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Even Stephen Colbert thought this ‘Colbert Report’ tweet went too far

If a joke falls flat on Twitter, does it matter if it was funny in context?


Aja Romano


Posted on Mar 28, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 1:47 pm CDT

A tweet from The Colbert Report account earlier today has people on Twitter embroiled in an argument over satire and racism.

The Twitter account for the satirically conservative Comedy Central show published a strikingly unsatirical, and some say straight-up racist, tweet Thursday afternoon.

The tweet, a tie-in to a segment on Wednesday night’s show, was intended to be biting commentary about the hypocrisy of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who responded to criticism of his team’s name by creating a foundation to help provide more opportunities for “Original Americans.”

Unfortunately, 140 characters leaves little room for that kind of context. Without being paired against the Redskins situation, the tweet alone appears to be in shockingly bad taste.

To understand the tweet in its proper context, see last night’s episode clip. The relevant portion begins around 4:50.

Though it has since been deleted, the tweet sparked a rare moment of heated backlash for Colbert, with offended Twitter users spawning the hashtag #CancelColbert. An intense divide split parts of Twitter as the hashtag quickly reached trending status.

Amid the turmoil, it seemed the vast majority of those using the hashtag were actually defending Colbert and railing against those who declared #CancelColbert in earnest:

@ColbertReport Keep the funny coming Colbert #CancelColbert is a joke and I intent to start watching your show even more #WhatILearnedToday

— Kenny HAM (@ShotgunKenny) March 28, 2014

1729. Jonathan Swift has just published A Modest Proposal. Twitter reacts: “CANCEL THE SWIFT REVUE HOUR” #CancelColbert

— Chris Coletta (@chris_coletta) March 28, 2014

I dunno if we need to go so far as to #CancelColbert, but an out-of-character self-criticism session on Monday’s show might be in order.

— Ron Hogan (@RonHogan) March 28, 2014

When Colbert is in character, he is playing the most ignorant kind of people, showing the world how awful they are #CancelColbert

— Boredgeek (@boredgeek) March 28, 2014

The conflict behind the tweet seems to be a basic question of context and intent. Those defending Colbert say he’s a comedian poking fun at racism. But if offense is caused, does it matter if the intent was to provoke commentary or be satirical? Those objecting to the tweet seem to feel that intent is irrelevant, and that Colbert’s brand of satire does more harm than good. It’s too close to “hipster -ism”, a kind of inside joke that actually perpetuates the thing it’s superficially trying to mock.

#CancelColbert because these “jokes” once justified exclusionary acts, internment camps, atom bombs, napalm, and the murder of Vincent Chin.

— Bhaswati Chattopadhy (@BhaswatiChat) March 28, 2014

#CancelColbert because racism disguised as satire is unacceptable. @StephenAtHome @ColbertReport

— Cullen (@RadiCullen) March 28, 2014

stop saying “it was a joke” as if a joke can’t be harmful. yeah, it *was* a joke. *and* it’s harmful.

— Black Girl Dangerous (@BlackGirlDanger) March 28, 2014

#CancelColbert Because this will be on his show tomorrow and the crowd will mull and boo and try to silence just like they’re doing on here.

— Viet Le (@Skullduggery_V) March 28, 2014

The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has trended #CancelColbert. Sorry, white liberals.

— Suey Park (@suey_park) March 28, 2014

This isn’t the first time Colbert has come under fire. Most notably, he’s been taken to task for numerous statements on the Colbert Report that some viewers felt were transphobic. The angry side of Twitter hadn’t forgotten those as it rehashed criticisms Thursday night.

#cancelcolbert Not in the mood to read all the white liberals defending him. Been feeling all kinds of annoyance since his transphobic BS.

— Mel (@melbeltrain) March 28, 2014

Tired of people of color and trans* folk being a punchline so progressives can feel like they are better than *somebody*. #CancelColbert

— User #108,499,607 (@b_cubbage) March 28, 2014

As the debate raged, the official Colbert Report Twitter issued a new Redskins-related tweet that made the satire more clear. But offended viewers will undoubtedly be expecting an apology, either on Twitter or on Monday’s live showing, if not both.

Update: The Colbert Report Twitter account clarified Thursday night that it’s a Comedy Central account operated without oversight by Stephen Colbert or the show’s creative team: 

For the record @ColbertReport is not controlled by Stephen Colbert or his show. He is @StephenAtHome Sorry for the confusion #CancelColbert

— The Colbert Report (@ColbertReport) March 28, 2014

#CancelColbert – I agree! Just saw @ColbertReport tweet. I share your rage. Who is that, though? I’m @StephenAtHome

— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) March 28, 2014

Photo via Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-2.0

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*First Published: Mar 28, 2014, 1:38 am CDT