three weeks, he thought I was gonna stab him with that,” he explained to the audience, of the gift. “That’s why it’s in the case, the hermetically sealed case.”

The joke landed with a thud. Scaramucci had joined Colbert as an act of brand rehabilitation; his appearance, however, ended up accomplishing something very different. It made Scaramucci into a metaphor—for glibness, for myopia, for a way of being in the world that looks on hatred and violence and isn’t sure what to do but make light of it all. I’m not allowed to joke anymore, Scaramucci had told Colbert, at the outset of his interview. I’ve learned that. The line would have been more convincing if it hadn’t been for the one that had preceded it: “I’m kidding!” Scaramucci had said, after telling Colbert that the interview would be off the record. “I’m kidding.”