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Colbert’s Character, or How to Play Congress

October 20, 2010

In late September, Stephen Colbert was one of several witnesses who testified at the “Protecting America’s Harvest” hearing called by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Borders&Stuff. Colbert was asked to describe his experience with the United Farm Workers’ “Take Our Jobs” program—namely, the day that he worked with migrant workers in New York State.  Colbert is best known for his Comedy Central late night program “The Colbert Report,” a satire of conservative political talk shows, and he testified, more or less we would argue, in character.

Hilary’s Quick Take:
If irony is the mismatch between what is said and what is meant, then Colbert and stereotypes are a perfect match—especially considering the immigration stereotypes that Colbert invokes in his Congressional testimony. Of course, Colbert presents these immigration stereotypes ironically as truths.

Early in his testimony, Colbert declares, “Because my great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants. He did it because he killed a man back in Ireland.” Two sentences, two stereotypes! First, that immigrants, once established in a new country, do not want competition from other immigrants. Second, that immigrants naturally have violent backgrounds and are undesirable residents.

In this case, Colbert uses the first stereotype to trump the second. What is said: My status is higher than yours. What is meant: Why should my status be better than yours or anyone else’s?

The turn in Colbert’s testimony, when he starts speaking without irony, draws on another immigration stereotype: “[e]ven the invisible hand doesn’t want to pick beans.” Again, status.

Considering the terrible “pay and working conditions” that Colbert describes, sometimes stereotypes may have some truthiness to them.

Alexis’s Quick Take:
In speech, we usually mark irony with tone or gesture. Colbert, however, plays the conservative straight-faced—his show often depends on the audience just getting it. But I see Colbert being more obvious in this testimony.

Evidence?  Let’s go to the word–Colbert’s  use of now. He uses it with precision. The first two nows arrive with general knowledge claims:  “Now, the obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables” and “Now we all know there is a long tradition of great nations importing foreign workers to do their farm work. After all, it was the ancient Israelites who built the first food pyramids.”

These nows underline the ironic treatment of easy answers and historical examples.  We actually know we need to eat produce; we know that Egyptian treatment of Israelites was problematic, or in more literal interpretations, plague-inducing.

Another two nows herald personal statements: “Now, I… I’ll admit – I started my workday with preconceived notions of migrant labor.”  And “Now, I’m not a fan of the government doing anything.” The nows underscore Colbert’s ironic take on anti-immigration policy and conservative views of non-interference.

One now breaks pattern, however. When we hear “Now, I’m a free-market guy,” we assume Colbert is in conservative character. But the lines that follow, “Normally, I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market, but the invisible hand of the market has already moved over 84,000 acres of production and over 22,000 farm jobs to Mexico,” sound and read as literal questions about current agricultural business practices. The joke here is not from irony, but rather a play on words. The problem is so great, Colbert seems to say, that even as a conservative I cannot help but reconsider.

Irony’s persuasive power and joy is often directly proportional to its subtlety. But for fans of Colbert or supporters of his (actual) political positions, the bold cues here have their own appeal—they turn a rapier’s jab into a hammer’s blow. And you know who likes hammers? Communists.

If you want to know more:

  • For more on irony, you can’t go wrong with Wayne Booth’s classic “A Rhetoric of Irony” available at Amazon.
  • You can watch the House Judiciary Subcommitte (for Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law) two-hour hearing “Protecting America’s Harvest” on C-Span here.  Or you can trust us when we say Colbert’s testimony was not the weirdest part.
  • You can watch a clip of Colbert’s interview of Arturo Rodriguez, President of the United Farm Workers, here.
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