First things First, this is above all a Media Alert.
Tonight (Tuesday), the scheduled guests on Stephen Colbert's show are Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee and John Oliver, as well as Ed Helm and Rob Cordry. As the the expression goes, set your DVR. If you've got one of those coal-driven models, start cranking it up now to get it all warmed up.
That's CBS at 11:35 PM on the West Coast and in the East. 10:35 PM in the Midwest. And for all I know there are still some places where they don't try to eke out that extra five minutes of commercial time from their newscasts.
It's especially good timing -- and does seem a matter of kismet, since bookings are made many weeks, if not months in advance. And given how the Colbert fellow has been in the news the past few days, the schedule couldn't have worked out better. I'm guessing that ratings will do quite nicely.
As you may have read, it was announced over the weekend that the FCC will be "investigating" Colbert for an off-color joke he make about Trump and how his mouth serves another function for a part of Vladimir Putin's anatomy. Just to let you know, this couldn't not be further from the truth. But don't take my word for it, Mark Evanier wrote about that here, when he wrote about how the FCC does not "investigate, but rather just reviews a matter when they get complaints -- and they get complaints all the time. But don't take Mark's word for it. After all, just yesterday, the FCC itself corrected remarks made by its chairman when a spokesman told CNNMoney, "We review all consumer complaints as a matter of standard practice and rely on the law to determine whether action is warranted. The fact that a complaint is reviewed doesn’t speak one way or another as to whether it has any merit.” And another spokesman said the same thing to Vanity Fair.
There are a few things about the outrage over the joke that strike me as loopy.
For starters, the FCC has very different broadcast standard during the day and during Prime Time than it does afterwards during late night, when it's presume most children are long-since in bed.
Also, if you've seen video of the joke, it got bleeped by CBS. Which means that absolutely nothing went out over the air to the ears of Americans. People can guess what was said, or presume it, and they're probably right. But maybe not. Maybe he said that Trump's mouth serves as a "cop's holster" for Vladimir Putin. I serious doubt it, and I wouldn't take any bets, but the point is that it got censored by the network and nothing got heard.
In addition, what the continued outrage and protests to the FCC has done is keep the joke in the news long after its Use By date. Gotten it shown repeatedly and discussed relentlessly, bring more and more attention to what was (presumably) said.
Moreover, it's more more attention to Colbert's show which has been getting its best ratings ever. All of which, as fate would have it, brings the show to a peak tonight with its guests. I wonder if anyone will bring up off-handed mention of the joke...?
Now, stepping back, I think it's safe to say that the joke was crude. It was well-written and pretty funny, but it was definitely off-color. Even at that, though, it could easily be said by a comic in a nightclub, and the FCC and most people wouldn't blink an eye, and you probably wouldn't ever of it. So, it's not a matter of the joke not being allowed to be said, but just whether it should have been said on television, even having gotten bleeped. Given the very late hour, the answer may well be "Yes, sure, not a problem." Or not, we'll find out. But -- the worst that will happen if it does get reviewed by the FCC and determined to have been against broadcast standards, even having gotten bleeped is...CBS will get fined and pay whatever the amount is, which likely won't be much, considering that it's coming from CBS's pockets, and considering that they'll be thrilled by all the free publicity their top-rated late night show is getting that's driving ratings even higher.
So, that's the result of all the continued outrage over the bleeped joke on late night TV.
By the way, I do understand why some people were bothered by the joke, wherever it was said, bleeped or otherwise. It was, as I noted, crude. It's not a joke I'd make, though I found it well-crafted, pointed and funny. And I have no problem with people complaining about something they understandably don't like. That said, I suspect most of those complaints were more political rather than semantic, given that the joke was said late at night, long after Prime Time and got bleeped. But beyond that, I also reiterate what I said above, that for all the outrage and complaints to the FCC, they've been counter-productive and only served to keep the joke in the public ear.
I was very glad to see my guild, the WGA, speak out with a very strong defense and support of Stephen Colbert, who is a Guild member, saying the real outrage is not the joke, but that "What is obscene is not what Colbert said but any attempt by the government to stifle dissent and creativity.”
That said, I have the sense that the Guild's response was directed (rightly) by the erroneous reports that a government agency would be "investigating" Colbert, something that is chilling. If the first comments by the FCC commissioner Ajit Pai had accurate and said merely that the FCC review all complaints, it's probable that the Writers Guilds' response would have been muted, if not non-existent. But when the FCC commissioner himself says his government agency will be "investigating" someone for joke, that does require a blunt response.
I also appreciate the notice that many have made of the irony of people on the far-right up in arms at Ann Coulter not being allowed to speak on a college campus, having her First Amendment rights abridged, but themselves outraged at Colbert's joke and calling for government involvement. Never mind that Ms. Coulter was invited back to the campus, has countless opportunities to speak and the First Amendment only pertains to government making laws against speech, not private colleges -- and that the FCC actually is a government agency, making their involvement far closer to a real First Amendment violation. Though for all that, I must say that I don't think the situations are the same, as much as some are trying to make them. Forgetting that neither outrage may be appropriate, broadcasting does have a long history of FCC review oversight of standards since TV and radio operate on government licenses. So, the comparisons don't really overlap. But stepping back, and laws and standards and amendments aside, the imbalance of outrage from the far-right on two similar issues is, if not fully ironic, then delicious...
If you want to hear more about this, then you should probably tune in to CBS tonight, when Stephen Colbert's guests will be Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Ed Helm and Rob Cordry. I'm guessing someone will bring it up.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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