Can two comics take on the Tea Party?

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."

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laurenstone7

You all were talking about the Tea Parties? Did anyone let them know there's never been any problems at any of them. There's never been an arrest. Nothing. They've been held everywhere with large numbers and mixed crowds of all kinds and never had any problems. Sounds like people who wanna work together to me! Get it done!!!!

September 21 2010 at 5:39 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
eversharp57

ten.duh.lies-----'hmblair: Seems everything has become a competition. You would think that as Americans after the votes are cast we would all come together and try to make the best decision we can for the good og all. Goverment has gotten so big and so greedy and have this country in such a mess that the Racisim and hatred has gotten way out of control till we really don't have a party to look to for answers. Many are putting their hopes in the Tea party nad I have tried to see where they are coming from, but all I see is pretty much the same thing as a Republican. We rae in a mess that I doubt it will matter who is elected."~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The positive thing about the Tea Party is that if you would attend one you'd see they aren't out to promote any party. They are out to put our country first, in fact, it's practically their slogan---"Country First." They come from both parties and there are Independents there. They are all colors and all religions, and they don't make fun of each other, they promote freedom of speech and religion. (Of course, you've been making fun of religion on this board, so I hope that doesn't offend you, that they believe in our right to freedom of religion!) They will stand arm in arm without caring what party the other person is because they want the same thing~~what's best for our country! The concern over our economy started the movement, not a person or a party. It's all about Americans who don't like the change we got when no one would tell us what the change would be. They will all sing "God Bless America" together, and they'll all pray for our country together without asking what church you go to. They don't care and know it's our right to go where we choose. It's back to the basics of what America has always stood for~~FREEDOM! It's about the people being more important than the government, and the government serving the people and not the other way around. So while you spew hate, racism and division, the Tea Party is working for unity, healing and going forward with fresh leadership and preserving instead of changing our country. GOD BLESS AMERICA~~~~COUNTRY OVER PARTY!

September 21 2010 at 5:08 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
eversharp57

ten.duh.lies-------'Glenn Beck even gives Religion a bad name and yes I have watched him. He is a Mormon and believe you can have as many wifes as you want even the very young ones. He gives this Country a bad name and should be fired and take the liar Palin with him ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Well now, aren't you the self-proclaimed authority on everything that falls under the title of gossip without substantiation. First, Mormons have not believed in polygamy for many many years, it's illegal and they are law-abiding people. There is an old and small sect that still does but they're literally disowned by mainstream Mormons which includes Beck. And it's "wives," not "wifes." Please give me a definition for a word you used earlier. What are the meanings of "legistration" and "Democrtas," which you used in the same sentence on this page? You, who can't even spell Pelosi's name correctly had the gumption to try and ridicule Clinearman's education? You poor soul, don't you know that our Clinearman is a nuclear physicist? I doubt you could spell what he even got his multiple degrees in! Can you even define what his profession involves? Of course you can't! You're too busy on here calling others racists and twisting the truth to be quiet and learn something. You fall into the category of people who should have to prove you have the smarts to even step into a voting booth, let alone cast a ballot! You misrepresented everything you commented about and I think you are what you accuse others of. Isn't it always the person who accuses everyone else of being a racist who actually is one? I think you have shown your true colors tonight. Think before you start writing. If you only knew----people laugh at you!

September 21 2010 at 4:33 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
spike

you can get the truth through mathmatics: R sq. t D Sq. =BS sq.

September 20 2010 at 2:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
hmblair

And one more thing.. There should be a limit on how long someone can serve as a senator or government official. They should have to give up there seat after two terms and if they want to run again they can after sitting out for two terms...

September 20 2010 at 2:40 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
hmblair

I am not very smart by any means on the political front but. I must ask everyone a few questions.. Why does everybody always have to either be a democrat or republican to be someone who knows whats good for america... When I listen to the news the news person always talks about witch party is the better one. And the politicians always talk about there party... are not all partys americans. should'nt they all be for america.. Every time you here the news it's all about what party does what.. It's like a sports team and the players are having little fights who has the best team. And they really care less about what they are playing for... I know the american people are tired of the same old same old

September 20 2010 at 2:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to hmblair's comment
tenderlies1

hmblair: Seems everything has become a competition. You would think that as Americans after the votes are cast we would all come together and try to make the best decision we can for the good og all. Goverment has gotten so big and so greedy and have this country in such a mess that the Racisim and hatred has gotten way out of control till we really don't have a party to look to for answers. Many are putting their hopes in the Tea party nad I have tried to see where they are coming from, but all I see is pretty much the same thing as a Republican. We rae in a mess that I doubt it will matter who is elected.

September 20 2010 at 2:42 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
Cattani

These two clowns are hate filled partisan hacks. After lying and smearing Bush for years, it is quite ironic that they now try to play the roll of sage neutral observers. The ease with which liberals lie is startling.

September 20 2010 at 12:17 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
bookstuboo

A few weeks ago I posted asking people to go to a site to fact check some things and I even gave a site. Yes. all I asked for in that post was for people to try to learn the truth nothing more...no partisanship..no hate speech...nothing but asking people to get the truth. Guess what.. I got many many thumbs down. Does this mean that some of you people do not care about the truth unless it matches up with your own agenda? I find it pretty sad that people do not care about truth anymore only hate and fear.

September 20 2010 at 12:00 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to bookstuboo's comment
Cattani

Because many of the oft-named fact-check sites are not valid but instead serve to spin propaganda. So they offer opinion disguised as truth and few take them seriously.

September 20 2010 at 12:20 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
bookstuboo

Well Cattani please tell me where you find the truth if not these sites. Please help me as I like to be informed to the truth before I type. Thank you for the information in advance.

September 20 2010 at 1:09 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
raspberries0

The sad part is that a lot of young people think Steward/Colbert are real news shows.

September 20 2010 at 10:41 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to raspberries0's comment
tenderlies1

The truly sad part is they think Beck is a God

September 20 2010 at 3:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MSmailbox

Thompson seems to be making good sense. Whether the average person will get it, I can only hope that they will. Attempts at satire, are often met with anger. Ben Franklin even used "Poor Richard," as a cover. They say that Ben was a very intelligent fellow and quite the lady's man, for what it's worth. Not everyone is cut out to be a soldier. Ben was alright.

September 20 2010 at 10:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to MSmailbox's comment
raspberries0

This is being done under the guise of satire, but count on it that there is a real agenda behind this event.

September 20 2010 at 10:42 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply