For a moment this week, it looked as if the world may have lost a comic hero.
Sean Spicer — the gum-chewing, shrubbery-hugging, perpetually irritated White House press secretary who spurred ratings spikes for “Saturday Night Live,” turned press conferences into “must-see TV” and spawned thousands of incredulous reaction memes — appeared to be slipping away from the public eye.
On Wednesday, in what White House aides have described as a planned shift in strategy for its communications office, news outlets were not permitted to carry Spicer’s press conference live. Instead, he went audio-only (is he thinking podcast?) and for just over 12 minutes (a really short podcast?).
If this marks the start of a permanent strategy, it will reduce Spicer’s role from frequently flustered face of the Trump presidency to merely one of many voices ping-ponging around the 24-hour news networks.
Many in the press corps were immediately concerned that the shift signified a potentially alarming breach in traditional — albeit not legally mandated — access. For decades, televised press conferences have provided a bridge not only between political reporters and the White House, but also between the White House and the public. The number of press briefings an administration held was often a measure of its willingness to defend its policies in person to viewers.
But from another less democratically significant yet still culturally alarming perspective, losing “Spicey” could be a potentially grave loss for late-night comedy.
Even before Melissa McCarthy turned him into an art form, Spicer was a perfect comic figure. With his combative temperament, penchant for swallowing gum and occasional lapses into rushed murmurs while reaching for the right rejoinder, Spicer seemed a physical embodiment of his charge: to defend the administration’s actions at all cost, often with hyperbolic superlatives and defensive attacks on the press. Add in an impressionistic approach to the truth — plus the fact his statements on behalf of the president have often been contradicted or even denied by Trump within the span of hours — and you have a heady mix of farce and tragedy in the midst of far more troubling news.
It added up to the sort of raw material that naturally lent itself to parody, and “Saturday Night Live” knocked it out of the park with McCarthy, who first appeared as Spicer in early February. With the help of some remarkable makeup work that transformed the “Ghostbusters” star into a pugnacious doppelganger of the press secretary, McCarthy’s Spicer was shrill and short-tempered, badgering inquisitive reporters with a mobile lectern and various props to gird his weapons-grade “alternative facts.” The resulting video earned close to 28 million views on YouTube, and McCarthy portrayed Spicer three more times, most recently while hosting May 13.
For his part, Spicer has said he found the impression funny if “too exaggerated” (a hallmark, by the way, of all impressions), and referenced the bit during a March press conference, jokingly telling a reporter, “Don’t make me make the podium move.” It was the sort of Mobius strip of politics feeding entertainment and then looping back into politics that have become something of a hallmark of this presidency, which was helped into being via Trump’s fame as a result of hosting the reality show “The Apprentice.”
Indeed, given Trump’s understanding, if not near obsession, with approval and big ratings (consider his public mockery of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempt to take over his show, which has since been canceled by NBC), it’s a bit perplexing that he would want to pull the plug on Spicer. With his outsize antics and occasionally massive gaffes — his defense of Hitler as someone who didn’t resort to chemical weapons attacks, and the subsequent bumbling effort to walk back the statement, had many calling for his job back in April — Trump may not be pleased with his press secretary as has been reported, but Spicer isn’t necessarily bad for business.
His midday briefings have earned an estimated 4.3 million viewers for their news network broadcasts, and the press conferences have practically become shows unto themselves. There’s a feeling of uncertainty about what could happen next in the White House press room, and there are swarms of viewers reacting in real time on Twitter as if the briefing were a “Real Housewives” episode. “I’m not firing Sean Spicer,” the president reportedly said at a working lunch in April. “That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in.”
However, given that these briefings are seldom informative, often misleading and — as Trump continues to prefer his public pronouncements delivered some 140 characters at a time — occasionally just wrong, pundits have begun to question whether they’re necessary. McCarthy’s zeitgeist-capturing impression aside, the same can be said for his value to comedy.
For all of McCarthy’s skills, each successive drop-in on “SNL” offered diminishing returns from that first appearance, which was a lethal mix of physical performance and such a surprising visual. Considering that Trump’s Tuesday night “covfefe” became the typo heard ’round the world as social media latched onto its comic possibilities well into the next day, this presidency has proved entirely capable of generating memes all by itself.
So maybe Spicer was always going to be a fleeting comic treasure. Even under less tumultuous administrations, press secretaries rarely last a full presidential term, and as Spicer shifts to the sidelines there is a sense that perhaps all his comic potential had run its course. Even Spicer’s knee-jerk defense of “covfefe” as not a mistake but a message Trump and “a small group of people” understood felt less like a moment ripe for mockery than a form of mockery in and of itself.
On Friday, some concerns were assuaged as Spicer was back on camera in the day’s briefing, sparring with the press corps over the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris accord and the president’s views on climate change. But if we are nearing the end of the “The Spicey Show,” let it be remembered for an unprecedented run — at least until whoever comes next. Given what we’ve seen so far, wherever this administration goes, late-night comedy will follow.
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.