It would have been understandable — though uncomfortable — if Stephen Colbert had ignored the newly surfaced allegations of sexual misconduct against Les Moonves, the CBS CEO responsible for him sitting at the “Late Show” desk in the first place. But in a twist, Colbert steered right into the skid. He brought up the allegations with pointed monologue jokes (“How do you get in a Ronan Farrow article? Practice, practice, practice”), but also in a separate desk piece that rather somberly acknowledged his particularly weird position and the fact that if he wants to support the #MeToo movement as he’s long insisted he does, he can’t make an exception for anyone — not even his own boss.
Even though most everyone in Hollywood is quick to say that they support victims, watching Colbert be so upfront about Moonves just a couple days after the allegations broke is something of a shock. After all, Moonves’ wife and “The Talk” host Julie Chen only briefly mentioned the story in order to dismiss it, while “Late Late Show” host James Corden took a jaunty hop, skip, and a jump right around it. What Colbert did was much trickier, considerate, and fascinating to watch unfold.
Not only is Moonves Colbert’s boss, but as more and more Hollywood power players have been accused of workplace abuse, late-night hosts have grappled with varying success to adjust their punchlines to address news that keeps encroaching on their own turf, as more and more TV writers, comedians, and executives get called out. Sometimes, they expand on pithy monologue punchlines with deeper dives (see: Seth Meyers’ “Closer Look” segment on Weinstein and industry abuse, Samantha Bee calling out sexism within the comedy community after the Louis CK story dropped). Other times, they reason that it’s an inside baseball industry story and it might not be worth it to catch their audience up (“Saturday Night Live” reportedly punted Harvey Weinstein jokes by initially dismissing it “a New York thing”).
Colbert did something a little different. He put the story into the larger context of #MeToo coming up on its first anniversary, what it means to actually support it, and how the deluge of allegations that has made some people suspicious is a natural response to so many years of silence. He pointed out that the CBS board decided not to suspend Moonves amidst an outside investigation, then cracked jokes about CBS possibly turning the lights off on the show during the commercial break. And maybe most crucially, Colbert made the point that someone like Moonves can be supportive to one person (like him) and potentially abusive to another (like one of the accusers).
By virtue of having to react to breaking news most nights a week, late night comedians tend to get more notice than most of their peers. And as the worlds of pop culture and politics continue to bleed in to each other at an increasingly rapid clip, late night comedians’ increasingly somber words have been granted more weight whether they like it or not. Colbert, who has delivered topical content from behind a desk almost every night for well over a decade, knows this all too well — and this time, he chose to use that position to explicitly call out one of his own allies.
“Everybody believes in accountability until it’s their guy,” he said, “and make no mistake, Les Moonves is my guy.”
Colbert’s viewpoint certainly might change as the story itself evolves, as is his right. But for now, acknowledging the story as publicly and bluntly as he did meant acknowledging its significance for him, his workplace, and beyond. For a self-professed company man, that’s no small feat.