Seven people—young relatives and their friends—will stay at my house the weekend of Oct. 30 so they can attend Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington, D.C. That breaks my previous political-event-based houseguest record, when three people stayed with me to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration. The difference is that the Obama inauguration was an occasion of genuine moment, while the Stewart-Colbert rally is shaping up to be the most successful pseudo-event in American history. I am delighted to host my far-flung loved ones, of whom I never see enough, and I enjoy watching Colbert and Stewart on TV, as I do often with my teenage kids. But I wish these two Comedy Central performers would cancel their rally and stay home.
I have to wonder whether Stewart, at least, is starting to feel the same way. In an Oct. 4 appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air (taped Sept. 29 at New York’s 92nd St. Y), Stewart became uncharacteristically inarticulate:
Like everything that we do, the march is merely a construct. It’s just a format, in the same way that the book [ Earth: A Visitor’s Guide To The Human Race] is a format. You know, a show is a format, the book is a format, to translate the type of expression that we do, whether it be a satire on the political events, it’s a format to be filled with the type of material that Stephen and I do and the point of view. So it’s not—you know, people have said it’s a rally to counter Glenn Beck. It’s not. What it is is, we saw [ Beck’s Aug. 28 rally in Washington ] and thought, what a beautiful outline, what a beautiful structure to fill with what we want to express in live form, festival form.
Stewart went on to say, “It’s not meant to ridicule activism or the Tea Party movement or religious people.” I’ll buy the first assertion and the last—I don’t think Stewart is contemptuous of activism or religion per se (and Colbert is said to be a fairly serious Catholic)—but if Stewart doesn’t mean to ridicule the Tea Party movement then I am the High Lama of Shangri-La. Stewart is a professional comedian, and ridicule is what he does. He is not a political activist, a point he took pains to emphasize in the Fresh Air interview (“My job is to—again, express our point of view comedically”). He is a satirist.
The distinction between satire and politics isn’t always clear on Stewart’s and Colbert’s shows. Real political advocates and even politicians frequently appear on both. They are willing to subject themselves to good-natured ridicule in the interest of reaching a young audience that gets its news through The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. These programs have also become a highly valued venue for authors looking to promote new books. It’s all a bit weird, but it seems to work serviceably as a conveyor belt for political information in a way that, say, HBO’s Da Ali G Shownever did. Sacha Baron Cohen’s hip-hop ignoramus was a brilliant comic creation, but serious political guests had to be deceived into appearing because Cohen/Ali G made them look like fools. Stewart, by contrast, conducts his interviews in at least a semi-serious spirit. (He could be a real journalist if he were willing to take a pay cut.) Colbert, though he does his interviews in character (as a Bill O’Reilly-style blowhard) gives guests sufficient room to make their points, and takes pains to make himself, not his guests, the butt of his jokes. On both The Daily Show and Colbert, guests are actually willing to make repeat appearances.
You can argue, as my friend and mentor Charles Peters does, that the ridicule in Stewart’s and Colbert’s satire, like the ridicule in much contemporary popular comedy, carries a screw-those-uneducated-yokels message that you never found in, say, the humor of Will Rogers. Rogers once quipped: “An ignorant person is one who doesn’t know what you have just found out.” At the risk of spoiling a joke by explaining it, Rogers meant: Resist putting on airs. Your urge to judge another man for what he doesn’t know says more about your status anxiety than about his purported ignorance. Maybe Stewart would utter a line like that, but if he did, the lesson would likely be intended not for all humanity but for one especially pompous public figure caught in his crosshairs. Stewart and Colbert don’t tell their audiences not to feel superior. They’re more in line with Rogers’ contemporary, the essayist H.L. Mencken, who invited his audience to chortle at the booboisie.
Mencken, Rogers, Stewart, and Colbert were and are all great performers. But of the four, Rogers is the only one I might follow to a rally on the Mall, because Rogers’ style is the only one that could form the basis of a movement I’d consider following. (Al Franken is a great performer too, but, tellingly, to become a U.S. senator, he had to give up entirely his slashing “Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot” brand of humor.)
The “beautiful structure” Stewart spoke about on Fresh Air is not an open-air free concert but a political rally. The gestalt feels political enough that NPR executives put the event off-limits to anyone who isn’t covering it. I believe Stewart when he says he intends this to be just another vehicle for political satire. But I also believe that Stewart, Colbert, and their fans harbor identifiable political convictions. Stewart-Colbertism scorns extremism of all types, but especially conservative extremism, and most especially conservative extremism driven by ignorance or religious fundamentalism. It is mildly critical of liberalism, but mainly for failing to combat conservative bombast more effectively. It endorses, implicitly, whatever liberal consensus has managed to survive these past 30 years, but isn’t terribly interested in the details. All this works well as humor, but as a sentiment shouted through a bullhorn to thousands stretched between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, it will translate into, well, judging other people for what they don’t know. It will do so no matter how much everyone laughs. Indeed, the laughter will likely make it worse, because a rally puts its “audience” behind the proscenium; the spectators and the performers are collaborators. A more legitimate (and probably more successful) political impulse would be to try to persuade the unenlightened that you have a better idea. But any such approach would be anathema (indeed, probably disqualifying) for a working comedian, and I feel pretty sure Stewart and Colbert won’t attempt it. I’m not sure even Will Rogers could pull it off. (Rogers became in 1926 the first mayor of Beverly Hills, but it was an honorary position, extended in gratitude to his philanthropy.)
There’s still a lot we don’t fully understand about the Tea Partiers and the political independents who have lost faith in Obama. But one thing we should all be pretty clear on by now is that they hate, hate, hate anything that smacks of elitism. The spectacle of affluent 18-to-34-year-olds blanketing the Mall to snicker at jokes about wingnut ignoramuses and Bible thumpers will, I fear, have the effect of a red cape waved before a bull. Stewart and Colbert aren’t supposed to want to affect the midterm elections, and for the most part I believe they don’t. But let Republicans regain the House (and maybe even the Senate) in part because Comedy Central used mockery not merely to burlesque political protest but also, to some inevitable extent, to practice it—and I think Stewart and Colbert will be sorry they came. I know I will be.
It isn’t too late. Colbert and Stewart should cancel the march, and stick to the excellent gigs they’ve already got. They are brilliant comedians. They make lousy leaders.