Bart & Fleming: Bill Maher, Kathy Griffin, Stephen Colbert, Donald Trump And The Loss Of Decency

Kathy Griffin Bill Maher
Tyler Shields/HBO

Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.

FLEMING: At a time when Warner Bros successfully bleached out the red, white and blue from Wonder Woman’s original superhero outfit to be less polarizing and maximize global appeal, we are seeing an alarming number of media personalities go the other way, with inflammatory shock stunts that are collectively driving down the cultural discourse to vulgar levels I have never seen before. I am no prude – one of my favorite conversational words begins with the letter F, which I find works equally well as noun, verb, adjective or adverb – but the recent apology tours of Kathy Griffin, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Reza Aslan and others makes me fear for the decay of our culture.

Some of this clearly has been exacerbated by the spontaneous combustion opportunity provided by the Internet (beyond Griffin, Denver Post reporter Terry Frei, Colorado’s top sportswriter four times, was summarily dismissed for tweeting his “discomfort” in seeing a Japanese driver win the Indy 500). There is the influence of our Mud Wrestler In Chief, who followed his insult-laden Republican primary victories with the daily fusillade of Twitter attacks unprecedented for a sitting president. The frustration of liberals who so hate Trump has caused them to take leave of their moral compasses and pander with such vulgar soundbites that it brings up the Austin Powers line, “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”


BART: Everyone in the media courts controversy, yet everyone is scared of it. Hence we are now caught up in another wave of instant apologies. We all know the names: Maher, Griffin, O’Reilly, Ailes, Colbert. Careers are on the line and the noise level is deafening. I have a personal affinity for Maher, because I know him. He regrets his use of the word “house nigger” (I’ll use it after the New York Times printed it) and HBO said it was “inexcusable and tasteless.” The irony of the whole “N-word” debate, of course, is that almost every young black comic leans on it, but the networks have declared it off limits for white comics. Still, few rules apply to Maher, who is both Catholic and Jewish and likely thinks of himself as part black too. He routinely refers to the President as “The Golden Sphincter” but apparently there’s no organized revolt against that. I’ve known Bill Maher for a long time and he’s a very emotional, hot-headed guy. Donald Trump as President represents a personal affront to him. I’ve been with Maher when he got into arguments with people in restaurants where he simply loses it and shouts them into oblivion. So I’m surprised there haven’t been more incidents like the “N-word” – years ago he suffered media exile but brilliantly re-invented himself. One reason is that he’s really a loyal, warm-hearted guy who doesn’t hide his passion. He makes a lot of jokes about using pot, but, seriously, he himself represents a good case for medical marijuana. I’ve indulged with him in a haze of pot, and watched him chill, calm down and become the other Maher – thoughtful, polite and, yes, even funnier. TV needs Bill Maher.

FLEMING: I have read suggestions that some of these lapses in judgment and objectivity is residue from the eradication of the Fairness Doctrine by the FCC, which led to the growth of polarizing news channels like Fox News that don’t even try to hide their bias. Trump’s protestations aside, CNN’s coverage seems pretty objective, but the network has been running a right-corner picture of fired FBI chief James Comey with a clock counting down the hours until he comes clean about the President, Russia and Mike Flynn. It does feel the network is hoping hard this will be Trump’s downfall. That’s my impression. But Peter, where is the FCC when Colbert and his producers and writers think it is OK to zing Donald Trump with a low-road “cock holster” comment in a profanity laced fusillade that was not even funny? Then you have Kathy Griffin creating shock currency with her bloody severed Trump head stunt and then being shocked when her career implodes as a result. What the heck did she imagine might happen?

She co-hosts New Year’s Eve for CNN, which is already the least favorite network of the Trump Administration at a time when the corporation is hoping for approval on the merger between Time Warner and AT&T. While HBO has no ban on foul language, that pay web is under the merger umbrella and I’ve read impassioned arguments that Maher should be shown the door — or at least get suspended — after his smarmy delivery of a word no white broadcaster or comic should ever say. What the heck is wrong with these people? Can any of these be considered proud moments that flattered their profession, or even something their families would be proud of? Where are we heading, with a Wild West Internet and a president who moments after the weekend’s latest terror attack picks a completely wrong-headed fight with the mayor of London?

HBO/Janet Van Ham

BART: It sounds like you might feel that Maher should lose his job.

FLEMING: I haven’t bonded over a bong with Maher like you have, but I don’t at all think he should be fired for saying one regrettable word on live television. I have always bristled when an angry mob lights torches and tries to end careers over the utterance of something stupid or provocative, even though we’ve seen people like Sinead O’Connor tear up a picture of the Pope on live TV and pay a high price. I do think Maher needs to be accountable here and should pay a price, one extracted by his employers or something Maher does voluntarily. A time out might be warranted or a donation to a worthy cause. Something that will make him, and others, realize that word isn’t OK, especially when it comes out of the mouth of some smug white guy who has never felt its sting at some point in his life. I am a home fix-up fanatic and watch a lot of HGTV shows. When they talk about the master bedroom or the master bath, it strikes me as regrettable phrasing, even though you figure they don’t consider its origins. I notice you don’t hear it so much in new episodes, mainly in reruns. I feel less sympathy for Griffin, who won over nobody by turning her apology into a defensive whine about death threats, and being targeted because of her gender, and being “broken” by Trump. No decent American would find her stunt laudable or funny, and she has only herself to blame for her career hitting the rocks as a result. Had she stopped for even a second and asked her former New Year’s Eve revelry partner Anderson Cooper — or even any fellow stand-up comedian — if it was a good idea for her to post her photo, holding up a mock severed bloody head of the President of the United States, like we’ve seen terrorists do with journalists and other victims…Of course CNN and others are cutting ties. Peter, how would you like to be her agent, right now?

BART: But let’s also acknowledge that calm, pedantic broadcasters like Scott Pelley of CBS are losing their jobs because viewers want passion, not pedantry, but consider the contradictions of trying to deliver that while not going off the reservation. Megyn Kelly announces that her new show on NBC will have “hard-hitting pieces that are somewhat explosive.” I have the feeling that her “explosiveness” will be meticulously controlled.

Megyn Kelly

FLEMING: I disagree. I thought Kelly conducted herself most admirably when she was attacked by Donald Trump during the debates after she called him on his attacks on women, and challenged by Newt Gingrich in a live interview on her Fox News show. She never lost her cool, and her ability to spar without vulgar low blows made a fan out of me. I don’t think she is at all some loose cannon that needs to be meticulously controlled. And even though she had the leverage of ratings and stardom, Kelly showed guts in declining Roger Ailes’ ask that she publicly line up with other Fox News hosts behind him and against Gretchen Carlson after she sued Ailes for sexual harassment. There must have been significant pressure on Kelly to capitulate, but she had her own unpleasant memories and stood her ground. Those Fox News personalities who lined up behind Ailes look loutish now, and they will be memorialized that way as the whole episode is being memorialized in a limited TV series and a feature film.

BART: Saturday Night Live has a brilliantly alert team of pros who blow the whistle when “explosive” becomes incendiary. It’s not an easy “round the clock” exercise with Melissa McCarthy rolling around Manhattan with her lectern. Kathy Griffin says her career is ruined because she held up Trump’s head, and even Al Franken asked her not to show up for a talk in Los Angeles to promote his new book. Really, Al? You don’t want to give the lady a stage to apologize?

NBC Broadway Video

FLEMING: You’ve got to stop getting high with Maher and then doing these columns! You’ve just driven off the cliff. I completely disagree with your dragging Melissa McCarthy into this though it gets to the point of my argument. People like Griffin, Colbert and Aslan are so angered by Trump that they are taking the bait too often and not playing to their strengths. Instead, they are getting in the mud with him. McCarthy and SNL have done the opposite. She should win an Emmy for her early Sean Spicer appearances, even if the skit overstayed its welcome the last time or two. That was not McCarthy acting out a vendetta; this was a disciplined comic performer delivering a brilliant zeitgeist moment and a much needed humbling of the president’s mouthpiece, even before Spicer inexplicably hailed Hitler for not gassing his own citizenry when he was trying to excoriate Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. I recall Lorne Michaels saying that was why he didn’t like the idea of Rosie O’Donnell playing Steve Bannon; he doesn’t want humor that comes from anger. It is hard to be funny, when you are pissed off, and these recent apology moments are the result. I understand the ire: Trump embraced the “birther” theory that Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country, based on no facts; his “pussy grabbing” boasts were just as deplorable. There are new affronts on a daily basis, as fast as the President’s tweeting thumbs can manufacture them. And he never apologizes. I think liberal comics have a right, even a duty, to cross lines, but there has to be a purpose, and it has to be funny. McCarthy, and Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression, have clearly gotten under Trump’s skin because they are lacerating and brilliant.

Fox News Channel

BART: Everyone is rushing to take sides in these melees. Sean Hannity on Fox News angrily denounces efforts to organize an advertising boycott of Colbert on CBS. Like his former colleague, O’Reilly, Hannity disdains political correctness; he also noticed what happened to O’Reilly when advertisers boycotted Fox. Here’s the bottom line: Sensitive souls better steel themselves because they’re living in the land of Trump-dom and the level of civil discourse is disintegrating. I admire the stunned reaction of Sen. Ben Sasse from Nebraska – the ultimate Mister Bland from the Midwest – who happened to be on camera with Maher when he said the unmentionable. “I’m a 1st Amendment absolutist,” said Sasse. “But comedians get latitude for crossing lines.” Let’s face it: Comedians make their living by crossing lines. (Sasse did add they shouldn’t cross that particular line.)

Bill Cosby

FLEMING: Ultimately, I think people are allowed a mistake or two. I don’t see how Billy Bush returns as anything more significant than a game show host, but he just made his case for a comeback in a favorable Hollywood Reporter cover story. It is odd that Bush’s trajectory ended merely because his reaction was frat boy and not journalist when Trump said those appalling things about women. But here is Trump, now insulting all comers, day and night, from the White House. Maybe this is the world we live in and we have to get used to it. I still can’t believe my colleague Dominic Patten’s dispatches from a courtroom where Bill Cosby is on trial. Here is a man who broke the color barrier on primetime television, and ought to be regarded in his golden years as that medium’s answer to Jackie Robinson, or Sidney Poitier for what he accomplished in movies. Cosby was quick to lecture black comics about their use of foul language and the “N-word”; no matter the results of this criminal trial, accusations he drugged and sexually preyed upon around 50 young women will define Cosby’s place in history. Those actions are far worse than words.

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