What We Can Learn From the Embarrassing #CancelColbert Shitstorm


This week, The Colbert Report aired a segment skewering Washington Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder’s pro-Native American charity that contains an anti-Native American slur (“Redskins”) in its name by suggesting Colbert, inspired by Snyder, would be starting his own charity, the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” A Twitter account controlled by Comedy Central tweeted the announcement without referring to the Redskins charity Colbert was skewering, which ignited a Twitter shitstorm that called for Colbert’s cancellation, a shitstorm that keeps getting more embarrassing. What can we learn from this? Besides “everyone calm the fuck down for a goddamn second”?

Satire about race is really fucking tricky

One of the reasons The Colbert Report is so fantastic is that Colbert and its writers have figured out how to skewer the seemingly unskewerable ridiculousness of American conservative media by creating parallels between reality and Colbert’s brand of “truthiness.” Colbert exposes the absurd by acting as a more literate, self-aware mirror to that absurdity. He does what he mocks, but bigger and sillier, thus exposing the silliness of the source material. Satire!

The episode tackled something so incredibly over-the-top — the owner of a billion-dollar NFL team with a racially offensive name defending his staunch insistence on keeping that name because “heritage” by starting a halfassed charity for Native Americans that contains the word “Redskins” — that Colbert’s skewering didn’t have much room to get any bigger or any sillier; when it comes to stories like the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” you can’t get much bigger than truth without veering close to racially offensive territory. This is surgical-precision satire, right here, and he pulls it off.

The bit only works as a whole; it doesn’t work in parts. Colbert’s character is saying here that naming a charity “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation” is just as offensive as naming a charity the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” That’s the joke.

So when a Twitter account that purports to be for The Colbert Report sent out this Tweet, sans context or explanation—

— it makes sense that it would raise some eyebrows, especially among people who have had Asian-related insults used against them for their entire lives. Ching-chong insults, like other elementary playground race-based insults, are both boring and hurtful, which is a weird combination because it sucks to feel angry and sleepy at the same time. (And we’ve all got offensive words that really feel like gutpunches; because I grew up with a very close relative with a developmental disability, I find the word “retard” incredibly hurtful, for example.) Some Twitter users were so upset by the Tweet that they started a #CancelColbert hashtag, determined to make Stephen pay for his sins.

Lots of problems with this. But let’s start with the main problem: Stephen Colbert didn’t send that Tweet, and neither did anyone on his show’s writing staff.

Bark up the right tree.

It takes not-very-much research at all to realize that the Colbert Report twitter feed isn’t run by Stephen Colbert, and, in fact, many Comedy Central show talent or writing staffs don’t actually have control of the show’s Twitter feed. When I was on the writing staff at a TV show on another Viacom channel, I never even met the person who sent out the show’s Tweets. I have no idea who it was; none of the writers did. And the comedians who worked as our on-camera talent definitely had no connections to what was Tweeted and when. A writer for another Comedy Central show that isn’t The Colbert Report says he’s not sure where his employer’s tweets come from, either.

And since the hashtag #CancelColbert was ostensibly aimed at Comedy Central, the network that airs the show and controls the show’s Twitter account, it sort of seems, uh, futile to appeal to the network. It’s like yelling at a cab driver because you’re mad at your dad; it might relieve your personal stress, but it’s not going to make your dad show up at your harpsichord recital.

Don’t make it worse.

After #CancelColbert started trending last night, fans of Colbert did that thing that defensive fans always do when they’re confronted with the horror of a person not liking a thing that they like a lot: they Made it Worse.

I’m not going to link any of their Tweets in here, because I’m sure anyone tooling around calling random strangers cunts who should die on the internet is in a sad enough place in life that more attention wouldn’t help anything. Suffice to say, an appropriate response to people protesting a joke that they believe was unsuccessful and offensive isn’t to tell them to kill themselves. Try one of these responses instead:

“I disagree; I thought his joke was successful.”
“I’m a big fan of the Colbert Report and don’t think it should be cancelled.”
“Sometimes in comedy you take risks. This one might not have paid off, but I still find Colbert a talented and engaging performer.”

Or: just ignore them. You don’t have to react. You really, really don’t. Because The Colbert Report is not and never was in any danger of being cancelled. Nor is it your mommy.

Be realistic.

The Colbert Report isn’t going to get cancelled because one time some people on Twitter got mad, guys.

It would be an idiotic move for the network, because the network is part of a company that is ultimately trying to make money. Colbert’s show is good at making money; it’s popular among a demographic that advertisers want to reach, and thus Comedy Central can charge a lot of money to those advertisers who want to reach the show’s viewers. It is also good at winning awards, which lends prestige to a network, which is something that many networks enjoy a great deal.

Another thing: Comedy Central is the network that pays Daniel Tosh millions of dollars a year to stand around giggling at YouTube videos. Daniel Tosh is a man in his late 30’s who wears a hoodie to work. Daniel Tosh still has a job after telling a woman who heckled him that it would be hilarious if she got raped. Colbert ain’t going anywhere.

This isn’t to say that fights against perceived racism or injustice should only be fought if they’re guaranteed to succeed. But, you know, is this the hill you want to die on? Trying to get a guy who owned the shit out of President George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner fired from a 9-year-long Emmy-winning show because you don’t understand how TV show Twitter accounts work? Good luck.

Grains of salt

When you write on the net, racing to be the first and the angriest before you have all (or even some) of the facts can end up biting you in the ass (Hi.). Twitter, with its emphasis on speed and TMZ comment section-like FIRST! ethos, often serves to encourage rash overreactions devoid of nuance (Again, Hi. I know it because I’ve lived it.). It also gives people the opportunity to customize their world of social interaction, building a false reality around themselves that divides the world into black and white — “friends” and “trolls.” This is the ideal moist, wet environment for the formation of a Shitstorm.

People have contexts that extend further than the paragraph containing a sentiment. Colbert, for example, has starred on a show that has run for almost a decade, four nights per week, with scattered breaks. His show exists to poke holes in the absurdity of sexism, racism, the media industry, American imperialism, celebrity, warmongering, homophobia, and every other archaic -ism most left-leaning people would be glad to see banished from society. He succeeds 99% of the time, which means he’s better at comedy than most doctors are at medicine. He’s on our team. Sometimes people on our team make, or appear to make mistakes, or have some growing to do. That’s okay, because no person is 100% perfect all the time.

Colbert himself even tried to clarify what was going on:

Which didn’t placate any of the frothy masses, really. It’s okay to admit you got mad because you misunderstood or misread a situation. It’s okay!

Don’t miss the fucking point

Good rule of thumb, just, for life in general: If Michelle Malkin is cheering you on, you are almost certainly doing something wrong. Malkin is a third rate conservative shock jock who isn’t smart enough to be offensive in the ways she is trying to be. Michelle Malkin is to Ann Coulter what Drive Me Crazy is to Heathers.

Malkin and her ilk are likely excited about the #CancelColbert hashtag because the show makes people who agree with her (but who, unlike Michelle Malkin, are important enough to warrant the show’s attention) look like fools. The shitstorm has also successfully diverted attention from the issue that Colbert was trying to skewer in the first place, an issue with which many social conservatives vehemently ignore, or brush off, or dismiss:

The fucking owner of a team called the goddamn WASHINGTON REDSKINS started a charity FOR NATIVE AMERICANS that uses the word ‘REDSKIN’ in the name of the charity and that is shitballing ridiculous.

But instead of talking about that, we’re talking about an out of context Tweet that people misattributed to a sketch that most people didn’t even watch in its entirety before they decided an entire show’s worth of people — writers, producers, editors, directors, camera operators, sound people, interns — should lose their jobs.


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