Last Thursday night, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart announced what he called "The Rally to Restore Sanity," an event to take place on the National Mall on Oct. 30. Later that evening, Stewart's comedic doppelganger, Stephen Colbert, announced a rival rally, the "March to Keep Fear Alive," on the same day.
Will the Stewart-Colbert-take-D.C.-show be a comedy revue, a political rally, or a mixture of both? Or is this all a crafty publicity stunt by Comedy Central, which is part of media giant Viacom (VIA), the owner of MTV, Bravo and Paramount Pictures?
The event, Stewart said, is designed to attract the "70% to 80%" of Americans who have allowed the national political discourse to become hijacked by an extremist minority of 15% or 20% of the country. This neglected majority, Stewart said, has been drowned out because its members have "s--t to do," which, on one level, is correct. Most of us have jobs that do not include bloviating on cable television or parroting a party or corporate line for money.
Comics as Conscience?
But there's something oddly appropriate here. Politics has become an ever more garish spectacle of late, so why shouldn't the court jesters take on a more prominent role?
Stewart and Colbert have been darlings of the media for years, of course, even as they skewer journalists left and right nightly. But the event on the Mall, a place imbued with serious historical significance on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech there -- as well the site of Glenn Beck's pro-Tea Party rally on Aug. 28 -- will surely be the most overtly political moment for Stewart in the decade since he soared to fame with "Indecision 2000."
"We have entered a period where comedy and comic artists are playing a really important role in the civic conversation," says Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University. Stewart and Colbert have been very effective at showing us "absurdity of politics and perhaps more importantly, the absurdity by how this stuff is packaged to us by the venerable institution of journalism. What they are doing is tantamount to the kind of critical analysis of news stories that we try to teach our students. Since the jesters are doing such a good job, why not extend it to other venues?"
But Stewart and Colbert's cable-TV shtick may not translate to a venue like the National Mall, Thompson argues. "Stewart and Colbert are already working in the perfect medium, and I'm not sure that one of these big rallies on the mall is going to be nearly as effective," he says. "Colbert makes a certain point through the persona of a Fox news O'Reilly-type, but it's ironic, he's making fun of it. So with Stewart and Colbert it could be like a WWE smackdown or a mock debate or a comedy show. We just don't know yet what it's going to be."
An Old Tradition Resurfaces
If it seems strange that a pair of comedians have assumed the role of national fact-checker -- calling out hypocritical politicians and media hacks alike -- remember that political satire has been used effectively throughout American political history, beginning most famously with Benjamin Franklin, who lampooned the political establishment under the cover name of Silence Dogood. "Colbert is working very much in the Franklin tradition but he's doing it in a lot more of a systematic way," says Thompson.
Thompson points out that for most of the post-World War II era, American comedy was largely scrubbed of the biting political satire of earlier eras. "Johnny Carson told jokes about politics, but he was not a political humorist," says Thompson. Similarly, Jay Leno and David Letterman were apolitical for most of their careers with Letterman only beginning to tip-toe into non-slapstick political humor in recent years. For Stewart, the defining moment came during the drawn-out agony of the 2000 recount, when he would take to the air nightly with "Indecision 2000" and channel the fury and incredulity so many Americas felt at the contested election.
The rise of Stewart and Colbert has only been made possible, Thompson says, by the fragmentation of the TV-viewing audience that accompanied the rise of cable and the destruction of the monopoly of news and entertainment once held by the Big Three networks. "For so long, network TV didn't want to offend anybody because it depended for its success on being consumed by everybody," he says. "So the principle was no discussion of religion or politics on the entertainment side, even as the golden age of TV journalism was happening on the news side during the Vietnam War."
There was a huge wall between the entertainment and news division of the networks that has all but crumbled now "because these audiences are completely fragmented," he says.
Just The Facts, Ma'am
Thompson thinks Stewart is striking a chord with his complaint that a small number of people have hijacked the national conversation. "The best recent example is that goofy mustachioed pastor from Gainesville with a congregation of 40 [who threatened to burn a copy of the Koran]," he says. "The media was saying that whatever he did could cause a global state of disorder and chaos. If I'm one of the lunatics around the country, have I just realized that I only have to do something blasphemous and then I'll be on Interpol's list of global disorder?"
The real problem, Thompson argues, is the susceptibility of the American public to arguments that aren't based in fact or reason. "Ideas can actually float and be voted for even though they don't stand up to rational scrutiny," says Thompson. "Then there's the anti-intellectualism, where somebody will make up a word, and they'll make that a good thing, like, 'Shakespeare did it" or 'I'm resigning from the Governorship of Alaska so I can do whatever and that's a good thing.'"
"A lot of Americans are capable of embracing sheer irrationality," says Thompson. In that respect, he thinks that Stewart is sending "an absolutely crucial message," but he isn't sure if the venue of a live rally on the mall is going to be as effective as cable. "Tongue-in-cheek works on a cable-TV show, but I'm not sure how it's going to work at a rally on the mall in Washington," he says. "The march on Washington in 1963 had a serious message. Dr. King gave a brilliant speech. This is going to be a lot different."