Colbert appearance causes mixed feelings

Comedian Stephen Colbert’s scheduled appearance on Capitol Hill Friday elicited mixed reactions from lawmakers, with some grateful for his participation and others incensed he had been invited in the first place.

The star of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” will testify at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing about his experience working with immigrant laborers.

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The hearing, titled “Protecting America’s Harvest,” will also feature United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, who has appeared on Colbert’s show to plug the UFW’s “Take Our Jobs” campaign, which invites Americans critical of illegal immigration to work as laborers in agricultural fields. 

Colbert accepted Rodriguez’s offer, and worked for 10 hours on a farm in rural New York last month, picking vegetables.

At the hearing, the late-night talk show host will appear in the form of his fictional character, an anchorman also named Stephen Colbert, whose stated goal is to get at the “truthiness” of the news. The comedian often stays in character throughout public appearances.

His testimony will mark the second time that a fictional character has spoken before Congress (“Sesame Street’s” Elmo was the first).

As news of Colbert’s appearance spread Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) tweeted, “What a joke. All the serious issues [we have], and we have Colbert as an ‘expert witness.’ ”

Comedy Central did not respond to requests for comment.

On Wednesday night’s show, Colbert aired an interview he conducted this summer with subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) on the topic of farm workers. “We don’t get our food from farms anymore,” the host quipped. “We get it from grocery stores.”

Despite Colbert’s best efforts to trip her up, Lofgren maintained her composure throughout the interview, although she declined to speak to reporters about it on Thursday.

Lofgren’s interview was one of only a handful Colbert has conducted with Democratic House members since 2007, when then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) warned Democrats in a memo to avoid Colbert’s show. Several members had appeared on Colbert’s “Better Know a District” segment and found themselves being mocked by the comedian.

Colbert defended his invitation to testify in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Thursday morning.

“Republicans are concerned that I will make light of the responsibility of governance? That I will someway impede the smooth flow of the governing of this country? I take exception with that,” he said in mock outrage Thursday.

Even among his fans on Capitol Hill, Colbert is viewed with a healthy dose of wariness. His sharp-witted, satirical interview style has tricked many a politician into making a statement he or she later regretted.

Subcommittee member Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) isn’t one of them. On Thursday he told The Hill he is glad Colbert accepted the panel’s invitation to testify, but that he has declined numerous offers to appear on Colbert’s show.

“If [Colbert] can use his notoriety to bring attention to the situation migrant farm workers face, that’s great,” he said, “but I’ve seen a few of my colleagues do [Colbert’s show], and I feel badly laughing at them, but it’s really funny.”

Another Democrat, Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.), took the opposite view, saying that while he had enjoyed going on Colbert’s show in 2007, he doubted the comedian’s suitability as an expert witness.

“I think [inviting Colbert to testify] was a mistake,” Cohen told The Hill. “Picking vegetables for 10 hours doesn’t make you an expert in anything, except how unpleasant it is to pick vegetables for 10 hours. I think using an actor in character to give testimony makes a mockery of the committee process.”

Despite his objections, Cohen said he will likely attend the 9:30 a.m. hearing. “Colbert’s a funny guy, so I’ll go to watch him.”

Among Republicans, opinions about Colbert’s appearance were mostly negative.

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Steve King (Iowa), told The Hill he was unfamiliar with “The Colbert Report’s” format, but he had asked his staff to pull some clips so he could watch them before the hearing. He was “especially” interested in “any where [Colbert] has mentioned me.”

King, who worked in agriculture during his teen years, worried that Colbert would “try to give hard work a bad name.”

The lawmaker also said he wouldn’t hesitate to ask Colbert tough questions about agricultural policy. 

“It’ll be interesting to see what he does when faced with some of the data,” King said, seemingly unaware that Colbert would be playing a satirical character.

Unlike King, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he knew well what to expect from Colbert’s acerbic wit. “[Colbert] did a day’s work?” Issa asked in mock incredulity. “Well, if that’s what he wants, then he should come to Oceanside, [Calif.], where we’ve tomatoes and strawberries, both of which need picking.”

Asked whether Colbert could expect a grilling from GOP lawmakers on Friday, Issa quipped, “A grilling? We only grill our tomatoes.”

Elise Viebeck contributed to this article.