Debra L. Lee can take a joke. And the BET Networks CEO can deliver one, too.
You may or may not agree with The Insider that it’s just funny—and not in a ha-ha way—that of the 25 recipients of the Frank Stanton Award from the Center for Communication, she is only the second woman to have had a chance to prove that they’re up to the roasting that goes with the honor. The first woman was Katherine Graham, the steel magnolia who ran the Washington Post Co., and that was waaaaaaaay back in 1987.
Dudes!!! It’s 200-effing-8.
But that’s a rant for another time, perhaps one best written for posthumous publication.
The subject today is how uproariously, surgically, knowingly and, yes, elegantly, a two-fer gender barrier was breached last week.
The unspoken question of whether it could be done in the style that has come to be expected when the august Center members gather annually to let down what’s left of their hair—to make a roasty joke not written by well-compensated professional comedy scribes—was first broached by Abbe Raven. Ms. Raven told how she and Ms. Lee became friends because of a story Ms. Lee had told on herself about meeting her big boss with evidence of her new motherhood on the front of her blouse.
The president and CEO of A&E Television Networks kicked off the program by saying, “I have been asked to say this: It is a roast.”
In other words, no one was going to tiptoe around anything so delicately that the crowd who braved the nasty weather and bought pricy tables would not be entertained.
Enter Viacom President-CEO Philippe Dauman, who immediately made all delicate territory fair game by “confessing” that when he’d been asked to talk about a trailblazing woman of color, he thought: “Wow, I finally get to meet Oprah.”
Mr. Dauman’s comedy centerpiece was a mock annual review of Ms. Lee, also a Viacom executive, that included her alleged proposal for a guest spot on “Hell Date” for soon-to-be-single-again, but already-involved-if-we-are-to-believe-gossip-pages Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone as a guest; and a reality show about the capture of Osama bin-Laden (“Tick Frickin’ Tock”).
MTV Networks Chairman-CEO Judy McGrath deployed a snarky “Dora the Explorer” clip and got in a couple of jabs at GOP veep candidate Sarah Palin, including pointing out that spending $150,000 on clothes is “just a summer Friday” for Ms. Lee.
Time Warner Chairman Dick Parsons drew a Barack/Barry Obama parallel as he recalled when Phil-eep Doe-mann was known as Phil Dowman, and then declared Mr. Redstone so old “he thinks Morse code is new media.”
“This is called collateral damage, bro,” he said to the ranking Viacom representative in the ballroom of the Pierre.
Mr. Parsons also mused about the possible BET-ization of some stars of Time Warner’s sprawling library. Instead of Campbell Brown’s “No Bull, No Bias,” why not Foxy Brown’s “No Justice, No Peace”? Instead of Yosemite Sam, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, why not Yo’ Sam, Notorious B.U.G. and P-Daffy?
Ms. Lee, dressed in soft coral Dior from her top to her toes, mimicked Ms. McGrath not quite rockin’ out at a Chicago concert, suggested to Mr. Dauman that his annual review was “gonna be rougher,” and described Mr. Parsons as “the man who put the ‘brother’ in Warner Bros.”
She noted that she was being honored a week before the election, “I hope,” of the first black president and the end of white male presidents, “because you know what they say….” The audience roared as it filled in the blank: “Once you go black, you never go back.”
“I, for one, can’t wait to see Bill O’Reilly wearing platinum grills,” she said. “Mark my words, next season the characters on ‘Mad Men’ will be switching to menthol.”
The mockumentary, “DefiniteLee,” about her real and so-called life, created “the even Blacker Panthers,” “Womandingo” and an appropriately placed tattoo reading “George Wallace can kiss me here.”
The glass-ceilinged world as so many folk have known and perpetuated it didn’t end, but the ever more considerable cracks in it widened.
Ms. Lee took that opportunity to say, “We need new and different faces with different points of view.”
And there was one less elephant in the room.