Is Jon Stewart Running for Something?

The highs and lows of the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear

Today’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was a Comedy Central production, but C-SPAN also went shopping for material at the Mall. Just after 3 p.m., as the three-hour show wound down with an all-star curtain-call rendition of “I’ll Take You There,” the public-affairs channel was doing what it does best —appraising the scene with an omnivorous appetite and indiscriminate taste.

Its loitering cameras caught attendees milling about with their homemade, hand-lettered, half-decent signs. Say what you what will about the intellectual and orthographical coherence of the signage at Tea Party rallies, they have a certain pungency and vigor. Here we had cleverness—mostly mere cleverness—and scattered random dorkiness. C-SPAN gave us a second glance at a fellow dressed up as Waldo, as in Where’s Waldo?. “I’m over here,” said his sign. He seemed to be alone.

C-SPAN’s phone lines were open. The topic: “Today’s Rally: Political or Entertainment?” The first caller expressed disappointment: “He”—that is, Jon Stewart, who wrapped up the event with a rousing speech about the necessity for rational discourse—”should have just encouraged people to get out the vote on Tuesday.” The observation caused one to reflect that the rally was less about the political moment than the cultural mood. Its substance was in displaying a certain tone. The answers, my friend, are blowing in the zeitgeist.

But most of the callers were easy-to-please types. A popular sentiment: “I like the way it brought everybody together.” Since I did not see lions laying down with lambs, say, or lesbians with Limbaughs, I’m guessing that by bringing everybody together, they meant the good hammy dissonance duet between Ozzy Osbourne and the former Cat Stevens. Another trendy idea: Stewart “got a lot of good information out there.” Here, information can only mean the notion—presented with a mere tinge of condescension—that mass media are coarse and coarsening and out there must be into sensory deprivation chambers.

Can you judge such an event by its opening acts? We had begun, at noon, under the brittle sunshine, with the music of the legendary Roots crew. Black Thought wore an enviable toggle coat. Questlove drummed adequately at best, as usual, but the dome of the Capitol set off his Afro very nicely. John Legend dropped in. It wasn’t terribly thrilling, and yet there were young women in the crowd dancing raucously atop their boyfriends’ shoulders like upmarket woo-girls. Were they high? I hope they were high. The alternate explanations—that they were intensely eager to be pleased, that this was their first experience of live music—were too bleak to consider. Then, just when the Roots had got in gear and were playing something worth dancing to, they ceased to play and were replaced by a couple guys from MythBusters, who held a master class in the art of killing the mood. They led moronic audience-participation games, for instance instructing the crowd to laugh on cue, which was the only laugh they got.

Mercifully, Stewart and Colbert replaced those two onstage and began to dramatize the eternal struggle between menschiness and Machiavellianism. For a while they and their guests stuck to the rally conceit. Reading the benediction, Father Guido Sarducci got his laughs simply for being himself. Reading some lively Colbertian doggerel, Sam Waterson made me think that he and David Strathairn should star as conjoined twins in a sequel to Stuck on You. Reading the text of the whole Rally—with its quick pivots from sarcasm to sincerity, its nice pairing of Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples, its Sesame Street-ish Kareem cameo (“No matter what religious position someone plays, we’re all on the same team”)—I found myself plausibly amused.

The climax was Stewart’s sermon, a critique of impure reasoning. Typical sentiment: “If we amplify everything, then we hear nothing.” It was a call to action, sort of—a call against overreaction. It had the rousing ring of a stump speech, but he didn’t pull his punch lines either. Is he running for something?

C-SPAN’s host sought a bit of clarification from one caller: “Now, you refer to the rally as a concert, so do you think it’s political or do you think it’s entertainment?” She replied, correctly, “Yeah.”

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