Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying, or screaming, or burrowing into the Earth to live out the rest of your days as a mole person subsisting on roots and grubs. Life is constantly providing reminders of this, mainly in the form of influential entities doing exactly what they should not do. This week's example was brought to us by the announcement that Rudy Giuliani was revealed as a contestant on the upcoming seventh season of "The Masked Singer."
This article first appeared in Salon.
At the risk of sounding like America's angry mom screaming at all your rambunctious toddlers, didn't we talk about this? What did I say? Did I not warn you several times not to touch the buttons on that image rehabilitation machine over there?
Yes.Yes I did! Here are the receipts: Back in ye olden days of 2018, I humbly requested talk show gatekeepers to refrain from promoting Sean Spicer's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad book. Only "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" crossed that picket line which, fine, bygones.
Spicer's book didn't go on to be a bestseller but nevertheless, he was invited to participate in "Dancing with the Stars" in 2018. All he did was lie to us about crowd sizes, right?
In November 2020, a few days after Donald Trump lost the presidential election to Joseph Biden, I pleaded to the entertainment powers that be to resist the urge to rehabilitate any of the flunkies with him at that point.
"None of these figures deserve to turn up on celebrity editions of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or drop in on "The Conners" for a hilarious cameo or to show their faces in any broadcast network entertainment title," I wrote, "Not Kayleigh McEnany, not Kimberly Guilfoyle, not Mark Meadows, none of them. Not now, not ever."
Shame on me for assuming a Giuliani ban was a given. After all, by this point Sacha Baron Cohen had broadcast a video that caught Giuliani with his hands down his pants on a hotel bed, appearing to prep himself for what he thought would be a sexual encounter with a young woman masquerading as an interviewer. This happened before his hair color melted off his face on live TV, but after he'd ranted for nearly 40 minutes about supposed election fraud on a landscaping company's driveway, kicking off the Big Lie.
Giuliani is a mess, and if he weren't actively involved in destroying democracy, that would make him a terrific reality show candidate. But he is, at this moment, facing multiple legal actions against him, not the least of which is an investigation of his role in the January 6, 2021 insurrection and his leadership of a plot to install illegitimate electors.
He is a central participant in a rolling coup against our democracy that is intensifying by the day, including on Friday, when the Republican National Committee officially rebranded the deadly attack on the Capitol and all the events leading up to it as "legitimate political discourse."
That's really enough for any producer with a shred of moral fiber to say, "You know what? I don't think this man should be featured in any of our hits, let along one with the tagline of 'The Good, the Bad and the Cuddly.'"
"The Masked Singer" isn't an entirely unproblematic show, mind you. Its host, Nick Cannon, has made antisemitic remarks. One judge, Jenny McCarthy, is on record as an anti-vaxxer. Another, Robin Thicke, is famous for being a groper and a lech, and ripping off Marvin Gaye. Maybe the exec who opened the door to Giuliani looked at that situation and said to themselves, "Well, you know . . . glass houses and stones."
And even if we acknowledge that shows like "Dancing with the Stars" have a history of casting polarizing political figures, there's something extra sinister to hiding Giuliani under a mask before springing him on an unsuspecting audience. The shows draw is its veneer of family-friendly innocence, and even its most controversial participant, Sarah Palin, has been defanged by the political establishment. She's still a terrible person, but after she squawked her way out of that bear costume few people gave her a second thought.
Hate on her if you want, and she assumes you do. She did not call for "trial by combat" minutes before insurrectionists invaded the Capitol building and hunted for congressional Democrats. Giuliani did that.
Anyway, if I'm overreacting, I'm in fine company.
"No single headline has captured the national zeitgeist of existential dread combined with ridicustupulocitiness better than this one," Stephen Colbert joked on Thursday. "That's right: the criminal goon that we know for a fact is being investigated for trying to overthrow our democracy for his idiot emperor was yukkin' it up on a reality show!"
Kimmel, who broke the news to a Thursday night audience that howled in disgust, asks "How does this even happen?"
Then he answers his own question. "I mean, a lot of people at Fox had to sign off on this – not one of them was like, 'Hey maybe we shouldn't have the guy who's under investigation for helping to plot an insurrection singing on our show'?"
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He's right. "The Masked Singer" is not a small title for Fox. It finished the 2020-2021 TV season as the top-rated unscripted series among 18-to-49-year-olds, the viewership most sought by advertisers. It's also among the top five most popular shows overall in that demographic. That means a lot of people at the top of the corporate food chain who are aware of its popularity gave it a thumbs up, thinking of the ratings potential as opposed to the part it may play in making an amoral goblin seem like a harmless showman.
We should be dismayed at this but not surprised. As I have also previously pointed out – I'm getting tired of repeating myself! – it is their job to make their network money by selling products, even poisonous ones. This also should be a reminder that the Fox broadcast network is still owned by Fox Corporation and the Murdochs.
So while Giuliani may have been banned from Fox News while it contends with Dominion's $1.6 billion lawsuit against the channel for backing the baseless election fraud claims, transforming him into a man-sized stuffed animal for our amusement is . . . swell?
Ken Jeong acknowledged how wrong this is by walking off in protest. Thicke reportedly followed him but, in a reminder of his spinelessness, later said that he wasn't taking a stand against a fomenter of fascism. He was just checking on his friend. Just to be clear!
But no matter how long Giuliani gets to stand in that spotlight or what song he sings, it's a note and a step towards sanitizing a long, dirty ledger that's still unrolling.
And while I would not go so far as to theorize that sliding the former mayor of New York into a troll suit (or whatever he wore) will be enough to normalize him, it does set a precedent I shiver to game out from here. If he's OK for this show, who else is acceptable?
Maybe let's not answer that. We might give somebody new ideas.
This one is bad enough, even if it does make for one hell of a punchline: "One of the most chilling phrases in the English language," Colbert says, "is 'Surprise! It's Rudy Giuliani.'"