If all you knew of the Emmys was the CBS broadcast, you might think Sean Spicer’s cameo, in which the former White House communications director essentially turned himself into Melissa McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live impersonation, went over like gangbusters. The audience in the Microsoft theater seemed surprised and delighted Spicer wheeled out his podium: Kevin Spacey let out a hearty chuckle, Modern Family’s Julie Bowen and Sarah Hyland’s gaped in amazement, and Veep’s Anna Chlumsky looked as if she might pass out from shock. The one exception seemed to be McCarthy herself, who dryly touched her finger to her nose when Spicer made his first appearance and spent the rest of the bit as a dispassionate observer.
Spicer’s warm reception continued the rest of the night: James Corden gave him a kiss on the cheek, and the Hollywood Reporter’s Chris Gardner posted pictures of him getting “mobbed” in the lobby as people lined up for selfies.
How could an industry that, collectively, is not shy about criticizing Donald Trump and those associated with him give Spicer such a warm reception? The backstage comments by Alec Baldwin, who won an Emmy for playing Trump on SNL, help to explain. When asked what the “mood in the room” was when Spicer showed up, Baldwin responded:
I think the average person is grateful for him to have a sense of humor and participate. Spicer obviously was compelled to do certain things that we might not have respected, and might not have admired, we might have been super-critical of, in order to do his job. But I’ve done some jobs that are things you shouldn’t respect or admire me for either. So he and I have that in common, I suppose.
By showing up at the Emmys, Spicer was transformed, at least for the evening, from a divisive political figure to a performer who’d gotten some bad reviews, and everyone in the audience could identify with that. The difference is that when Sean Spicer sells his soul, it weakens the fabric of democracy, and when Alec Baldwin does it, you wind up with The Boss Baby.
Outside the auditorium, the reviews weren’t so warm. Critics roundly condemned the gag—Slate’s Christina Cauterucci called it a “sickening, cynical laugh grab,” although Willa Paskin suggested that Emmys host Stephen Colbert “was granting Spicer a kind of immunity in order to get under Trump’s skin.” Even in the entertainment world, at least among those not dressed up in their awards-show finest, Spicer’s elbow-in-the-ribs apperance was seen for what it was: a step towards normalization by a man who hasn’t earned it in the slightest. He may not be headed for Dancing With the Stars, but for one night he got to hang out with them.