NEW YORK — In his first night on the air since a campaign to #CancelColbert erupted on Twitter Thursday night, Stephen Colbert spent nearly his entire show Monday night responding to charges of racial insensitivity.
For anyone who missed out on the brouhaha, it all began Thursday evening when “The Colbert Report’s” Twitter account quoted a joke from a segment on Wednesday’s episode of the show that mocked Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for setting up a charity to aid Native Americans in lieu of changing his team’s name. In the original bit, Colbert said he was inspired by Snyder to start his own charity, called “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” (Ching-Ching Ding-Dong is the name of a cartoonishly stereotypical Asian character occasionally played by Colbert on the show.)
Out of context, however, some Twitter users thought the joke was offensive to Asian Americans, and within hours the hashtag #CancelColbert was a top trending subject on the social media website.
Colbert humorously referred to the controversy on his personal Twitter account, @StephenAtHome but waited until Monday night to issue a full response — and that he did, taking to task Comedy Central executives, the anonymous web editor responsible for the problematic tweet, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin and, oh yeah, the entire news media.
After an intro in which Colbert, clad in Redskins gear, had a nightmare featuring a cameo by actor B.D. Wong, the host dove right into the debacle. He explained that the joke originated in a segment about Snyder’s charity that was rebroadcast multiple times on Thursday without incident. It was only when his show’s promotional Twitter account repeated the joke, without a link to the segment or a mention of Snyder’s charity, on Thursday night, that a backlash ensued.
“Who would have thought a means of communication limited to 140 characters would ever create misunderstandings?” Colbert quipped.
Although he acknowledged why the tweet was misunderstood, Colbert expressed little sympathy with his critics. “When I saw the tweet without context, I understood how people were offended the same way I as an Irish American was offended after reading only one line of Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’: ‘Eat Irish babies,’” he said, referring to the essay in which the famed satirist urged impoverished Irish parents to sell their children to the wealthy as food.
And as Colbert pointed out, the #CancelColbert advocates think he’s racist even in context, to which he responded, “I just want to say that I’m not a racist. I don’t even see race, not even my own. People tell me I’m white and I believe them because I just spent six minutes devoted to explaining how I’m not a racist, and that is about the whitest thing you can do.” However, Colbert did urge his followers to stop harassing the hashtag activist Suey Park, who initiated the Twitter campaign against him and has been subjected to a barrage of criticism online.
And he reserved some of his most obvious displeasure for “the brain trust” at Comedy Central that decided to delete the original tweet once “the twit hit the fan” (“That’s how the Internet works, you can just take stuff down and no one will know it ever happened. Just ask Mayor Weiner.”) and especially for the news media.
The #CancelColbert controversy spawned a flurry of news stories in outlets including Time, the New Yorker and Salon, the last of which ran seven separate items on the controversy. Even CNN took a break from covering the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 “to report spotting what they thought was the wreckage of my show off the coast of Australia.” Worst of all for Colbert, he was attacked by “fellow conservative” Michelle Malkin, who taught him about sensitivity to the Asian-American experience with her book, “In Defense of Internment,” which defended the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“To recap, a Web editor I’ve never met posts a tweet in my name on an account I don’t control, outrages a hashtag activist and the news media gets 72 hours of content,” Colbert said. “The system worked.”
As a result, Colbert decided to shut down operations of his foundation and broke the news to the group’s supposed chief operating officer, “Ja-Mes” (whose name is actually James). “That ends that controversy,” he concluded. “I just pray that no one tweets about the time I said Rosa Parks was overrated, Hitler had some good ideas, or ran a cartoon during black history month showing President Obama teaming up with the Ku Klux Klan, because, man, that sounds pretty bad out of context.”
Though he stopped well short of apologizing for the tweet, Colbert also seems committed to avoiding such Twitter misunderstandings in the future. Case in point: Later in the show, he welcomed Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, who helped him deactivate the @ColbertReport account, which, as of Tuesday morning, remained nonexistent.