Tonight, as part of the USC Comedy Festival, a trio of politically conscious TV legends — Murphy Brown creator Diane English, All in the Family creator Norman Lear, and Veep EP Frank Rich — sat down for a conversation on the subject of comedy and the political discourse, moderated by All the Way director and USC alum Jay Roach.
The night didn’t go off without a hitch however. Heavy sighs from the audience greeted the notice that comedian Zach Galifianakis would not appear as scheduled, apparently bowing out of the event to attend the birth of his second child. Nonetheless, as expected, the night was full of humor and candid political banter, revolving around the troubled 2016 election and ties to the writer-producers’ previous professional experiences.
Of course, the conversation quickly came around to the “orange elephant in the room” — or, as Lear likes to call him, “the middle finger of the American right hand.” “How funny or sad is our situation today?” Lear asked, setting the tone for the evening.
Rich chimed in on his own fears about the present political situation stateside, citing chilling remarks from Trump and a problematic divide in the media consumed — or not consumed — across political lines. “One of the very few true things [Trump] has said is that he can take a gun out on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and he wouldn’t lose a single vote… I think that’s entirely true,” Rich said.
“I have a theory of the election and of Trump which may be completely wrong, but I don’t think Trump voters are in with the mass culture that we’re a part of,” he continued. “We’re really talking about people who are very dug in, who hate the media—they’re certainly not watching Trevor Noah, or Samantha Bee. I’m not even saying this pejoratively. I’m just saying it as a fact of life. They have another culture, and it’s not the Republican Party we’ve been thinking of all these years.”
Rich was further troubled by yesterday’s tizzy involving FBI director James Comey, vague insinuations about Hillary Clinton, and Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s inbox, and the potential impact it may have on the final days of the 2016 presidential election. “What’s going on now is, it’s all about turnout, and [Trump’s] strategy is very simple. He wants millennials who don’t always have a great voting record, particularly if Barack Obama’s not on the ballot, of turning out, to make them so depressed about Hillary, not that they’ll go out and vote for him… He knows he can’t win them. But to keep them home.”
“That’s the game,” he added. “I think he’ll lose, but I don’t know for a fact, and James Comey just gave him an enormous present because in this context, what Comey gave him was saying to people who sort of want to vote for Clinton, but aren’t very enthusiastic about Clinton, stay home.”
In spite of these quandaries, Rich and his fellow panelists nonetheless expressed their optimism about comedy and journalism, and their contributions to the political arena, noting a certain power that entertainment and media have over the voting public. It’s a power which, per Rich, will not go so far as to lose Trump this election. “Everyone this year has been complaining that journalism gave Trump a free pass. Whatever the failures of journalism, there’s been incredible investigative work, there’s been incredible satire of him on TV,” Rich said. “SNL, particularly with Alec Baldwin, has really stepped up to the plate.”
“You do shine a light on the problem,” Lear added, speaking to the ways in which comedy can enter into the political arena and change the world. “People laugh about something that they understand a little better because they were able to laugh about it.”
With the conversation turning to political controversy in the world of comedy, Rich shared that he had experienced no such controversy with Veep, which he attributed to the decision to not reference contemporary politicians within the context of the show, and to not “tag” the show’s characters with any particular party affiliation. English, on the other hand, recalled a powerful moment of controversy involving a heated exchange with former Vice President Dan Quayle, who took issue with the politics of Murphy Brown. “We really inserted ourselves into a presidential campaign, because I was personally so appalled that Dan Quayle was one heartbeat away from the presidency that we kind of made a vow in our writers’ room that we would do a Dan Quayle joke every week,” she recalled. “I do wish my show were on the air right now. Boy, I write about five Trump jokes a day, and I don’t know what to do with them.”
“I always had an agenda making [Murphy Brown],” English admitted. “I’m proud of it actually, because I always feel that whoever has the big stage and the big microphone, the current administration needs a little check and balance there, so that was us.”
One of the awkward highlight moments of the night was an exchange between Norman Lear and an audience member—identifying herself as a Democratic voter—who stressed that right-wingers do, indeed, have a sense of humor worth noting, responding to an earlier segment of the panel discussion. “I think you’re simply wrong,” Lear stated matter-of-factly, to cheers from the crowd.