Reporting from Washington — At 9:37 a.m. Friday, a man in a navy suit bounded into a packed committee room in the Rayburn House office building wearing the wide grin of a politician. Surrounded by a scrum of clicking photographers, he marched over to the witness table, plunked himself down on a leather chair and smoothed back his hair.
Stephen Colbert, cable TV political satirist-cum-political activist, was ready to testify.
"I certainly hope that my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to C-SPAN 1," he said.
Not quite. Colbert's role as a witness on migrant farm labor before a House Judiciary subcommittee only rated C-SPAN 3. But his appearance in character as a bloviating right-wing talk show host quickly made the rounds on the internet, and marked a permutation of the brand of humor that he and fellow Comedy Central host Jon Stewart have honed. No longer content with parodying politicians, they are extending the joke into the very halls of government that they mock.
The two comedians have built large followings, especially among liberals. They will step further into the arena they satirize on Oct. 30, when they hold twin rallies on the National Mall. Stewart bills his as a "Rally to Restore Sanity" to political discourse, while Colbert counters with a "March to Keep Fear Alive." Both events are intended as send-ups of a rally led Fox News commentator by Glenn Beck last month. But for participants and viewers, the line between joke and advocacy appears to be getting thinner.
Friday's subcommittee meeting was a through-the-looking-glass moment for Colbert. The two-hour hearing resembled a surreal version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," if Mr. Smith were a comedian playing a bombastic TV commentator fielding thorny questions about immigration reform from members of Congress.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), the subcommittee chairwoman, had asked Colbert to testify after they spent a day together picking beans and packing corn as part of the United Farm Workers' Take Our Jobs campaign, which invites Americans to try their hand at field work. The comedian turned it into a bit that aired on "The Colbert Report" earlier this week.
"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," Lofgren said as she opened the hearing into a bill that would legalize undocumented field workers.
When it came time for his testimony, Colbert offered to submit a video of his colonoscopy into the congressional record as evidence that produce is "a necessary source of roughage."
As for the labor pool, "this is America," the comedian 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. Because my great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants."
Still, "after working with these men and women picking beans, packing corn for hours on end, side by side in the unforgiving sun, I have to say — and I do mean this sincerely — please don't make me do this again," Colbert added. "It is really, really hard."
"Maybe this ag jobs bill would help," he concluded. "I don't know. Like most members of Congress, I haven't read it."
Irritated Republicans spent much of the hearing trying to disarm Colbert with a combination of jokes and pointed questions.
"Does one day working in the field make you an expert witness, do you think?" Rep. Lamar Smith (R- Texas) asked scornfully.
"I believe one day of me studying anything makes me an expert on something," Colbert replied confidently.
"Is that to say it's more work than you've ever done before, right?" Smith followed.
"It's certainly harder work than this," the comedian deadpanned.
For all the jokes, however, it appeared Colbert was there for more than comedy. When asked by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) why he was interested in farm workers, the comedian suddenly turned serious.
"I like talking about people who don't have any power," he said. "And it just 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."
Colbert, a practicing Catholic who occasionally teaches Sunday school, quoted the biblical passage about helping "the least of my brothers," adding: "Migrant workers suffer and have no rights."