Stephen Colbert spent most of Friday’s congressional hearing on immigration mocking Congress and cracking jokes about “corn packing,” but Colbert did break character at least once and, if only for a moment, revealed a serious side rarely seen by the public.
When asked by California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu why he chose to speak on the topic of migrant workers, Colbert appeared to soften up and briefly lost his television character’s trademarked swagger.
“Mr. Colbert, you could work on so many issues,” Chu said. “Why are you interested in this issue?”
Colbert looked up at the ceiling and after a long pause (Colbert usually fires back almost before interviewers can finish their questions), the comedian responded in what seemed to be all seriousness, “I, I, I like talking about people who don’t have any power. And this 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.”
He even channeled his Catholic faith, paraphrasing a passage from The New Testament about caring for those in poverty.
“You know, ‘whatever you do for the least of my brothers,’ and these seem like the least of my brothers right now,” he said, qualifying that in a tough a economy, he understood that many are facing hardship. “Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”
Not a crack of laughter in the room.
The purpose of bringing Colbert to Washington was to raise awareness about migrant labor, and Colbert arguably made that happen. What would have been a relatively uncovered and routine Friday morning hearing became a media sensation.
“I certainly hope that my star power can bump this hearing all the way to C-SPAN 1,” Colbert exclaimed during his opening remarks. (The channel had relegated the hearing to C-SPAN 3.)
By 6:30 AM, people hoping to get a seat in the small hearing room had lined up in the hallways of the Rayburn House office building, and most of the people who came had to sit in an overflow room. Media outlets like Inside Edition, a crew that rarely sees the inside of a congressional hearing room, were on hand as well.
Star power or not, the meeting that became known as “the Colbert Hearing” was not universally well received.
“He mocked the hearing process,” said Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, ranking member of the subcommittee after the meeting. “I think it was his intent to do that.”
One member of the subcommittee, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, flew home before the hearing, calling it a “skit” and a “joke.”
“He is the best fake newscaster, so if Dems want a fake hearing, I guess he is the right guy,” Chaffetz wrote on Twitter.
Perhaps sensing that Colbert would embarrass Democrats, Judicial Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers asked Colbert to leave the hearing room before he could speak a word into his microphone. (His request was overruled, and he later redacted it.)
Whether it was partially serious or just a bad joke, Republicans who deride Democrats for bringing Colbert to Washington may not want to use the incident as a talking point on the campaign trail. It was Republicans, as Chu pointed out during the hearing, who brought in Elmo the Sesame Street Muppet to testify in 2002.