Jimmy Kimmel, Policy-Wonk Wannabe

Kimmel at the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
Comedians are not public intellectuals

Is Jimmy Kimmel worth listening to beyond monologues or celebrity chats? He can make people laugh, sure, and coax conversation out of the most vapid stars. But on health care? “Health care is complicated, it’s boring. I don’t want to talk about it. The details are confusing,” the comedian allowed last night on Jimmy Kimmel Live! But not, apparently, confusing enough to lower Kimmel’s self-confidence. Graham-Cassidy would “kick about 30 million Americans off insurance” and is “actually worse than” the skinny repeal the Senate rejected in July, Kimmel said. He even added the humble parenthetical, “This is not my area of expertise.” Anyone who figured being a comedian and talk-show host was a natural fit with policy expertise has been duly warned.

Comedians have become public intellectuals in the popular imagination, so maybe some charity is in order. We should be open to the possibility that Kimmel has considered opinions on risk-adjustment programs, the Medicaid expansion, or per capita caps. After all, Kimmel has, in the words of CNN, become the “conscience of the health care fight.” It’s not hard to see why: Kimmel has a moving family story to tell, a huge audience, and an unmistakable gift for the big screen. His infant son Billy has a heart condition that required surgery soon after birth and, like any father, Kimmel takes his son’s well-being seriously.

But his genuinely scary experience represents the sum total of his health-care education, as far as one can tell. Months ago, Kimmel told Billy’s story before pivoting swiftly to Republicans’ attempts to reform the Affordable Care Act. The point was obvious: Republicans would not mind seeing Billy, or at least children like him with poorer parents, die. Kimmel deemed inhumane any provision that would weaken the Affordable Care Act’s regulations prohibiting insurers from charging higher premiums for those with pre-existing conditions, and Kimmel said that while he can obviously afford to pay his son’s bills, other parents might not be able to. Thus a comedian became the public face of perhaps the toughest issue facing legislators today.

Senator Bill Cassidy (R., La.), now the co-sponsor of the latest Republican pass at health-care reform, proceeded to coin the “Jimmy Kimmel test” for health policy: Does the bill allow children with congenital heart defects to receive the necessary care without bankrupting their parents? The question is situated in a much larger problem plaguing policymakers, which is how to preserve elements of a free health-insurance market while also ensuring that people with more unfortunate health problems — who don’t have the luxury of choosing what health benefits to buy — can receive the appropriate assistance from the government.

But Cassidy and Graham’s bill fails the Jimmy Kimmel test, at least according to its namesake. Kimmel labeled Cassidy, who appeared on Kimmel’s show months ago to applause, a liar. Perhaps it was a mistake for a senator to arrogate rhetorical supremacy to a comedian, but Cassidy, for his part, has since pushed back. “I am sorry he does not understand,” Cassidy said today on CNN. “There will be more people covered under the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson amendment than under the status quo,” he said later on MSNBC, explaining that his bill requires “coverage” of pre-existing conditions “to be ‘adequate and affordable.’”

What to do about the health-care system is a complicated question. Kimmel has elected to probe the empirical matter of whether this bill does quite enough to erect a safety net for people with pre-existing conditions. There are legitimate critiques of Graham-Cassidy on those grounds, but at the same time, rhetoric about those with pre-existing conditions, or about the costs of reforming our current health-care system, tends toward exaggeration. And with the leeway Graham-Cassidy’s New Federalist framework would afford them, states might be able to find more efficacious ways to protect those people. The collective decision to elevate Kimmel to status as a leading bioethicist and policy wonk reduces a tricky debate to a single talking point. It forecloses the path this bill could open up for states to implement a more competitive insurance marketplace that could make things better for all Americans. And it’s worth pointing out, as Cassidy did, that the requirement Graham-Cassidy imposes on states to waive the relevant Obamacare regulation is not a mere formality.

Of course, you won’t hear this on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Otherwise fans might check their phones instead of clapping or booing on cue.

Policy expertise is hard-won and not likely to dawn suddenly during crises. It’s also not something that resides in people who make jokes for a living.

It’s not objectionable for comedians to joke about politics. The political world is tense; comedy provides release. Politics is filled with figures who are eminently laughable, and joking about them is a tradition of the form. Late-night hosts’ lampooning of Clinton, Bush, or Trump follows Aristophanes’ lampooning of Athenian pols, and some of the best modern comedians have been the most unapologetic ones. So Kimmel should keep on making Americans laugh, and if he includes moving personal stories about his beloved son and advocates based upon what parenting a sick child has taught him, that’s no crime.

But policy expertise is hard-won and not likely to dawn suddenly during crises. It’s also not something that resides in people who make jokes for a living. Just as Kimmel is entitled to share his opinion, his audience is entitled to seek more-informed ones.

George Carlin was outraged, Dick Gregory was righteous, and Dave Chappelle is incisive. But even at their rawest, each was understood in the popular imagination to be a comedian. Does Kimmel want a career change? Or does Hollywood simply want to feel better about its propensity to wax earnest about complicated public-policy questions? Regarding anything in the era of Trump, it’s apparently time for comedians to get serious. They volunteer to do their part, not their bit — replacing good jokes with good points, laughs with nods.

Such sanctimony degrades comedy. Who really laughs at The Daily Show, Full Frontal, or Last Week Tonight? But more importantly, swapping two unrelated discursive forms corrodes public discourse. Policy isn’t funny, and comedy isn’t policy. Kimmel’s love for his son is understandable. But his epistemic humility ended after the accurate admission that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to health care. It’s irresponsible to pontificate on subjects one knows little about, but that didn’t stop him from calling Cassidy a liar.

Once we substitute even sincere feelings for policy expertise, the results are unlikely to please anyone. Jimmy Kimmel can be funny, and he loves his son. Fine. But Jimmy Kimmel knows policy? To paraphrase another comedian, comedians are not public intellectuals.


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