The joke wasn’t particularly funny. That was its first and biggest problem. If a joke is truly funny, it’s amazing how much forgiveness people can muster.
Presented out of context and in minimal form for the Twitterverse’s 140-character limit, it proved to be nothing but problematic.
The joke, as presented on “The Colbert Report” Twitter site was “I am willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
It originated on Colbert’s show last Wednesday and was in satiric response to the Original Americans Foundation of the Washington Redskins owner, Daniel Snyder. In other words, the target of the joke wasn’t Asian-Americans at all but rather the way American hypocrisy launches transparent public relations ploys to try to cover up racism that has become institutionalized.
In response to the joke as it existed – without context – on Twitter, a 22-year old Asian-American “hashtag activist” named Suey Park began a #cancelColbert campaign on Twitter in which, she admitted to the New Yorker’s blogger Jay Kaspian Kang, she didn’t believe herself. She told Kang she watched Colbert and didn’t really want him canceled. Rather, she was calling attention with her hashtag to “the totality of white privilege.”
Which is, of course, virtually impossible to argue with – not sanely and coherently, anyway.
It should be explained to those in the world not hip to the folkways and practices of the world of Internet social media that hashtags – as in “#cancelColbert– are ways to organize topics and thereby attract attention to one’s tweets. If you are, say, Joe Schmo from Schmowille, Wis., and your view is that Kanye West is an idiot, you tell all interested parties in the Twitterverse by hashtagging – with an # – West’s name. Voila, automatic readership of people who, otherwise, couldn’t possibly care less about what goes on between the ears of Joe Schmo from Schmoville, Wis.
The idea of “hashtag activism” is simple: Those organizing hashtags are an important way of getting movements started online. They’re a way to get attention for a cause.
Which Park did. White America doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about prejudice in general and against Asian-Americans in particular. Courtesy of Colbert’s complex and disembodied joke about institutionalized racism, the subject was suddenly getting a great deal of attention, especially among Asian-Americans on social media.
Defenders of Colbert could then become as vile in 140 characters as anyone else, which is, of course, not the point of Colbert’s comedy at all. But for me, anyway, it brought up another subject.
Stephen Colbert is the real name of Stephen Colbert. But it is, for showbiz purposes, also the name of a comic persona in the same way that Jack Benny was also the (changed) name of a fictional persona of a cheap and humorless fellow who was, in real life, known to be as warm-hearted, generous and as full of humor as they come. (Less well-known was his capacity for dark misery, but that’s a whole other story.)
Personae are always problematic. There is no quicker avenue for trouble than making a joke “in character.” It was, in my view, the source of most of the whole Miley Cyrus rumpus, i.e., a rather brilliant and daring young performer desirous of making waves to prove she was never “Hannah Montana” at all, created a scantily clad, twerking, tongue-waggling, joint-toking persona to inhabit adult nightmares and cause sympathetic giggles among young rebels of all stripe.
Andrew Dice Clay is the (changed) real name of a comedian whose foul-mouthed macho persona is a leather jacket-wearing jackass whose baroque misogyny makes a comic hash of all sex. What comes out of his mouth bashes women horrifically; what results is a harrowingly funny portrait of the worst kind of macho stupidity. When you recognize that it is the male gender that looks the worst after he’s finished, you understand the young women who laugh at his act. They’ve met that jerk, or someone like him, in bars.
That’s why Woody Allen perspicaciously (and rebelliously, too) hired Clay the Actor for an ideal role for him in “Blue Jasmine.” But that’s also why Clay’s jokes in character so outraged women. He was trapped inside a comic persona and couldn’t figure out how to get out when he was filling arenas with fans and making so much money. Overexposure resulted as well as inevitable mass rejection.
It is a terribly delicate thing to do for a living, really, to depend on a comic persona. You have to be very careful doing it. If you go off course even by so much as an inch, the audience, in its hunger for “reality,” will gladly forget the fiction and believe it’s real.
Colbert, in truth, has often played fast and loose with his persona.
To his enlightened audience, of course, he is portraying a cable news idiot, a blunderbuss bloviator of the Bill O’Reilly sort, capable of confusing all stupidity and insensitivity with “straight-shooting.”
Those who know where Colbert is coming from always laugh, which often makes it easy for him to eliminate the fictional persona altogether. And for the less enlightened, (and less kindly disposed) that can upset the oh-so-delicate balance entirely.
The point about white male privilege is one we don’t often confront from the Asian-American minority, simply because Colbert’s version of it just isn’t how that stereotype works anymore. His version seems from a very old – and pretty bad – movie.
I grew up in a ’50s and ’60s Jewish household when two things made mass media anti-Semitism unlikely, if not completely impossible: A) the revealed horrors of the Holocaust just a few years before and B) the wall-to-wall presence of Jewish comedians throughout that era.
It’s not that there weren’t gentile exceptions but they proved the rule. Bob Hope was the richest and most famous, but there were also Garry Moore, George Gobel, Steve Allen, and Jack Paar. But against them was a teeming horde of Jews – many with Americanized names – who had become America’s comic establishment: Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, George Burns, Milton Berle, Jack E. Leonard, Don Rickles, Jack Carter, Morey Amsterdam, Sid Caesar, Red Buttons, Buddy Hackett, Carl Reiner, Mort Sahl, Myron Cohen, Alan King, Woody Allen, Phil Silvers, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
To the degree that there was institutionalized anti-Semitism in America, it was covert and usually had to be decoded. Almost never did it declare itself in public.
I never saw it in movies. Or on TV (until the ’80s and ’90s, when an unusual number of slimy lawyers with Jewish last names suddenly showed up on TV shows that had been written by writers with Jewish backgrounds).
So I understand, I think, #cancelColbert.
No one really wants to cancel Colbert. No one wants to banish humor or satire either.
It’s stupidity, insensitivity, hypocrisy and cluelessness that need to be canceled wherever possible.
If, though, you’re performing what is, essentially, an extremely delicate art whose subject is stupidity, insensitivity, etc., you have to be ever-so-careful about how you do it, just as a surgeon during open-heart surgery needs to make sure his scalpel doesn’t slip.
Talk about consequences.