US politics gets dose of comic relief

Television host and comedian Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" arrives to testify on US farm workers before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugee, Border Security and International Law on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)
With socially-divisive issues driving a wedge between the two US political parties, the world of comedy entered the stage on Friday, offering some good laughs, as well as a new point of view.

The question of legal and illegal migrant workers entering the US from Mexico has become one of the most politically-polarizing issues in the United States since at least yesterday afternoon.

On one side of the fence, people are demanding that Uncle Sam round up the entire lot and send them back south of the Rio Grande; the other side argues that it would be more rational and less controversial to grant the illegal aliens a general amnesty, eventually awarding them American citizenship. What kind of message this sends to would-be border jumpers, however, is anybody’s guess.

So how to lighten this electrically-charged atmosphere of political ill-will? Clearly, some humor is called for.

Enter Stephen Colbert, political satirist and host of The Colbert Report, where he portrays a hyperactive conservative political pundit, much in the same vein as the combative talk show host Bill O’Reilly.

On Friday, Colbert appeared before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration called “Protecting America’s Harvest.” He was invited to the hearing by Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, after she and Colbert volunteered to work for ten hours as migrant farm workers.

The project focused on a simple question: would Americans, if given the opportunity and right conditions, accept farm jobs?

For those who thought that Colbert would humble himself and step out of character while appearing before the mighty House Committee members, they were to be mistaken.

“America’s farms are presently far too dependent on immigrant labor to pick our fruit and vegetables,” Colbert told the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security. “Now the obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables. And, if you look at the recent obesity statistics, you’ll see that many Americans have already started.”

“This is America,” Colbert continued in his ultra-conservative routine. “I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian.”

But the political theater was only warming up.

Reading from a prepared statement, Colbert said: “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.”

The Comedy Central personality then asked to have the comment “stricken from the record,” because he was not sure if it was true.

The comments evoked either uncontrolled laughter from the audience, or pursed-lipped annoyance.

And even though Colbert was invited by a Democrat, this did not deflect criticism away from the majority party.

“I participated in the UFW’s ‘Take Our Jobs’ campaign, one of only 16 people in America to take up the challenge,” Colbert continued in his ironically serious tone, before suggesting, in a reference to November’s mid-term election in which the Democrats are predicted to take a beating, “that number may increase in the near future as I understand many Democrats may be looking for work come November.”

Colbert then served the House members some startling statistics.

“I’m a free-market guy,” he began. “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 and shut down over a million acres of farm land due to a lack of available labor.

“Apparently, even the invisible hand of the market doesn’t want to pick beans,” he surmised.

He then suggested giving the migrant workers “improved legal status,” because “if your co-worker can’t be exploited, then you’re less likely to be exploited yourself and that in itself might improve pay and working conditions on these farms.”

Colbert’s conclusion was nothing to laugh about, especially with employment levels sky-high: “Eventually, Americans may consider taking these jobs again.”

The serious suggestion, however, was followed by yet another witty one-liner: “Or maybe the easiest answer is just have scientists develop vegetables that pick themselves.”

The real laugh, however, came when Colbert wrapped up his testimony by telling both the Republicans and Democrats: “I trust that following my testimony…both sides will work together on this issue in the best of the American people as you always do.”

Asked by one of the House Committee members why he has shown an interest in this particular cause, Colbert fell out of character, showing a real concern for the issue he was addressing: “I like talking about people who don’t have any power,” he said. “And it seems the least powerful people in the United States are the migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave.”

Many House members were piqued by Colbert’s comic performance, which spared nobody, saying in so many words that the humor should be confined to outside the halls of power, not within them.

Indeed, at one point in the hearing, Committee Chair John Conyers (D-Mich) asked Colbert to leave the room and submit his comments in a formal letter.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she thought the appearance was "great" and "appropriate."

"He's an American, right?" said Pelosi. "He came before the committee. He has a point of view. He can bring attention to an important issue like immigration. I think it's great."

Comedy: the great mover?

Whether you agree with Colbert’s appearance on Capitol Hill or not, one thing is clear: the message from this sort of politicizing, whatever it may be, is getting through: According to MediaWeek, in a survey of 1,000 adults 18-49, 54 percent confessed that Stephen Colbert’s show and The Daily Show, hosted by Jon Stewart, served as their primary news source.

From September 13-16, The Daily Show averaged 1.6 million viewers, while Colbert drew 1.2 million, according to Mediaweek.

“Proportionate to their respective ratings, The Daily Show boasts 1.5 million Facebook fans to Colbert’s 1.3 million, and while Stewart does not tweet, Colbert’s [Twitter] feed has 1.8 million followers.”

With ratings like this, Colbert and Stewart feel confident enough to organize their own rally on Washington in response to Glenn Beck’s and Sarah Palin’s “Restoring Honor” rally, which was held on August 28.

Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” is set to meet up with Colbert’s “March to Keep Fear Alive” on October 30 on the National Mall in Washington.

In response to "the loud folks," such as the Hitler-sign-making folks, Stewart announced on his show, "Why don't we hear from the 70-80 per centers?" In other words, those Americans who do not associate themselves with extreme political views.

While it is refreshing to see Americans getting involved in the political process, it is somewhat questionable as to how they are going about it. First, thousands of individuals were motivated off their couches and to the National Mall by Fox TV presenter Glenn Beck, who appeared at the "non-political event" alongside John McCain’s former running-mate, Sarah Palin, who is almost an entertainer in her own right.

To add insult to injury for the Democrats, the event was held on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

Now, we have two comedians responding to the Beck and Palin event with their own rallies. This makes one wonder: is the very essence of politics not being cheapened by an comedy/entertainment culture masquerading as a politically-astute movement? Are guys like Colbert and Stewart, not to mention Beck and Palin, helping to preserve America’s tradition of political activism, or are they simply diluting it with their self-serving, increasingly comical routines?

Stay tuned to this channel for the punchline.

Robert Bridge, RT