Tak­ing satire right into Congress

A po­lit­i­cal act goes to a whole new level be­fore a House sub­com­mit­tee.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - MATEA Gold re­port­ing from WASHINGTON

At 9:37 a.m. Fri­day, a man in a navy suit bounded into a packed com­mit­tee room in the Ray­burn House Of­fice Build­ing wear­ing the wide grin of a politician. Sur­rounded by a scrum of click­ing pho­tog­ra­phers, he marched over to the wit­ness ta­ble, plunked him­self down on a leather chair and smoothed back his hair.

Stephen Col­bert, cable TV po­lit­i­cal satirist-cum-po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, was ready to tes­tify.

“I cer­tainly hope that my star power can bump this hear­ing all the way up to CSPAN 1,” he said.

Not quite. Col­bert’s role as a wit­ness on mi­grant farm la­bor be­fore a House Ju­di­ciary sub­com­mit­tee only rated C-SPAN 3.

But his ap­pear­ance in char­ac­ter as a blovi­at­ing right-wing talk show host quickly made the rounds on the In­ter­net, and marked a per­mu­ta­tion of the brand of hu­mor that he and fel­low Com­edy Cen­tral host Jon Ste­wart have honed. No longer con­tent with par­o­dy­ing politi­cians, they are ex­tend­ing the joke into the very halls of the govern­ment that they mock.


The two co­me­di­ans have built large fol­low­ings, es­pe­cially among lib­er­als. They will step fur­ther into the arena they sat­i­rize on Oct. 30, when they hold twin ral­lies on the Na­tional Mall. Ste­wart bills his as a “Rally to Re­store San­ity” to po­lit­i­cal dis­course, while Col­bert coun­ters with a “March to Keep Fear Alive.”

Both events are in­tended as send-ups of a rally led by Fox News com­men­ta­tor Glenn Beck last month. But for par­tic­i­pants and view­ers, the line be­tween joke and ad­vo­cacy ap­pears to be get­ting thin­ner.

Fri­day’s sub­com­mit­tee meet­ing was a through-the-look­ing-glass moment for Col­bert. The two-hour hear­ing re­sem­bled a sur­real ver­sion of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” if Mr. Smith were a co­me­dian play­ing a bom­bas­tic TV com­men­ta­tor field­ing thorny ques­tions about im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy re­form from mem­bers of Congress.

Rep. Zoe Lof­gren (D-San Jose), the sub­com­mit­tee chair­woman, had asked Col­bert to tes­tify af­ter they spent a day to­gether pick­ing beans and pack­ing corn as part of the United Farm Work­ers’ Take Our Jobs cam­paign, which in­vites Amer­i­cans to try their hand at field­work. The co­me­dian turned the oc­ca­sion into a bit that aired on “The Col­bert Re­port” ear­lier this week.

“His ac­tions are a good ex­am­ple of how, us­ing both lev­ity and fame, a me­dia fig­ure can bring at­ten­tion to a crit­i­cally im­por­tant is­sue for the good of the nation,” Lof­gren said as she opened the hear­ing into a bill that would le­gal­ize un­doc­u­mented field­work­ers.

When it came time for his tes­ti­mony, Col­bert of­fered to sub­mit a video of his colonoscopy into the con­gres­sional record as ev­i­dence that pro­duce is “a nec­es­sary source of roughage.”

As for the la­bor pool, “this is Amer­ica,” the co­me­dian said. “I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mex­i­can. I want it picked by an Amer­i­can, then sliced by a Gu­atemalan and served by a Venezue­lan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazil­ian. Be­cause my great-grand­fa­ther did not travel across 4,000 miles of the At­lantic Ocean to see this coun­try over­run by im­mi­grants.”

Still, “af­ter work­ing with these men and women pick­ing beans, pack­ing corn for hours on end, side by side in the un­for­giv­ing sun, I have to say — and I do mean this sin­cerely — please don’t make me do this again,” Col­bert added. “It is re­ally, re­ally hard.”

“Maybe this ag jobs bill would help,” he con­cluded. “I don’t know. Like most mem­bers of Congress, I haven’t read it.”

Ir­ri­tated Repub­li­cans spent much of the hear­ing try­ing to dis­arm Col­bert with a com­bi­na­tion of jokes and pointed ques­tions.

“Does one day work­ing in the field make you an ex­pert wit­ness, do you think?” Rep. La­mar Smith (R-Texas) asked scorn­fully.

“I be­lieve one day of me study­ing any­thing makes me an ex­pert on some­thing,” Col­bert replied con­fi­dently.

“Is that to say it’s more work than you’ve ever done be­fore, right?” Smith fol­lowed.

“It’s cer­tainly harder work than this,” the co­me­dian dead­panned.

For all the jokes, how­ever, it ap­peared Col­bert was there for more than com­edy. When asked by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Mon­terey Park) why he was in­ter­ested in farm­work­ers, the co­me­dian sud­denly turned se­ri­ous.

“I like talk­ing about peo­ple who don’t have any power,” he said. “And it just seems like one 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.”

Col­bert, a prac­tic­ing Catholic who oc­ca­sion­ally teaches Sun­day school, quoted the bib­li­cal pas­sage about help­ing “the least of my broth­ers,” adding: “Mi­grant work­ers suf­fer and have no rights.”


Kevin Lamarque

The Com­edy Cen­tral star tes­ti­fied in char­ac­ter about mi­grant work­ers.

Kevin Lamarque

PART OF THE SHOW: Stephen Col­bert ar­rives to tes­tify. He de­scribed work­ing along­side mi­grant work­ers, “pack­ing corn for hours on end, side by side in the un­for­giv­ing sun,” and con­cluded, “It is re­ally, re­ally hard.”

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