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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

question of the day: Was Stephen Colbert’s in-character testimony before Congress last week inappropriate?

You may have heard that Stephen Colbert, who regularly impersonates a right-wing gasbag on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, appeared before a House Congressional subcommittee on Friday to testify at a hearing about migrant farm workers and the conditions they live and work under. Colbert’s prepared comments were not the same as the prepared remarks he had earlier submitted. The complete video of his five-minute testimony:

Afterward, Colbert remained in character, as Leslie Savan at AlterNet reports in a piece called “Why D.C. Is Scared of Stephen Colbert”:

During the question and answer portion of the hearing, Colbert transformed the subcommittee’s Repubs into straight men. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked, “Does one day in the field make you an expert witness?” Colbert: “I believe that one day of me studying anything makes me an expert.” Did he know many of the workers he toiled with were illegal? “I didn’t ask them for their papers, though I had a strong urge to.” And so on, right through volunteering, “I endorse all Republican policies without question.”

Except for one moment:

The tender earnestness of [a] brief moment when Colbert slipped the mask undercut any suggestion that his snottiness was a self-promoting stunt.

I don’t doubt Colbert’s sincerity, nor do I believe that this was a self-promoting stunt. But it was unquestionably a stunt. Perhaps it was a stunt worth pulling off, as Savan suggests:

Afterwards, the press mobbed Colbert, and we heard one male reporter ask, “Are you worried about trivializing a serious issue?” Colbert’s answer, if any, wasn’t audible, but here’s mine: Would you even be here (or would I even be writing this), about a hearing on immigrant farm labor conditions, if he didn’t “trivialize” this issue?

And Dana Milbank in The Washington Post quotes more approval (from the member of Congress who invited Colbert to testify):

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee conducting the hearing, played the star-struck groupie. “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,” she gushed, making time to mention his show’s 15 Emmy nominations.

Is, however, a Congressional hearing room the place for such in-character performances? Does it serve to highlight, in a beneficial way, that much of what typically occurs in such places is theater on the best of days? Or is it just one way step toward lessening the seriousness of our governance?

Was Stephen Colbert’s in-character testimony before Congress last week inappropriate? Did it have a greater impact than it otherwise would have if Colbert had testified as himself? Surely his appearance would still have garnered lots of attention for the issue, which is certainly the intent behind his appearance in the first place.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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