Stephen Colbert put the jokes on pause during a portion of "The Late Show" Monday night to address the sexual harassment claims against his boss, chief executive of CBS Corporation Les Moonves. He has been accused by six women.
It was a sobering moment and a reflective one for Colbert, who clearly felt indebted to Moonves — a man he described as always sticking by "The Late Show." But the comedian added that justice is more important and accountability must be for everyone.
"We're coming up on one year of general awareness for the #MeToo movement," Colbert began the segment, "and I think that milestone is worth celebrating. But it's hard to think of an appropriate anniversary gift when the entire Amazon Wish List is just 'STOP IT!' By the way, women who wanted to 'stop it,' also searched for 'Justice!'"
The late-night host added that in the past year, women have felt empowered "to tell their stories in ways they haven't before, which is an objectively good thing," he said. "And it's strange to have to say this. Powerful men taking sexual advantage of relatively powerless employees are wrong." The audience erupted in applause, but Colbert didn't offer his usual grin. Instead, he waited patiently to finish his point and to make sure that he was heard. Perhaps his unwillingness to revel in the applause was demonstrative of his position that such an elementary point should be the benchmark — not celebrated.
"We know it's wrong now and we knew it was wrong then," Colbert added. "And how do we know we knew it was wrong then? Because we know these men tried to keep the stories from coming out back then," he said, dispelling a common excuse from predatory men that such harassing or abusive behavior was a sign of "the times."
"That said, and this is obviously naive on a certain level, the revelations and accusations of the past year, just in the entertainment industry alone have been shocking, to me," the late-night host continued. "To many of the women I know, it has brought a welcome sense of relief that something is finally happening. Now, as a middle-aged guy, with some power in the entertainment industry, I may not be the ideal person to address this kind of systemic abuse."
But this weekend, some people asked me, probably 'cause I work here, 'what do you think is going to happen?' I don't know," Colbert admitted. "I don't know who does know. In a situation like this, I'd normally call Les. But over the past year, there's been a lot of discussion about whether this disappearing of the accused from public life is the right thing to do."
The late-night host added that while he recognizes there should be different levels of response depending on the accusation, he also understands why this disappearing happens. "For so long, for women in the workplace, there was no change, no justice for the abused," Colbert said. "So we shouldn't be surprised that when the change comes, it comes radically."
Stopping short of saying Moonves should resign, Colbert said that he believes in accountability. "Not just for politicians you disagree with," he added. "Everyone believes in accountability until it's their guy. And make no mistake, Les Moonves is my guy. He hired me to sit in this chair. He stood behind this show while we were struggling to find our voice. He gave us the time and resources to succeed."
"But accountability is meaningless unless it's for everybody, whether it's the leader of a network or the leader of the free world," Colbert concluded.