Stephen Colbert flirted with an early version of Cancel Culture back in 2014.
Colbert, then hosting Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” uttered stereotypically Asian gibberish to mock Washington Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder’s alleged insensitivies.
When the bit got translated to Twitter, without the full context, a #CancelColbert hashtag campaign bloomed. How did Colbert respond? He used his faux conservative character to brush off the controversy.
And it worked.
No mewling apologies. No promises to be an “ally” to the Asian-American community. This happened in 2014, a time when woke Apology Tours weren’t yet a thing.
Flash forward to 2021, and Colbert has a very different view of Cancel Culture. He jokes it doesn’t actually exist, for starters, ignoring the mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Colbert opened up, cautiously, on the subject during a new interview with Crooked Media.
Colbert is a fast talker and quick wit, but he chose his words very carefully during the Cancel Culture part of the conversation. It’s almost like he knew saying the wrong thing might get him canceled.
When it comes to comedy, Colbert says he once worked under a simple principle.
“I can control my intentions but not your interpretations. That said,” he explained, allowing himself a very long pause, “I also value humility. And that’s something that I haven’t always associated with my work.”
Translation. You might find problematic jokes in my past. Here’s my de facto apology.
“The Late Show” host said using his old “Colbert Report” persona, the hard-charging conservative in the Bill O’Reilly mold, let him indulge in appetites he no longer applies to his craft.
“I wanna be able to say anything I want about anything, and I think that you should have the ability to say anything you want about anything,” he said of his thinking then, and now (sort of). “That doesn’t mean you get the response you want … there are consequences.”
“What does Cancel Culture mean? Somebody didn’t like [the joke], they got a lot of people to agree that they didn’t like it, and now you have to deal with their feelings. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a real thing,” he said, ignoring how it’s often microscopic mobs who trigger the cancellations.
“And if Cancel Culture really existed why is Mel Gibson working? Why?” Colbert quipped.
Of course, what Colbert forgets is that Gibson became radioactive in Hollywood after unleashing a volley of anti-Semitic slurs during a 2006 police altercation. He essentially retreated from his A-list perch, and his IMDB page is empty from 2006 to 2009. He re-emerged, slowly, in mostly indie films like “Get the Gringo” (2012) and “Blood Father” (2016), proving he could be trusted on a film set.
He seemed contrite, treated colleagues well and, eventually, scored a more mainstream gig – directing the Oscar-nominated 2016 film “Hacksaw Ridge.”
Now, having paid a steep price for his ugly outbursts, he’s been allowed back into Hollywood’s good graces. He has a dizzying line up of projects ahead of him, including directing and starring in “Lethal Weapon 5.”
It’s called forgiveness, and while some may never forgive Gibson for what he’s said and done, others agreed he should be allowed to create new art.
Cancel Culture, by comparison, often involves more conventional words which don’t inflict physical pain, just bruised feelings. Gibson’s verbiage, by comparison, was extremely offensive from every possible angle.
Colbert then essentially agreed with the Cancel Culture ethos that comedians should be held to a standard normally given to politicians or other serious figures.
“I never hide behind, ‘it’s just a joke,'” he said. “It’s a joke, and those are hard. Try to do them thoughtfully.”
Like calling a sitting president Vladimir Putin’s “c*** holster?”
What Colbert conveniently forgets is that comedians are often working on the fly. They craft new jokes, tweak older ones and are constantly refining their humor. A lousy joke on Wednesday might be brilliant a few days later.
Comedians need the leeway to hone their work without fear of cancellation. Sometimes the most insightful humor emerges from that process.
Does he think Dave Chappelle’s best material happened overnight? Almost every comic has stories of bombing early in their careers. Here’s betting the jokes in question were terrible and needed some workshopping.
Colbert danced around some more in the interview.
“If I have someplace to stand, where I think it has an overt meaning, then there’s no joke I feel uncomfortable saying,” he said.
But, wait, there are exceptions.
“I have come to believe that saying to historically marginalized people … ‘y’all gotta take a joke,’ is a little Olympian,” he said. “You can say it, but I think it might be … a little solipsistic to think your intention is a more important than the effect of your work.”
He’s pro Cancel Culture (even if he wonders if it exists). He’s in curious company here, though.
Who decides which groups fit that category? Does it mean said groups cannot be mocked in any way, playfully or otherwise? Is there a rule book in play? Would conservatives in Hollywood be considered a marginalized group?
If not, why not?
And what about people who find offense in virtually anything? Should we cancel comics who trigger them, too?
Colbert wants it both ways, apparently. He’s also thinking he’s safe from the Cancel Culture mob. He delivers progressive talking points five nights a week on CBS. That, he reasons, offers him a bulletproof shield against the woke mob.
He’s right … to a point.
The Left loved Dave Chappelle up until this year. They adored author J.K. Rowling up until last year. Both stepped away from the progressive template, albeit briefly, and now are relentlessly attacked by the press and woke warriors.
It can happen to Colbert, too.
SICK OF WOKE HOLLYWOOD? ME, TOO: It’s why I wrote “Virtue Bombs: How Hollywood Got Woke and Lost Its Soul” – coming Jan. 18, 2022. Pre-order now!