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The Stewart-Colbert Saturday Rally: Can Theater of the Acerbic Stop the In(s)anity?

4 years ago
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All the Mall's a stage, and all the men and women merely players, except, of course, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, Comedy Central's superstars who will headline their hyped-to-the-heavens "Rally to Restore Sanity/Keep Fear Alive" Saturday circus on the National Mall.

There is nothing "merely" about either of these guys or their extravaganza.

Three days before the midterm elections -- marked by some seriously nasty political ads and jibes -- and three months after FoxNews conservative talk-meister Glenn Beck drew many thousands to his "Restoring Honor" convergence at the Lincoln Memorial (his Park Service permit estimated 300,000 attendees, CBS said 87,000 actually came) -- Stewart and faux-right-winger Colbert will take center stage near the U.S. Capitol.

In a master stroke of branding and drollery, the Million Moderate March aims to lure "the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive and terrible for your throat; who feel the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler."

It grew out of an idea posted Aug. 31 on by one mrsamercer, who envisioned some sort of Colbert tongue-in-cheek, "restoring truthiness" mass gathering as an antidote to Beck. It could be "the high-water mark of American satire. Half a million people pretending to suspend all rational thought in unison. Perfect harmony. It'll feel like San Francisco in the late 60s, only we won't be able to get any acid." The idea went viral, and then mainstream.

Since then, countless pundits, professors, and just plain folks have bloviated about what it all means. Irony as destiny? A further blurring of the lines between politics and entertainment? A dumb way for Democrats to spend the last weekend before a make-or-break election? A clever ploy to fire up fence-sitting Dems immune to presidential pleadings? Good clean family fun? A vehicle to raise money for charities? A novel way to reach the disinterested or disenchanted young? A plea for civil discourse, with a side of hucksterism? Yes. And yes again.

"Let a thousand flowers bloom in things other than horrible, nasty attack ads," said Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University professor always eager to find ways to involve 17- to-25-year-olds in the electoral process. "It's a new tool for calling attention to political issues, for building political subcultures. The Millennials are still not as engaged in politics as they should be. That means that any event that increases the political discussion is very important. It's political education by other means."

Such alt tactics could be problematic, said Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" media show and Daily Beast Washington Bureau chief. He thinks Stewart may be walking a fine line here. "He's a very sharp media critic, social satirist, and somebody who is very good at sticking pins in establishment figures." But by ramping up his own role while asking the country to tamp down the vicious rhetoric, Stewart "is now taking a stand and, maybe, almost like becoming one of the people he makes fun of."

Risk aside, Stewart & Colbert may also do very well by ostensibly doing good.

"This is business, and there is business to be had in the middle," Joshua King, the former Clinton White House visual events guru, told PoliticsDaily. "Within the pursuit of humor, and finding an audience beyond Stewart's core demographic that is taking this seriously, I presume the march will not be heard commercial-free on Comedy Central, which is part of Time-Warner." There is also the potential for future goo-gobs of cash from the sale of such rally-related content as books, DVDs and TV spinoffs, said King, who coined the term polioptics, the use of imagery to gain political influence.

It didn't take long for big-deal media moguls Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey to figure out the publicity possibilities, and enlist as self-styled transport officers in the Stewart-Colbert symbiotic liberation army.

Last month
the Huffington Post co-founder offered free round-trip bus rides from her New York office to anyone who wanted to attend. She did this on the "Daily Show," initially catching HuffPo President Greg Coleman by surprise. But he recovered quickly enough to crow to TheWrap about the boss's 100-bus, $250,000 marketing ploy that had 11,000 sign-ups by Oct. 8.
(The convoy count is now up to 200 vehicles).

"Arianna has a sixth sense for promotion, for capturing lots of attention," Coleman said in a stunning bit of understatement. "What we're working on is turning this into an opportunity, working with largest marketers in country to sponsor this Sanity Bus Tour."

By mid-October, Oprah got into the act, when Stewart and Colbert -- who initially planned dueling civility and truthiness Mall rallies, joined forces. Appearing on a giant video screen, she offered every "Daily Show" studio guest round-trip airline tickets and two free nights in a Washington hotel this weekend.

The Queen of Talk won't be attending. Neither will President Obama, who will spend Saturday madly campaigning for imperiled Democrats. However, he did appear on "The Daily Show" Thursday night -- both Colbert and Stewart pre-taped their shows in Washington this week -- to explain what happened to all that hope and change he promised in 2008.

While it's unclear how many thousands of folks will actually show up for the Sanity/Fear fest, the strategic presence of several other groups will lend a fringe festival vibe to the big show. With Comedy Central and C-SPAN providing several hours of live coverage, savvy advocates hoped to eagerly toot their own horns. Only a fool of an organizer would miss something this heavily televised, streamed, tweeted, Skyped, Foursquared, Facebooked, and smart-phoned.

NORML, the marijuana-legalization lobby, will push for repeal of penalties for growing pot for personal use. In California, where cannabis production and smuggling is a multi-billion-dollar industry, voters will decide Tuesday whether to decriminalize home cultivation via Proposition 19. The weed people have cautioned their followers not, repeat not, to toke up on the Mall.

PETA, aka People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, will unleash a half-dozen folks in costumes, including one dressed as a cow and another impersonating a carrot, to promote the health benefits of a vegan diet. They had such a blast at Beck's rally, they're back for an encore.

And a champion of all the nation's put-upon bureaucrats -- stung by public dissatisfaction with the work of millions of compatriots -- has organized a Government Doesn't Suck march to gin up a little respect. "We hear it day in and day out: the government sucks, federal employees are lazy and their positions are redundant," march organizer Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop, lamented.

Even CNN's Larry King -- whose idea of marching seems to be seven trips down the aisle (there was an eighth, hospital-room wedding for those keeping score) -- got in on the act. He gave Stewart a Port-a-Potty on his TV show after organizers of the Marine Corps Marathon got all pissy about the possibility of sharing the latrines they'd rented for Sunday's annual charity foot race with Saturday's rally-goers. Now the Sanity/Fear folks have leased 500 traveling toilets of their own, plus a Platinum Luxury Restroom Trailer, presumably for the comfort of Stewart, Colbert and the entertainers.

Ah yes, the performers. Precious little info has been released about who, besides the two Big Guys, will be up on the stage. But based on the National Park Service permit schedule, there will be readings by actors Sam Waterston and Don Novello, and acts by Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples, Sheryl Crow, and the Roots. Other singers and speakers have been slotted in but not yet identified.

Because the event is ostensibly about civility and respect, rally organizers have issued deportment guidelines. They range from bringing a bag or two for picking up trash on the Mall to no herp derping (acting moronic) during TV interviews.

All of this is welcome news to Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company, where the Stewart/Colbert shows were taped this week. "It has become normal for people to say dreadful things about other people in every form of media. It's like 'Jersey Shore' and 'Jerry Springer' all the time," he told PoliticsDaily. "What's going on in politics is going on all over the place. It would be nice to get back to more intelligent discourse, and it would be nice if people paid attention to facts, but God Almighty, it's been a long time since people did that."

Then, perhaps succumbing to all the Stewart-Colbert hype at the Shakespeare's Sidney Harman Hall, Kahn quietly suggested, "maybe we should go to more plays."

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This article spends a great deal of time talking about logistics and spends only one or two paragraphs briefly describing what the protest is all about. In fact, it did not even address why Stewart would think "civility" would be restored. I suspect it is because Stewart spends a great deal of time criticizing the media, and in particular conservative media (this of course being a conservative news site). This rally wasn't just to be a counter-protest to Glenn Beck, but rather to heighten the harsh rhetoric and misinformation that has been propagated in the last couple of years. This oversight severely diminishes the credibility of this article.

October 31 2010 at 9:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Liberal Washington Post correctly assessed the rally in this way: The Washington Post thinks the rally failed to help liberal politics. "Stewart can pretend all he wants that the point of his big rally Saturday was just for chuckles, or just to encourage a more reasonable, substantive and civil tone in American politics. The reality is that his own audience was decidedly partisan and decidedly liberal. I say it's self-defeating and even delusional to think progressive policies are going to be achieved just by agitating nobly for a more positive style in politics. It isn't enough to have a few laughs or wring your hands over the fact that those mean people in the tea party and at Fox News get too angry and yell too much." [WP]

October 31 2010 at 8:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

FYI- Comedy Central is owned by MTV Networks (a subsidiary of Viacom) not by Time-Warner as Joshua King claimed. Comedy Central was at one point a joint venture between Tine-Warner and Viacom, but Time-Warner sold their stake in 2003.

October 31 2010 at 10:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

More then all the excellent humor and satire on the Daily Show, the thing I find the most funny is that the Right is so frightened of Jon Stewart. For every comment on how much of a hack he is, it's always followed up, most of the time 'supported', by an attempt to discredit him. For example, the above article which attempt to make the 'making money' point. Well, surprise surprise. It was aired commercial free on Comedy Central, and all the money raised went to the two very worthwhile charities Jon and Stephen supported. It would be nice if Glen Beck or the Democrats could say the same thing.

October 30 2010 at 11:43 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

What everyone should consider is what happens in the end of the rally...everyone has to ask and think as well... Is freedom going to be restored or kept after the rally? Laughter is good medicine, but what is the motivation for this? What is the definition of sanity? Is it having to raise income taxes? Is it to pay more medical insurance premium? It is finding a better job? Or is there a job to be had? Is it about keeping ones privacy private or being a government tool/troll? These are just a few questions that everyone has to think about. If this is the definition of sanity, then go for it, but if it is not, you can laugh with all your heart but go home and protect your inalienable right as an American not a captor who is going to squirm because the freedom is now reduced to a few square feet of physical space and a few air space. You also have to think that these two who are speakers do not necessarily feel the pinch that the average Joe and Jane are experiencing. Colbert and Stewart are multi-$$$$$$$$. The average Joe and Jane still maybe trying to be employed... Thank you.

October 30 2010 at 11:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to miriamanderson's comment

The entire point is that sanity isn't a political view. It's a way of approaching the world and our fellow human beings, of using reason rather than just emotion in making decisions, of listening and of civility.

October 30 2010 at 6:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thge "increase" in taxes is on income OVER $250,000 per person- that amounts to 2% of the population; so the average "Joe" is not going to be paying more taxes. Why do people ranting against more taxes miss this detail?

October 30 2010 at 9:52 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

No one is talking about the woman who got stomped at the Paul rally. Observation--If it had been done to a conservative we would be Knee deep in FALSE outrage from Fox and Conradio. It would be 24/7. Look at the Swift boat lie as an example. Ands you cons talk like we don't need press, like there really is a liberal media. Read Coulters newest and the only liberal media she could find to quote and attack was the New York Times.

October 30 2010 at 11:12 AM Report abuse -12 rate up rate down Reply

After reading all of the comments on the rally. I really believe this rally is what WE all need. Is there any sanity left,or is fear still that prevelant.

October 30 2010 at 11:00 AM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gethb's comment

I agree, we all need to Rally. And there is fear as well...There is Sanity, and fear also that the same people(puppets) for Republicans in Washington will try to undo any progress made by the Current Administration on behalf of Working Class America, as opposed to the Ruling Class America!

October 30 2010 at 11:25 AM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply

So wish I could be in DC today. is time to stop listening to all the BS on tv ads and use your vote, and just to live, period. Too many people believe the idiots on tv. You must realize...that the situation that our country is in today was certainly caused by a Republican run White House and senate...and that Barack Obama is dealing with all of the backlash. How in the world can things be fixed so soon? George W was an ass and maybe people need to take their heads out of theirs and face facts. Listen to Jon Stewart, what a wise and intelligent human being.

October 30 2010 at 10:58 AM Report abuse -19 rate up rate down Reply

Are you kidding me, "CBS said actually 87,000 came", try over 400,000! Please start telling the truth America!

October 30 2010 at 10:54 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cmcrumb's comment

How do you know? Did you count them?

October 30 2010 at 4:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

For those of us who WERE in attendance at the Glenn Beck rally, we know there were easily 400,000 - 500,000.. CBS claims there were 87,000.. nuff said. I was there.. I know it took me an hour just to find a place to STAND and that was at 7:30 AM! I was lucky enough to squeeze into an area right by the reflecting pool..

October 30 2010 at 10:45 AM Report abuse +26 rate up rate down Reply

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