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The case against Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, by a 'Daily Show' fan

By Carlos Lozada
Sunday, October 24, 2010; B01

Please, Jon. There's still time. Cancel the rally.

Call in sick. Say you couldn't get a sitter. Even better, say it was all an Andy Kaufman-esque spoof, a multilayered joke-inside-a-joke not only on the politicians and blowhards who hold rallies but on your own audience, which should have known better, and on Oprah and Arianna and even President Obama, who were all so quick to jump on the bandwagon. That would be gutsy -- and funny.

I hate to write this, because I'm a fan. From those early I'm-taking-over-from-Craig-Kilborn ads with you posing as a terrified war correspondent to your Glenn Beck chalkboard takeoff, I've been a faithful and demographically predictable 18-to-49-year-old viewer of "The Daily Show" (and, since 2005, a citizen of Colbert Nation).

But this rally just doesn't feel right. When all is well with the universe, you're the guy mercilessly mocking people who hold political rallies, not the guy organizing them. This "Rally to Restore Sanity" feels just a little too . . . what's the word . . . earnest for you.

I know, I know, it's a satire, a sendup of rallies, a rally against rallies, a mockery of the entire concept, a grass-roots-inspired, user-generated parody. I get it -- and at first, it worked. Your pre-announcement announcement on Sept. 7 ("I, Jon Stewart, am announcing that I will have an announcement sometime . . .") was a great tweak of all the useless "exploratory committees" and "listening tours" that politicians serve up and that, for no good reason, are treated as a big deal.

But when you actually announced the rally nine days later, I started worrying. There you were, claiming leadership over 70 to 80 percent of America, calling for solutions that we could "agree to try and could ultimately live with." Criticizing "the loud folks [who] over the years dominate our national conversation on our most important issues." Your delivery was hilarious (as were the rally signs), but your words were those of a politician. The whole time I was half-expecting you to suddenly meet us at Camera 3 and whisper that, of course, this wasn't real, this wasn't you.

This whole thing reminds me of your "Crossfire" appearance back in 2004, when you confronted Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson over the left-right noise pollution of their show. Your message -- "Why do we have to fight?" "Why do you argue?" "Stop hurting America" -- got the sound bites, but most memorable was your response when Carlson implored you to be funny. "No," you said, "I'm not going to be your monkey."

In other words, you were being serious. And your message that day sounds a lot like the message of the rally: "Take it down a notch, for America."

At the time, critics said you were too preachy, and I admit I worried that the exchange would shatter the illusion of "The Daily Show." But you pulled it off. Rather than bring you down, "Crossfire" has become part of official Stewart lore.

Now you're doing something similar, but on a much larger stage, and this time you're insisting that it's not real, that it's all a satirical "construct." I really hope so, but I'm not sure. If satire is the art of saying something fake and pretending it's real in order to make a point, you seem to be doing the opposite with this rally: Doing something real and pretending it's fake in order to make your point.

We don't need you to hold a rally to restore America's sanity. We go to that rally every Monday through Thursday night, when we tune in to your show. We keep watching because you call out the enduring ridiculousness of politics and, for half an hour, you make us laugh about it rather than despair over it. We don't expect you to end it or fix it; no one can, and your naming it is enough. As you told the "Crossfire" guys, you thrive on the theater of politics: "The absurdity of the system provides us the most material."

We already have a formerly hilarious satirist turned sober politician. America doesn't need another Al Franken. We need Jon Stewart.

And who is that? Over the years, there's been a lot of semi-academic psycho-babble trying to deconstruct you. Is Jon Stewart good for America or bad for democracy? Is he our media critic in chief or the nation's moral conscience? Is he a liberal activist masquerading as a comedian or the voice of a generation fed up with conventional politics?

And there has been more hyperventilating as the rally draws near. In Salon, Glenn Greenwald attacked you for your supposed middle-of-the-road moral equivalence between extremist crazies on the left and the right; Slate's Timothy Noah, by contrast, worries that you, Stephen Colbert and the adoring throngs will come off as such pedantic, anti-tea-party hyper-liberals that the backlash will affect the midterms.

I'm fairly certain that your rally won't change the face of American politics or alter the fate of the republic. But I worry that it will change you -- or our perceptions of you. You've always been able to deflect those Meaning of Stewart debates by saying, not entirely convincingly, that hey, it's just fake news. After this rally, though, you won't be able to say that with a straight face. Now it's real news. Some news organizations have even prohibited their staffers from participating in your rally, just like any old political event.

Beware the company you keep.

No doubt, being earnest makes sense sometimes, particularly when there is no alternative. Your emotions on "The Daily Show" episode of Sept. 20, 2001, not long after the 9/11 attacks, were raw and real -- and that was probably as serious as we've ever seen you on your show. But even in those horrific circumstances, you seemed aware of how out of character you were, and you offered a preemptive apology.

"I'm sorry to do this to you," you said that night. "It's another entertainment show beginning with an overwrought speech of a shaken host, and television is nothing if not redundant. So, I apologize for that." (You even joked that the cast of "Survivor" would soon be weighing in with its post-9/11 insights.)

In the middle of the speech, though, you also gave a perfect description of what you do -- and why we like it. "The show in general, we feel like, is a privilege," you said. "Even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks, which is really what we do. We sit in the back and we throw spitballs."

Keep throwing spitballs from the back. Don't try to move to the front of the country. You and Colbert are America's Statler and Waldorf come to life, mocking the proceedings as they unfold. Don't risk that by entering the political fray so overtly. By all means, Colbert should hold his "March to Keep Fear Alive." If right-wing television hosts are having rallies and upending "The View" these days, Colbert's character should absolutely follow suit.

You should show up at the Mall on Oct. 30, have a cameo and walk off the stage. And keep our Moment of Zen going.

lozadac@washpost.com

Carlos Lozada is the editor of The Washington Post's Outlook section.

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