Amusing Ourselves to Action

Congressional hearings are not often thought of as the highest form of entertainment or comedy. But in September of 2014, in an act seen as either pure irreverence or political resistance, Stephen Colbert testified in front of Congress in character—as, well, Stephen Colbert (with a soft ‘t’ this time).

For Colbert, being seated in front of the House Judiciary Subcommittee didn’t stop him from throwing jokes around as though he were sitting behind his desk on an episode of his own Colbert Report. His testimony included offering to submit a video of his own colonoscopy to the official Congressional record and giving a simple solution for a labor shortage in the industry: “stop eating fruits and vegetables.” When these statements, maybe understandably, led them to ask if he would consider himself “an expert witness” on this topic, Colbert’s wit did not falter: “I believe one day of me studying anything makes me an expert.”

The hearing focusing on migrant farm workers in the United States may not have exactly had an obvious connection to the late-night political satire host, but his celebrity certainly brought plenty of media attention to the otherwise dry proceedings. (In Colbert’s words, “I’m hoping my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to CSPAN 1.”) Though the comedian was likely being facetious, the number of articles written about his appearance certainly showed it had caught people’s attention, being picked up not just by the D.C.-insider publications, but by entertainment outlets like Vulture and Gawker as well.

Those thousands of viewers weren’t just getting in on the joke—they were learning about the political system along the way.

This was not the first, nor will it be the last, of political satire making its way out of TV screens and into the real political arena. (Just take Hasan Minhaj’s recent testimony on student loan debt this month as the latest example.) These political comedians haven’t just caught headlines and some laughs with their stunts, though. They’ve also inspired legitimate political action from thousands of viewers. In 2011, Colbert fans embraced his blend of information and comedy by contributing to his super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. By January 2012, the PAC had raised $1,023,121.24, giving them more cash-on-hand than some politicians actually running for office that year. The donations that made up the super PAC were almost as unique as its creator: While most super PACs are primarily funded by just a handful of very wealthy donors, Colbert’s super PAC raised nearly all of its $1.2 million in thousands of donations all under $200.

Those thousands of viewers weren’t just getting in on the joke—they were learning about the political system along the way. Through that very same “joke” of a super PAC, Colbert’s viewers had a better understanding of campaign finance than from any other traditional news outlet Hardy, Gottfried, Winneg, and Jamieson (2014) studied. It makes you wonder if David Carr was was on to something when he suggested that “Maybe the whole system has become such a joke that only jokes will serve as a corrective.”

But it hasn’t stopped Colbert and his ilk from having some fun along the way—they are still comedians, after all. In the Federal Election Commission paperwork submitted by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Colbert had yet another message for the government: ”Yeah! How you like me now, F.E.C? I’m rolling seven digits deep! I got 99 problems but a nonconnected independent-expenditure only committee ain’t one!” Comedians like Colbert have shown us entertainment’s ability to capture and mobilize enormous audiences, and it’s led to the kinds of results that might make politicians want to listen a little more closely.

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