by Amanda Roberts
In comedy, context is everything. Fake newsman and famed satirist Stephen Colbert learned this lesson the hard way with a single tweet in 2014 that spawned a massive campaign to end his Comedy Central show The Colbert Report.
Rarely has Colbert ever appeared on television as himself. Instead, for nearly a decade, he played a character quite unlike himself. In contrast to his liberal nature in real life, the television “Colbert” was proudly ignorant and prone to oblivious prejudices about democrats, Obama, and even bears. In 2005, as part of one of his more meta bits, “Colbert” introduced “Ching Chong Ding Dong,” a character he played that he claimed in no way spoke for his own views. Colbert’s character once stated that he was so above racism that he “didn’t see color” and could therefore not be blamed when he said racist things.
The bit laid quietly in the Report archives until 2014, when in an address to the Washington Redskins over their racist team name, Colbert mentioned that he himself was countering his own racism by creating the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” In the context of the ridiculous atmosphere of the show, the joke was hardly special, but thanks to the polarizing nature of social media, that one line quickly turned into a firestorm. The official @ColbertReport twitter account followed the episode with a tweet: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Without a link to the show or any sort of mention of the Redskins origins, the tweet lacked any sort of context, not even coming across as satirical. Asian-American twitter activist Suey Park quickly responded by starting the #CancelColbert campaign calling for the host’s show to be taken off the air. The hash tag exploded with activity, from those defending Colbert in the name of free speech and comedy, to those like Park who believed that satire was just an excuse to proliferate racist messages. Colbert went from beloved comedian to potential racist overnight, thanks to one tweet.
But once again, context is everything. In the coming days, it was revealed that Colbert was not in charge of the @ColbertReport account, nor was his staff. Comedy Central handles all show accounts separately from the writers or stars. Though the feed boasted 1.2 million followers, it was shut down for good in lieu of all show promotions and messages to go through Colbert’s personal account @StephenAtHome.
The #CancelColbert debacle was an unfortunate social media fail on many levels. Though Colbert is known to play a character on his show, textual quotes lack the ability to convey sarcasm or context without links to the actual video. Without having watched the show or being provided with a link to the segment, viewers of the tweet missed the connection to the Washington Redskins and to Colbert’s earlier segments on racism.
The tweet also reveals a failure on Colbert’s part to control his image on social media. Though he had his own personal Twitter account, it was confusing to fans that the @ColbertReport was meant to be a separate entity. Perhaps it was just a convenient excuse for Colbert to distance himself and place the blame on some Comedy Central network staffer. Either way, social media branding must be consistent and controlled, and Report failed in both regards.
To avoid future social media failures in his future endeavors, Colbert should always include video context in tweets regarding show segments. A shortened bit.ly link sacrifices only a few characters and ensures that satire will be viewed within its full scope. He should also keep the @StephenAtHome account as his main source of social media branding as he moves to hosting the Late Show. Though the debacle put his character into question, the shift from the network’s account to a personal account raised his authenticity.
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