Seriously funny: satirist takes on the US Congress

Stephen Colbert stumps Republicans with immigration broadside

If the Republicans are hoping that flag-waving members of the populist Tea Party will help them to victory in November's mid-term elections, then America's Democrats appear to be putting faith in an even more colourful group of cheerleaders: the nation's best-known left-leaning comedians.

Not long after announcing that he and his Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart plan to organise a demonstration against what they call the increasing extremism of the Republican movement, the satirist Stephen Colbert travelled to Washington to address lawmakers grappling with the thorny issue of illegal immigration. In an occasionally farcical speech to the House judiciary subcommittee, Colbert discussed what he'd learned from filming a recent episode of his chatshow in which he spent a day picking vegetables with migrant farm-workers in upstate New York.

Adding to the surreal nature of the occasion – which he was attending at the invitation of Democrat Zoe Lofgren – Colbert chose to appear in character, as the blustery, right-wing political pundit he portrays each night on his Emmy-winning show.

"America's farms are far too dependent on immigrant labour to pick our fruits and vegetables," he duly told baffled lawmakers. "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 will see that many Americans have already started." The satirical five-minute speech brought a crowd to the usually empty room where the subcommittee was meeting to consider efforts to give farm workers who are in the US illegally a path to citizenship.

"This is America," said Colbert. "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 .... Maybe, the easier answer is just to have scientists invent vegetables that pick themselves."

Colbert's speech drew criticism from several Republicans, who argued that it eroded their committee's credibility. Even one Democrat was uneasy: after thanking Colbert for bringing an impressive crowd to the hearing, John Conyers asked him to leave. The comedian politely declined.

His critics looked particularly pained when he suggested that "few Americans are clamouring to begin an exciting career as seasonal migrant field worker" and challenged Republicans on the committee to shed their reputation as the "party of no", and come up with a viable solution to the immigration problem.

"What's the answer?" he asked. "Normally, I would leave this to the invisible hand of the market. But the invisible hand of the market has already ... shut down a million acres of US farmland due to lack of available labour. Apparently even the invisible hand doesn't want to pick beans."

Though Colbert's alter ego boasts fans across the political spectrum, he has lately begun to explicitly ally himself to liberal causes. At the end of October, he and the satirist Jon Stewart are organising a public rally in Washington that hopes to provide a left-leaning counterbalance to Glenn Beck's recent demonstration there.

Stewart will lead a "Rally to restore sanity" on 30 October. On the same afternoon, Colbert's character will invite supporters to join what he is calling, with his usual brand of somewhat un-American irony, a "March to Keep Fear Alive".

Congressional Cameos

George Galloway

Most witnesses at Congress are in awe. Not so George Galloway, who used a hearing on profiteering in Iraq to slam the Senate for traducing his name. He told Republican Norm Coleman: "I know that standards have slipped. But for a lawyer, you're remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice."

Kevin Costner

Celebrities are often invited to give evidence to draw attention to their pet cause. But when Kevin Costner was there, he spoke as a real expert, giving evidence about technologies that could mitigate oil spills based on his own experience as an entrepreneur and inventor.

Elmo

Easily the cutest celebrity to appear before Congress, and the only non-human, the Sesame Street star came to discuss music in school. "Elmo loves to sing and to dance," he explained. "It helps Elmo learn ABCs."

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