On a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the host wheeled out a chalkboard, announcing that he had figured out the origin of Donald Trump’s scandals. It quickly became clear that Colbert was drawing a penis. Once the drawing was complete, however, the realities of network censorship squandered the punchline.
On Colbert’s Comedy Central show, which aired from 11:30 p.m. to midnight, the image likely could have remained uninhibited. But on CBS, America’s most-watched and oldest-skewing broadcast network, FCC regulations require blurring even cartoonish approximations of genitalia.
The moment was a reminder of Colbert’s constraints. Since last fall, it’s been clear at times that he wants to do more than his platform allows. On Election Night, he might be able to with a live special on the subscription-based Showtime, where he’ll have free rein to deliver "all the political comedy you love from my CBS show with all the swearing and nudity you love from Showtime," as he only semi-quipped in a press release a few weeks ago.
Throughout Colbert’s CBS tenure, he’s lampooned restrictions on his speech and visuals. Those comments have felt telling as his show struggles to stay relevant in a TV landscape with numerous alternatives. Censorship of several varieties is partially to blame for his recent stumbles.
One of the most notable bits from the early part of Colbert’s Late Show run came from his seemingly genuine bewilderment at censorship requirements. While responding to a news story about a sexually graphic painting, Colbert blasted his network’s self-imposed limitations. This segment pulled off the uniquely Colbert-esque trick of sending up his employers while gifting them a qualitative victory.
Eight months later, a similar issue pushed Colbert to further frustration. CBS blurred an artist’s rendering of two frogs fornicating that appeared during a desk segment. A week later, Colbert devoted another segment to the outcome of the previous one.
"I’m not attacking CBS’ standards and practices department," he said. "They’re just good people doing their jobs… is what it says in the prompter for me to read here." Then he showed a purportedly real email from CBS’ head lawyer, who declared, "Animals don’t f*** on CBS."
Colbert’s interactions with that lawyer likely didn’t improve from there. During the first of his live broadcasts following the Democratic National Convention, the Comedy Central character returned for an explosive monologue. The next night, he solemnly announced that lawyers from Comedy Central’s parent company Viacom had reminded their counterparts at CBS that the Colbert character is Viacom’s property, not that of its performer. "I cannot reasonably argue I own my face or name," Colbert said before introducing the character’s "twin cousin," who hasn’t appeared on the show since.
On this past Monday’s show, Colbert offered a profane rejoinder to FBI Director James Comey’s letter advising Congress of additional emails related to the previously closed Hillary Clinton investigation. But CBS blurred that too, and Colbert knew it would.
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These conflicts with forces beyond his control reflect the conundrum that Colbert has, seemingly unwittingly, brought upon himself. Colbert himself denies that censorship has frustrated him—he told NPR’s Terry Gross today that he "loves" the limitations because they inspire more jokes. But it’s become increasingly clear that the qualities that made Colbert an Emmy-winning comedic force are contrary to the network late-night model—and profanity is only one of them.
Samantha Bee on TBS and John Oliver on HBO only have to host one thirty-minute show per week, giving them freedom to tackle the news cycle from a fresh, well-researched angle. Oliver and his HBO colleague Bill Maher have no commercials to interrupt the flow of their rhetoric. On Colbert’s old network, The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah has been burdened by the expectations set by his predecessor Jon Stewart, but even he has exercised his freedom to innovate, like devoting most of his Halloween episode to a of the show under a theoretical Trump regime. All of these hosts have taken advantage of permitted profanities: Oliver drops F-bombs with regularity, and on her most recent show, Bee called someone a "twat" on national television! At 10:45 p.m.!
FCC rules prevent Colbert from going that far. But being on a network doesn’t mean total compromise for everyone. Seth Meyers—admittedly, airing nightly at 12:35 a.m. with fewer eyeballs and lower expectations than at 11:35 p.m.—has stood out this season with his increasing reliance on topical, politically charged monologues.
And Colbert’s predecessor David Letterman is famous for his inversions of the late-night format during the even more staid 1980s—rotating the screen image 360 degrees over the course of one famous show; ribbing guests he disagreed with when they lied or expressed controversial views; successfully and even gracefully navigating the PR nightmare that could have resulted from a bizarre sex scandal. It’s hard to imagine Colbert, on CBS at least, sitting the audience down for an honest ten-minute confession, or expounding with complete candor his thoughts on politics, or saying much of anything that could provoke controversy or intelligent debate. Notably, it’s a clip from Letterman’s Late Show, not Colbert’s, that the Hillary Clinton campaign deemed worthy of an advertisement blasting Donald Trump’s reliance on foreign labor.
For all Letterman’s subversive tendencies, though, he also skillfully adhered to the late-night tropes mass audiences expect: interviews with celebrities promoting their new product; corporate synergy tie-ins for CBS sitcoms and football games; musical guests the avuncular host likely had never heard of. He didn’t always seem to be enjoying those responsibilities, but he found ways to incorporate them into his persona: perpetually bemused, skeptical of authority.
Colbert, by contrast, seems restless. His idea of a high-quality talk show appears at odds with the broader, gentler version his corporate supervisors demand. He told the New York Times before the The Late Show premiered that he was eager to maintain unilateral leadership of his new show, but in April, CBS hired Chris Licht to replace Colbert as showrunner because Colbert was overworked and underperforming. Meanwhile, some of the show’s biggest "viral" moments—which networks crave now that most late-night viewership comes from streaming—have been showcases for other talents, including Laura Benanti as Melania Trump and the welcome return of Jon Stewart.
None of this is to suggest that Colbert’s show feels wholly compromised. The host still exhibits flashes of improvisatory panache and intellectual rigor—an incendiary screed against the false narratives surrounding "birtherism" was a recent highlight.
But at other times, the host seems worn down by his limitations. Colbert’s recent interview with Bill O’Reilly, one of the inspirations for his pundit persona, lacked the fireworks expected from such a clash of perspectives. Two nights later, he spent nearly a fifth of his chat with frequent guest Abbi Jacobson sketching silently.
It hasn’t always been this way. Much of what Colbert accomplished during the decade of The Colbert Report was to poke at an ethos of obfuscation that clearly rankled him. Among other gambits, he launched his own SuperPAC, testified in front of Congress and hosted a "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the National Mall, all in service of the idea that what media personalities and government officials say is often far less instructive than what they won’t admit.
Yet now, something isn’t clicking. The Showtime event might be a return to the qualities that gave Colbert his prior acclaim. But even if it does, the obvious question remains: why isn’t Colbert working at a place where he can express every part of himself, all the time? It’s too early for CBS to pull the plug on this intriguing experiment, but it’s also time to consider whether Colbert’s current environment will allow him to pull out of this rocky period. Fans of Colbert’s essence will find it on the margins of The Late Show, or elsewhere altogether, but only intermittently on CBS.
At best, being on Showtime will only remind Colbert’s admirers of what could have been, or further highlight the limitations with which he’s currently struggling. Only a radical reinvention of The Late Show, sacrificing older viewers and seeding the ground for the show’s next chapter, could help. That’s unlikely to happen, given the entrenched network approach. If one of the nation’s most beloved satirists can’t even draw a penis with chalk on his show, networks may be permanently ceding the tradition of speaking truth to power on late-night television to cable, subscription services and the Internet.
For now, as with that cursory illustration, the censors have won.
Mark Lieberman is a local news reporter in D.C. who writes about arts and culture in his spare time. His writing has been published in Paste, the Washington Post, USA Today, DCist, The Week, IndieWire and Slant.