Gather all the most famous faces in television together in one room for a night of self-congratulation and pomp and circumstance, and what’s the one question you’re most eager to know? What do they think of Trump, of course.
It’s perhaps natural for our obsession with celebrity commentary on our polarizing presidential nominee to fester more potently at the Emmy Awards.
This is, after all, an awards group that made him an Emmy nominee, back in the days when he was still a reality TV host and producer with NBC’s The Apprentice. The series was nominated for a total of nine Emmy Awards during its run, including twice for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, for which Trump himself counted as a nominee for his executive producing role.
And so Sunday night was, in a way, a more natural examination of Trump’s public roots than even the Republican National Convention was earlier this year. As such—and fittingly considering the week’s exhausting headlines—host Jimmy Kimmel mocked the person responsible for birthing that public persona, that mid-2000s surge in celebrity.
Who is “responsible” for Trump's rise, Kimmel asked. “I’ll tell you, because he’s sitting right there,” he said, pointing to British-born producer Mark Burnett, the man to credit for Survivor, Shark Tank, The Apprentice, and, yes, Donald Trump.
“Thanks to Mark, we don’t have to watch reality shows anymore, because we’re living in one,” Kimmel said. “Thank you for coming all the way from England to tear us apart with your intricate plot. It worked, you sneaky little crumpet muncher. I’m going on the record: he’s responsible if Donald Trump gets elected, and if he builds that wall, the first person we’re throwing over it is Mark Burnett.”
Burnett, for the record, was none too pleased about this, scowling during the bit and then tossing off a mumbled, miscalculated retort as he accepted his award for producing The Voice, this year’s winner in The Donald’s former category. He also used his speech to plug the new Miley Cyrus-starring season—something no other winners did—so maybe his one-time boardroom star has taught him a thing or two about shamelessness.
Sure, it was a given that Trump would be on the tip of the tongue during Sunday night’s awards. Kimmel went right in immediately, joking, “Television brings people together, but television can also tear us apart. If it wasn’t for television, would Donald Trump be running for president? No. He would be at home right now, quietly rubbing up against his wife, Malaria, while she pretends to be asleep.”
But outside of the monologue, where the cheap shots were expected—and fired off crisply by Kimmel—the question was how often his name would be invoked by our increasingly political brood of beloved pretty famous people.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, channeling the pitch-perfect satirists on Veep, nailed the difficult tone of a good political joke the best, echoing Kimmel’s ribbing but with slightly more class and sharpness because, you know, it’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
“I’d like to take the opportunity to apologize for the current political climate,” Louis-Dreyfus said, accepting her record sixth Best Actress Emmy Award for Veep. “I think Veep has torn down the wall between comedy and politics. Our show started out as a political satire, but now it feels more like a sobering documentary. So I certainly do promise to rebuild that wall and make Mexico pay for it.”
If the mic wasn’t on a mic stand, she’d have dropped it.
Other presenters made reference to the Orange One. Aziz Ansari joked that he decided that he was team Trump now, and would like to express his support by ordering all Muslims and Hispanics out of the ceremony, including America Ferrera and…his parents.
(Ansari won an Emmy earlier that night for co-writing an episode of Master of None titled “Parents,” about the immigrant experience in America and co-starring, yep, his real-life parents.)
Ferrera herself made a crack about Trump’s reality TV past, joking that we’d next be supporting Tim Gunn 2020, referring to the wry Project Runway host.
It was an obvious media reaction to tally the Trump mentions during Sunday night’s ceremony, but it’s worth noting that Hillary Clinton got her fair share of shout-outs—though those for her were almost uniformly positive, and rarely joking.
When Kate McKinnon, who spoofs the Democratic presidential nominee on Saturday Night Live, won Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy, she offered a hearty, “Thank you Ellen DeGeneres, thank you Hillary Clinton…”
Clinton responded in kind with a tweet congratulating the SNL star on her win.
Other winners, like The People v. O.J. Simpson victor Courtney B. Vance, minced no words when it came to his political inclinations: “Obama out, Hillary in!” he shouted at the end of his speech.
But it was backstage where the political discourse was afforded more nuance, freed from the blinding lights and threat of an orchestra playing you off before you get to thank your mother.
Jill Soloway, who won a directing award for her series Transparent, spoke about the significance of the episode she chose to helm, “Man on Land,” in the context of the current election and Trump’s rhetoric.
The episode was a story about a women’s music festival in which, in relation to the show’s central character, a trans woman, people were weighing in about whether or not Maura was really a woman. She tried to relate it, she said, to the Holocaust, when people were judicial about whether someone was a human being.
“Jews were otherized in Nazi Germany to gain political power for Hitler, and right now Donald Trump is doing the same thing,” Soloway said backstage.
“He’s otherizing people. He calls women pigs if they don’t look like beauty pageant contestants. He blames Muslims and Mexicans for our problems. He makes fun of disabled people. This is otherizing with a capital O, and has been used in our history before to start and win wars, and he needs to be called out every chance he gets for being one of the most dangerous monsters to ever approach our lifetimes. He’s a complete dangerous monster and any moment that I have to call Trump out for being an inheritor to Hitler, I will.”
And, in a way keeping up with the theme that Kimmel started, Variety Series winner John Oliver was asked if he thought he was responsible at all for creating Donald Trump—an extension of the argument that the media’s exhaustive, profitable coverage of his controversies is fueling his success.
“The short answer to that is no,” Oliver said. “And the longer answer to that is no, of course I fucking don’t.”
While the answer elicited a fair amount of laughs, it’s worth noting that one of the splashiest segments to come out of Oliver's HBO show this year was one that dutifully eviscerated Trump’s character, honesty, and viability as a candidate, culminating in the mocking hashtag #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain.
Is Oliver responsible for Trump? On the contrary, as the trophy in his hands proves, he’s being commended for trying to stop him.
Does any of this—celebrities cracking wise about politics—really matter? No. But the same argument could technically be made about the entire awards show, too. And I dare you to try to tell me that Sarah Paulson’s Emmy for playing Marcia Clark doesn’t matter. Do it. I dare you. Try.