Toward the end of his and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” Jon Stewart posed a question that was on-target, even if he probably shouldn’t have attempted to answer it: “So what exactly was this?”
The Washington Mall rally proved a generally strong offering of songs (great performances by The Roots, Mavis Staples and Tony Bennett, among others), satire (Father Guido Sarducci’s blessing and Colbert’s Chilean coal miner-like rise from his “fear bunker”) and both (Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens’ musical face-off with Ozzy Osbourne over whether to ride the “Peace Train” or the “Crazy Train”).
But the perhaps strongest part of the three-hour show came in a segment that was vintage “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report”: a brilliantly edited montage of clips from cable and network news show from all over the political dial, with commentators spewing enough fear mongering and partisan venom to make any sane person afraid to get out of bed.
Stewart, though, felt he needed to do more than let his comedy and the clips speak for themselves. After all, he had become part of the story – subject, in his view, to the same overheated, divisive, angry theater of argument that permeates much of the media.
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So he tried to answer his own question in a closing monologue that zigzagged from smart and funny to heartfelt and borderline preachy – dangerous territory for a comic, even if he didn’t seem to buy that.
“I thought we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity, if that’s okay – I know there are boundaries for a comedian-pundit-talker guy, and I’m sure I’ll find out tomorrow how I violated them,” Stewart quipped.
Stewart clearly is sensitive – perhaps a little oversensitive – to all the hype surrounding an event that’s spurred some of the partisanship bickering he’s targeting as well examinations of his role as a satirist. The gathering’s inspiration (Glenn Beck’s supposedly nonpolitical “Restoring Honor” rally in August) and its timing (three days before the mid-term elections and three days after President Obama’s appearance on “The Daily Show”) only heightened the scrutiny.
Unlike Colbert, who plays a conservative blowhard on TV, Stewart doesn’t have a character to speak through, which left him particularly exposed on that windy stage in front of tens of thousands of people and millions more watching on TV. He daringly risked inserting a serious segment in a bid to be a force for unity, rather than comedy.
“We live in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies,” he said.
Stewart put some, but not all the blame on the media: “The country’s 24-hour politico, pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But it’s existence makes it that much harder.”
“The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our own problems, bringing them into focus… or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire – and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming-ant epidemic.”
The answer to “So what exactly was this?” remains up for debate, though it seems evident that Stewart’s relationship to his audience and his approach to comedy changed with this rally. Past events marked shifts in Stewart’s style – most notably his 2004 clash on “Crossfire” with Tucker Carlson and his brilliant Beck parody in March. But there’s never been anything quite this pronounced, leaving us a little uncertain where Stewart is headed from here.
While his closing monologue struck some odd chords, Stewart made his overall we’re-all-in-this-together point about bringing tolerance and civility back to public discourse far more effectively in a funny musical duet with his Comedy Central partner Colbert. We’ll let them go out on a high note:
“It’s the greatest, strongest, country in the world; It’s the greatest strongest country in the world,” both sang before trading off lines.
Colbert: “I love NASCAR halftime shows with tons of TNT.”
Stewart: “My hybrid electric scooter does 100 m-p-g.”
Colbert: “From gay men who like football…”
Stewart: “To straight men who like ‘Glee’…”
Both: “There’s no one more American than we.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.