Before the Emmy Awards on Sunday night, Axios editor and political reporter Mike Allen teased that the show would feature a "Washington-related stunt" — and if everything went according to plan, it would be "a big talker."
That turned out to be an understatement. A surprise onstage appearance by Sean Spicer, President Trump’s former press secretary, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles immediately became a hotly debated flash point, as the Hollywood crowd cheered Spicer’s self-deprecating cameo. However, lots of viewers at home didn’t find much humor in an effort to “normalize” a White House official who had delivered statements to the American people that were easily proved false.
“This will be the largest audience to witness the Emmys, period, both in person and around the world,” Spicer announced, standing behind a rolling lectern similar to the one that Melissa McCarthy used to mock him with her impersonation on “Saturday Night Live.” Spicer’s statement was, of course, a reference to his first appearance as press secretary, when he declared, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
Last week, Spicer went on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (his first stop on an apparent image rehabilitation tour) and essentially admitted that he would say whatever Trump wanted him to, regardless of whether he believed it — and after the inauguration, Trump told him to talk about the crowd size. So, people wondered, who exactly was Spicer making fun of here? Was he throwing the president under the bus?
“No,” Spicer told The Washington Post when reached by phone on Monday. “It was an attempt for me to poke a little fun at myself and bring some levity to the situation.”
But, by transitive property, wouldn’t it also be making fun of the man who back in January demanded that Spicer make the original false statement about the inauguration crowd size?
“That was me at the podium,” Spicer said. “It was all about me.”
After the Emmys, Spicer flitted about from one party to the next, meeting and having his picture taken with various celebrities — including late-night hosts who raked him over the coals during his tenure, such as Emmys host Stephen Colbert of CBS’s “Late Show” and Seth Meyers of NBC’s “Late Night.”
If he was their enemy, or they his, you’d never know by how Spicer described it.
“I can tell you that by and large people were unbelievably and overwhelmingly respectful and positive,” said Spicer, who explained that Colbert’s executive producer, Chris Licht (a former executive producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”), contacted him with the idea. “It speaks a lot to the decorum and civility.”
Although Spicer was warmly received by Hollywood stars, many viewers were disheartened at the friendly spectacle.
"The treatment of Spicer is another breakdown of political norms," London School of Economics fellow Brian Klaas tweeted. "If we just joke about and reward people who lie in government, more will."
"Sean Spicer sold his soul to work for Trump and repeatedly lied from the podium. Hilarious!" wrote Tommy Vietor, co-host of the podcast "Pod Save America."
"The degree to which Sean Spicer has faced no consequences is a glimpse into the post-Trump future," added Slate chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie.
"Ugh NO to Sean Spicer," wrote journalist and author Mark Harris. "It's so great that we can embrace someone who used a powerful position to abuse the press and lie to America."
On Monday afternoon, the Television Academy released the following statement: “The Television Academy is apolitical. Via its 22,000 voting members who work throughout the industry, the Academy recognizes television’s excellence and inclusiveness through Emmy nominees and winners. The creative direction of the Emmy show is set by each year’s production team and host. We respect their creative choices.”
Celebrities who posed with Spicer backstage also encountered criticism, especially James Corden, the host of CBS's "Late Late Show," who was photographed trying to kiss Spicer on the cheek. People compared it to "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon's infamous moment last year when he ruffled Trump's hair during an interview. (Sample tweet: "The only person happy with James Corden kissing Sean Spicer is Jimmy Fallon.")
CBS representatives did not respond for requests for comment about how the idea for Spicer’s cameo originated, or questions about whether they had a response to the criticism. Corden’s publicist also did not respond to a question about the photo.
The rest of the Emmys telecast, in typical award show fashion, was filled with jokes about Trump (Colbert: “Unlike the presidency, Emmys go to the winner of the popular vote”) and pointed words from the celebrities onstage. “Grace and Frankie” stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin referred to Trump as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”
Spicer said that while most members of the Hollywood elite disagree with him and the president, he found the experience to be “humbling” and joked that he plans to bring back ideas for the D.C. social circuit from Los Angeles.
“They do parties a little differently than D.C.,” he said.
In a few weeks, Spicer will head to Harvard University, where he will be a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
Ben Terris contributed to this report.