The news: The people have spoken, and they are not happy with Stephen Colbert.
The comedian and Colbert Report host became the subject of controversy last night when the official Twitter account attached to his Comedy Central show tweeted this:
Image Credit: Variety
The backlash was swift and merciless, with many critics taking to social media and calling on Comedy Central to #CancelColbert:
#CancelColbert because white liberals are just as complicit in making Asian Americans into punchlines and we aren't amused.— Suey Park (@suey_park) March 27, 2014
Whew. I'm glad it wasn't just me feeling super uncomfortable about that tweet. I know it's satire. I wasn't laughing. #CancelColbert— yoonhee kim (@yoonheehees) March 28, 2014
.@ColbertReport Is this supposed to be satire? What happened to the #1 rule of satire: punch up? This doesn't. It's gross. Do better.— 18millionrising (@18millionrising) March 27, 2014
The tweet has since been deleted and Colbert is distancing himself from the issue, claiming he did not post it and has nothing to do with managing the @ColbertReport account. Comedy Central confirms this:
Colbert tweets personally at @StephenAtHome:
Context is key: The quote is from a recent segment where Colbert cracked a joke about Daniel Snyder, owner of the NFL’s Washington Redskins franchise. Snyder came under fire this week when he tried placating critics of his team name – which is a racial slur – by starting an initiative to address struggles facing indigenous tribes across the nation. The initiative is ironically titled the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Critics have called it “a stunt” and “an insult.”
In past Report episodes, Colbert has played an Asian character named Ching-Chong Ding-Dong, who some have labeled “an offensive caricature.” This seems a fair assessment – Ching-Chong appears around the 6:09 mark in the video below:
Colbert’s joke about Snyder inspiring him to start the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever – and thereby “show the Asian community that [he cares]” – is an attempt to satirize the Redskins owner’s seemingly bullshit attempt to silence his detractors while keeping a racist mascot.
Clearly this hasn’t gone over well. And it’s strange that Colbert would distance himself from the Comedy Central tweet, as it originated with a character he played on-air that would likely be deemed offensive anyway.
So what's the issue? Colbert’s TV persona is a cartoonishly ignorant right-wing zealot, whom the comedian himself has called "an idiot." Plenty of his jokes might be deemed offensive, but all told they usually serve the higher purpose of exposing the absurdity of contemporary politics.
This time, however, some say he’s crossed a line. This is not a new phenomenon in the world of comedy, where such criticism comes with the territory. But it also reminds people that good will towards edgy humor lasts only as long as the audience is laughing. When the room goes silent, it’s wise to cut your losses – just ask Kramer.
That being said, there are times when humor speaks truth to power – as the Report often does, in its own way – and at such times it’s obligated to keep jawing. That didn’t really happen here: Satire or no, Colbert’s status as a white American male cracking jokes about a racial minority lent this instance an unsettling power dynamic. Not to say that can’t be funny, too – laughter is fickle that way. It’s just that this time, an overwhelming number of people thought it wasn’t.
Regardless, the notion that Comedy Central would even entertain the thought of cancelling the show due to this incident is laughable. In the first quarter of 2013, the Report became the second most watched late night program among 18-49-year-olds, averaging 1.9 million viewers.
As we all know, viewers mean money, especially with that demographic. And money means we’ll be seeing a lot more Colbert Report in the years to come.