Stephen Colbert Testifies in Congress, in Character

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Stephen Colbert testified in a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on immigrant farm workers this morning (video here, not embeddable). The hearing got off to an awkward start when Democratic Rep. John Conyers asked the comedian to leave the hearing. Colbert responded, seemingly concerned, that he had only agreed to testify at the request of subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, who then asked him to stay.

Colbert's written testimony, submitted before the hearing, appeared straightforward. He described inviting Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers of America, onto his Comedy Central show in July. Rodriguez told Colbert about the UFW's "Take Our Jobs" campaign, which encourages unemployed Americans to try farm labor. Colbert took him up on the offer, spending a day picking beans and packing corn in upstate New York. Lofgren participated in the program with him, prompting her to invite him to testify about his experience.

Colbert joined Rodriguez and two other panelists at today's hearing. Unlike the other panelists, his testimony departed significantly from his written statement. He stayed entirely in character as a conservative talk show host, telling the subcommittee that he was happy to use his "celebrity" and "vast experience spending one day as a migrant farm worker" to draw attention to the issue of farm work -- "I'm hoping my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to CSPAN 1."

A sampling of his satiric offerings:

-"The obvious answer [to the agricultural labor shortage] is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables. And if you look at the recent obesity statistics, you'll see that many Americans have already started. Unfortunately, my gastroenterologist has informed me there is a need for roughage ... Therefore, I am submitting the video of my colonoscopy to the congressional record."

-"I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan, in a spa, where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian."

-Not many Americans have taken Rodriguez up on his offer of farm work, but that may change soon "as I understand many Democrats may be looking for work come November."

-"I'm not a fan of the government doing anything. But I've got to ask, why isn't the government doing anything? ... Like most members of Congress, I haven't read the bill."

During questioning, subcommittee members had some trouble navigating Colbert's faux-serious turf. Conyers, who'd asked Colbert to leave at the beginning of the hearing, pointed out that Colbert's spoken testimony differed significantly from his written one.

Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican, told Colbert that he would take his jab at congresspeople not reading bills as an implicit endorsement of GOP House members' "Pledge to America," which demands -- among other things -- a 72-hour window to give representatives time to read bills before voting on them. Colbert confirmed this assumption with his always straight face, saying, "I endorse all Republican policies without question."

Smith then asked, "I know you're an expert comedian, an expert entertainer ... but would you call yourself an expert witness?" Colbert cited Rep. Lofgren's invitation to him following their day working together in the fields. Smith asked if one day of farm work made him an expert, to which Colbert replied, "I believe one day of me studying anything makes me an expert."

At the end of the hearing, however, when responding to questions from Democratic Rep. Judy Chu, Colbert seemed close to breaking character. When Chu asked him why he cared about this issue, of all issues, he paused for a long moment before replying, and did not offer any sort of satiric qualifier:

I like talking about people who don't have any power. It seems like some of the least powerful people in the U.S. are those who come to the U.S. and do our work and don't have any rights when they're here. And then we ask them to leave. ... I don't want to take anyone's hardship away from them or diminish [the widespread effects of the recession] ... but migrant workers suffer and have no rights.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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