By ALAN SMASON
It would seem that holidays and NBC’s Megyn Kelly don’t necessarily agree with one another. A few years ago during the holiday season when she was still a Fox News host, Kelly infamously proclaimed that “Santa is white” and concluded that “Jesus was too.”
Never known for her political correctness, the stunning blonde attorney, commentator and anchor stepped into another controversy this week, while defending the right of whites to don blackface or lighter-skinned people of color to darken their complexions in the pursuit of achieving accurate Halloween costumes or portrayals. She did so in front of a panel of all-white commentators and it wasn’t long thereafter that a host of rebukes followed in a firestorm over social media.
Perhaps she could have taken a lesson from Ted Danson, who donned blackface at a Friar’s Club event when he was dating Whoopi Goldberg 25 years ago. Even Goldberg was unprepared for the backlash and sharp retorts leveled at her for compliance and at Danson for his insensitivity. Not long thereafter, Danson broke up with the comedienne and started seeking solace in the arms of his soon-to-be wife, Mary Steenburgen. He learned from his mistake and his career recovered.
Kelly, perhaps the only conservative link in the Today Show chain had never really been warmly welcomed to NBC despite News Chief Andy Lack’s luring her away from the Fox Network with an annual $23 million salary in a three-year deal. When Matt Lauer was ousted from the Today Show last year after being charged with sexual harassment and improper sexual contact, Kelly was thought to be a logical strong figure to drive up ratings. Unfortunately, despite her relentless campaign against Harvey Weinstein and others accused by the #MeToo movement, Kelly’s numbers never achieved levels that NBC hoped she might. A long-lived career at NBC did not seem likely, but there was some hope as her ratings had improved in recent months.
After the media controversy on Tuesday, Kelly was taken to task by her own fellow Today Show regulars Al Roker and Craig Melvin, who characterized her flippant remarks as racist and disingenuous. Even Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie piled on to voice their own disapproval. When her live Today Show “Third Hour” aired on Wednesday, Kelly issued an immediate apology and took her licks from two African-Americans – Amy Holmes from PBS’s “In Principle” and the Digital Show’s Roland Martin -who did not mince words. Kelly filled her audience with a number of people of color, who rose on cue to give her a standing ovation. It was a bit much and, yet, not enough.
Kelly has not been seen live on air since that show. She fired her agent from Creative Artists Alliance (CAA), the same man responsible for her $69 million package with NBC and word from the network this morning confirms her negotiating the best exit deal to leave the network, which, hopefully, will not include a long non-compete clause that could keep her idled and off the air too long.
It is odd that her downfall was not due to any of the controversial stands she took as a crusading journalist seeking to right the aggrieved women of the #MeToo movement or any of the other conservative positions she took, which were often at odds with her more liberal-bent or moderate-minded colleagues at NBC. When Al Roker became a member of the cast of “Waitress” recently, the Today Show family attended a performance en masse to cheer him on. Kelly was notably absent. It has been clear that few on the show were pleased with her promotion, strutting as a star at the “peacock” network. Perhaps this will signal the rise of one within their own ranks – Melvin or Willie Geist – to fill the void Kelly leaves behind. Or not.
After all, NBC promoted Billy Bush as a Today Show replacement host for that same third hour slot in 2016. He was ejected when his taped complicity with Donald Trump over a live mic years earlier revealed him to be someone whose views on women were insensitive at the very least. Tamron Hall and Roker’s slot was turned over to Kelly last year despite objections from many that termed her hire was nothing less than “whitewashing.” Perhaps Hall’s star will rise again at NBC.
It is a valuable lesson that still needs to be learned by those in the media or who enjoy celebrity. Race is a very delicate topic that stirs deep emotions in the African-American community. During the Jim Crow era, there were many who were resentful of gains won by freed slaves and they set out to demean and denigrate African-Americans via ridicule and caricature. Blackface sprung up in minstrel shows in the 1830s and continued through the 1930s, when the vaudeville circuit died during the Depression. African-American performers frequently darkened their own skin with blackface just as many Caucasians performers like Al Jolson hid behind the visage of blackface. Many of these same performers like Sophie Tucker were also required to perform in whiteface as a counterpart to the blackface of other cast members.
While it is verbotten for any outsider to employ the so-called “n” word, many celebrities continue to embrace its use within their own racial community. It is a double standard that is hard to fathom for those who are not African-American, but crossing that line never achieves positive results. Just ask former popular entertainer Michael Richards, whose racist rant in a live club went viral. He is still considered damaged goods.
And let’s not forget the sad case of Roseanne Barr, a member of our own Jewish community. Barr forgot to be mindful of the history associated with the use of simian similes for members of the African-American community by those who would mock and disparage them. Cartoons in print and lampoons on stage or in public would often liken the exaggerated flattened noses, thickened lips or slovenly stride of African-Americans to those of the ape family. The Walt Disney Company has been guilty of perpetuating many of these myths too. The film “Songs of the South” featured a live action Uncle Remus and an animated Brer Rabbit, for example, and the outrageous song “When I See an Elephant Fly” from “Dumbo” featured black crows as singers with distorted actions reminiscent of the minstrel show numbers of the past.
Disney also forgot how sensitive this issue is when they offered New Orleans’ favorite son Louis Armstrong the opportunity to play King Louis in the animated classic “The Jungle Book.” Armstrong turned the role down because the king was depicted as an orangutan. Luckily, our other favorite son, Louie Prima, was able to assume the part without similar repercussions and went on to make “I Wanna Be Like You” part of his repertoire.
As Jews, we have been on the receiving end of similar attempts to mock and demean us. Caricatures of Jews as large-nosed, unseemly and unkempt people were intended to foster anti-Semitic feelings throughout Europe and the U.S. and have bolstered the worst kinds of myths leveled at our people.
Insiders at ABC have labeled Kelly as “toxic” and it would seem like an odd choice for rival network CBS to sign her, given its association with media legends like Eric Severaid, Bob Schieffer and Edward R. Murrow. Kelly left Fox News after suing over sexual harassment there. Curiously, her return to a post-Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly Fox News lineup in this #MeToo era may become her new reality.
When the Today Show broadcasts its annual Halloween costume contest this Wednesday morning, many staffers may be breathing a sigh of relief they are one host short. Meanwhile, Kelly may want to learn from the lesson this holiday has afforded her as she will, no doubt, be dealing with Independence Day soon enough.