By Mary Kouw/CBS/Getty Images.
Update (May 8, 1:30 P.M.): The Writers Guild of America has come out in defense of Colbert, as the guild’s East and West coast bosses—Michael Winship and Howard Rodman—offered the following statement:
“As presidents of the Writers Guilds of America, East and West, we were appalled to read recent remarks by Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai. He said the F.C.C. would investigate a joke about Donald Trump by Writers Guild member Stephen Colbert, ‘apply the law’ and ‘take appropriate action’ if the joke were found to be ‘obscene.’
“Pai’s remarks are just the latest in a series of statements by the current administration indicating a willful disregard of the First Amendment. Colbert was poking fun at authority, a time-honored American tradition and an essential principle of democracy. What is obscene is not what Colbert said but any attempt by the government to stifle dissent and creativity. Our unions vehemently support Colbert and his writers and will fight for his or any individual’s right to publicly express his or her opinion of our elected officials.”
Update (May 8, 11:15 A.M.): A source told Vanity Fair that the F.C.C. will not launch an investigation of Colbert’s Trump joke, but rather that the the Commission will review the viewer complaints it has received, per its standard operating procedure.
The original post continues below.
On Monday night, Stephen Colbert went on a particularly furious rant against—who else?—Donald Trump. But one joke in particular got people talking—and made some of them furious: “You talk like a sign-language gorilla who got hit in the head . . . In fact, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s [censored] holster.” The bleeped word in that sentence was “cock.”
The joke set off a firestorm on social media, championed largely by The Drudge Report, Breitbart News, and InfoWars. On Thursday, Federal Communications Commission head Ajit Pai—a Republican—appeared on Fox News, where he said that if the F.C.C. received complaints, it would investigate Colbert. And sure enough, on Friday, Pai—who succeeded Tom Wheeler as chairman in 2012—reportedly confirmed that an investigation will soon be underway.
As Pai told Rich Zeoli on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT, “I have had a chance to see the clip now and so, as we get complaints, and we’ve gotten a number of them, we are going to take the facts that we find and we are going to apply the law as it’s been set out by the Supreme Court and other courts and we’ll take the appropriate action.” According to CBS’s local Philadelphia affiliate, Pai “promised a comprehensive investigation to determine if any penalty is warranted.” (The F.C.C. has not yet responded to a request to confirm that an investigation is underway.)
Such a move seems odd, to say the least. CBS censored the curse word with a bleep, as it always does when Colbert playfully trolls its Standards and Practices Department. Though some right-wing critics have complained that the joke was homophobic, any outrage along those lines seems a little hypocritical—and ironic, considering L.G.B.T. people are not the ones taking ire against Colbert for the joke. And then there’s the point that culture writer Mark Harris made on Twitter: Colbert was playing a role when he delivered his rant, which should protect the comedian on some level from any charges that he personally is homophobic.
What, then, is the real impetus behind the #FireColbert movement? Perhaps the truth lies in the fact that one of the first Twitter users to use that hashtag was responding to a tweet saying, “It’s about damn time the right started claiming pelts.”
The whole furor has the ring of a drummed-up faux outrage campaign along the same lines of the one that the alt-right launched against New York Times writer Sopan Deb in March. Let’s not forget that one of #FireColbert’s main media backers, InfoWars, is the online home of Alex Jones, who has been publicly fuming about Colbert’s new character, Tuck Buckford—a parody of Jones himself, in the vein of Colbert’s Bill O’Reilly-inspired Comedy Central persona. It also seems no accident that Pai appeared on a right-wing news network Thursday, indicating that he would “take a look at the facts that are alleged and apply the law” only if the agency got complaints—and, the next day, allegedly decided to launch the investigation.
Realistically, it seems unlikely that anything could really come of such an investigation. The F.C.C.’s safe harbor rules—as outlined on the F.C.C.’s own website—dictate that “obscene” material should only be policed between the hours of 6 A.M. and 10 P.M;. Colbert airs at 11:30 P.M.
In fact, this whole hubbub could actually end up working in Colbert’s favor. Despite complaints about the joke, on Thursday night, Colbert still enjoyed his best ratings since the premiere of his Late Show. An investigation by the F.C.C. could end up being great P.R. for Colbert; as Vulture editor Jesse David Fox notes, it may even cast him as a modern-day version of Lenny Bruce, who became a poster boy for free speech after being arrested multiple times on obscenity charges.
A CBS representative has not yet responded to a request for comment.