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TV show puts lawmakers on comedic hot seat

Politicians hope laugh a track to young voters

WASHINGTON -- US Representative Brad Sherman of California was pressed to name his favorite porn star. His colleague, Florida's John Mica, was asked how he managed to get through airport security with his rumored toupee.

Representative Barney Frank of Newton, who is openly gay, became annoyed when asked for his wife's opinions, while Eliot Engel, a congressman from the Bronx, suffered the indignity of having his mustache combed on national television.

Public humiliation on Comedy Central's ''The Colbert Report" is becoming a rite of passage for the closely divided House of Representatives, whose members allow themselves and their districts to be ridiculed in the interests of reaching young voters ahead of elections that could decide party control of the chamber.

While few members of Congress survive their appearances with their professional dignity intact, some lawmakers are urging their colleagues to go on the show and its regular spot called ''Better Know a District," part of host Stephen Colbert's ongoing series on the House of Representatives.

''You get Gen-X," said Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, who has pushed his fellow GOP members to show their hipness -- and good sportsmanship -- by appearing on Comedy Central. ''When people who are 25 who have never voted for you think you are funny because you did the show, that's instant validity."

It's not as though Kingston -- asked by Colbert whether he was ''a Georgia peach" -- got to talk much about policy or vision. Or Engel, for that matter: Colbert noisily crunched Bronx-made Stella D'oro breadsticks while the serious-faced lawmaker chatted about immigration. And the host pretended to doze off while Sherman, an accountant, opined about taxes.

Not all lawmakers were happy with their experiences. Frank, notorious on Capitol Hill for his rapier wit, is still irritated after his experience with Colbert, who asked Frank what it was like to live as an ''openly left-handed" American. Colbert said he thought Frank was ''a little overweight," and asked whether his wife minded.

Frank, clearly annoyed, shot back: ''Let me explain a nice thing about me. Ignorance does not offend me."

The Newton Democrat said he had not seen the show before he agreed to be a guest, but regretted his decision. He said he has not even watched his own spot on the show.

Far from luring more young people into the political process, the show, which reaches up to 1.2 million viewers, ''degrades politics. It's not a good way to engage young people" in politics, Frank added.

Like it or not, more and more people in their 20s and 30s are getting their news from such shows as ''The Colbert Report" and ''The Daily Show," another of the cable network's offerings, said Democratic consultant Peter Fenn.

Michael Franc, a congressional analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said such appearances can help a public official. Richard M. Nixon disarmed critics who thought he was too stodgy by doing a cameo on the 1960s hit show ''Laugh-in," while Bill Clinton's 1992 saxophone-playing appearance on the ''The Arsenio Hall Show" underscored Clinton's image as a young and forward-looking candidate.

But American politics has seen nothing like Comedy Central's ''Daily Show" and its hit spinoff, ''The Colbert Report." On ''Laugh-in" and ''Saturday Night Live," candidates poked fun at themselves; on ''The Colbert Report" they let the host make fun of them for the entire segment.

Elizabeth Levin, a field producer for ''Better Know A District," said the segment is all in good fun, and added that congressional staff often call, offering up their bosses as guests. ''They don't get many opportunities in daily life to show they're fun," Levin said. ''And they get good feedback from their constituents."

Whether constituents are laughing with their representatives or at them is unclear. Consider Representative Steven Rothman, an affable New Jersey Democrat forced to sit and listen while Colbert read from the congressman's posting on J-Date, a Jewish Internet dating site. Or his New Jersey colleague, Democrat Bill Pascrell, who grew increasingly upset as Colbert taunted him with self-described offensive impressions of Italian-Americans. Pennsylvania Democrat Chaka Fattah tried to talk about connecting out-of-work people with employers, and Colbert called him ''a job pimp."

Several Capitol Hill press secretaries said they never want their bosses to appear on the show. But lawmakers, with the confidence of the amateur gambler who is certain he can beat the house in Las Vegas, are eager to show they can match Colbert's wit.

Unfortunately, several of the guests said, the segments are creatively edited, excising clever comments and making it appear that the guests gave different responses than they did.

Engel, for example, said he agreed to let Colbert stroke his mustache as well as comb it, though the edited interview had the Bronx Democrat refusing the first request.

When Colbert asked Frank to spell Massachusetts -- which Frank did, quickly and correctly -- Colbert said, ''So close." Frank then quipped, ''S-O-C-L-O-S-E," drawing a chuckle out of Colbert that did not make it into the broadcast.

Colbert is the speaker at next month's White House Correspondents Association dinner, attended by President Bush and members of Congress. As on his show, Colbert may well have the last laugh.

Except, of course, for Rothman, the New Jersey congressman, who was recently engaged to be married. He met his fiancée on J-Date.

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