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Analysis: Political Comedy Scores Huge at Emmys

"Saturday Night Live" and John Oliver romped as Sean Spicer spoofed himself and Stephen Colbert lambasted President Donald Trump in words and song

Stephen Colbert kicked off the Emmys Sunday with an old-school production number straight out of "The Music Man," a classic show about a con artist who hoodwinks Middle American townsfolk by spouting false promises about making life great.

"Everything's better on TV," he sang, sprinkling in lyrics about global warming, white supremacists and Russia.

Colbert even offered a surprise non-musical coda: a surreal appearance by deposed White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who spoofed his demonstrably false claims about the size of the audience for President Donald Trump's inauguration.

"This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys – period! – both in person and around the world," Spicer declared from behind a mobile podium seemingly plucked from Melissa McCarthy's sketches lampooning him on "Saturday Night Live."

After his stunt, Spicer told NBC4 Los Angeles that he hoped his former boss "found it humorous."

The multi-tiered spectacle marked vintage Colbert, who long ago proved himself the master of the ironic comedic con, where the audience is in on the joke, even if the joke may be on us. Colbert boldly reached higher Sunday, by ceding the top role to an in-absentia Trump, making the president both the star of the show – and its target.

"Hello, sir, thank you for joining us – looking forward to the tweets," Colbert said, addressing Trump.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the president watched the CBS broadcast, dominated in the late night comedy-filled categories by "SNL" and "Last Week Tonight," which likely rank among his least favorite shows.

But Trump's presence loomed.

Colbert cited Trump's past complaints of supposed Emmy-rigging he blamed for snubs of "The Apprentice," a springboard for his political rise. "I bet if he had won an Emmy, he never would have run for president. So in a way, this is all your fault," he told the Hollywood crowd that packed Los Angeles' Microsoft Theater.

Alec Baldwin later picked up that thread after winning an Emmy for his ongoing "Saturday Night Live" stint as Trump. "I suppose I should say, 'At long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy,'" Baldwin quipped.

Even some of TV's top dramatic players – the dystopic duo "Westworld" and "The Handmaid's Tale" – got in on the humor game. Colbert performed with scantily clad dancers in "Handmaid's"-inspired garb. He doffed his tux for a filmed bit with "Westworld" star Jeffrey Wright.

"Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" asked Wright, reviving his Bernard Lowe character.

Colbert, nude except for a bow tie, responded: "Every day since November 8."

The "Late Show" host signaled from the start that he planned to play with reality Sunday: "I know the world outside is getting crazy, but look on the bright side: Television has never been better."

Colbert, with song, dance and pointed humor, fulfilled the promise of TV on its biggest night. No matter how many people wound up watching, Colbert demonstrated he's the real deal by helping us laugh at strange times while never letting us forget them.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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