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NOTE: At the time of this writing, The Colbert Report had not yet aired a new episode since the beginning of the controversy four days ago.

So, this happened.

Easily the most tiresome recurring arguments in popular culture are over the subject of context when it comes to offensive (allegedly or otherwise) comedy. Primarily because the context side of these scrapes so often end up misapplying the term – arguing either in bad faith or in sincere ignorance of what the word context actually means. You’ll hear this humble, unassuming word (ab)used as everything from a shorthand for personal familiarity (“Yeah, I know Jeff has weird hang ups about Hispanic people, but we’ve known him awhile and he’s got other facets that make us want to overlook that”) or as part of the Quantifiable Bigotry Fallacy (copyright: ME!) i.e. “It’s not really hateful for South Park to compare transgender people to asking a surgeon to turn you into a dolphin, because they also make fun of ______.” But all the while, poor mistreated context just keeps standing for what it always did: The full meaning of a component when viewed as a part of the whole.

Misunderstanding (or misappropriating) edgy humor by missing (or dismissing) context is a problem that’s always been with us, but it’s been exacerbated to previously unheard of levels by the explosion of Social Media, the lifeblood of which is bite-sized bits of bigger wholes. This can have the effect of crystallizing the essence of a point, true, but it can also lead to slivers plucked from a larger piece creating the opposite effect of their intent. Witness the popularity of Wall Street‘s “Greed is good!” speech or “You can’t handle the truth!” from A Few Good Men among the very persons/mindsets those films were built to condemn and vilify.

Given that, it’s hard to believe it took this long for the (so far) unending discord between old-school long-joke satire and the instant/piecemeal nature of Social Media to catch up with Stephen Colbert. After all, The Colbert Report routine is so deeply reliant on context (both of its own and of the daily news cycle) that in order to understand not only the joke that led to this weekend’s circus over the “#CancelColbert” hashtag but the way the outrage-cycle played out requires a pop-culture acumen that’s a little dizzying once broken down.

In short order, the need-to-knows include:

  • Who Stephen Colbert is
  • What The Colbert Report is
  • A working knowledge of U.S. left/right political divides
  • A familiarity with the Fox News Channel aesthetic
  • That Colbert and his same-named TV self are meant to be different persons (except when they’re not)
  • Awareness of an ongoing controversy over U.S. sports teams named after Native American tribes and/or dated insensitive nicknames for the same
  • Awareness of The Washington Redskins specifically
  • And it helps to readily recall a Colbert Report sketch from 2005 that this new sketch made reference to.
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Gee. I can’t imagine how anybody got confused, huh?

Launched prior to White House Correspondents’ Dinner (but rendered a pop-culture institution by Colbert’s performance there as one of the most memorable hosting gig ever), The Colbert Report has always been a marvel of pushing how far the truly talented comedian and his writing staff can mine what seems like one specific joke for one specific audience. A former Daily Show fixture, Colbert’s TV persona is summarized as a Fox News Channel parody, a mashup of Sean Hannity’s schoolyard bully bluster and Bill O’Reilly’s egomaniacal eccentricity glazed with FNC’s signature cartoon patriotism, conceived at the height of the network’s Bush-era pop-relevance. Its target audience: The subset of loyal Daily Show fans (read: politically-savvy, left-of-center GenX/Millennial news-addicts) who loathe everything Fox stands for but keep watching out of morbid (or, let’s be honest, smug) fascination.

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He plays The Villain, in other words. A caricatured exaggeration (but not as much as you’d think,) version of what his audience already despises, offering his back to the sarcastic lash that cultural segregation largely shields his non-joking inspirations from – a martyr in effigy, nailing himself to the crucifix of parody and dying, four nights a week, for Roger Ailes’ sins.

At least, that’s how it started out. But as anyone who’s watched the evolution of fictional monsters like Dracula, Godzilla or Jason Voorhees can tell you, a bad guy who hangs around long enough inevitably becomes the protagonist. So too is it with Colbert – or, rather, the version of him that hosts The Colbert Report. He’s been inhabiting the character so well for so long that the audience is more likely to cheer in recognition when one of his well-worn “bad guy” opinions bubbles to the surface, the same effect by which professional wrestlers get the audience to applaud for them for a double-cross betrayals everyone knew was coming.

As such, more of what we’re to understand as the “real” Stephen Colbert’s personality has been allowed to surface over the years. The persona is by now a double act, wherein a subtle smirk cues a readily-familiar audience as to when “real Stephen” is peeking out from behind “fake Stephen’s” metaphorical mask. By now the nuance is almost an absurdist gag in its own right. Fake Stephen gives thumbs-up to Sarah Palin’s latest proclamation and the audience snickers knowingly. Real Stephen geeks out when challenged to a lightsaber duel by George Lucas and the audience erupts unironically. And for half an hour a night, this works. This makes sense. This is often hilarious and frequently insightful.

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But last week (and over the weekend), a piece of that self-contained world slipped up into the Twittersphere and took on a life of its own. At issue? On the March 27th episode, Colbert voiced his (in character) support for Washington Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder refusing to consider changing the team’s name to something slightly less racist while simultaneously announcing a charitable foundation for Native American issues. In (mock) solidarity, Colbert called back to a mostly-forgotten 2005 sketch which (hello, irony!) was intended to mock comics who tried to hide genuinely bigoted routines in the protection of “I’m just doing a character!” In that sketch he busted out a string of stereotypical Asian mannerisms as simply being “my new character” Mister Ching-Chong Ding-Dong. In the spirit of the “similarly misunderstood” Redskins, he announced The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitive to Orientals or Whatever. A laugh was had, the show went on, that ought’ve been the end of it.

Unfortunately, the show’s official Twitter (manned by Comedy Central staff, separately from Colbert’s own personal account) opted to subsequently share the announcement of the fake charity as a tweet-sized gag in its own right, rather than as punchline to a bigger buildup as it had been in the show. This was judged (fairly or not) to be in poor taste by influential/heavily-followed Korean-American social-media activist Suey Park. Not long after her call to cancel The Colbert Report had a sizable number of Twitter activists joining her and soon the #CancelColbert hashtag trending worldwide.

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Now, cards on the table: In my opinion, Park was initially in the wrong. Her heart may have been in the right place, and her frustration at seeing what she (erroneously or not) perceived as yet another slighting of Asian-Americans for comic effect is entirely understandable and even sympathetic. But there’s a point where ubiquity has to come into play with these things. Sure, the nesting-doll nature of the actual joke is (as I described) somewhat dense, but given that trend-awareness is such a huge part of social-media anything, shouldn’t an activist of that field know at the very least that The Colbert Report exists to make fun of the sort of casual media-bigotry she’s decrying? And if not, wouldn’t a simple quick Google search for “who is this person?” be prudent before calling for his head? I’m not as down on Tumblr-style activism as some are. In my experience, every movement looking to make headway needs a good supply of eager, angry, enthusiastic Berserkers charged up and willing to throw themselves into the fight, but too often, the digital/social-media version serves as a reminder of why the flesh-and-blood version has leaders to point them at the proper targets.

The whole fallout was doubly problematic immediately. First, it undermined the original aim of the joke itself: Calling out the Redskins management for their intractability regarding the creepy and insensitive team name. Ironically, this is a goal one might safely assume Park would support, given her feelings on cultural representation and appropriation. Second, fair or not, the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” effect is very real in media circles, and mistaking/misrepresenting Colbert’s parody of bigotry for the real thing will almost certainly make many hesitant to support similar grievances of sturdier stock in the future.

But the real ugliness came in the aftermath. The original “Ching-Chong” sketch resonated because hack comedians trotting out old-school racist caricatures (see: Dunham, Jeff) in the guise of defying Political Correctness (“Don’t censor meeeeeeeee!!!!!”) are a real continuing issue for the comedy scene. As are the legions of White Guy Defense Force types who leap to their aid in the name of their Self-Evident Constitutional Right… to be an entitled douchebag. And in the ultimate sad irony (in a situation already drowning in it) of the day, this particular horde of miscreants quickly wound up overwhelming and co-opting the “defense” of Colbert, hijacking the conversation in order to make Park the latest subject of The Internet’s favorite pastime: Beating Up Girls For Having Opinions.

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#CancelColbert will, in the end, wind up being just another tragic farce in the history of pop-culture footnotes: Annoying many, hurting a few and having almost zero impact otherwise. The Colbert Report will likely address and hope to diffuse the situation later this very evening, something else will come along to get everybody’s dander up, and we’ll all go on having learned almost nothing amid all the shouting. The only impact so far is negative and disheartening. The (in my estimation, at least) more important issue of the Redskins quandary has been overshadowed, the anti-PC paranoia-brigade has a shiny new example of “SJW overreaction” they can point to for undermining other legitimate complaints and the next dozen or so “How come they can say the N-word but I can’t” chuckle-hut hacks will make hay dragging Stephen Colbert’s name through the mud as justification for their sundry scumbaggery.

The lesson ought to be “think before you type,” whether it’s into Twitter or a TV teleprompter, but how can such a lesson take when the whole of popular culture demands that we do the opposite? Communication at the speed of light is a powerful tool for change and progress – but there’s a reason why moving mountains usually takes more than 140 characters.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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