Comedy Central political personality Stephen Colbert offered testimony before a judiciary subcommittee in Congress on Friday, to mixed reviews. While he had apparently been invited to appear by Chairwoman Lofgren, he was asked to leave the proceedings by Representative John Conyers, D-Mich, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, later called Colbert’s appearance “an embarrassment.”
Colbert stayed in character as an ultra-conservative Republican throughout most of his testimony, breaking only once when asked by Representative Judy Chu, D-California, why he was speaking on the issue of migrant workers. Colbert responded that he likes “talking about people without any power.”
Celebrities have often come to Congress, usually in earnest, to protest or show support for issues they hold dear. Sesame Street‘s Elmo appeared before Congress in 2002 to speak in front of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee on increasing funding for musical instruments in school programs and more music research. While it was unusual for them to be addressed on the issues by a Muppet, congressional members seemed to take Elmo’s role as an advocate for children seriously, backed as he is by several decades of educational programming. It had the added benefit of garnering more publicity for the issue as well. Sesame Street is the gold standard for the education of small children, and when Elmo speaks, apparently parents listen.
Brad Pitt traveled to Congress in 2009 to urge representatives to support sustainable green living options. He pointed out the success of his charity, the Make It Right Foundation, in rebuilding homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in a more energy-efficient, lower-cost manner. His visit coincided with the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, which offered homeowners foreclosure relief. Pitt’s persuasive model made an impression on Congress, and led Sen. Reid to announce plans for a green energy bill.
U2 frontman Bono is also a congressional staple, lobbying for AIDS relief and debt relief, among other issues. In 2003, he, along with others, successfully convinced Congress to increase its funding for AIDS prevention and relief in Africa, the largest increase in decades. Over the years, Bono has worked hard to cultivate a learned, respectful approach to his chosen topics, so when he speaks, political leaders now listen.
Rep. Conyers pointed out that Colbert’s written testimony submitted to the committee apparently differed greatly from what he said during the actual session. It is likely given Colbert’s character that his general testimony, even the more serious written version, unfortunately won’t have too much impact on the actual debate. It garnered publicity, sure, but Colbert’s Comedy Central character is mostly a spoof, and anyone familiar with his show knows it. Unlike Pitt, Bono, or even Elmo, he doesn’t have the reputation that would allow his testimony, though funny, to ultimately influence Congress.
Matthew Jaffe and Z. Byron Wolfe, “Stephen Colbert Takes on Congress, Sarcastically Argues for Farm Workers.” ABCNews.com
Mike Vilensky, “Steny Hoyer Thinks Stephen Colbert Embarassed Himself.” NYMag.com
Bruce Morton, “Mr.Elmo Goes to Washington.” CNN.com
Roberta Kruger, “Brad Pitt Visits Congress with a Green House Agenda.” TreeHugger.com
Judy Woodruff, “Bono: Congress has “really done something to be proud of.” CNN.com