Stephen Colbert will not be fined for his vulgar on-air joke about President Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Though the most vulgar part of the joke was bleeped when it aired, it caused an uproar on Twitter, where #FireColbert began trending, and led to thousands of complaints to the Federal Communications Commission.
In response, the agency said Tuesday it briefly reviewed the episode for indecent or obscene material and found no reason for a punishment, not that the issue was really in doubt. The show airs during late-night hours that are exempt from FCC rules on profanity and indecency.
Colbert kept his job.
“I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be,” Colbert said on May 3, reflecting on the line that some saw as homophobic. “I’m not going to repeat the phrase. But I just want to say, for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love 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. Nothing else. But that.”
Colbert specifically said, with reference to Trump, that “The only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s c— holster.”
It is now worth noting that Lenny Bruce was arrested for using a similar, more common variation on the same word in 1961.
Indeed, the battle between governments and comedians is long and storied, leading to hefty fines, high-profile arrests and a famous Supreme Court case. It seems as if the comedians are finally winning.
Perhaps the most hardened of comedy’s criminals was Bruce. The stand-up comic frequently pushed boundaries with both the content and subject matter of his sets, and booked his first arrest on Oct. 4, 1961.
At San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop — not terribly far from where Ken Kesey and his acid-loving band of Merry Pranksters were waging their own battle against mainstream culture — Bruce used the word similar to the one Colbert employed. Then he launched into his closer, what he called his “big drum solo”: A long riff on the phrase “to come,” which began, “‘To’ is a preposition. ‘Come’ is a verb, the verb intransitive.”
For this, as noted in Brian Winston’s “A Right to Offend,” he was arrested on an obscenity charge. Though he beat the rap, “he was to be increasingly hounded by the police.” (Bruce’s habit of sending angry telegrams to judges presiding over his many cases likely didn’t help.)
Plainclothes police officers began appearing in his audiences, hoping not for a laugh but for probable cause.
They often found it in lines such as “Take away the right to say f—, and you take away the right to say f— the government.” Or in his riff on how a man would entertain himself if left on a desert island without a woman. Or his infamous bit in which he gleefully shouts every racial slur known to humankind, closing with, “It’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.”
Bruce’s legal troubles mounted. He was arrested on Oct. 24, 1962, and charged with two counts of obscenity in Los Angeles. Two months later, a criminal complaint was filed against him for violating the Illinois obscenity law at an earlier show. The next year, he was barred from entering England, attempted to sneak in to perform anyway, and was deported back to the United States. He was arrested yet again for obscenity in Los Angeles on May 23, 1963.
Finally, in 1964, he was arrested twice in a week for obscenity during a stint at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. He was convicted and appealed the decision but overdosed on morphine before the appeal moved forward. He appeared to have been typing something as he died. Sitting in his typewriter was a page reading, “Conspiracy to interfere with the 4th Amendment const—,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
For all this, Bruce became a hero to artists like Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor and Margaret Cho. He even inspired a Bob Dylan tune titled, appropriately enough, “Lenny Bruce.” The song closed with:
They said that he was sick ’cause he didn’t play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools
They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had
One of the most important entertainers Bruce inspired, though, was George Carlin, the comedian whose own coarse language sparked an obscenity case that reached the Supreme Court.
“Lenny Bruce opened the doors for all the guys like me; he prefigured the free-speech movement and helped push the culture forward into the light of open and honest expression,” Carlin once said, according to Paul Krassner.
A young Carlin was in the audience during one of Bruce’s 1962 obscenity arrests. When police asked for his I.D., he refused it, resulting in his own arrest.
Ten years later, now a known comedian, Carlin was again arrested, this time for performing his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” monologue at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. (Curious readers are free to Google the words, which are also not allowed in family newspaper. Anyone seeking a melodic version should give the Blink 182 song “Family Reunion” a spin. See also the Supreme Court’s ruling in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. )
Though that case was eventually thrown out, the bit caused a stir a year later when a recorded version played on a Pacifica Radio New York City affiliate station WBAI at 2 p.m.
It so incensed John Douglas, a man who was driving with his 15-year-old son during the broadcast, that he wrote a letter to the FCC demanding an investigation.
“I certainly cannot understand the broadcast of same over the air that, supposedly, you control,” his letter stated. “Any child could have been turning the dial, and tuned in to that garbage.”
In response, the FCC attempted to censure Pacifica’s future broadcasts (to the company’s dismay) in a case that was eventually heard by the Supreme Court. The court upheld the FCC action, stating the FCC has the “power to regulate the broadcast of recorded material that is indecent but not obscene.”
The agency retains that power today, and comedians still push against it.
Much like Carlin did years before, “South Park” lampooned the FCC’s censorship by broadcasting the uncensored word “s—” on television 162 times. (We know the exact number because a counter appeared at the bottom of the screen.) In the episode, called “It Hits the Fan,” this sets free the ancient Knights of Standards and Practices.
Despite the agency’s regulatory power, television and radio these days features more crude language and less consequence.
Researchers at the Parents Television Council told The Washington Post in 2012 that “prime-time profanity increased 69 percent from 2005 to 2010, with the bleeped use of the f-word up from 11 utterances in the first two weeks of the 2005 schedule to 276 uses five years later.”
Entertainers, meanwhile, can say more without fear of repercussion.
For example, the FCC Media Bureau originally chose not to take action after Bono, upon accepting an award at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards which were broadcast on NBC, said “This is f—— brilliant.” Explaining its decision, the FCC noted that its guidelines define “indecency” as “material that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities” and Bono had used the vulgar word as “an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation.”
(The commission later overturned the decision, claiming it was indecent. Still, no one was fined for the incident.)
In it’s most recent foray into indecency, the Supreme Court in 2012 dismissed sanctions against two television networks that violated the Federal Communications Commission’s ban on vulgar words and nudity, but sidestepped a more fundamental constitutional question about the government’s power to police the airwaves.
Meanwhile, unlike Bruce or Carlin before him, Colbert he remains free to say it again — every night, if he so pleases.
More from Morning Mix