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The Colbert Retort

Bob Chipman | 31 Mar 2014 12:00
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NOTE: At the time of this writing, The Colbert Report had not yet aired a new episode since the beginning of the controversy four days ago.

So, this happened.

Easily the most tiresome recurring arguments in popular culture are over the subject of context when it comes to offensive (allegedly or otherwise) comedy. Primarily because the context side of these scrapes so often end up misapplying the term - arguing either in bad faith or in sincere ignorance of what the word context actually means. You'll hear this humble, unassuming word (ab)used as everything from a shorthand for personal familiarity ("Yeah, I know Jeff has weird hang ups about Hispanic people, but we've known him awhile and he's got other facets that make us want to overlook that") or as part of the Quantifiable Bigotry Fallacy (copyright: ME!) i.e. "It's not really hateful for South Park to compare transgender people to asking a surgeon to turn you into a dolphin, because they also make fun of ______." But all the while, poor mistreated context just keeps standing for what it always did: The full meaning of a component when viewed as a part of the whole.

Misunderstanding (or misappropriating) edgy humor by missing (or dismissing) context is a problem that's always been with us, but it's been exacerbated to previously unheard of levels by the explosion of Social Media, the lifeblood of which is bite-sized bits of bigger wholes. This can have the effect of crystallizing the essence of a point, true, but it can also lead to slivers plucked from a larger piece creating the opposite effect of their intent. Witness the popularity of Wall Street's "Greed is good!" speech or "You can't handle the truth!" from A Few Good Men among the very persons/mindsets those films were built to condemn and vilify.

Given that, it's hard to believe it took this long for the (so far) unending discord between old-school long-joke satire and the instant/piecemeal nature of Social Media to catch up with Stephen Colbert. After all, The Colbert Report routine is so deeply reliant on context (both of its own and of the daily news cycle) that in order to understand not only the joke that led to this weekend's circus over the "#CancelColbert" hashtag but the way the outrage-cycle played out requires a pop-culture acumen that's a little dizzying once broken down.

In short order, the need-to-knows include:

  • Who Stephen Colbert is
  • What The Colbert Report is
  • A working knowledge of U.S. left/right political divides
  • A familiarity with the Fox News Channel aesthetic
  • That Colbert and his same-named TV self are meant to be different persons (except when they're not)
  • Awareness of an ongoing controversy over U.S. sports teams named after Native American tribes and/or dated insensitive nicknames for the same
  • Awareness of The Washington Redskins specifically
  • And it helps to readily recall a Colbert Report sketch from 2005 that this new sketch made reference to.

Gee. I can't imagine how anybody got confused, huh?

Launched prior to White House Correspondents' Dinner (but rendered a pop-culture institution by Colbert's performance there as one of the most memorable hosting gig ever), The Colbert Report has always been a marvel of pushing how far the truly talented comedian and his writing staff can mine what seems like one specific joke for one specific audience. A former Daily Show fixture, Colbert's TV persona is summarized as a Fox News Channel parody, a mashup of Sean Hannity's schoolyard bully bluster and Bill O'Reilly's egomaniacal eccentricity glazed with FNC's signature cartoon patriotism, conceived at the height of the network's Bush-era pop-relevance. Its target audience: The subset of loyal Daily Show fans (read: politically-savvy, left-of-center GenX/Millennial news-addicts) who loathe everything Fox stands for but keep watching out of morbid (or, let's be honest, smug) fascination.

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