3 views: Is Colbert's off-color Trump joke a firing offense?

Story highlights

  • Judy Gold: It's hypocrisy to call for firing Colbert when the President has been so profane
  • Paul Callan: Colbert disrespects the presidency and CBS should fire him
  • Danny Cevallos: CBS doesn't answer to Twitter -- it's a business

(CNN)Late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert is the target of an online campaign aimed at getting him fired over jokes he made about President Donald Trump this week; he is also the subject of a complaint review by the Federal Communications Commission. Three CNN commentators weigh in on what they think should happen next:

Judy Gold: The hypocrisy of slamming Colbert
Judy Gold
Stephen Colbert is an amazing entertainer. He's consistently funny, has impeccable timing, conducts flawless interviews and has a very clear point of view.
    I don't know a comic or writer in the industry who doesn't recognize his unique brilliance. I, for one, am very grateful that he has a late night show, and not only because I was a recent guest on his couch -- well, chair.
    It's a comedy writer's dream to hear her jokes delivered by a master, and that happens for Colbert writers every night at 11:30 on CBS. But on Monday, when some people took offense at what they deemed "off-color" jokes about President Donald Trump, there began a #FireColbert campaign on social media.
    I find it ironic that these people would start a campaign to fire a public figure for what, in their assessment, were lewd comments, when citizens of the United States, and people all over the world, for that matter, just lived through the presidential campaign of one of the lewdest, most misogynistic, insulting, undignified men we've ever seen.
    Stephen Colbert responds to #FireColbert
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    Stephen Colbert responds to #FireColbert 01:11
    Remember the debate over penis size between Trump and Marco Rubio? How about when Trump made comments about Carly Fiorina's face? And check out this mashup of his profane pronouncements, made publicly and repeatedly and for the cameras for months as he tried to persuade voters that HE was the moral defender of right, standing on the high ground. Trump's offensive comments are too numerous to recount here.
    The one that still makes me guffaw is the one when he said, "No one respects women more than me."
    And he got hired, not fired. So please stop this ridiculous campaign -- it's fake news -- for real.
    Judy Gold is a stand-up comic in New York, actress, writer and winner of two Emmy Awards. She is the host of the podcast "Kill Me Now," available on CBS' play.it and iTunes or at judygold.com/podcast. Follow her on Twitter @JewdyGold. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
    Paul Callan: CBS should fire Colbert, the King of Smug
    Paul Callan
    CBS should have the guts to fire Stephen Colbert for the crude and vulgar humor he has used to insult the President of the United States. In an astonishing display of vituperative language, the popular CBS "Late Night" host earlier this week referred to the President as a "presidunce" and a "pricktator." His name-calling pièce de résistance, though, was a term that implied that Trump was taking part in a sexual act with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
    The host of the nation's most watched late night comedy show used toilet paper as he imitated Trump reviewing documents at his Oval Office desk. And Colbert, a former cable comic, couldn't resist saluting the 45th President of the United States with a special version of the Colbert "finger."
    There may be a lot of legitimate reasons to criticize Trump for his attitude, his policies and his compulsive dishonesty but in the end, he remains the democratically elected President of the world's oldest and most powerful democracy. The smug and smarmy Colbert demeans all Americans with his gutter language deployed at a sitting President on a regular late-night network show.
    Smerconish: Colbert, progressives go low
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    Smerconish: Colbert, progressives go low 03:23
    Americans are fond of good-natured humor directed at their elected officials. Johnny Carson once observed that Richard Nixon was "the only president whose formal portrait was painted by a police sketch artist." He skewered Ronald Reagan by observing that "there is a power struggle going on between President Reagan's advisers. Moe and Curly are out. Larry is still in."
    Responding to Bill Clinton's line that he had tried marijuana but never "inhaled," Carson wryly observed, "there are so many things wrong with that statement I don't know where to begin. ... Can't the Democrats do anything right?"
    The difference between Colbert and Johnny Carson, who presided over the No. 1 rated "Tonight Show" for over 30 years, is that Carson's comedy was not a reflection of personal animus. Republicans and Democrats could watch the Carson monologue and laugh at clever humor with a touch of embedded social commentary without feeling that Carson was taking sides.
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    Colbert mocks GOP over health care bill 01:31
    In sharp contrast, Colbert's tawdry attacks on the institution of the presidency belong in a barroom comedy club or on cable rather than on network television.
    What's more, network TV is not a dark corner of the Internet where the rules of fundamental decency can be cavalierly abandoned in the quest for higher ratings. Unlike cable wires and Wi-Fi router signals, the broadcast signals of the "Tiffany Network" are a franchise on temporary loan from the public.
    Colbert's version of Trumpian "p***y-grabbing" locker room banter doesn't belong on network television any more than it belongs in the behavior profile of a presidential candidate.
    Colbert's crude attacks will, ironically, increase Trump's support among the non-East- and -West-Coast followers who elected him in the first place. They see in Colbert's actions a particularly egregious example of the media conspiracy against the President, orchestrated by arrogant, self-centered elites.
    It is time for Colbert to join Bill O'Reilly on the podcast circuit or perhaps Billy Bush on the bus and turn the "Late Show" over to an adult -- one who understands that the institution of the presidency belongs to the American people and will always demand a level of respect that is clearly beyond Stephen Colbert's comprehension.
    Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York homicide prosecutor and currently is of counsel at the New York law firm of Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him on Twitter @paulcallan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
    Danny Cevallos: If you're offended, don't watch
    Danny Cevallos
    Paul, I agree with you on a lot of your points.
    But here's the thing: You're right that Johnny Carson represents a more civil, gentle era of late-night television. But television -- and particularly late-night television -- has only been around for a few generations. Crude humor about public figures, on the other hand, predates not only Twitter and late-night television, but probably the pamphleteers of the 17th century and the town criers before them.
    Mark Twain, perhaps the greatest American political satirist, wrote in 1898 of wanting to dig up celebrated author Jane Austen's corpse and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
    Humor has always been biting. Television is just relatively new; it took a while to catch up.
    Most of us consume late-night television in a completely different way now from back when everyone had three channels and waited in bed for the Carson monologue every weeknight.
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    Colbert tears apart Trump's accomplishments 01:39
    Television content has progressively become more graphic and prurient. We didn't arrive at the wanton nudity of HBO's "Westworld" and "Girls" overnight. It started with a glimpse of nudity on "NYPD Blue" back in the '90s, and then everyone else making television had to up the ante -- including late-night TV hosts.
    We went from Carson to the edgier Letterman, leaving behind the uptight Ed Sullivan, who made the Rolling Stones change "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's Spend Some Time Together" when they performed on his show 50 years ago. Can you imagine? Ask a millennial what is objectionable about the words "spend the night together." Kids today have been raised with access to YouTube beheadings and free Internet porn. They couldn't imagine censoring a line like that.
    Paul Callan is right: Colbert's humor was probably too much -- especially for guys like you and me, raised on Johnny Carson and his "edgy" G-rated guests, like Steve Martin and the "mean" Don Rickles. But this is not our "Late Night."
    Should the network fire Colbert because some random people on Twitter demand it? Because Paul Callan demands it? Of course not. Network television is not a democracy, and we are not its constituents.
    A host gets fired not because of some dude's "open letter" posted on Facebook. A host gets fired if and only if the potential economic damage caused by keeping him outweighs the revenue generated by him. As long as Colbert's show continues to generate ad revenue, his network will support him. A network doesn't care about a random angry tweet by a viewer.
    Face it: Colbert's audience loves the raunchy anti-Trump jokes. Anyone offended can switch to PBS or the History Channel. Vote with your remote -- don't rant on social media.
    I don't like it any more than you, Paul, but we're in a new era. Presidents can talk about grabbing women "by the p***y" and get elected. Colbert's vulgar insult that implied Trump was taking part in a sexual act with Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be Letterman's "Stupid Human Tricks," but late-night television is just continuing to evolve, just like our expectations for the office of the presidency -- and American culture itself. I just wonder what will shock the millennials in 20 years.
    Danny Cevallos (@CevallosLaw) is a CNN legal analyst and a personal injury and criminal defense attorney practicing in New York, Pennsylvania and the US Virgin Islands. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.