During the last day, Stephen Colbert, who by this point counts as a comedic warhorse for liberalism, has been on blast for a Tweet from the account for his show. The missive has since been taken down, but while it was live, it read: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Shocking, to be sure, but the target seemed to be fairly clear (especially when viewed in context): Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder had just announced, with astonishing audacity, his jaw-droppingly named Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, an obvious attempt to blunt criticism of his team’s name. But writer and activist Suey Park decided that bringing Asians and Asian-Americans in on the satire was a misstep, calling on Comedy Central to “#CancelColbert.”

This Sept. 8, 2010 publicity photo released by Comedy Central shows host Stephen Colbert appears on
“The Colbert Report” host Stephen Colbert. (AP Photo/Comedy Central, Scott Gries)

That is not a likely outcome. Still, the kerfuffle is a useful illustration of how comedy often functions, and where different audiences flashpoints lie.

During a fierce debate over comedian Daniel Tosh’s invocation of rape during a live set, Jezebel writer and comedian Lindy West wrote a meditation on rape jokes that strikes me as a useful guideline for thinking about comedy more generally. Jokes about rape could be both funny and revealing, she argued, if they were employed to turn the audience against characters and cultures that minimized or routinized sexual assault. Louis C.K.’s famous riff about sexual assault is a great example. The language in these bits can be rough, and the scenarios might be disturbing to some listeners. But the jokes are still fundamentally on the side of rape victims.

Colbert was doing precisely that sort of punching up rather than down in a March 26 segment on Snyder that was the source of the Tweet. He made fun of the bureaucratic language Snyder cowers behind. He mocked Snyder’s attempts to buy racial cover on the cheap, noting “The foundation also assisted in the purchase of a new backhoe for the Omaha tribe. That’s right. Assisted. Because you can’t expect a team worth $1.7 billion to pay for the entire backhoe. Those things cost thousands. To cover that price, they’d have to sell a beer and a soft pretzel.”

And he explained the origin of the Twitter joke that would cause so much trouble. Colbert has two running alter egoes on the show, Esteban Colberto and Ching-Chong Ding-Dong, who function as jokes on his character’s utter ignorance of race and racism. Responding to criticism of the Asian character as a stereotype of Asian-Americans, Colbert declared “Mr. Ding Dong is not American. He is a Chinaman from Guangong.” And, aping Snyder’s declarations about his team’s history, Colbert insisted “Ching Chong is part of the unique heritage of the Colbert Nation that cannot change. But I am willing to show the Asian community that I care by introducing the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or whatever.”

I tend to think that the tweet stands on its own as a slap at Snyder. But in context of the actual segment, I think it is difficult to defend Colbert as in any way on the side of Snyder, or any other belligerent die-hard on racial issues. A more narrow version of the argument might be more convincing: that the language Colbert intends as a showcase of the ludicrousness of racism is in fact so rough and so hurtful that it overwhelms the joke. Colbert certainly could have used the name of his fake foundation to poke fun at the bureaucratic language Snyder and his ilk use to conceal their racism, rather than choosing a moniker that brings the subtext to the surface.

I am all for debates about the craft of comedy, and the efficacy of jokes that tee up on racism, sexism, and the powerful figures who perpetuate them. But in the overall conversation, Colbert seems fairly strongly aligned on the side of everyone who finds Dan Snyder ridiculous.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.