The bit sparked some backlash. But the joke—barbed, incisive, and searing—momentarily punctured the warm blister of self-adulation that enveloped the ballroom. It interrupted a night intended to celebrate the feats of the entertainment industry to remind everyone about the behavior that same industry has enabled since its inception. Did it ruin the evening? In no way. Did it refuse to let the room look away from a profound crisis? Absolutely.
And yet: Most people involved in awards ceremonies would prefer that hosts not get too real when it comes to humor. Ahead of the Academy Awards earlier this year, the show’s producer, Michael DeLuca, assured potential viewers that 2018’s host, Jimmy Kimmel, wouldn’t get too “issue-oriented” with his jokes, focusing on simply entertaining viewers instead. (Ultimately, Fox News wasn’t impressed.) The reminder/reproach every year: Don’t politicize what should be merely a cheerful event celebrating entertainment.
Possibly with this in mind, 2018’s Emmy Award hosts, the Saturday Night Live players Colin Jost and Michael Che, have announced that they’ll largely stay away from politics this year. “It is kind of fun for us to do something that is not political,” Jost told Vanity Fair last month. “The exciting part is to do things about television and that particular awards ceremony and make it, in general, less political than normal. There’s a lot to celebrate in television right now. It’s a very strong time.” Asked about the #MeToo movement, which other awards ceremonies have acknowledged to varying degrees this year, Jost joked, “I think that by [the Emmys], people are going to be desperate to give men a chance, finally. It’ll probably be #HeToo by then.”
Which, well, not really. Over just the past week, after further allegations of sexual harassment and assault regarding the CBS executive Leslie Moonves were published in The New Yorker, the network’s board finally elected to let Moonves go. Also last week, the TV producer and writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason published an account of her professional experiences with Moonves in The Hollywood Reporter, writing that the network chief sabotaged her career because he disliked television shows about strong, opinionated women. “I was at the pinnacle of my career,” Bloodworth-Thomason wrote. “I would not work again for seven years.”
During Moonves’s tenure at CBS, Bloodworth-Thomason also observed, the network went from creating characters like Mary Richards, Rhoda, Maude, and Murphy Brown to championing “a plethora of macho crime shows featuring a virtual genocide of dead naked hotties in morgue drawers.”
What does this have to do with the Emmy Awards? Well, it suggests, contrary to what Jost has said (and what the Television Academy might prefer), that now is not actually the best moment to simply celebrate television. This is, believe it or not (I can’t), the first Emmys ceremony since the allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke not quite a year ago. At last year’s ceremony, Kevin Spacey was still nominated for Lead Actor in a Drama for House of Cards, as was Jeffrey Tambor in the comedy acting category for Transparent. Which is to say: A lot has happened in the previous year and a lot continues to happen. Amid the rollicking news cycle, blithely ticking off television’s accomplishments without acknowledging its systemic failures seems somewhat deluded.