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 Reddit.com 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
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.
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
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."