On the Thursday after Memorial Day, 1933, J. Pierpont Morgan Jr. sat at the witness table awaiting the resumption of a hearing by the Senate Banking Committee investigating the practices of New York investment banks. Suddenly, a publicist with the Ringling Brothers circus thrust a German-born dwarf named Lya Graf onto Morgan’s lap: “The smallest lady in the world wants to meet the richest man in the world!” announced the publicist. The room erupted in laughter, photographers crowded in to take pictures, and a smiling Morgan exchanged pleasantries with Miss Graf, complimenting her on her hat.
This was not the first, nor would it be the last, time the dignity of Congress—pardon the expression—had been assaulted for theatrical purposes. In 1966 the antiwar activist Jerry Rubin appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee dressed in the uniform of a Revolutionary War soldier; the following year he showed up in the costume of an urban guerrilla, complete with toy rifle.
In more recent years members of Congress have enlisted film and television actors to lend their celebrity to favored causes—Jane Fonda testified on the rural economy in the 1980s, Meryl Streep on the food additive Alar in the 1990s—and in 2002 “Elmo” from Sesame Street (actor Kevin Clash) addressed a House education appropriations subcommittee on funding for school music programs.
So it may be said that the notion of celebrities petitioning the government at the invitation of Congress is now an established practice, and that “Elmo” did not speak as a citizen but in the guise of a character on a popular television program. None of this, however, quite equates with the appearance on September 24 of comedian Stephen Colbert before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee at the invitation of its chairman, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren. In the words of left-wing blowhard George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Colbert plays a “conservative blowhard” on his Comedy Central program, The Colbert Report, and his testimony was presented “in character.” Sitting near the president of the United Farm Workers union, Colbert addressed the subcommittee on the subject of migrant farm workers, ostensibly in support of a UFW organizing campaign. He had spent a recent day pretending to do agricultural work, and the stunt was the ostensible subject of his testimony.
Members of Congress are not famous for the sophistication of their humor, and it is debatable how many Americans, the vast majority of whom do not watch The Colbert Report, comprehend that Stephen Colbert’s act is “ironic” in intent, and that his “right-wing blowhard” persona deliberately adopts and extols ludicrous positions and pronouncements for a political purpose. There was a smattering of nervous laughter in the audience as Colbert spoke, and the committee (including its Democratic members) sat stoically throughout his performance. Indeed, sensing the gathering catastrophe, Democratic representative John Conyers had invited Colbert to submit his testimony in written form and leave the hearing room. But Colbert, who reminded members that he had been invited by Chairman Lofgren, was determined to perform: “This is America,” he 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.”
The ranking Republican member, Representative Steve King of Iowa, declared that footage of Colbert purportedly packing corn showed him performing the task backwards, which King suggested might have been caused by malfunctioning video. Colbert took mock umbrage at the notion that he had not, in fact, packed corn on camera: “I was a corn-packer,” he insisted. “I know that term is offensive to some people because ‘corn-packer’ is a derogatory term for a gay Iowan.” There was a quiet murmur from the audience.
This might well have been the first joke about anal intercourse ever delivered in testimony before a congressional committee, but the historic moment did not alleviate the nervous discomfort felt by most in the room at the spectacle of a branch of government being used as a vehicle for a TV comedian to perform a monologue lampooning subjects—migrant labor, immigration from Mexico—that involve a degree of human misery, suffering, and death. When the hearing concluded, Stephanopoulos’s ABC colleague Jake Tapper extolled Colbert’s performance for having publicized rural working conditions, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended his appearance (and her California colleague Lofgren) with some decidedly equivocal words: “He’s an American, right? He came before the committee. He has a point of view. He can bring attention to an important issue like immigration. I think it’s great.”