It was a picture of almost perfect irony in the White House briefing room on Monday:
Reporters were demanding to know if a public apology was coming from a Trump administration official who had said something ugly about Sen. John McCain. Many reporters there no doubt belonged to the White House Correspondents Association that only two weeks before had found a way to avoid apologizing to an administration official pilloried in ugly remarks at the group’s annual dinner.
I say almost perfect irony because it was one of those rare days that the briefing wasn’t conducted by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — the very administration aide publicly vilified at the dinner by a comedian hired by the association. A deputy was running the back-and-forth with news hounds that day.
The White House official making the nasty, reprehensible remark about McCain — Kelly Sadler — at least had the defense, weak as it is, that she spoke in a private setting and that her remark was later leaked. She did apologize privately to McCain’s daughter.
Michelle Wolf, the poisonous comedian at the dinner, insulted Sanders in a public setting televised to the nation as she sat just a few feet away. Wolf didn’t apologize, nor did the press association, and only a handful of members of the journalism group thought it should have. That night, said the outfit’s president and other members, was all about free speech.
No reporter at the briefing was making that point about Sadler.
Other comedians came to Wolf’s defense, such as ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel. He called her savage, demeaning performance “funny.”
These are ugly times in our country and our culture.
I recall when one of the pleasures of a Saturday morning was to tune the radio to NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” the humorous current events quiz show based in Chicago. Right after the 2016 election, I did so and was surprised and unsettled by the crass, mean-spirited, vulgar jokes about Donald Trump from host Peter Sagal. (For the record, I didn’t vote for President Trump for many of the reasons that inspire such loathing of him.)
The thing about Sagal, Wolf and other Trump-hating entertainers is that they claim the high moral ground, that they’re better than the obnoxious Trump. But are they really? You have to wonder if Sagal, Wolf and the others believe that when they spout gutter jokes, they sound like Laurence Olivier delivering the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
Their defenders will say it’s all Trump’s fault for bringing the nation’s discourse down into the sewer. If so, they gleefully dived into the muck and rolled around in it.
But that’s not the full story. You could argue that a landmark in that descent came years ago at — where else? — the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner as Stephen Colbert, now the CBS late night host, went on a rampage of insults against President George W. Bush sitting a few chairs away. And before that, TV comedians on the Comedy Channel and elsewhere already were pushing the lower limits.
Colbert’s bashing of Bush now seems mild compared to Wolf’s crass, shabby, squalid trashing of Sanders. What a sorry spectacle it was with Washington’s elite journalists chortling over Wolf’s tirade. What kind of person publicly humiliates another human being, an invited guest, seated only feet way. What sort of person thinks that kind of cruelty is “funny.”
That’s the point: What passes for comedy these days might be better characterized as unalloyed cruelty on the order of bear baiting.
I remember when American comedy was exemplified by Carol Burnett and Richard Pryor, by Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore. I’m old enough to recall when the kings and queens of comedy were Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Red Foxx, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Johnny Carson and Steve Allen and many others.
These great entertainers probed the human condition and found enriching humor, not venom to torture other human beings.
I certainly would not say that comedy should never wound and discomfort the powerful and comfortable, or that it shouldn’t be edgy. But satire doesn’t have to be drowned in muck.
Charlie Chaplin, in “The Great Dictator,” managed to grasp the essence of the worst man in history without himself descending into the sewer. Lenny Bruce pushed conventions so far he was convicted of obscenity, though his material was pretty tame by what’s common in today’s entertainment. Don Rickles made a career of saying nasty-sounding things that actually amounted to good-natured ribbing. We’re far beyond all that.
One day Trump will be gone from the White House. But NPR will still have Sagal playing in the sewer, CBS will still televise the vicious ramblings of Colbert, Netflix will still showcase the cruelty of Wolf, and all the others will still be shoveling muck in the guise of humor.
Their standard will have been cemented into our culture — anything goes in comedy, no matter how vile, how low, how heartless, how sadistic. Sadly there will always be those ready to laugh at inflicting suffering and humiliation on others. We used to call that bullying, now we call it comedy.
Steve Huntley is a former editorial page editor and metropolitan editor of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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