04/03/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

#CancelColbert And The Complex Anatomy Of A Racial Joke

Comedy Central

Middlebrow is a recap of the week in entertainment, celebrity and television news that provides a comprehensive look at the state of pop culture. From the rock bottom to highfalutin, Middlebrow is your accessible guidebook to the world of entertainment. Sign up to receive it in your inbox here.


#CancelColbert trended for more than 36 hours starting Thursday, March 27, after an offensively Orientalism-themed tweet was sent from the show's Twitter account. "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever," read the tweet (sent and subsequently deleted by a web editor for the show's account).

The now-notorious "twit," as Colbert called it in his Monday apology, was a line pulled from a segment about Dan Snyder and the Redskins, which targeted the use of racial slurs in his aggressively offensive "Washington Redskins for Original Americans” organization. The joke and the reaction -- initiated by Asian American activist Suey Park -- provided for interesting conversations about Twitter activism, solidarity among racial groups and the effect of racial humor. Punched up in its original context, the joke yielded no reaction. So, the snippet and the virulent backlash it elicited allow for a fascinating look at what makes a racial satire funny.

In retrospect, the arguments of both those behind #CancelColbert and the show's supporters built themselves into flawed conversations. The argument escalated with such frenzy, it led to various misconceptions, ultimately becoming a false dichotomy (where, as my colleague Carol Hartsell put it, "people who believe in very similar things are squaring off because there are loud actual racists in the middle of the room"). On one hand, it's true that the goal of canceling one of the most A+ political shows on television because of a tweet is absurd. But canceling the show was never really the point. As Park explained, #CancelColbert was an extreme measure simply intended to draw attention to the offensive joke.


But the answer to what makes racial humor funny starts with the (innumerable) racist jokes that are 100 percent not funny. The problem with most of these is that they have little substance. When Stephen Colbert spoke at Fordham University in September of 2012, he described such jokes as "flippant," explaining that they damage their subjects without providing content. That "#Asian" line of Colbert's joke quoted out of context on twitter was "flippant." Similarly in this vein, Brittney Cooper noted the example of "Chelsea Handler’s endless quips about black men with big penises" over at Salon; though Handler's goal is to "satirize white women’s fetishization of black men ... most often, it feels like she’s reinforcing the stereotype."

This is not to say that jokes are incapable of taking aim at such touchy subjects as racism. Humor directed at these subjects can actually function as a sort of power against them. But effective satirization should not further perpetuate misconceptions associated with the topic at hand. Take Louis C.K.'s response to the Daniel Tosh controversy of June 2012. When Tosh's controversial rape joke was rightfully criticized for "stripping the experience of its weight," as Elissa Bassist put it at The Daily Beast, many wondered if a rape joke could ever be funny. Louis proved that it absolutely could, inverting the punchline to be directed at rapists and perpetuating the feminist perspective, rather than authenticating the idea, as Tosh did, that taking advantage of women is ever OK.


Men have the capability to tell good, funny rape jokes. And white folks have the capability to tell good, funny jokes that intend to satirize racism. The emphasis of the humor is not so much on its origin, but the problem of reinforcing stereotypes. Consider Dave Chappelle's rejection of the (super lucrative) "Chappelle Show" in May 2005. At a taping, one white spectator laughed "particularly loud and long" about a sketch focusing on black stereotypes. "His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong," Time reported, "He wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them." "When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," Chappelle told the magazine. "As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f--king time out after this. Because my head almost exploded."

When we look at Colbert's joke out of context, it has the same cringe-worthy effect of something that might fuel the chuckles of "loud actual racists." Within the segment, the deliberate intention to criticize rather than perpetuate stereotypes is definitively clearer. But Park and her #pitchfork wielding mob are still justified in taking issue with the 138-character version of the joke, which denounced the use of racial slurs with more racial slurs. But really, the #CancelColbert controversy is not about who is right or wrong, but the way in which racial satirization can be effective. Humor directed at racism can be poignant and powerful tool. If we can wade through all of the reactive backlash to the backlash, Colbert and Park's intentions actually align, in that both take issue with reinforcing preconceived notions about people based solely on the color of their skin. Of course, it's easy to point to that now, with the clarity of hindsight. But maybe next time we can trend #CancelStereotypes.

Everything Else You Need To Know:

  • On March 31, the entire country of Canada gathered to BOO Justin Bieber. Okay, it was just the audience of the Juno Awards and he wasn't even actually there. But still, you guys, this is bad news for our hopes of them ever taking him back.
  • bieber4

  • Chelsea Handler's contract with E! expires at the end of the year and she intends to take her show elsewhere. Viewership and ad revenue has dipped in recent years, but Handler is notably one of the only prominent ladies in a sea of late night hosts, so here's hoping she finds a solid new home for those "black penis" jokes (see above).
  • After nine years of slap bets and Neil Patrick Harris being aggressively heteronormative, "How I Met Your Mother" ended with a twist! Some people were really pleased, but many more were just INFURIATED. Read Vulture's take on how the ending "bailed on the entire show" here.
  • 1120ted2

  • Drake surprised fans with the debut of "Draft Day" on Tuesday night and it includes a reference to our BFF Jennifer Lawrence: "On some Hunger Games s--t I would die for my District / Jennifer Lawrence you can really get it / I mean forreal, girl you know I had to do it for ya." (J.Law, seriously though, if you're reading this, we love you and we think you're really pretty.)
  • There are a ton of biblical movies hitting the box office lately, which seems strange, because we've been aware of that source material for, like, billions of years or something. Head over to the Daily Beast for Keli Goff's take on "Why Christians Now Rule Hollywood."
  • Finally, here's the picture of Miley Cyrus' right boob going horseback riding, which is also the cover art for "Adore You."

Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenduca



Behind 'The Colbert Report'