Teaching American Humor: the Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014

Somebody should write something about the controversial tweet from @ColbertReport and how it spawned a backlash on Twitter defined by #CancelColbert. It is big news.

Well, to be fair, almost everybody already has. It even gave the 24-hour cable news outlets a chance to pause in the search for MAL 370. For those who need yet a few more links to stories related to the issues, here they are:

Overview of the issue from the New Yorker

One of the several posts from CNN, formally a news organization

First Post from Cleveland.com – solid with clips and twitter examples

Second Post from Cleveland.com – same useful format

WSJ.com post by Jeff Yang

OK. That is a small smattering that should get anyone started down an endless rabbit hole. Let me know if it ever works its way back to this post.

There are no lessons to be learned from what I am calling the Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014 (catchy?). Well, at least there are no lessons to be learned among those who are deeply invested in perpetuating their own righteous indignation on any and all possible sides to the #CancelColbert or #SaveColbert Twitter dynamo. The vast majority of those who jumped into the fray via Twitter have already moved on to the next outrage. For the passive voice phrase “lessons to be learned” to ever be true, to be consummated with actual learning and awareness, the learner would need to engage fully with the complexities of any issue. Who does that on Twitter?

Colbert Responds

But there may be things useful in the classroom for those desirous of  banging their heads on the complexities of American satire. What happens when satire misfires? (That is not what happened in the Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014.) What happens to satire in a digital age wherein the satirical work can be sliced and diced and repackaged and mashed ad nauseam into different mediums with vastly different audiences? What happens in a social media world when a satirist (and/or his corporate  media boss) uses something as potentially inane as Twitter as a constant, tireless promotional tool?

Most importantly, what happens when a sharp piece of satire–pairing offensive language concerning Asian Americans with obvious racist language regarding Native Americans in an effort to repudiate any and all such appropriation–gets lost in a media frenzy?

In reference to the Colbert/Twitter issue, we need to consider how a near-perfect bit of satire was transformed into a social-media outrage phenomenon. Normally, that would be a good thing for satirists; it means that their efforts were noticed, that their social criticism was making an impact. In the age of Twitter, however, the satire can easily be erased and forgotten with only the outrage remaining. I should add that “outrage,” in and of itself, is not a problem. A satirist begins by being outraged, but the satirist also begins by being informed. There’s the rub. Who on Twitter ever really cares to be informed? #Hashtag, #hashtag. Trend it.

The Great Colbert-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014–now known simply as #GC-TM2014–TREND IT!–is over. In hindsight, the event provides an opportunity to consider the challenges and limits of satire in the social media age. A satirist mocks human behavior with the goal–however remote–of changing that behavior, or at least demanding some thoughtful social engagement with contentious issues. The Colbert Report is arguably the most formidable venue for provocative satire in contemporary American culture that reaches a large audience. The Colbert Report, The Daily Show , and The Onion, in particular, all provide a consistent and relentless examination of the foibles of human behavior and the absurdities that threaten to undermine the remarkable social and political experiment called the United States of America. It is a golden age for American satire. That is not to say that it is a golden age for the power of satire to change the world.

Although I simply want to look closely at the tweet itself, readers should see the two sketches from the Colbert Report that provide the opening and the closing of this social media firestorm (The Great Colber-Twitter Mediagasm of 2014, as I may have said above):

Colbert on Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins

Colbert Who’s Attacking Me Now – the Follow Up

In the original piece, we witness a wonderfully tight satirical attack on the efforts of Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, and his effort to resist any and all efforts to make him and his supporters see the obvious. It is a satirical effort to affect public opinion, first, in its short-term target–the Redskins offensive name–and, second, the overall, longterm target–racism. The satire seeks to destroy both by persistent small cuts.

But, for now, that will have to wait. Twitter takes on a different topic.

For this space, let’s simply focus on the tweet that sets things rolling. We start there because the original sketch from the Colbert Show encouraged no firestorm whatsoever. The tweet, written and released by someone in the Comedy Central office, caused the issue  in the Twitterverse, which, now, apparently, and to the consternation of long-winded people like me everywhere, is the new normal of democratic media–just what the Founding Fathers and Mothers were hoping for.

Here is the text of the offending tweet:

“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

This is a joke. It is a quote taken from the Colbert Report show that aired on 26 March 2014 and tweeted by the corporate twitter-version of the character “Stephen Colbert,” (Colbert’s personal twitter account is @StephenAtHome.) A play within a play within a corporate twitter feed, wrapped in bacon. The problem of this joke is obvious; it uses stereotypical mockery of spoken East Asian languages as perceived by Euro-Americans who are ignorant and dismissive of any and all foreign languages on the whole. In that case, the language of the tweet perpetuates the stereotypes.

OK, it is easy to see that this tweet/joke contains racially insensitive language, at the very least. However, it is not simply a joke but parody. It is a statement from a character “Stephen Colbert” who is an aggressive and tireless parody of Bill O’Reilly, a bombastic conservative pundit who is clueless of his own racist, simplistic, reductive, self-absorbed commentary day after day after day. As parody, this tweet works. The line works.

Consider the first part of the tweet, the set-up: “I am willing to show #Asian community  I care…” This is boilerplate Bill O’Reilly in that it mimics  his typical moment of minor (very minor) concession to opposing points of an  argument or to show his awareness of nuances on some issues. He does this often, and it is often quite unintentionally funny. Colbert thinks so, too. Here Colbert (both in the original sketch and in the edited Tweet) sets up a self-absorbed moment of magnanimous condescension to anyone who may misunderstand his unquestionable good will and fairness. Note the clever wordplay: “I am willing to show...I care...” not more concisely “I am creating a…” The issue for the pundit is his willingness to perform (“show”) his deep compassion (“I care”), like God deciding to give humans a second chance after, say, a flood. Thank you, God. Thank you, Bill.

With that set-up, the hypocrisy and cluelessness of the narrative “I” is revealed by the absurd and racist name of the foundation in the punchline. The “I” is full of himself and empty of understanding. All ego, no awareness. This is parody that targets Colbert’s perennial and ever-vulnerable target: Bill O’Reilly. This is boilerplate Stephen Colbert. And funny. Thank you, Stephen.

To better understand the context that Colbert uses, watch, for example, this bit from the show:

Colbert on O-Reilly’s Insensitivity to Asian Americans

Colbert on O'Reilly

The Tweet did not destroy the joke; it removed the satirical context but kept the parody in place. Its mockery, then, is simply a brief shot at racial arrogance. The full satire is much stronger and deserves more that Twitter could provide. The @ColbertReport tweet put a joke in the world of Twitter divorced from the persona that originally spoke the words. A person reading the quote who has little familiarity with the Colbert Show and little interest in finding out more before reacting and retweeting draws an easy conclusion: #CancelColbert. The many who are tired of seeing such mockery of Asians, along with so many others, in American popular culture, are right to be concerned. And those who dismiss such concerns without trying to seek an understanding of a long and complicated history that informs the angry reaction against @ColbertReport are simply lazy, and they make me tired.

Colbert performs racial parody and satire daily. Suey Park, who created the @CancelColbert idea, has gained some fame. I am not sure if she has made any progress toward her political and social goals. Perhaps. My hunch, though, is that Stephen Colbert is more likely to alter the mainstream popular culture landscape regarding racism than she will. But, really, I hope they both succeed. But I am not going to follow either one on Twitter.

 

(c) 2014, Jeffrey Melton

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