Stephen Colbert’s appearance before a House subcommittee on immigration initially reminded me a little bit of the Whittier birthday speech, where humorist Mark Twain lampooned the New England literary lions of the day to their faces in an attempt at humor that backfired disastrously when the audience didn’t get, and/or didn’t like, the joke.
I was uncomfortable as I watched the folks in the room figure out how to react to his opening statement taking aim at arguments the workers are stealing American jobs. There was some laughter, but more uncomfortable silence than the material warranted unless you did not know quite how to take it, which was the problem. That problem was trying to untangle what he was really trying to say from what he was actually saying, particularly by legislators used to super-serious testimony.
But unlike Twain, I think Colbert wound up pulling it off.
The Chairman of the whole committee, John Conyers, even tried to prevent Colbert from speaking at all, clearly concerned he would make a mockery, literally, of the proceedings. Conyers, eventually withdrew the request.
Colbert had been asked to the hearing by subcommittee chairman Zoe Lofgren for one purpose: To put a spotlight on the issue. Colbert had spent a day with migrant workers in New York alongside Lofgren and at the urging of the United Farm workers, who looking to make the public point that theirs were not jobs Americans were standing in line to take.
While Colbert’s monologue, delivered in character, had a bit of the “Whittier speech” feel about it. He was redeemed by the question-and-answer portion, where his humor, in interplay with others, seemed a better fit, and the truthiness about his views became more apparent, sort of.
He came out of his bombastic character briefly and movingly. When asked why he was paying attention to this issue in particular, Colbert got Biblical, quoting Jesus admonition about “whatever you do to the least of my brothers,” then saying that the workers seemed like the least of his brothers at the moment, no disrespect to Americans who are suffering through a bad economy, he added. “I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them,” he said, “but migrant workers suffer and have no rights.” In fact, all the satire could be distilled into those last eight words.
If his goal was to convince the Congress that it needed to reform immigration, he probably didn’t succeed. But that wasn’t the goal. It was putting a spotlight on the issue by virtue of his celebrity status? His success in that context was undeniable, as witness this blog post.