The Threat Down: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Ten Biggest Controversies

Photo: Martin Crook and Scott Gries (PictureGroup)

Although Stewart and Colbert both ended their runs with their reputations largely intact, one can't forget the duo's most controversial moments. This is the "Threat Down" Count Down.

One of The Colbert Report's longest-running segments was "The Threat Down", where Stephen Colbert would (usually) count down the five biggest threats facing America during any given week (the #1 threat, of course, was usually bears). Yet even with their combined talents and collective political goodwill, Jon Stewart and Colbert nonetheless ran into their fair share of controversies and heated moments, some of which slipped under the radar and some of which had throngs of people calling for their immediate cancellation.

Although Stewart retired with his reputation intact (and his influence ever-looming, with no less than four of his correspondents having gone on to do their own talk shows) and Colbert took over the Late Show from Letterman, meaning he'd be playing to a much more populist audience than ever before, one can't forget not only the duo's most controversial moments, but also how they and their teams of PR experts were able to navigate them successfully. In honor of "The Threat Down", let's do our own count down of The Daily Show/Colbert Report's Ten Biggest controversies, starting with ...

10. Daft Punk Pulls Out of "Colbchella"

What Happened? Let's start with an easy one. Colbert has a long history of bringing in great musical acts to his show, soon becoming Kendrick Lamar's go-to guy for television appearances and finding a kindred spirit in John Baptiste, who would later become Colbert's band leader on The Late Show. Yet in 2013, Colbert promised to bring "the song of the summer" to his audience, and legitimately did book Daft Punk, but due to a pending appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards, pulled out at the last second.

The Outcry: Virtually all of the controversy stemmed from petty corporate in-fighting, but Colbert definitely had his share of jabs over it, at one point noting that aside from owning Comedy Central and MTV, Viacom also owned the chain of "Pup-B-Gone Euthanasia Centers" and then proceeded to read confidential email between his staff and MTV head Van Toffler over the air. Astoundingly, Colbert seemed to get no flak from such a stunt.

The Result: In that same episode, Robin Thicke was "in the audience" and proceeded to "perform" his "song" called "Blurred Lines", and then was promptly never heard from again.

9. Trevor Noah's Controversial Tweets

What Happened? It wasn't even a full week after Trevor Noah was announced as the new host of The Daily Show in 2015 that fans began scrounging through the South African comic's Twitter account, looking for dirt, and boy did they find it. In oldish tweets from 2009 and 2011, people found broad, stereotypical jokes that proved ill-fitting with Jon Stewart's ever-progressive nature (One example: "'Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I'm sexy!' - fat chicks everywhere").

The Outcry: It was simple: fans of The Daily Show didn't feel that Noah was a good fit to take over the reigns from Stewart, his old tweets showing an astounding lack of consideration for others (to say nothing of the fact that many of them were simply not funny).

The Result: To its credit, Comedy Central didn't budge, and neither did Noah. Comedy Central released a statement on 31 March 2015 saying "Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central." On a tweet sent out the same day, Noah responded saying that "To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian." On the 8 October 2015 episode of The Daily Show, Noah even joked about Rupert Murdoch's controversial tweeting about Ben Carson being a "real" black president, saying "I know what its like to be young and crazy on Twitter," slyly acknowledging his controversial past and turning it into real comedy.

8. Jon Stewart Gets Schooled by Christian Historian David Barton

What Happened? David Barton is a self-proclaimed Christian historian, one who is beloved by right-leaning media, but boy howdy was he championed following his 4 May 2011 appearance on The Daily Show. Although armed with research and note cards, Barton shot down every single tangible point Stewart brought up about the idea that America is by default a Christian nation. At times, Stewart appeared stunned and even befuddled, which is a rare pose for someone as intellectually dexterous as him, later saying that his "head felt like the Liberty Bell after [he] left."

The Outcry: Barton has been widely discredited in the mainstream due to his frequent use of inaccurate sources and quotes so selective that they're devoid of both context and meaning. While right-wing media championed the appearance, Stewart, in perhaps one his most sheepish moves ever, brought in Constitutional scholar Richard Beeman a few weeks later on his 18 May 2011 broadcast to basically discredit everything Barton had said.

The Result: Although Stewart, as he often does, emerged from the wreckage mostly unscathed, the facts were on his side, as Barton's 2012 book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson was actually pulled from production by his publisher after numerous critiques of its accuracy came flying in, showing that Barton's own historical scribbles actually held up very poorly to strict scrutiny.

7. John Oliver and His Wisconsin Camel

What Happened? For a segment where the crew would compare the labor protests in Madison, WI to Cairo in 2011, Daily Show remote producers were able to get a camel over for a bit. However, the camel got its leg stuck in metal barricade and promptly fell down. These things sometimes happen in dealing with live animal segments, but unlike most incidents, this one was captured on video.

The Outcry: The segment never made it to air, but that didn't stop more right-leaning media from making immediate cries of animal abuse of the sake of comedy, and since John Oliver is the one who tells the videographer in question to stop filming, he became one of the central figureheads for this controversy. PETA Animal Behavior Specialist Julia Gallucci ended up writing The Daily Show a very strongly worded letter, concluding with the biting line "Camels fare very poorly when used for entertainment."

The Result: On 24 February 2011, The Daily Show released a statement about the incident, saying "Earlier this week, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was in Madison, WI shooting a segment about the Wisconsin labor protests. For an element of the piece, we made arrangements through a local animal wrangler to film a camel. Prior to any filming, the camel, while in the care of its handlers, got its leg caught in a barricade and fell. The camel was not injured, but after the incident, The Daily Show immediately decided not to pursue the idea any further and did not film any material with the camel. The camel remains in good health but is declining media requests at this time."

6. "A Single Factual Error"

What Happened? Following a piece that ran at the top of December 2014 detailing the national outcry over the death of Eric Garner, Stewart appropriately took the media to task--especially (and expectedly) Fox News--for missing the point over what the outrage was about. In listing similar cases involving unarmed black men being killed at the hands of police officers, Stewart and his staffers misidentified one such case that occurred in San Bernadino.

The Outcry: To start, Stewart was promptly corrected of this instance by the San Bernardino County District Attorney. Fox News, of course, had an absolute field day with it, using one Fox & Friends segment to say that Stewart and his staff "slammed the cops," while in another, anchor Brian Kilmeade said that "85 NYPD officers were killed after 9/11," shaming Stewart for what is a completely different point not related to the original piece.

The Result: In what may be one of his finest-ever segments, Stewart used the A block of his 8 December 2014 show to address the controversy head-on. In this masterful bit, Stewart doesn't blame his staff for a second, instead accepting the entirety of the blame for himself. "The Daily Show has to be right 100% of the time," Stewart opines, "Fox has to be right once." The best part is when he takes Kilmeade to task for overstepping his bounds in his response only furthered the idea that even while running a "comedy show," Stewart never once compromised his integrity, endearing himself to his fans all the more.

Next Page





Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.