When comedian Michelle Wolf ridiculed the brazen dishonesty of the president and his equally deceitful staff, journalists at the White House Correspondents Dinner threw her under the bus. The U.S. media treat politicians with kid gloves; they fawn over them, befriend them, apologize for them. Such behavior was bad enough under previous administrations, but it’s reached a breaking point under Donald Trump — a president who, according to James Comey’s memos, jokes in private about having reporters locked up and raped behind bars as a way of getting them to give up their confidential sources. On episode seven of Deconstructed, comedian and Hollywood director and producer Judd Apatow joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the U.S. media’s cozy relationship with politicians.
Judd Apatow: If you watch the news, it’s always funny how they don’t want to say Donald Trump is a liar. They always find different words to use to describe him not telling the truth.
MH: I’m Mehdi Hasan, welcome to Deconstructed. Fake, fraudulent, dishonest, disgusting, corrupt, sleazy scum, slime, liars, losers, phoneys, bad people, sick people, enemies of the people: the president of the United States attacks the members of the press on a near daily basis publicly, viciously, relentlessly. So when a comedian turns up at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and ridicules the brazen dishonesty of the president and of his equally deceitful press secretary, you might think journalists at that dinner would stick up for her, get behind her, defend her — but no! They threw Michelle Wolf under the bus and stuck up for the people in the White House who abuse them every day instead.
Now, this is a show which is all about getting behind the headlines, beyond the spin and bullshit and this past week the U.S. media was filled with some seriously sanctimonious spin and BS. And to help me deconstruct some of it, my guest today is comedian and Hollywood director and producer Judd Apatow of “Knocked Up” and “The Big Sick” fame, who wrote some of President Obama’s best anti-Trump jokes at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in 2011. He, like me, isn’t happy about how certain members of the media behaved at last week’s White House Correspondents’ dinner.
JP: You know what was the most important thing she said? The most important thing she said is: “We’re all making money off of this madness.” And that is that the weird part about it, is Donald Trump is correct when he says: Your ratings go up because of me.
MH: So this week: Why is the U.S. media so spineless? Why can’t it stand up to the White House? Why can’t it stand up for the truth?
Jeremy Paxman: Derek Lewis says Howard had certainly told me that the governor of Parkhurst should be suspended and had threatened to overrule me. Are you saying Mr. Lewis is lying?
Michael Howard: I have given a full account of this and the position is —
MH: What you are you hearing here is the legendary British journalist Jeremy Paxman interviewing the Senior Conservative politician Michael Howard back in 1997. Now, the backstory here is not what’s important — just listen to how persistent he is.
JP: Did you threaten to overrule him?
MH: I did not overrule Derek Lewis.
JP: Did you threaten to overrule him?
MH: I took advice on what I could or could not do.
JP: Did you threaten to overrule him?
MH: … I acted scrupulously in accordance with that advice. I did not overrule Derek Lewis.
JP: Did you threaten to overrule him?
MH: Mr. Marriott was not suspended.
JP: Did you threaten to overrule him?
MH: Now, I’m no fan of the British media which is awful in so many ways, but can you imagine someone like Jeremy Paxman lasting even five minutes on the U.S. cable news? Of course not. The U.S. media treat politicians in this country with kid gloves. They fall over them, befriend them, apologize for them.
As a journalist from the U.K. now living and working here in Washington D.C., the U.S. press corps, especially the White House press corps, never ceases to amaze me. It’s so brazenly servile, so shamefully obsequious, so openly deferential to people in power.
For example, members of the White House press corps stand up with the president comes into the East Room of the building to address them, which I’ve always found to be truly bizarre. Why would you stand up for a politician?
Interviewers on U.S. cable news a just as bad. They act chummy, pal-y, friendly with the politicians who they’re supposed to be grilling on air.
Wolf Blitzer: Madam Secretary, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck out there on the campaign trail. We’ll look forward to covering you.
MH: They ask softball questions with very few follow-ups.
Jake Tapper: I’m going to give you a choice: Hillary versus Biden or Broncos versus Seahawks.
MH: And act so grateful to have been given an opportunity to do the interview in the first place. Such behavior was bad enough under Clinton, Bush and Obama, but it’s inexcusable, and frankly unbelievable, under Donald Trump, a president who, thanks to James Comey’s memos, we now know jokes in private with his FBI director about having reporters locked up and raped behind bars as a way of getting them to give up their confidential sources.
Donald J. Trump: We have to be very careful with the press.
DJT: If we don’t get border security, we’ll have no choice. We’ll close down the country.
DJT: Kanye West gets it. He gots it. [Audience cheers.]
DJT: The only collusion is the Democrats colluded with the Russians.
DJT: Hispanic unemployment. Any Hispanics in the room? Hispanic? [Scattered cheers.] Eh. Not so many.
MH: That was the president of the United States saying batshit crazy things again. Telling barefaced lies again, at a rally in Michigan last weekend. Where his supporters not only chanted “Lock her up!” in reference to his defeated political opponent, but also booed at the mere mention of Hispanics. In a normal world, that rally would be dominating the headlines even today. But in the deeply depressing and abnormal world that we all inhabit these days, we’ve instead been focused on a comedian, Michelle Wolf, who was also to address the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that same night that Trump was doing his rant in Michigan. And look — she did her job brilliantly. She was both funny and scathing about the people in power.
Michelle Wolf: Trump is racist though. He loves white nationalists, which is a weird term for a Nazi. Calling a Nazi a white nationalist is like calling a pedophile a kid-friend. [Audience laughs.]
And of course, we have Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.
MH: And the response to that from the spineless journalists in the crowd?
Newscaster: The remarks were way over the line. I think everyone agrees of that.
Newscaster: The comedian accused of crossing the line.
Newscaster: Did the comedy monologue cross a line?
Newscaster: Crossed a line.
Newscaster: Crossed a line.
Newscaster: Crossed a line…
MH: Andrea Mitchell of NBC News even suggested that the White House press secretary was owed an apology by the White House Correspondents Association. I mean, seriously? What is wrong with these people?
By holding a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, supposedly centered around protecting the First Amendment and the free press against attacks, but then rushing to the defense of the White House press secretary, who along with her boss, the president, is leading those attacks on the First Amendment and the free press.
DJT: As you know, I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth. [Audience laughs.]
MH: Too many American political journalists seem to think that if they play nice with this administration, if they remain respectful, if they don’t call out the lies, they don’t call out the racism, if they stay neutral and detached and impartial and sober, if they keep doing the whole both sides are as bad as each other BS of yesteryear, then conservatives will play nice with them. Conservatives will stop attacking them.
Them the problem is that this assumes that conservative criticism of the media is in good faith, when it so clearly isn’t. The idea that conservatives are offended by a comedian’s jokes when they elected the most offensive presidential candidate in American history is just absurd.
Stuart Varney: Michelle Wolf offered vulgar jokes about the president, and then attacked press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in personal terms. Since when has it been OK to make cheap jokes about a woman’s appearance?
MH: The conservative movement, the Republican Party, they don’t care about neutrality or detachment or impartiality, they care about winning and winning at all costs and if that means destroying the credibility of the media then so be it if that means crying bias to put the “liberal media” on the perpetual defensive, then all the better!
You think any of those liberal journalists who cynically, shamefully, deliberately threw Michelle Wolf under the bus are suddenly now respected out in Trump country, out in the conservative heartlands? Don’t be silly. Of course they’re not!
Remember, Steve Bannon in an interview earlier this year summed up the Trumpian approach to the media pretty bluntly, when he said, “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media, and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” To flood the zone with shit.
The question is: When will members of the press, when will White House correspondents, the great and the good of cable news and the print press, when will they wake up, look around, smell that shit and start pushing back? Start calling a spade a spade, start speaking truth to power, as Michelle Wolf did so eloquently, so boldly, so defiantly last weekend.
MW: If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree? [Audience laughs.] I’m not suggesting she gets hurt, just stuck. [Audience laughs.]
MH: My guest today is not just an award-winning stand-up comedian himself, he’s not just the director and producer of some of Hollywood’s biggest comedies from, “Thee 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “Knocked Up” to, more recently, “The Big Sick,” but he also co-wrote some of President Obama’s best jokes at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ dinner as the then-Celebrity Apprentice host just sat there in the audience and took it. He kind of had to.
Fast forward seven years and Judd Apatow has gone from writing jokes for the president, the previous president that is, to going after the current president whenever he gets the chance .
JA: Oh my god, then if there is a pee tape, who becomes president? Mike Pence. So we need another pee tape. Then who becomes the president? Paul Ryan. So we need another pee tape. We basically need a tape of a Russian hooker urinating like a firehouse on like 40 Republicans ’til we finally get Bernie Sanders.
MH: So who better to talk to this week about Donald Trump, about the media’s awful coverage of Donald Trump and about the ongoing and bizarre political fallout from Michelle Wolf’s stand-up routine at the White House Correspondents’ dinner than Judd Apatow?
MH: Judd Apatow, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
JA: Happy to be here.
MH: Judd, you’re not just a big Hollywood director, you’re also a comedian yourself. Your new stand-up routine, “The Return” is back on Netflix. So let me ask you this: What did you make of comedian Michelle Wolf’s routine at the White House Correspondents’ dinner last weekend?
JA: I thought that she did a brilliant job. I sat down and read it afterwards, also. It’s a master class in great, insightful, tough joke-writing. But people are somewhat disingenuous about the purpose of the evening. The way the evening’s supposed to work is the president gets his, and hopefully, in the future, her turn to make their points. And when you have a president who’s a coward who won’t show up, of course the whole night is imbalanced.
MH: And were you as annoyed, as irritated, as disgusted as I was to see the response from so many members in that audience, members of the White House press corps, the great and the good of the mainstream media, the liberal media who fell over one another to attack Michelle Wolfe afterwards and even demand an apology on behalf of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary?
JA: Well it’s a very thin-skinned room. I went there one year, and what I was surprised about was that the liberals in the room seemed to have more trouble with the jokes than the Republicans. It’s a tough, it’s a tough room to do stand-up in because every joke is offending half the room, and comedians and the president is usually trying to do a balanced speech.
But when you have a very corrupt president who pays $25 million to people he has defrauded at Trump University, and when you have a president who lies constantly, the monologue has to get tougher, it has to call out these brutal truths.
MH: So you came out strongly in defense of Michelle Wolf. You said on Twitter this week: “She is definitely not funny if you are fine with a President who grabs pussy and lies daily, is a racist and sells us out to the Russians. Then it was clearly unfunny from that perspective. If you are fed up with the madness and hatred and corruption of Trump then it was funny.”
JA: Well I think that is true. You know, people tend to not laugh when someone points out something that is critical of them. And I think that’s true for Democrats; it’s also true for journalists in the room. There are some people who can handle it and they get the spirit of the night. It is a roast. She’s hired to roast everybody. If it really bothers you, maybe you should think about the point of the joke.
Why doesn’t everyone walk out of that room and go, “You know what was the most important thing she said?” The most important thing she said is “We’re all making money off of this madness.”
MW: I think that what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you.
JA: And that is the weird part about it is Donald Trump is correct when he says: Your ratings go up because of me.
MW: He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric. [Audience laughs.] But he has helped you! He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him.
JA: Also, how could people leave that room, and go, “What is happening in Flint, Michigan?”
MW: Flint still doesn’t have clean water!
JA: She’s saying it’s not fixed yet. I’m going to find out exactly —
MH: That was her last line, indeed.
— I’m going to find out exactly what still needs to be done for these people to have clean water. Where are those articles? There’s none.
MH: You know, the fact that those journalists were more annoyed when they left the room that the White House press secretary, who lies for a living, had been insulted than they were about the fact that Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water as Michelle Wolf reminded them, I think speaks volumes about the era we’re in.
JA: I think that that is the most important thing to take from the Correspondents’ dinner. You know, people are upset about the truth that she’s speaking. You know, in that room, she’s saying to journalists: You’re not being tough enough. You’re afraid to use words like liar . You’re afraid to say these are crimes.
If you watch the news, it’s always funny how they don’t want to say Donald Trump is a liar. They always find different words to use to describe him not telling the truth.
Newscaster: Trump twisted some facts on illegal immigration.
Michael Warren: Trump sort of takes the truth, and then bends it and warps it.
John Heilemann: Trump often stretches, bends, breaks, totally disregards what is fact.
JA: What they should say on the news every night is: it’s insane that the president can’t stop lying and it’s terrifying. And how are our allies going to believe anything that he says? How are we going to line up support for things that are very important in the world if the president is a proven, compulsive liar?
Comedians are there to say to things that other people dance around. And that’s why you hire Michelle Wolf. She did exactly what she does, so you can’t be shocked that she did that.
MH: It’s funny that you talk about comedians being able to say the unsayable, or what shouldn’t be unsayable but it’s become unsayable. Masha Gessen, who writes for The New Yorker, one of Vladimir Putin’s biggest critics, she wrote a piece this week pointing out that more and more Americans now want to go watch the late night comics to get their news precisely for the reason you elaborate on, which is if your evening news headlines, if your New York Times reporters, et cetera, cannot just say, “You know what, Trump is a liar, or Trump is a racist.” Judd, you often hear this phrase “racially tinged.”
MH: It’s used than rather than just saying, “he’s a racist.” So if you can’t get that from your mainstream news sources that you’ve trusted all your life, then you’re going to comedians late at night because at least they’re willing to say what others won’t.
JA: Well, look what’s happened with James Shaw. You have this hero who saved many people’s lives, who put his life at risk.
MH: At the Waffle House.
JA: At the Waffle House. I believe Donald Trump still hasn’t acknowledged him. Is that true at this point? He never acknowledged him.
MH: As far as I’m aware, he hasn’t, and definitely not on Twitter, his main source of communication to the world.
JA: And in the meantime he’s acknowledged Michelle Wolf and Kanye West and jokes. So how are we to interpret that? Are we supposed to just think: he’s busy. He’d never heard about it. No! It’s a signal to the racists in this country: I’ve got your back, I care about you, I don’t care about these other people. Comedians are allowed to say that.
MH: But here’s my question. In this current age, then, do you think that something journalists should be able to say. Some journalists have said it. There have been moments where the New York Times used the L-word in reference to Donald Trump, CNN has used it on occasion — not enough in my view — but, you know, journalists are slowly trying to feel their way into this new climate, they don’t like being the opposition, they don’t like having to say these kind of rude or stern things to the president, who, you know, they stand up for when he comes in the room.
I’m from England, Judd. In the UK, the press, for all its flaws, and I’m no fan of the British press, but for all its flaws, it’s not deferential, you can’t call it overly polite. You know, it enjoys going after big political figures and taking them down. And what’s interesting, I find, in the U.S. is you have a White House press corps in the East Room of the White House when the president enters. They stand — maybe not out of respect for the president but out of respect for the office. They think, “We don’t want to be the opposition.” And yet, if you listen to Steve Bannon, he said quite openly earlier this year: “The Democrats are not the opposition, the media is, and the way we’re going to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
JA: I think that it’s worked perfectly. Because, you know, there’s that Amy Siskind book, “The List,” I believe it’s called.
MH: Yes. Trying to keep track of —
JA: Yes. She lists every insane thing that’s happened. And the book could be called “Flooding the Zone” and people move on quickly. They forget that Donald Trump talked about how, you know, if there was a school shooting, he’d be the first to run inside. And they forget but he won’t acknowledge James Shaw, and they forget that he thinks there’s good people on both sides in the confrontations with Nazis. Like, they forget so quickly.
MH: And there’s some who say Judd, it doesn’t matter if Trump is a bully or crude or Sarah Huckabee Saunders is a liar, that may be true, but we should hold ourselves to higher standards.
You’ve dished out some pretty harsh stuff at Trump and his folks. You’ve called the president “a fucking moron,” “a racist shit hole,” “a Russian puppet,” “a sociopath,” “mentally ill.” What about the whole Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high?” Do you think that’s not appropriate for the current era?
JA: I like that she does it, but I don’t think that needs to be everybody’s choice. I think as the First Lady, that’s the choice that she made.
But there certainly is that argument that in the future, if things get really bad, we will wish that a lot of these very kind, sensitive people took a different tact [sic]. And we don’t know yet. We don’t know yet. But I personally feel like, “Aren’t we supposed to scream? This is not normal.” I think it’s essential that we do that.
Donald Trump had a charity, the Trump Foundation, that was shut down because he was stealing money from his own charity. Now, this is someone who makes decisions about our lives and that concerns me.
MH: I only discovered recently, Judd, that you wrote some of Barack Obama’s gags about Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ dinner, the last time Trump actually had the guts to turn up to that dinner. He wasn’t, of course, President at the time. He wasn’t running for president. He was roasted by Obama. A lot of us remember that.
President Barack Obama: Just recently in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around, but you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately you didn’t blame Little John or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.
MH: You co-wrote some of those gags, and it’s since been revealed that that’s the night a humiliated Trump decided he wanted to run for president. He was so bitter and annoyed. He was like, “I’m going to show you.” So, are you, in a way, indirectly responsible for Donald Trump being president?
JA: Well —
MH: That must be a painful realization.
JA: There’s a joke about that, but the truth is, you know, I’ve watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot of books about this. You know, this is a guy who talked about running for president since the late ’80s, and certainly that night, I felt like, because he was the man behind birtherism, it was warranted to call him out. And there are people who also think that Donald Trump ran for president assuming he wouldn’t win, but it would make him more famous. It would allow him to meet the people who represent a lot of countries and do a lot of business around the world, and that he was as shocked as anybody when it started going his way.
MH: Yeah, I’m of that school of thought. I don’t think he thought he would win when he set out to run.
What about this argument, Judd, that you hear from Republicans and conservatives all the time, that celebrities like yourself, like others should keep your mouth shut on political issues. You should stay out of politics.
JA: I think it’s a funny statement for anyone to make. The president, if anything, is just a celebrity and a very shallow type of celebrity. It is like Chuck Woolery being the president. I think that’s just a smokescreen type of an issue. It doesn’t mean anything.
MH: When you’re making movies now in this very polarized age of ours, this politically divided, racially divided America and, of course, you did make “The Big Sick,” which was very much about polarization and the immigrant experience, do you now try and tailor your movies to a broader audience? Are you trying to make stuff which has broad appeal to people, regardless of their politics, or are you like, “Screw it. I’m making what I’m making.”
JA: I think what’s funny is sometimes people think that I’m conservative in the way I tell stories. Because, generally, I like to tell stories about people with problems who are trying to figure out how to do better, how to be happy, how not to be an asshole. I like coming of age stories. I like stories where people find some wisdom.
A lot of times people say, Oh, Judd must be against abortion because Katherine Heigl didn’t have an abortion in “Knocked Up.”
Jay Baruchel (as Jay in “Knocked Up”): Tell me you don’t want him to get an a-word.
Jonah Hill (as Jonah): Yes, I do, and I won’t say it for it little baby ears over there. But it rhymes with smishsmortion. I’m just saying — hold on, Jay, cover your ears — you should get a smishsmortion at the smishsmortion clinic.
JA: And I would always say, “Yeah, if she had an abortion, the movie would be over in 11 minutes.” Just because that couple didn’t decide to have an abortion, doesn’t mean I don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose. A right to choose means sometimes you feel like it’s, it’s appropriate and sometimes you think it isn’t.
And because I like when couples try to find a way to make it work, people sometimes say, “Well, Judd’s all about family values.” Well, who isn’t for family values?” That doesn’t mean you have a panic attack and run out of the room when someone makes a dirty joke. That just means you want people to be nice to each other — at least the way I think about it.
For me, I don’t consider my work very political, but one might say, making a movie like “The Big Sick,” about someone who is an immigrant from Pakistan, and how he navigates our culture and his life is in itself a political act, but it wasn’t what we were thinking about when we started. We just thought: This is a great story, it talks about issues most people don’t usually talk about, it’s certainly the most underserved community in terms of filmmaking, you don’t see these people represented. And I was excited about that because I like to make films about things that you don’t see every day. I don’t want to be generic. I don’t want to make the seventeenth movie on the topic.
MH: It’s funny you mention “The Big Sick” there because the line, the funniest line that movie for me, as a Muslim watching it, as a Muslim immigrant in the United States, was the line, they exchange he has with Ray Romano with that, with the future father-in-law, who says, “What’s your view of 9/11?”
Kumail Nanjiani (as Kumail in “The Big Sick”): What’s my stance on 9/11? Anti! It was a tragedy. I mean, we lost 19 of our best guys.
Holly Hunter (as Beth): Huh?
KN: That was a joke. Obviously. 9/11 was a terrible tragedy.
JA: The reason why that’s a funny joke is because it has a character expressing their frustration that everywhere they go, people think they are a terrorist or they’re a terrorist sympathizer. So even though he says it in a funny way, and he gets nervous and apologizes, what he’s really saying is: Don’t be an idiot. You know, this is wrong for you to equate me with that type of ideology and philosophy. It’s a passive-aggressive joke that is saying, it hurts my feelings that you believe any of that.
MH: Yeah. And just before we finish, how worried are you about 2020, that Trump could win a second term, partly because the media is just not up to the challenge of holding them to account, partly because so many people are willing to buy into his lies and bigotry and bullshit.
JA: Right after he got elected, somebody said to me, “The thing to fear the most is that it is possible to make some changes and turbo-charge the economy so that we don’t have to pay the piper ’til after he’s re-elected.” So he can create the illusion that the economy is going great and there’s no problem, create massive deficits and it won’t mess up the economy until right after he’s re-elected.
So that is a concern of mine. But I think that he made a mistake. He’s been very disrespectful to the youth of America. He’s shown no concern for their safety: 18 to 24-year-olds only vote about 17 percent of the time, and if you could raise that number a bit, everything can change — in Congress, in Senate, locally, everywhere and I think he’s accidentally woken up kids to the fact that they have an enormous amount of power and that the current administration doesn’t care about them, and I think that they’re going to come out in massive numbers and it’s going to help slow down this train.
MH: Let’s hope you’re right. Judd Apatow, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
JA: It was great to be here. Thank you.
MH: That was Judd Apatow, and if you haven’t seen his HBO “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,” make sure you do. You can also take his online video course. Judd Apatow teaches comedy at masterclass.com
That’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept and is distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every Friday. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever.
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