Stephen Colbert walked onto the stage of The Late Show Wednesday night on an ironic note of triumph. “Am I still the host?” he jokingly asked the bandleader Jon Batiste. “I’m still the host!” he affirmed, raising his arms in triumph. For not the first time in his late-night career, Colbert had been the target of an online campaign to fire him on the basis of a joke many deemed offensive. #FireColbert, the hashtag of choice this time around, was largely a storm in a Twitter teacup. But it was a big enough one to merit on-air attention.
“Now, folks, if you saw my monologue on Monday, you know that I was a little upset at Donald Trump for insulting a friend of mine,” the host said. “So, at the end of that monologue, I had a few choice insults for the president in return. I don’t regret that. I believe he can take care of himself. I have jokes; he has the launch codes. So, it’s a fair fight.” It was a pithy response and a largely apt one. Colbert is a topical comedian—part of his job is to snipe at the president, like many hosts before him have at many leaders before Donald Trump.
The controversy had erupted largely over the manner of Colbert’s tongue-lashing. On Monday night, in response to President Trump walking out of an interview with the CBS anchor John Dickerson (a friend of the Late Show host), Colbert read a laundry list of insults on-air to rapturous cheers from the crowd. “When you insult one member of the CBS family, you insult us all,” he said, reeling off a series of scripted jokes and ending on, “In fact, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.”
Colbert’s apology, such as it was, was mainly about that final line. “I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be,” he said. “I just want to say, for the record, life is short. And anyone who expresses their love for another person in their own way is, to me, an American hero.” He quickly segued into his regular monologue, but did return to the hot-button joke later in the show when interviewing the Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons. Parsons laughingly dismissed one of the main criticisms of the joke. “As a gay man ... it was titillating, not homophobic,” he quipped.
The controversy seemed to briefly knit together two disparate elements of the internet—online right-wing activists gunning for Colbert (a prominent Trump critic) off the air by any means necessary, and a broader swath of Twitter users tired at the joke construction Colbert leaned on for his insult. #FireColbert never had any real traction, and mostly seemed designed to get a reaction from the host (it succeeded, in a limited sense). But the attention it drew to the Putin line might have been inadvertently positive.
The joke, of course, is taking square aim at the idea that Trump has close, unspoken personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the intended punchline basically rests on the idea that two men might deign to have sex with one another. It’s a premise that has, for centuries, driven a certain kind of ribaldry. But Colbert should be smart enough to know how ridiculously passé it is to use “gay panic” jokes to try and get a rise from audiences. (His joke could be perceived as an example of liberal comics mocking not just the president but also the sensibilities of his supporters, an approach that Caitlin Flanagan recently explored for The Atlantic.) It mainly seems that Colbert, or his writers, were trying to score a big laugh by resorting to the crudest language permitted on network TV—with one choice word bleeped out. It got the reaction they wanted, but it was still a cheap one.
Colbert’s last major controversy (the hashtag that time was #CancelColbert) was over an offensive tweet made from The Colbert Report’s social account in 2014. That tweet, intending to ironically mock the Washington Redskins football team, was a stupid misfire that looked racist out of context, and deeply hacky even when a larger explanation was provided. But it wasn’t part of Colbert’s monologue (which he has total oversight of) and the resulting social media fracas quickly became the real story, as (again) right-wing activists seized on a legitimate complaint to try and point out a “liberal double standard.”
This current controversy is far less complex. Colbert, of course, has every right to make fun of the president—it’s a time-honored tradition of late-night, and his audience can mostly decide whether or not he’s pushing the boundaries of taste or fairness. Still, that doesn’t make it unworthy to draw attention to the silly, outdated construction of a joke like the Putin line. Colbert can respond to said criticism as he pleases, but he may well think twice the next time he or his staff are writing another joke like that one.