Fake TV news anchor Stephen Colbert testified before a Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on September 24 on the topic of farm workers, immigration policy, and his experience working in the fields for one day. He sat next to the President of the United Farm Workers, Arturo Rodriguez, as he delivered his remarks. Colbert participated in the UFW’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign, which invited U.S. citizens to replace immigrant farm workers at least temporarily. Colbert, of course, filmed his day with the farm workers and turned it into a very effective piece of comedy with an edge that was aired on The Colbert Report (Comedy Central).
Colbert Takes his Comedy Act into a Committee Hearing
Where Colbert went wrong was in taking his act into the halls of the United States Congress and before one of its most distinguished committees. (Remember the Watergate era Nixon impeachment hearings chaired by Peter Rodino?) Although he said he was speaking “as a U.S. Citizen,” and he is by no means the first actor or celebrity to appear before Congress, Colbert made a big mistake by turning his testimony into a comedy routine.
His “shtick” on The Colbert Report is to mock the conservative newcasters and pundits on Fox News by pretending to be one. Anyone who watches the show catches on fairly quickly that Colbert is actually of the same liberal-leaning (or “progressive”) ilk as Jon Stewart. Stewart hosts The Daily Show, from which Colbert’s show was derived. This all works well on a late evening cable network fake news show, and perhaps at the annual National Press Club dinner (although Colbert was not very funny there), but it was actually insulting to the U.S. Congress.
Colbert’s Elitist Bigoted Oaf Shtick Baffles Congressmen
As someone who has written Congressional testimony, prepared agency witnesses, prepared Members of Congress for hearings, and reported on hearings extensively over the years, I know that having a comedian come to testify in character, pretending to be someone who is basically a self-obsessed, bigoted oaf is wrong. Colbert is a clever man who makes many excellent points using humor on television, but his act was perceived as rude and baffling by most of those at the hearing. A Congressional hearing about immigration and the plight of migrant farm workers is a serious forum in which serious people present facts and consider the impact of Federal policies on the lives of millions of people. It is anything but a comedy club.
Colbert started off well, saying he was “happy to use his celebrity to draw attention to this important, complicated issue.” However, he immediately deviated from his prepared remarks that had been submitted to the committee in advance. This in itself was a significant breach of Congressional protocol. Summarizing is routine; going in a whole new direction is not. Reportedly (according to CBS News and other sources) his prepared remarks had been straightforward and minimally comedic or ironic.
In his spoken remarks he immediately set the tone by commenting “I hope my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to C-Span 1.” In fact, the hearing was heavily covered by the media, including a swarm of reporters and photographers who were there only because of Colbert’s celebrity status. Colbert’s appearance on Capitol Hill was a story on the ABC Evening News with Brian Williams. Colbert knew that anything he said was bound to make a large splash.
Colbert Seems Silly
But instead of telling about the actual farm workers he met, he told silly jokes, and wandered off topic into a spiel about how the solution for dependence on immigrant farm labor was for Americans to stop eating vegetables. He asked to submit a video of his colonoscopy for the Congressional Record. In his most quotable (and sadly inappropriate) statement, he said:
“I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American. And sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan, in a spa, where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.”
I learned by research on Wikipedia that “a Brazilian” is a very thorough bikini wax treatment. Judging by the silence in the hearing room, I suspect I was not the only one unfamiliar with the term, which certainly sounded suggestive if not obscene.
More Serious Colbert during Question-Anwering
The only redeeming part of Colbert’s appearance at the hearing was the part at the end when he responded to questions from the committee members and seemed to go out of character. For example, he said:
“It seems like some of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. And that’s an interesting contradiction to me.”
Unfortunately, these more thoughtful,sensible statements from Colbert received much less publicity.
Conclusion: It was a Mistake
Overall, it was a highly unusual appearance by a political satirist before a Congressional committee that was neither entertaining nor enlightening. I think Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen summed it up very well when he said:
“I think [inviting Colbert to testify] was a mistake. Picking vegetables for 10 hours doesn’t make you an expert in anything… I think using an actor in character to give testimony makes a mockery of the committee process.” (quoted in The Hill)
It will be interesting to see how fake TV news anchor Colbert reports on his own appearance on Capitol Hill when his show resumes next week. It seems unlikely he will concede it was a mistake, since it achieved huge publicity for his television show. Nonetheless it was a mistake, but it was mainly a mistake made by the committee members who invited him. They should have known better.
Videotaped recording of Stephen Colbert’s September 24, 2010 testimony on the CBS News website
“Stephen Colbert Testifies Before Congress on ‘Vast Experience’ as a Migrant Laborer” by Lucy Madison on the Political Hotsheet section of www.cbsnews.com, posted September 24, 2010
Coverage of the Colbert appearance on The ABC Evening News with Brian Williams, September 24, 2010
“Colbert Appearance Causes Mixed Feelings,” by Christina Wilkie in The Hill, September 24, 2010.