Effective Use of Humor in Congress by Brian Hoagburg

Writer’s Letter

When I first started writing the zero draft of this paper I didn’t really have an idea of the audience that I wanted to address. But after giving it much thought, I decided that my audience would be people who had seen the video of Steven Colbert in Congress, but didn’t exactly understand what his argument was beyond the surface of his comedy routine. This paper really helps my audience to see what Colbert does with his language and how it is so effective for him.

I was very pleased with how my introduction turned out in my rough draft, and I only made a few revisions such as combining the short paragraph after it. I then completely changed the third paragraph and added a lot of new analysis and was also very pleased with how it turned out in the end. There were a couple short paragraphs that I cut out that just were not working in my paper and I added some very strong analysis. However I am not completely happy with how the last couple paragraphs of my paper flow together. The transition between them could be done much better, but I was really struggling with a way to make it flow nicely.

One thing that I really wish I could have expanded on was my secondary sources. I used one at the end and I think it really helped solidify some of the things I said earlier and helped give an outside perspective. It was a useful source, however I stumbled upon a new source that had excellent information and would really work well in my paper, but by the time I found this source I was way too limited on time to be able to use it.  I could have tried to fit it into my paper however I knew it was something I would have really liked to go more in depth on and structure my paper around more but I was way too late in finding that source.


When Steven Colbert was asked to speak in front of congress, it was widely believed that he would be speaking out of his normal sarcastic character, and rather as a U.S. citizen simply using his celebrity to give him the opportunity to speak to congress. Colbert even submitted his preliminary opening statement, which was very short and straightforward, however that very statement is not what Congress heard on September 24, 2010. Colbert proceeded to deliver a very sarcastic and humorous in character speech on immigration, which caught congress off guard and was the cause of much uproar. As Colbert delivered his speech, it was very clear that the tension in the room was elevated as people were confused how to react to his jokes. A few uncomfortable chuckles could be heard from audience members however it was very clear from the facial expressions and reactions of the congressmen that they were not happy with the situation, and were not amused at all by the comedy routine taking place in their hearing. Although the actions of Steven Colbert may appear to be very inappropriate in this situation, his use of humor and sarcasm actually allows him to make a much stronger argument that the U.S. needs migrant workers and that we should grant more immigrants citizenship.

As Colbert starts off his opening statement, he makes a joke regarding the station in which the hearing is being broadcasted. The program is broadcasted on C-SPAN 3 and he states “I certainly hope that my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to C-SPAN 1,”(Colbert, 0:28) and he proceeds to hold up his finger to show a one.  First the reason that Colbert does this is to make a joke about the unimportance of the hearing, however through this joke, Colbert is also pointing out how many people view the issue as unimportant as well, when it is an issue that should have more attention.

He then proceeds to provide an obscene solution to the problem of migrant workers being exploited by saying that “all of us should stop eating fruits and vegetables”(Colbert, 0:43).  Colbert then adds, “If you look at the recent obesity statistics, you’ll see that many Americans have already started”(Colbert, 0:47).  This technique first creates a humorous solution while also exploiting another issue that America has. He is using this sarcasm to show how Congress often times tries to solve problems with solutions that create other problems. This type of humor uses Congress as the butt of his joke and would seem to work against his argument since it is the physical audience before him, however Congress is not the audience that he is targeting with his statement. He understood that Congress would not be happy with what he says, and as the camera shortly pans to their faces, their disapproval is very clear.  The true audience in which he is targeting is the people of America that he knew would see the video of his statement.  Colbert knew that by using humor in his statement, he would receive much more media attention and that his audience would be watching him on TV and online. He also uses his humor as a means to get his audience to actually watch him. Without humor, sarcasm, and poking fun at Congress, no one would really be interested in his statement, and therefore Colbert would never reach his audience.

Another interesting point that Colbert makes is that this country was actually one that was founded by immigration and that immigration is the essence of the American people. However, instead of just stating this argument in a bland and straightforward way, he states “My great grandfather did not travel across 4000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants” (Colbert, 1:35).  If taken at face value, this phrase means nothing more then his father didn’t travel here to have immigrants take over. It is obvious, however, that this statement is to be taken as sarcasm that states that since it is our ancestors who were immigrants we have absolutely no right to be so harsh on the immigrants of this time. Using this sarcastic joke allows Colbert to exploit how ridiculous this idea of strictness on immigration is, and how it is actually very hypocritical since almost every American is a descendant of immigration. This argument is one that also has some level of emotion pull on everyone in his audience since we all have some sort of connection to immigrants, whether it be our immediate parents or several generations earlier.

His opening statement continues with an array of jokes and sarcasm, until towards the end of his statement when he offers a serious and plausible solution to the problem.  Colbert states:

Maybe we could offer more visas to the immigrants, who lets face it, will probably be doing these jobs anyway, and this improved legal status might allow immigrants recourse if they are abused, and it just stands to reason to me that if your coworker cant be exploited then your less likely to be exploited yourself. And that itself might improve pay and working conditions on these farms and eventually Americans may consider taking these jobs again.(Colbert, 3:56)

Colbert uses another effective use of rhetoric here by refraining from his sarcastic character, and actually providing a serious and solid solution to the problem at hand.  By taking a break from sarcasm, the audience is much more likely to listen to what he actually says and take it for what it is. He is able to draw more attention to himself and creates a very logical and easy to understand solution. This approach is a much more direct appeal to logos then his normal sarcastic approach and targets both his intended audience, as well as his physical audience; Congress. During Colbert’s earlier arguments it is clear that Congress is not interested in what he has to say, however when he refrains from his character for this short period he creates a logical argument that Congress cannot just shrug off as Colbert trying to be funny.

The way in which Colbert presents himself is in a sarcastic and comedic way, while at the same time presenting relevant and educational facts. His use of comedy initially takes away from his credibility and presentation of his material on the surface, however in essence provides a deeper version of rhetoric that works in his favor.  He is able to easily exploit the flaws of immigration and migrant workers laws, and provides a simple suggestion for a solution to the problem.

By using sarcasm and humor, Colbert is able to gain media attention, which in part creates much more awareness of the issue. Although some of the attention that he receives is negative and controversial, attention from his audience is still drawn to the hearing. One very negative response that he receives is by Fox News and one of its reporters talking to Steve King, a Congressman who was present at Colbert’s hearing. The news anchor starts out by saying, “Well that has hilarious to some, and a huge waste of tax payer time and money to others”(Fox News 0:01) with a large emphasis on the word “huge”. It is very clear right away how unhappy they are about the hearing, and this disapproval is strongly shown throughout the video. One interesting thing that Congressman Steve King says is that “there were more cameras in the room than I’ve seen in a long time” (Fox News 1:59). This point shows that having Colbert at the hearing did create more media buzz, and the Congressmen were aware of it. Although Fox News reacts very negatively to Colbert’s statement, it still creates awareness and essentially more viewers from Colbert’s audience.

If Colbert was a regular U.S. citizen speaking to congress about this issue, using a normal tone and a more formal approach to presenting his argument, his point would be made, however it would not carry much weight. Without the message imbedded in a comedy routine, awareness on this hearing would be significantly less then the way in which he actually does present his material. Colbert has created a short statement that effectively reaches his audience and contains rhetoric that really helps to strengthen his argument.

Works Cited

Colbert, Steven. (2010, September 24). Stephen Colbert Opening Statement [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1T75jBYeCs

Fox News. (2010, September 24). Fox News Angry Over Colbert Testimony [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbKDevcBut0