Colbert Brings Truthiness to Congress
“This is America. 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,” Stephen Colbert recently remarked during his testimony before an immigration panel in Congress. He was there to support migrant and illegal workers, who are integral to food production on America’s farms. The testimony has received a lot of media attention because, well, it was funny, and Colbert stayed in character — that pseudo-conservative, acid-tongued, fake news anchor who hosts “The Colbert Report” every night on Comedy Central — for the duration of his statement.
The testimony poked fun at the legal American worker, Congress’ notorious reputation of disorder, and Colbert’s recent made-for-TV sketch in which he spent a day working on a farm in upstate New York harvesting crops alongside migrant workers. Yet its tongue-in-cheek delivery didn’t obscure the issue it wished to raise: advocating for the rights of marginalized farm workers. Some people, however, were not amused by the testimony. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly called it a “waste of taxpayer time and money.” The problem she had with Colbert’s testimony was not his celebrity, but that he gave a satirical speech in character: a bespectacled buffoon.
While Colbert played the fool, he did so in a way that was supported by an intelligence that cut through typical political babble. Even if what he said was outrageous, he delivered his punchlines with a wink that keyed everyone in on the joke and got to the heart of the issue at the same time. It’s a tactic that has catapulted his fake news TV show to fame, with many people watching it, as well as his liberal-minded counterpart Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” instead of actual news programs.
The combination of comedy and news didn’t begin with the first broadcasts of these programs. Historically, in many monarchies, jesters were some of the most trusted members in the royal court. Shakespeare makes use of the jester in many of his plays: both “Twelfth Night” and “King Lear” feature wise fools that move between the insulated walls of aristocracy and the haphazard world of the common folk, while maintaining reputations of reliability. These characters are trusted because of their ability to bridge the gap between humor and news.
Both Colbert and Stewart are modern day jesters, trusted to deliver the news and make us laugh at the same time. They poke fun at our national problems, but they also poke fun at themselves. It’s a humility that’s provocative and tells us to loosen up. Perhaps the controversy surrounding Colbert’s congressional testimony lies in its nuanced presentation of an issue that has been at the center of a media storm. Pointing at the attention surrounding immigration reform, Colbert advocated for a simple solution: grant visas for the people who maintain our nation’s farms. In the end, if we can’t laugh about America and its problems, how can we go about solving them?