Whenever a satirist invokes Jonathan Swift, you know he’s running scared.
And yes, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” makes a cameo in the Colbert Report segment addressing the #CancelColbert controversy.
Responding to the controversy sparked by a tweet from the Comedy Central account that, with no context whatsoever, offered a joke that Colbert was using to target Dan Snyder’s new Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation (“an obvious attempt to win over Native Americans because it only uses the term Redskins once in its name,” as Colbert calls it) as though it were something that Colbert had said out of the blue, inspiring a frenzy of #CancelColbert tweets.*
Out came the Swift. “But when I saw the tweet with no 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. I mean, eat Irish babies? Hashtag #CancelSwift! Trend it.”
The jokes in “A Modest Proposal” may no longer land quite the way they used to, and we may barely know the context for the essay, but we can all agree on one thing: It is definitely satire. It is quite literally the textbook example. If you have to go back to first principles of This is Satire, People!, this is the one you use. And Colbert did, because this is the kind of thankless world we live in nowadays.
Colbert kept driving home the point about “Stephen Colbert.” “Very important: he is a character! He is not me! This is the real Stephen Colbert. I mean everything I say on this show.”
He got in a few zingers about technology as well: “Who would have thought a means of communication limited to 140 characters would create misunderstandings?” “Then, when the Twit hit the fan, the Brain Trust over at my network took the tweet down. Because that’s how the Internet works. You can just take stuff down and no one will ever know it happened. Just ask Mayor Wiener.”
It’s worth watching in full.
Colbert also mocked the media, calling them “a small group of Americans who get their information only from Twitter.” Touche, sir.
* There is a discussion to be had about the joke in context. Some things are easier to make fun of than others. The whole Redskins controversy has evolved into the standard joke formula “Would you want a sports franchise called the [Place Name] [Old-Timey Racist Term For People Who Might Be Found In That Place]? Of course not! That would be HORRIBLY OFFENSIVE!” This is a joke Catch-22. If the term you pick is not offensive, it doesn’t land. If it is, people get offended. The trouble is finding a term that everyone knows is offensive but that is not still too ugly to say, even in jest. Mileage varies on the terms people have tried. But it was clear in context which way the joke was pointing.