In TV news, you know you're in real trouble when you put your foot into it and your own high-powered agents won't even stand next to you.
That's what happened this week to NBC's Megyn Kelly when she launched a bafflingly stupid defense of white parents allowing their kids to wear blackface as their Halloween costume. Reports, ever after, have indicated her days are over at NBC and her future cloudy almost everywhere.
Kelly didn't see anything wrong with blackface, she said on her show. White kids in blackface, black kids in whiteface, it was all the same to her. To anyone of even minuscule awareness of American racial politics in the past 50 years, the ignorance of it all was jaw-dropping.
Her way of elaborating on her equivalency was even more gruesome. Don't some parents, after all, allow kids to wear fake axes buried in kids' heads as a Halloween costume? So why not blackface? The more she talked, the more of a hopelessly insensitive blockhead she seemed.
At which point, her NBC superiors and agents at show business' powerhouse Creative Artists Agency (CAA) might well have looked at one another and wondered aloud, "Why are we representing her again?" The official end of her relationship of her relationship with CAA was officially announced — along with her hiring a high-powered Hollywood lawyer in what is bound to be a contractual minefield.
NBC News announced early Friday afternoon that Kelly was officially not returning:
JUST IN: NBC News spokesperson: “Megyn Kelly Today is not returning. Next week, the 9 a.m. hour will be hosted by other TODAY co-anchors.”
— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 26, 2018
It wasn't hard to guess what Kelly was doing, as unfathomable as it seemed. She was trying to juice up her customarily soggy ratings with a volt of electric audience controversy, even if it took the form of revulsion. It was blatant idiocy to try on NBC at 9 in the morning.
Mainstream, she ain't. She just proved it conclusively.
What you have to understand about CAA is that it is the powerhouse talent agency in all of show business: Oprah and Spielberg, for instance. Among Kelly's fellow tubal figures in CAA stables: Katie Couric, Stephen Colbert, Simon Cowell, Jimmy Fallon, Eva Longoria, George Stephanopoulos, Trevor Noah and Bill Maher.
The sore thumb that sticks out on that list is, of course, Bill Maher, but then it is Maher's gleeful stock-in-trade to be as "politically incorrect" as possible. It was the title of the late-night ABC show that launched him.
Maher's audience skews young and late-night, where TV's comic sophistication has always lived comfortably. At 9 a.m., Phil Donahue, long ago, proved you can discuss all kinds of weighty and controversial subjects on daytime TV, but you've got to do it with regard for the feelings of your mainstream audience.
In other words, you can educate: "This, too, is part of your world." What you can't do is stoutly defend stupidity — not on NBC, you can't.
Reports of Kelly being in renewal trouble for quite a while have been flying around for the simple reason she never delivered either the numbers or the critical regard that repaid the $25 million NBC supposedly spent to bring her over from Fox.
The whole subject of blackface is an immensely serious and complicated one. It has no business in a know-nothing, back-fence chat on morning TV, as part of a throwaway show meant to prolong "The Today Show."
Kelly ultimately apologized, but what remains astounding is that she had to apologize for something so inherently foolish.
If you're white and have any sensitivity at all in the 21st century, you can barely watch so many of the great movie classics without wincing and cringing in your seat. I'm not talking about a vile, but formally seminal, relic like D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (which glorifies, yes, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan). I'm talking about "Gone with the Wind" and screwball comedies where the offhand use of demeaning vocabulary and imagery can get sickening.
I just watched a couple of American movie classics and discovered, in both, a ghastly and once-acceptable racial "endearment" term breezily thrown into the dialogue of both. One of my favorite Marx Brothers movies has always been "A Day at the Races," but its racial comedy always make me cringe when it doesn't actually make me leave the room for a couple minutes.
When Al Jolson donned blackface in early and mid-20th-century America, he was, in vaudeville, trying to give the audience an emotional depth it wasn't getting from other frivolous white performers. He was trying, in a grotesque way, to "get real." His way of doing it, like so much of white condescension, completely missed the immense sophistication of some of the greatest black artistry, which dwarfed what he was trying to do.
The great Fats Waller alone, was a gloriously complex study of American racial identity — a hilarious satiric parody of what the least sophisticated white audiences wanted just to "make them feel better."
We raised a daughter at the same time Kelly was growing up in suburban Illinois and a suburb of Albany. No parent I ever knew would have dreamed of letting a kid trick-or-treat in blackface. Or go to school in blackface.
No white kid in blackface ever came to our door. No black kid in whiteface, either.
It wouldn't have been merely politically incorrect.