Photo: Martin Crook and Scott Gries (PictureGroup)

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

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.

The “Threat Down” Count Down Continues

5. Jon Stewart and His “Herman Cain” Voice

What Happened? Just looking at this list, it was clear that 2011 wasn’t a great year for The Daily Show from a purely PR standpoint. In June 2011, GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain began rising in the polls quite considerably, getting a lot of attention. Stewart, of course, happily mocked him for saying he would only pass bills that were no longer than three pages (Cain claims it was a joke). In doing so, Stewart imitated his voice, just as he’s done with countless people before, but it was only in a later O’Reilly Factor segment that Cain disparaged Stewart for using the “Amos ‘n’ Andy dialect” in doing so, implying there was some casual racism going on in Stewart’s bit.

The Outcry: Again, Fox News ran with it, simultaneously haranguing him for his voice while also jumping on an earlier statement that he got his views from the left but somehow wasn’t “a liberal.” The latter charge is fluff, but calling him out for racist overtones proved a much more serious concern.

The Result: Stewart came to his own defense, kind of, on a 28 June 2011 segment. “They felt that I was singling out Herman Cain using an offensive voice,” he told his viewers, “but not because I always use offensive voices […] but, as they suggested, because Herman Cain is black, and, more importantly, conservative.” Stewart defended the claim by turning his research staff against himself and digging up all of the different dialects and caricatures he’s adopted over the years to make fun of people, stringing them all in row for the world to see. It actually didn’t address the issue directly, but seemed to cower under the fact that as a comedian, he was just making fun of the guy which has nothing to do with Cain’s race. The segment will go down as one of Stewart’s weaker responses, but the effects of it were long lasting, which leads us directly to …


4. The Wyatt Cenac Incident

What Happened? Leading up to his final episode, Stewart’s pending retirement was turning more into a coronation in the media, with virtually every single news outlet, magazine, and blog running features on him, highlighting the great moments, and getting contributors both past and present to weigh in on Stewart’s dynamic legacy. Yet one name was missing from all of the endless praise, and that was former correspondent Wyatt Cenac, who went on Marc Maron’s 23 July 2015 edition of his famous WTF podcast to talk about an incident where Stewart was doing “the Herman Cain voice” and wasn’t responding well to Cenac’s criticisms, eventually telling him “Fuck off. I’m done with you.”

The Outcry: Suddenly, the narrative of Stewart closing out his tenure on The Daily Show as one of the most forward-thinking voices in modern progressivism was immediately disrupted, and Cenac, a solid but not especially memorable contributor to the show, suddenly was in the spotlight, pursued by every news outlet, tabloid, and blog to further spill the beans on Stewart’s less celebrated qualities.

The Result: To their credit, Comedy Central kept this one close to the chest, and during The Daily Show‘s final A block, virtually every single correspondent to ever have worked there showed up for one final go-round. Perhaps most surprising of all, though, was an appearance by Cenac, who was doing a field report from outside the studio. “You good?” Stewart asked. “I’m good,” replied Cenac. “You good?” “I’m good,” Stewart replied. It was an astoundingly light-hearted and sincere finish to the whole debacle, and a surprise that few saw coming.


3. #CancelColbert

What Happened? “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” That’s what started the whole thing. That was the tweet that went out on The Colbert Report‘s official Twitter account that started a firestorm of controversy. Yet Colbert’s intensely popular personal Twitter account, @StephenAtHome, was just that: the one that actually is him. On a segment that ran on 26 March 2014, Colbert mocked the Washington Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder for creating the “Washington Redskins’ Original Americans Foundation” to assist local tribes despite the fact that it still had the offending name in the title. The corporate Colbert account responded by commiting, as The New Yorker described it, “the comedic sin of delivering a punch line without its setup.”

The Outcry: The aforementioned segment ran on a Wednesday, but the controversy didn’t start until the weekend, when numerous hashtag activists got #CancelColbert trending on Twitter and kept it there for over 48 hours. Soon, the news media began picking up on it as well, forcing several people to wonder if Colbert’s show had overstepped its bounds and if it really did need to be cancelled.

The Result: On 31 March 2015, Colbert finally responded to the controversy with his long-running “Who’s Attacking Me Now” segment, pointing out the nature of the aforementioned corporate account that he didn’t control, and that when he saw the tweet without context, he “understood why people were offended, the same way I, as an Irish-American, was offended after reading only one line of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. I mean “Eat Irish babies”? #CancelSwift! Trend it!” The segment addressed and mostly silenced the controversy, meaning that instead of canceling the show, Colbert simply left it voluntarily later that year to pursue other opportunities (cough).


2. The Scorned Female Daily Show Employee

What Happened? On 23 June 2010, writer Irin Carmon wrote a piece for Jezebel called “The Daily Show‘s Lady Problem“, and mocked the program for hiring former G4 Attack of the Show host Olivia Munn as a new correspondent, saying that Munn is “better known for suggestively putting things in her mouth on a video game show and being on the covers of Playboy and Maxim than for her comedic chops.”

The Outcry: The piece got a lot of coverage, especially for citing one former executive who said that “there’s a huge discrepancy between the Jon Stewart who goes on TV every night and the Jon Stewart who runs The Daily Show with joyless rage.” The typical camps took their sides on the issue, as Stewart, again, was never viewed as anything but one of the nicest guys on television, so a piece like this proved jarring to casual readers, a gift to the people who constantly want to discredit him, and nothing more than clickbait by his most ardent supporters.

The Result: Easily the best response out of everything here, The Daily Show responded by posting an open letter on their website written by 31 female staffers that opened with the following paragraph:

“Recently, certain media outlets have attempted to tell us what it’s like to be a woman at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We must admit it is entertaining to be the subjects of such a vivid and dramatic narrative. However, while rampant sexism at a well-respected show makes for a great story, we want to make something very clear: the place you may have read about is not our office. The Daily Show isn’t a place where women quietly suffer on the sidelines as barely tolerated tokens. On the contrary: just like the men here, we’re indispensable. We generate a significant portion of the show’s creative content and the fact is, it wouldn’t be the show that you love without us.”

The letter was smart, sassy, and to the point, leaving Camron to link back to it a few weeks later, noting that “I just wish the show had agreed to answer questions or make anyone available to talk when I approached them for comment before the piece was published.” And, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, the Daily Show letter concludes with a “PPS. Thanks to the male writers who penned this for us.”


1. That One Time Colbert Interviewed Julian Asange

What Happened? Out of all the segments on this list, this incident is likely the one you know about the least. There wasn’t a big outcry or a big result because of it. However, the shock, the awe, and the power of it spoke volumes, as Colbert stepped so far out of his character that he’s never come even remotely close to getting this real or visceral again. In this one moment, Colbert truly was a journalist, a confronter, and full of opinions, but this is without question the most heated, controversial interview you have ever seen on either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

On his 12 April 2010 program, WikiLeaks’ own Julian Assange was Colbert’s guest. At the time, WikiLeaks was just starting to make a name for itself, and “Collateral Murder”, just released before Assange’s Colbert appearance, showed footage from an airstrike in Baghdad from 2007 wherein a Reuters journalist was slain. (Recall that it wasn’t until November of that year that WikiLeaks truly came into prominence with the publishing of numerous diplomatic cables.)

Colbert, often so goofy and quick-witted with guests, is stern-faced and cold, attacking Assange fairly on for editing the tape and calling it “Collateral Murder”, going on to say “That’s not leaking. That’s a pure editorial.” While Assange appears unphased or perhaps just unaware the Colbert usually plays a character, the attacks heat up, with Colbert taking particular issue with Assange’s pledge that the full unedited video will be available later, but during the time of taping, it was not, and Colbert noted that in putting “Collateral Murder” up first, most people probably aren’t going to keep searching for the full thing, saying that the whole thing is wholly emotionally manipulative.

As the segment goes on, things happen that we never saw before with Colbert and will likely never see again: his jokes are dog-eared and forced. He stumbles over his sentences. There’s pauses with tangible, tense silence in the studio. And most of all, it’s clear that Colbert has a tangible anger inside of him over this whole incident, and truly felt like something that belong more on CNN’s Crossfire than it did on The Colbert Report. However, due to its heated nature and completely out-of-character moments, this was a minor-key controversy that showed just what Colbert could have done had he gone a different route. Never has there been such an heightened Comedy Central viewing experience in recent memory, and in all likelihood, we’ll never see it again.