For CBS, the Stephen Colbert scandale was far south of Dan Rather’s use of forged documents in 2004 and just a tad north of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” that same year.
After President Trump referred to Face the Nation as “Deface the Nation,” Colbert took it upon himself to defend the news show’s host, John Dickerson. “Donald Trump,” declared the night show emcee, “John Dickerson has way too much dignity to trade insults with a president of the United States to his face. I, sir, am no John Dickerson.”
Colbert then delivered his tirade: “You’re not the POTUS,” he declared. “You’re the BLOTUS. You’re the glutton with the button. You’re a regular Gorge Washington. You’re the ‘presi-dunce’ but you’re turning into a real ‘prick-tator.’”
He took a breath and resumed. “Sir, you attract more skinheads than free Rogaine. You have more people marching against you than cancer. You talk like a sign-language gorilla that got hit in the head.” And then came the killer line: “In fact, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.”
The audience responded with the expected uproar of laughter and applause. Colbert, who has always known which side of the butter his bread was on, has recently made a good living by attacking Trump. According to Nielsen, his ratings have risen by the week.
But the next morning, the unexpected torrent of vulgarity was attacked not only by conservatives but also by LGBT spokespersons, demanding that CBS get rid of Colbert as it had Rather. James Michael Nichols, an editor for the Huffington Post’s Queer Voices section, spoke for many of his colleagues: “Colbert’s decision to make this kind of joke illustrates a kind of casual homophobia that permeates American culture―even among supposed liberal allies with massive media platforms.”
Colbert fans wondered what would happen the following night. Would their icon be contrite? Or would he double down on his assertions? As things turned out, Colbert refused to apologize, but he also failed to double down. Instead, he singled down. “I’m not going to repeat the phrase,” he announced, and then proceeded vigorously to defend homosexuality, as if the Supreme Court and the entirety of mass media culture hadn’t done so before then. “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. I think we can all agree on that. I hope even the president and I can agree on that.”
Lost in all this was Colbert’s other persona. The 54-year-old actor/comedian has long let it be known that despite his progressive pronouncements, he is a very-married New Jersey suburbanite, practicing Roman Catholic, and protective father of three. Indeed, when he played a harrumphing right-winger on the Colbert Report, he saw to it that his children weren’t watching. “Kids can’t understand irony or sarcasm,” he explained, “and I don’t want them to perceive me as insincere.”
But surely Colbert, who is effortlessly contemporary, knows that video broadcasts can easily be streamed and accessed by almost anyone at any time, and that even small children know exactly what buttons to push to watch those shows. Which raises an interesting question: If Colbert, a highly skilled performer, was playacting as a conservative, is he now camping up his role as the ur-liberal of the “Resistance” —enraged, semi-coherent, foul-mouthed, egging on street agitators and violent campus activists? Or does he really mean what he spews? If so, how sincere can he be about his “ordinary” home life? Does he not, in fact, truly care about minors and what they watch, as long as he sustains his popularity? Between the poses falls a shadow. Or maybe it’s just a station break.
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