We can add Stephen Colbert to a long list of professional funny people who have leapt off the comedy high-diving board, hoping that there’s water in the pool, only to crash into dry cement.
Rosie O’Donnell, Jimmy Kimmel, Gilbert Gottfried, The Onion, and many other standups have been compelled to abjectly apologize, lose their jobs, explain themselves or otherwise suffer severe pain for their ill-fated attempts to make people laugh.
In Colbert’s case, he seems to have been pushed off the high-dive by the Comedy Central public relations staff, who provoked a racially outraged firestorm after tweeting a bit of satire from Wednesday night’s Colbert Report without any context or humorous affect.
Colbert, who adopts the persona of a know-nothing right-wing cable host, was lampooning Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s lame effort to placate an increasingly vocal and organized group of critics offended by the football team’s arguably racist name. Colbert mocked the team’s PR department, which announced something called the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a charity which Snyder created, according to a Redskins press release, “to provide resources that offer genuine opportunities for Tribal Communities.”
Colbert, in character, made a typically dumb and offensive remark about people of Asian ancestry, which got a laugh from his knowing studio audience, but on Thursday was distilled into a tweet from a Comedy Central account for @ColbertReport: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.—The Colbert Report (@ColbertReport) March 27, 2014.”
In short order, thousands of Twitter members began attacking Colbert personally for what, at best, read as a racially prejudiced remark. The hashtag #CancelColbert began trending bigtime. A representative tweet out of thousands of outraged followers, including Asian-Americans: “Et tu, Stephen? Not funny. It’s doesn’t prove your point. It makes you ‘no better’ than the racists.”
A shell-shocked Comedy Central deleted the offending tweet—a palliative that had zero impact, since so many screenshots had proliferated on the Internet—and Colbert himself woke up Friday morning to an unpleasant mess not of his own making.
“I agree!” he tweeted to his million followers for his personal account @StephenAtHome. “Just saw @ColbertReport tweet. I share your rage.” He added that he didn’t even know the offending tweeter and had nothing to do with the account.
“If your PR department is engaging in or even excerpting humor, they’re in the wrong place,” said satirist Harry Shearer, who voices characters on The Simpsons, hosts a weekly satirical radio program, Le Show, and famously co-starred in the classic rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. “Their place is to say, ‘Watch the show tonight! It’s great!’ and shut up after that.”
Shearer told The Daily Beast: “Transgressive comedy, especially when it’s coming out of the mouth of a character espousing what the writers and the performer despise, is so dependent not just on context but on delivery—which are two things that Twitter strips from it.”
While Colbert—the man, not the character—is by most accounts blameless in this comedy fiasco, Shearer cautioned that satire “is a very blunt weapon. You don’t use it against normal people. You aim it at the people with the guns.” He added that while perhaps 80 percent of Colbert’s television audience gets the joke, the same cannot be said about the population reading the joke on Twitter.
“Taboos change, but it has always been the chance you take when you make fun of racism that you’re going to get confused with racists. That’s why context and delivery are so crucial to that particular kind of transgressive humor.”
Shearer recalled his own cringe-worthy experience with racial humor as a performer on Saturday Night Live during the early 1980s. “The apartheid South African government was selling these gold coins called Krugerrand—to make some money but also to white-wash, literally, their image. ‘We’re the guys who make the gold coins you like so much.’ So,” Shearer continued, “I did a bit with a commercial for another gold coin, the name of which began with an N. I remember Rodney Dangerfield actually said to me, 20 seconds before I went on, ‘You’re not gonna do that bit, are you?’”
Shearer did, and received 200 pieces of angry mail the following Monday. The response surely would have been many multiples of that if, like Colbert, he had been on Twitter.