Seth Rogen congressional testimony: Is he right to be mad at truant senators?

Comedic actor Seth Rogen was on Capitol Hill to talk about challenges confronting families coping with Alzheimer's. He seemed miffed that his senatorial audience didn't show up for his debut.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
Actor Seth Rogen has his photo taken as he enters the ballroom at the 19th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 16, 2014. Rogen was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 to talk about challenges confronting families coping with Alzheimer's.

Seth Rogen testified before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday on the difficulties of dealing with loved ones afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease.

Yes, that Seth Rogen – the actor who in his own words plays a “lazy self-indulged man-child” in movies such as “Knocked Up.” At the beginning of his opening statement, Rogen noted that the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, had told him he’d never seen this film.

“Mr. Chairman, that’s a little insulting,” said Rogen, to audience laughs.

But Rogen wasn’t in Washington just to crack jokes. He proceeded with a touching story about his experience with his mother-in-law, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in middle age, and how hard it is for her extended family to manage her tragic situation. Rogen has founded an organization, Hilarity for Charity, that raises funds to help others.

“I’ve personally seen the massive amount of strain this disease causes,” Rogen told the subcommittee. “I can’t begin to imagine how people with more limited incomes are dealing with this.”

By telling his story, Rogen said, he hoped to give hope to others in the same situation and to lessen some of the stigma still associated with the disease. He then pleaded with lawmakers for more government attention and funds.

“People look to their government for hope, and I ask that when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease you continue to take some steps to provide more,” said Rogen.

Rogen’s Washington appearance seemed effective, in the sense that it had a nice balance between substance and self-awareness and didn’t drag on too long. But it has raised several tough meta-issues about the mixture of celebrity and national politics.

Rogen himself has seemed miffed in its aftermath. He appears to believe that his issue was dissed by the lack of senatorial attendance during his testimony. Here's his tweet from Wednesday night.

He even called out one lawmaker by name, Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois. Rogen tweeted to Senator Kirk that it was nice meeting him beforehand, then asked, “Why did you leave before my speech? Just curious.”

The short answer to that question, as any D.C. intern or badly dressed journalist hack knows, is because that’s standard operating procedure. Many congressional hearings feature only a handful of committee members. Lawmakers have got lots of other things to do, such as deal with other committees, constituents, lobbyists, and votes. Oh, they have to raise money, too – a lot of it. Sitting through a couple of hours of expert panels is not high on their to-do lists, even if one of the panelists is really funny.

Big hearings in which lawmakers' questions may show up on TV news get full attendance, but only at the start. After that, members drift in and out as the queries go on, appearing for their own five minutes, then leaving afterwards.

And here’s another thing Rogen may not get: The senators aren’t his audience, anyway.

The committee staff is his audience. They are well-represented in the room, even if he doesn’t recognize them. They draw up the bills, set the budget figures, and provide their bosses with the short memos that nudge them how to vote.

And in a larger sense, the audience for congressional celebrity appearances is off Capitol Hill entirely. They are there because they will draw extra attention from voters and the press. That’s good both for the committee and the celebrity’s issue.

Rogen may be correct that Alzheimer’s does not get the attention from the federal government that it deserves. And shaming senators for nonattendance could generate public pressure on those lawmakers. But it’s also possible it’s counterproductive.

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