Laughing on the way to the voting booth

Stewart/Colbert rally has people approaching Election Day with postmodern mockery

  • Stephen Colbert, left, and Jon Stewart make an award presentation at the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles in 2008. The pair will appear in Washington Oct. 30.
Stephen Colbert, left, and Jon Stewart make an award presentation… (Mark J. Terrill, Associated…)
October 22, 2010|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

The more I hear Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert talking about their rally scheduled for Saturday on Washington's National Mall, the more I wonder if there is anything that is not a laughing matter in our national life any more.

Actually, laughter might be too active and committed a concept for the kind of consumers of humor that we have become, thanks in large part to TV comedians like David Letterman a generation ago and now Colbert and Stewart, where everything is irony and postmodern mockery. Snickering and smiling as we look down our noses at the targets of their cool, smug ridicule is more our style these days, isn't it?

And now, three days before what looks like it will be a watershed midterm election, this is what tens of thousands of Americans will journey to our nation's capital and gather for on the National Mall: a "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," hosted by Stewart and Colbert. Note the "and/or fear" — an ironic bit of self-referential undercutting of the title just in case anyone thought a rally in Washington on the eve of a crucial election is something citizens should take seriously or be passionate about.

Stewart and Colbert have been purposefully vague and sarcastic about details of the rally. That hasn't stopped folks like Oprah Winfrey from signing on by paying travel expenses for everyone in the audience for one of Stewart's recent Comedy Central shows.

Nor has it stopped President Barack Obama from agreeing to appear on the Oct. 27 edition of Stewart's "The Daily Show," an act hard to not interpret as anything but an endorsement of the rally. But then, when was the last time the president met a cable show he didn't want to be on? Does the Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" ring a bell?

Stewart finally answered some questions about the rally last week on CNN's " Larry King Live." He ducked and bobbed and joked and mocked and generally tried to befuddle the aged cable TV icon. But as nimble and steeped in postmodern pop culture references as Stewart is, King managed to elicit more information than anyone else to date.

There was even a moment when King almost stopped Stewart cold with a question that went to the very heart of my concerns about a couple of comedians, no matter how astute their social commentary and satire might be, coming to Washington and trying to stand on the ground made sacred by moral giants like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Are you putting yourself in the same place as Martin Luther King?" he asked.

"What?" Stewart responded, as if King had said something outrageous.

"Well, you're holding a rally in Washington on a Saturday—"

"Let me put it this way," Stewart interjected. "I'm putting myself in the same class as Martin Mull. How about that?"

Ha ha. But Stewart didn't answer the question that pointed exactly to what he is doing in mocking a special place in America's political life — a space where people from across the land gather to voice their grievances and sound their solidarity. But wasn't that perfectly postmodern, using the happenstance of a hack comedian and a civil rights legend having the same first name to use them interchangeably for a fast laugh that would end the uncomfortable line of questioning?

Stewart did offer answers that were more straightforward and informative once you did a little deconstructing.

"This is not a political rally in any way, shape or form," he said. "It is a visceral expression of people fed up with the reflection that they are shown of themselves as a divided people."

When asked what he bases that claim on, the comedian said, "Seventy-five to 80 percent of the country are reasonable people. They get along. They might not agree on things. But they can do things."

And, he continued, "The other 15 percent control it — the dialogue, the legislation. This [rally] is for the people who are too busy, that have jobs and lives, and are tired of their reflection in the media as being a divided country that is ideological and conflicted and fighting. This is for those people. Those people are going to come to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 30."

Beyond the bad math, it is hard to fathom how a rally cooked up in a New York City conference room by a group of cable TV comedy writers is a "visceral expression of people fed up with" the way the media depicts them. They are the medium.

And the comment about his and Colbert's rally being for the "people who ... have jobs and lives" sort of defines media elitism, don't you think?

If you are thinking this is about politics or ideology, forget it. In August, I wrote a highly critical piece about Glenn Beck's rally at the Lincoln Monument, because I felt the Fox News show host was trying to steal the moral authority that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had won by risking his life in the civil rights movement.

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