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Just who does Jon Stewart think he is?

The Comedy Central personalities will co-host the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the Mall on Oct. 30.

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010

These days, he can claim to be many things: political satirist, pseudo-anchorman, media critic, author, successful businessman, philanthropist, Emmy Award magnet. On Monday he arrives in Washington in a new, self-anointed role: as our national voice of reason, moderation and rationality -- a uniter, you might say, not a divider.

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Jon Stewart's Saturday afternoon "Rally to Restore Sanity" (merged with partner-in-satire Stephen Colbert's concurrent "March to Keep Fear Alive") may become the largest "nonpartisan" event to hit the national Mall since . . . well, since a couple of months ago, when another basic-cable TV star, Glenn Beck, hosted his "Restoring Honor" rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Beck claimed his event was nonpartisan, too.

With less than a week to go, it's still not exactly clear how Stewart will be using this new platform. No guests or musical acts have been announced, Stewart has done only a couple media interviews, and he's offered few details about the rally on his nightly program.

Nevertheless, the similarities to Beck's rally are just the sort of thing Stewart himself would satirize on his show if, of course, it weren't his rally and his TV show in the first place. In his few pre-rally comments, Stewart has reached for some of the broad values and high-minded themes that Beck's did -- civility, decency, making America better -- though admittedly with fewer religious allusions and more comic panache. And whereas Beck undercut his claim of non-political intent by inviting Sarah Palin to be his co-star, Stewart may have undercut his by allying with a couple of noted liberals, Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey. He'll also get a nice plug this week, while here at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall to tape "The Daily Show," from President Obama, scheduled to appear on the show on Wednesday.

Stewart has also insisted that the timing of the gathering is coincidental to the midterm election three days later, a statement that has faint echoes of Beck's disclaimer that his event was inadvertently scheduled on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Stewart, 47, has never claimed to be anything more than a guy trying to get laughs on "a fake news program on basic cable," as he puts it. While that surely understates his case, it comports with his background as a stand-up comic and entertainer.

Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Stewart (born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) rattled around the stand-up comedy circuit after graduating from William & Mary in 1984 before landing a memorable role on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" in the early 1990s. This was followed by hosting gigs on several long-forgotten MTV and Comedy Central shows and a few better-forgotten movie roles ("Half Baked"). He landed at "The Daily Show's" desk in 1999 as Craig Kilborn's replacement.

Since then, Stewart's stature as a news source, kingmaker and sociocultural figure has grown apace, abetted in no small part by "The Daily Show's" skeptical "reporting" on the Bush administration, the news media and politics in general. The show has even spawned an academic cottage industry of scholars who probe the program's impact on society.

'A watershed moment'

It's true that the 11 p.m. broadcast of "The Daily Show" (which runs Monday through Thursday) plays to a relatively modest crowd -- an average of just 1.8 million viewers a night thus far in October. But that doesn't count four daily repeats on Comedy Central, which nearly double the program's daily audience to 3.5 million. This means Stewart has roughly the same number of viewers as "Nightline," David Letterman or Jay Leno, and a bigger audience than any show on the cable news networks except "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News Channel.

Add in the untold millions who see "DS" clips embedded on Facebook pages, blogs and Web sites, or read about him in the mainstream media (media types love yakking about "The Daily Show"), and you've got a cultural force that transcends mere "basic cable."

"He is mobilizing people like Glenn Beck does, but I suspect his cultural influence surpasses Beck's," says Geoffrey Baym, a media studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, who wrote one of the first scholarly studies of "The Daily Show" in 2005. "[Beck] has a narrow but very committed audience whereas Stewart resonates much wider with people who are fed up with the polemical aspects" of national affairs. "He's reaching a watershed moment."


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