On Tuesday's The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (weeknights, CBS, Global, 11:35 p.m.) there's a planned Daily Show reunion, as Colbert is joined by Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Ed Helms and Rob Corddry.
It might be scintillating. It might also amount to what much of the alumni of The Daily Show have done – passionate but entirely predictable anti-Trump blather that is instantly forgettable.
Mind you, never has there been a greater need for an outbreak of blistering political humour. After 100 days of the Trump era, the humour has become pained and, more important, there is a slow-burning campaign to diminish that humour. Right now, Stephen Colbert has a target on his back.
Yes, sometimes it seems that the whole world is in the hands of Mr. and Mrs. Outraged and their many, many children and cousins, a clan known as The Insulted.
We're not talking here about the phenomenon known as political correctness. We're talking about people who are prone to getting their underwear in a fierce twist and attempting to solve the issue by using their writing or typing arms to take pen to paper or fire off e-mails of complaint about what somebody said or did.
Presumably the act of using their arms in this way somehow relieves the discomfort of the underwear being in a twist. This is something that David Suzuki should look into, to see if it's a science-based fact. I'm queasily visualizing dramatic re-enactments as I write this.
What is certainly a fact is that Colbert has a target on his back. Somebody complained to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission about a wisecrack he made about President Donald Trump. To the surprise of many, the complaint is being investigated. Simultaneously, over in Ireland, actor and writer Stephen Fry was being investigated for "blasphemy," after he said something about God on TV there (the complaint was dropped after it emerged the number of the Outraged involved amounted to one. Just one). We'll get to Fry on another day.
The gist of the Colbert situation is easily summarized. Last week, on his CBS show, Colbert joked during his opening monologue that "the only thing [Trump's] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin's c– holster." When the actual rude word was used, it was bleeped out and, just to ensure that the lip-readers would not get their underwear twisted, Colbert's mouth was blurred.
Still, a number of people complained to the FCC. They called Colbert's joke homophobic. On Twitter, the hashtag #FireColbert sprouted. There were some calls for people to boycott advertisers on Colbert's late-night show. None of this is unusual. The Outraged family is everywhere. But these are highly charged times.
Colbert is a target because he has, for years, made a career of mocking the right wing in the United States. And, after Fox News was hit, successfully, with a boycott of advertisers following the alleged Bill O'Reilly sexual-harassment matters, the notion of payback is in the air.
Colbert addressed the issue soon after.
He admitted to a poor choice of words, but that's all: "So while I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be."
Now, people complain to the FCC all the time. Usually an "investigation" means somebody looks into the matter and does nothing. They do little or nothing because it is both difficult to penalize broadcasters for what comes under freedom-of-speech principles and because network TV is usually darn careful about what is aired in prime time. Colbert's show airs at 11:35 p.m., and allegations of "indecent and obscene material" on the late-night airwaves are normally shrugged off. What happens after 10 p.m. comes under much more lax regulations.
Thus, it was stunning to many when FCC chairman Ajit Pai said that his agency will be looking into complaints made against Colbert.
Pai (appointed to the FCC in 2012 by Barack Obama, made chairman by Trump) said in a radio interview, "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."
It is highly unusual for the head of the FCC to comment directly or publicly about an individual case. It is even more unusual for anyone from the FCC to talk, predecision, about the power to "apply the law."
That's the toxic twist in all of this.
There is now a widespread perception that, emboldened by Trump's attacks on the media, everybody from Mr. and Mrs. Outraged to the chair of the FCC is going to be heavy-handed, especially in the matter of reacting to rude anti-Trump jokes. There's a feeling that a chill is descending. Certainly the Writers Guild of America is disturbed about the new climate that might be defined by the FCC's noisy reaction to the complaint about Colbert. The joint heads of the WGA described Pai's plans to review the Colbert joke about Trump as evidence of the Trump administration's "willful disregard of the First Amendment."
What is illustrated by all of this is clear – the politically motivated Outraged family is newly energized and ready for action.