Steve: Last weekend, Genevieve Koski and I hopped on our respective planes and buses and headed to DC for Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert’s Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear. We were definitely not alone: Estimations place the size of the rally in the low-to-mid 200,000s—two and a half times the size of Glenn Beck’s rally a few months ago. One and a half million people watch The Daily Show each night, which means a sizable portion of the viewing audience turned out. It’s not often one-sixth of a TV audience finds itself in one place at the same time.
Genevieve and I planned to attend the rally together, but I arrived at the predetermined meet-up spot and realized it was unlikely we’d find each other. People were pouring into the streets, making standing still, even for a few moments, impossible. And as soon as I got within a mile of the Mall, AT&T service ceased, and didn’t pick up again until well after we were gone from the rally point. Eventually my other friends and I gave in to the flow, like cattle, and wound up somewhere in the middle about 10 minutes later. There were hordes of people in every direction, yet the mob remained ruly. People apologized for bumping into one another—obviously an inevitability—and were quick to put down their signs when someone took the stage, so people behind them could see. During downtime, it was easy to strike up conversations with those around me; those who’d traveled long distances were relishing the opportunity to connect with like-minded attendees.
I was at the rally because reading the news and watching The Daily Show was making me angrier by the day. I’m not normally a super politically active person, but I was pulling my hair out (literally) at the way facts were getting fudged and distorted, shock-devices were being employed, and people who were simply “loud” were getting far too much time in the spotlight. I wanted to demonstrate, for anyone paying attention, that the American people as a whole are far more savvy than they’re given credit for. Mostly, though, I was thrilled to throw my support behind a comedy show. The media is so entrenched in its views and practices that it takes the outsider eye of The Daily Show to notice the scary trend toward fear-mongering. Comedy is a powerful tool that can cut to the core of an issue, and The Daily Show (plus Colbert, which I watch less frequently) was exhibiting this principle far better than anyone else. It always bothered me when people dismissed The Daily Show—or really any comedy show—as just a comedy show. What a reductionist view of one of the most vibrant art forms.
I was surprised, then, to reflect on the rally and realize my view of the show had shifted somewhat. Due to its sheer size, the rally itself was a series of grand gags. Stephen Colbert was brought to the stage like a Chilean miner being rescued. Stewart and Colbert enlisted Yusuf and Ozzy Osbourne to sing “Peace Train” and “Crazy Train,” respectively, coming together with the O’Jays for “Love Train.” A giant papier-mâché Colbert was taken down when John Oliver, dressed like Peter Pan, convinced the crowd to shout at it. It was a pageant by necessity, taking place on a stage reminiscent of a Lollapalooza headliner set. It was hysterically funny and a hell of a lot of fun.
Then Jon Stewart gave his final speech: a moving cry for rational thinking and facts-based reporting.
In the moment, it bothered me that Stewart didn’t mention anything about voting. How easy it would have been to throw the line, “Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday” at the end. Almost immediately, I realized it was ridiculous to be annoyed with something Stewart left out: After all, he’s not a member of the media nor a political figure, he’s a comedian trying to put on a compelling show. Then I thought back to the event itself. There we were, standing on the historic National Mall, jumping up and down so the Mythbusters could perform a little experiment. The final speech was rousing, but it didn’t feel cathartic in the sense that it summed up everything that came before it. I’ve never seen The Daily Show more as “just a comedy show” than in that moment of reflection. Now I’m torn between my fondness for the show and the complexities of comedy, and the gut feeling that the rally was not the infectious experience I had, perhaps unrealistically, hoped it would be.
Genevieve: I had much different/lower expectations for the rally than you did, Steve, and that’s probably a good thing, because my experience was much less positive than yours. I was staying farther away from the Mall, so my morning began with a two-hour clusterfuck trying to get there on the Metro—D.C., the whole scan-your-farecard-to-exit-the-Metro thing is pure folly—giving me only an hour or so to get in position before the rally started. Since the area near(ish) the stage was reserved for those with VIP tickets—something no one I knew had heard about—we had to move farther back… and farther back… and farther back. After 45 minutes of shoulder-to-shoulder shuffling, my friends and I wound up roughly half a mile from the stage, with no big-screen monitors in sight, and no speakers within earshot. As a frequent music-fest-goer, I like to think I’m pretty good at maneuvering through crowds, but this was beyond my capacity. So like the paragon of journalistic integrity I am, I decided to bail, figuring I could catch more of the rally from a bar with a big-screen TV than from a 6-inch square of grass surrounded on all sides by giant signs. During this exodus—which took another 45 minutes of shuffling—I really got the flavor of the rally, which seemed to fall somewhere between a costume contest and an Improv Everywhere mission.
Like I said, I had lower expectations for the rally, viewing it only as a comedy show from the start; I think Stewart might have been able to pull off something more politically viable on his own, but the merging with Colbert placed the whole thing squarely in the “comedy” category for me. I have a lot of respect for what both of them do, and think that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report make legitimate contributions to the political discussion, but ultimately, they’re more about bringing the ha-ha than anything else, and when their powers combine, that’s magnified tenfold—Stewart’s jaded sincerity and Colbert’s fake sincerity nullify whatever actual sincerity the pair might have between them. Don’t get me wrong: What remains is very funny, and I thought the rally was very successful as a comedic endeavor. But whatever intentions Stewart and Colbert may have had—and judging by his impassioned final speech, Stewart did believe that the rally could and should accomplish something—the people in the crowd seemed less than clear on their purpose for being there.
The rally was apparently scheduled this weekend due to its proximity to Election Day—though as you mentioned, Steve, there was very little attention paid to actually voting—but another holiday exerted much more influence over the proceedings: Halloween. I imagine that the rally attendees who were closer to the stage were a little more focused on the event itself, since they had to put in a good amount of effort to get that close; but farther into the morass, it was more of a preview for Halloween-night festivities than anything else, with lots of attention-grabbing costumes and drunken revelry. Not that there’s anything wrong with revelry, but its connection to what was happening onstage was tangential at best.
But what really drove home the true nature of the rally was the variety of signs I saw. There are already several round-ups of the best and funniest signs the afternoon had to offer, and I think this speaks volumes about what the day was ultimately about: being funny. Sure, there was the occasional issue-driven sloganeering—free birth control, marijuana legalization, and the like—but most of what I saw amounted to little more than “Look at this eye-catching sign!” Some examples: “Lucille Bluth for president!” “Legalize bamboo!” “I still like Brett Favre!” “Give me some chocolate or I will cut you!” “Toy Story 2 was OK!” It wasn’t just the political message of the rally that was muddled; the comedic message was as well. Some people were definitely in on the whole “concept”—like those dressed as tea bags or toting signs with slogans like “More logos, less pathos”—but more people seemed to just be shouting their jokes into the void. For a rally that was basically promoting a “more thinking, less shouting” approach to political discourse, this seemed particularly ironic.
Like I said, I never expected The Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear to be the Million Man March; it always struck me more as political satire on a grand scale, and I was totally down with that. Unfortunately, I don’t know if it even achieved that. Ultimately, the whole endeavor felt more like a variety show than anything else, especially in its puzzling range of musical guests (Mavis Staples? Sure, that makes sense, even if it was too low-key for the venue. Kid Rock, on the other hand…) Stewart definitely tried to make the whole thing cohere at the end with his speech, and while I appreciate the while I appreciate the sentiment of working together to “get things done,” it didn’t jibe with what I was seeing onstage and in the crowd. I don’t want to say the rally was a failure, because I don’t think it was. I’m just not sure what it actually accomplished. I think we’re both conflicted about this, Steve, though for slightly different reasons. Do you think the rally was ultimately a success? And if so, what did it succeed at?
Steve: Though I felt like the rally was more comedic spectacle than humorous thought-provoker, I’m still impressed by the basic fact that it existed. As Jon Stewart put it, the measure of the rally’s success was that people showed up; I’m even more impressed that the satirizing muscles behind both Daily Show and Colbert were able to pull this rally together in such a short amount of time, thus finding a new avenue for their comedy. (They also somehow tracked down the “Dude, You Have No Quran” guy, thus providing his National Mall debut.) The event got a lot of people talking before it happened, and lots of articles were written about it after the fact—mostly about the fine line Stewart and Colbert walked between politics and humor. It was such a unique proposition that even the confusion itself—political movement or pageant?—scored the rally more press.
Simply put, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert took action. I didn’t love every second of The Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear, or think each segment was truly necessary, but they did something about the dissonance they feel every day. There are many types of actions; this was theirs. I’m trying to keep my perspective in check. I came to DC hoping for grand social movement and an immediate indicator that such a movement had taken place (not unlike the way the Mythbusters timed how long it took to do the wave through the crowd). Those kinds of movements, though, take time, time, time; plus—I keep telling myself—those going through change don’t always realize it’s happening until they look back in hindsight. Sanity hasn’t totally been achieved, but at least now it’s part of the conversation.
Genevieve: I don’t want come off too curmudgeonly about this whole thing; as we’ve stated, the rally was entertaining, and it’s always exciting to feel like you’re part of something bigger, like you’re participating in a movement. I guess I’m just disappointed that the sort of movement that will motivate 215,000 people to participate is one that involves viral-video stars, the Mythbusters, and Kid Rock. I think what’s making me so ambivalent about the rally is what it says about my generation. (There was a wide swath of humanity there, but I’m confident that the majority fell into the twenty/thirtysomething range.) It says we’re ultimately motivated by irony, vaguely formed indignation, and above all, entertainment. I’m most certainly not above this, and I’m willing to admit that those were the main factors that drove me to attend the rally. But it’s a little discomfiting seeing it reflected back at you en masse, and by the time I encountered a giant dragon ship full of people dressed as Mongolians and dancing to La Roux a few blocks from the Mall, I was starting to feel decidedly icky about the whole endeavor.
Ultimately, I’m okay with the Rally being mostly pointless entertainment—I don’t know that it could have succeeded as anything else. And you’re right that it did promote conversation, at least among those of us who spend our time pontificating on the Internet about such things. But I’m left with a feeling of “Is that all there is? Is this the best we can do?” You said earlier, Steve, that while watching the rally, you were waiting for a moment of catharsis that never came; I think that’s because there’s no opportunity for catharsis when an event is built on a foundation of moderation and ironic distance. We wanted to feel like we were part of something big, a sum that was greater than its parts, but ultimately we were just a bunch of butts in seats—or shoes on grass, whatever—watching a spectacle unfold. I like spectacle, I think there’s a place for it in society and even politics; I just worry about it getting conflated with, or confused for, real action.