Category Archives: Colbert Report

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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Truthiness and American Humor

Stephen Colbert, in the inaugural episode of the Colbert Report (October 17, 2005), coined the word truthiness to capture the underlying absurdity of the human preference to assert a truth that arises from a devout belief in one’s gut rather than one supported by facts (see:Colbert Introduces Truthiness). Truthiness reflects the desire of a formidable section of the population (or is it the entire population?) to assert that what they believe to be true is true, not necessarily because the facts support it but because they want to believe it so strongly. Colbert, in character, asserted that the nation was at war between “those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts.” As Colbert put it in an interview with the A.V. Club by The Onion (January 26, 2006), “facts matter not at all. Perception is everything” (see: Colbert Interview).

To say that the word took off is a lame understatement. A Google search of “truthiness” yields 969,000 hits. Wikipedia–where I get all of my facts with full enjoyment of the ironic potential of that statement–has an article on the word that offers 57 footnotes pointing to a wide range of popular culture and media sources. If you are so inclined, you could follow #truthiness on Twitter and receive a constant string of observations from some of the brightest minds of the time, but I can’t recommend that in good conscience.

In no uncertain terms, truthiness is in the American grain, politically and socially. Colbert claims that the word–and its satirical context–is the thesis for the Colbert Report itself. Whether all of his viewers really get that could be debated, at least if one considers viewers early in the run of the show. See the 2009 article examining the complicated range of audience responses to the Colbert Report by Heather LeMarre here: The Irony of Satire.  I have commented on that conundrum in an earlier post questioning the power of satire — Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically). That essay was followed by a first-rate essay by Sharon McCoy reaffirming at least some of my optimism — (Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire).  By 2013, however, Colbert has appeared out-of-character enough and has built such a clear following, it would be much more difficult to find an audience who would be as confused regarding his true political thinking as some viewers were in 2005. He is too big, and he has appeared more often out-of-character via interviews in a variety of outlets. He is liberal, OK?

I would argue that no humorist has ever called into service a word with more usefulness to cultural and media critics, and to lovers of irony. But the concept behind truthiness is not Colbert’s. It’s the cornerstone of American humor, and our greatest writers and characters have built a tradition of humor forever exploiting the grand American attraction to self-delusion, to the power of desire over the power of facts. It is what makes us so funny.

Rip Van Winkle

Washington Irving gave us our first enduring humorous character through the sleepy ne’er-do-well Rip Van Winkle, a man who abandons his family for twenty years and returns after his wife’s death to become a grand old man of the town, living the life he always wanted–talking and drinking with friends. Irving brings Rip to readers through his narrator, “Geoffrey Crayon” who takes the story from “Deidrich Knickerbocker,” who takes the story verbatim from Rip himself. That’s a lot of room for creative use of truthiness. Rip is no match for the idealized romantic heroic male of the revolutionary era, the Daniel Boone’s who built it, so to speak. He presents a different kind of American. He does not fight for love of country or for political freedom; he sits out the war. He does not build a homestead thus failing to accept his role in the making of the national Jeffersonian dream. Nope. Within the story are all the facts to show that Rip is a sorry excuse for a man and a lousy American, a troubling subversive. But we love him because he seems like such a nice guy, and his wife is such a pain–as Rip tells it. Of course, his narrative is self-serving–and successful. Although some townspeople clearly know he is a liar, most accept his story of sleeping for twenty years–because it feels right, or at least it allows them to go about their business. They are willing to believe in the mysteries of the hidden corners of the Catskills, but more importantly, they are eager to believe in a man they like. It just feels right. And easier.

Readers, moreover, do the same. They like him; they hate Dame Van Winkle. They forgive Rip his indiscretions and welcome him back into the fold. They believe him because he seems so earnest. Rip abides, bless his heart.  They believe, for the similar reasons, in the exploits of Daniel Boone. But I digress. All of Rip’s late-life success in becoming a center of attention is made possible by his willingness to lie and the inherent desire of most of the townspeople to believe his story simply because they want to. Facts and deductive reasoning be damned. That is funny.

Washington Irving, in giving us Rip, deserves recognition as the first worthy exploiter of truthiness in American humor. The great master of the 19th century was, of course, Mark Twain–who I will come back to in another post. There are many others, from the eternal optimism of Charlie Chaplin, to the befuddled female misfits of Dorothy Parker, to the secret dreams of Walter Mitty envisioned by James Thurber, to the disturbed struggles of Lenny Bruce, to the white Russians of the Dude from the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. It is a long list that has as its current master-artist Stephen Colbert. It is a timeline of writers, characters, comedians, and satirists covering just under two hundred years (using the 1819 publication of “Rip Van Winkle” as my starting point).

For some reason, there is still a need for satirical minds to tell subversive stories and to exploit the absurdities of American culture because there also remains a powerful urge for many Americans to shun facts and go with their gut to serve their own desires and belief systems. They find regular affirmation in popular culture and politics. One could be somewhat disappointed that after all this time there is still so much work to be done to defeat the powers of truthiness in our political systems and social structures. Not me. I believe things will get better. I can feel it in my gut.

Because Rip abides.

Colbert and Truthiness 2