A 2023 Column Contest grand-prize winner, Laurence Pevsner’s Sorry Not Sorry investigates why we’re sick of everyone apologizing all the time—and how the collapse of the public apology leaves little room for forgiveness and grace in our politics and culture.

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Late last month, Stephen Colbert made an unusual statement on The Late Show. It wasn’t quite an apology—more like sorry’s mysterious cousin.

Colbert offered a short preamble about how he tells a lot of jokes—mostly whatever’s in the public discourse. Then he got into it: “For the past six weeks to two months, everybody has been talking about the mystery of Kate Middleton’s disappearance from public life,” Colbert said. “Two weeks ago, we did some jokes about that mystery, and all the attendant froo-frah in the reporting about that.”

This looked like the start of an apology—it’s the kind of descriptive elocution that’s necessary at the start, where you lay out the facts and make it clear exactly what you’ve done. The wonderful phrase “froo-frah” even casts some judgment, implying Colbert doesn’t think much of the reporting or its seriousness, creating some useful distance from his own actions to those of the tabloids.

Then Colbert zoomed out: “When I made those jokes, that upset some people—even before her diagnosis was revealed. And I can understand that. A lot of my jokes have upset people in the past, and I’m sure some of my jokes will upset people in the future.”

This was less apology territory and more like the classic comedian line, what you might call the Ricky Gervais school of thought: Comedy is going to offend people! It’s just part of the business, so this way of thinking goes, and sometimes even the point. Notice the passive voice—as if to say, “I tell the jokes; it’s not my fault if people get upset.”

Colbert, though, is smarter than the “offending is the point” crowd, and harder to pin down, as his zigzagging shows. What came next was the key line of his statement: “But there’s a standard that I try to hold myself to: I do not make light of somebody else’s tragedy.”

Outraged royalists had been calling on Colbert to apologize. The Marchioness of Cholmondeley (yes, really) had even threatened him with legal action. I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that such a lawsuit would never fly here—we fought a war to ensure that random marchionesses can’t invoke the UK’s onerous libel laws in the US of A.

And yet, despite all this froo-frah, Colbert wanted us to know he is making this statement because of his personal standards. He interrupted his humorous show to make a serious point: that he doesn’t care so much about whether other people are offended as he does about whether he has crossed his own moral line.

Had he crossed that line though? That’s when it got particularly interesting, because the rest of his statement carefully elided Colbert’s views on the matter.

“Now, I don’t know whether her prognosis is a tragic one. She’s the future queen of England, and I assume she’s going to get the best possible medical care, but regardless of what it is… any cancer diagnosis of any kind is harrowing for the patient and for their family,” he said. “I and everyone here at The Late Show would like to extend our well wishes and heartfelt hope that her recovery is swift, and thorough.” Colbert’s argument, not quite stated, seemed to be: I didn’t cross a line before, but I’m not going to make any more jokes now that we know her situation has the potential for tragedy.

Colbert walked a tightrope here. She’s the future queen of England, he reminded us, implying correctly that Middleton isn’t the worst-off person in the world. But he also delivered this conclusion and his well wishes with genuine pathos. Colbert is, of course, no stranger to tragedy, having lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was ten. More recently, Colbert was overcome with emotion at the end of a show last week before a black title card acknowledged the passing of his longtime executive assistant Amy Cole, who herself had been battling cancer. His authenticity when it comes to tragedy has, unfortunately, been earned.

The media did not know what to make of Colbert’s statement. The Hollywood Reporter’s headline read: “Stephen Colbert Sorry for His Kate Middleton Jokes.” ABC and Fox News went with similar angles. But UK outlets often claimed the opposite. “TV Host Stephen Colbert Refuses to Apologise for Kate Middleton Jokes Despite backlash,” read The Mirror. Meanwhile, Piers Morgan went on an unhinged screed about Colbert’s hypocrisy in the New York Post.

When I went back to view the actual jokes Colbert made about Middleton, I was struck not by hypocrisy but by consistency. He never actually poked fun at Middleton—the jokes were always pointed at the powerful and the pot-stirrers. Or he was just being goofy.

For example, after noting the tabloids were speculating that Kate Middleton may be dead or divorced, Colbert invented a headline where both were true for The Sun: “Zombie Kate Spotted Getting Her Groove Back with Pete Davidson.” The butts of the joke were the sensationalist rags and Pete Davidson’s ability to pull. The same was true the next day when Colbert made fun of the “internet sleuths” who suspected an affair. His main punchlines were drinking from a fancy tea set to pun on the phrase “spilling the tea” and the surprising pronunciation of “Cholmondeley” (Chumley). Hardly targeted shots at Kate.

What’s more, Colbert happened to demonstrate his commitment to his belief that not everything should be made fun of earlier in the same monologue as The Sun joke. Colbert got indignant at Trump (no surprise) for mocking Biden’s childhood stutter (no surprise). Another line, in Colbert’s mind, that ought not to be crossed in comedy.

In an era where so many public figures are either apologizing constantly in hopes of getting a quick hit of forgiveness, or else refusing to apologize and stubbornly insisting they are above reproach, Colbert’s move—a kind of in-between, liminal statement—might offer one way forward. We don’t need to apologize for everything. Sometimes, genuine sympathy will do.