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Yesterday, we noted Ryan Kearney’s able takedown of the handful of self-proclaimed cultural critics who’ve had themselves a round of the piss-and-moan blues over the Rally To Restore Sanity. At that time, I should have predicted that Politico would try to wade into those waters, because reliably, here they are today, doing something Politicoey with it. Essentially, they’ve taken that smallish gaggle of walleyed concern-trolls, mixed in a clueless academic and added a heaping helping of straw-men to contend that Jon Stewart will utterly destroy his brand by staging a comedy show for people.
Kearney’s piece is cited by name, but Politico carefully omits Kearney’s central premise — the essential witlessness of the rally critics — in order to pretend that they form some sort of important cultural vanguard.
It contains paragraphs like this:
Stewart will navigate two sets of risks Saturday: He will, a handwringing legion of journalists and bloggers worry, cross the once-bright line from commentary to political participation, and find himself stranded, unable to return.
And he could – television industry analysts say – alienate portions of an audience for his show that isn’t as polarized as that of the real cable news shows, with viewers divided starkly left and right.
Sounds scary! But here’s what’s going to actually happen. Stewart will face the same risk he’s faced every single day of his life as a stand-up comedian — that his decades of performance seasoning will fail him and his jokes will fall flat. Whoever is playing the DC Improv Saturday night will be facing the same risk.
As for the chances that he’ll alienate his fans, well that’s not likely. Let’s recall that it was “Daily Show” fans who originally asked for this in the first place — calling for a Stewart/Colbert driven event in Washington on October 10, 2010. Originally conceived by fans of the show as the “Rally To Restore Truthiness,” the call went out in early September for the comedians to do something to serve as a counterweight to Glenn Beck’s “Rally To Restor Honor.” When the two shows returned from a hiatus, the hosts then began to cryptically hint that they were going to honor the request.
Also, there is no “bright line” between “commentary” and “political participation” — political commentary is political participation. The core assumption seems to be that the rally will either err by presenting some sort of narrow, partisan content — thus alienating people — or it will err by failing to present some sort of narrow, partisan content — thus alienating people. What’s actually going to happen is that the core viewership of these Comedy Central shows are going to recognize themes that are continually presented, and prove themselves capable of holding two ideas — 1) we should vote for the people we like and 2) we should strive to be sane in our discourse — in their brains at the same time.
So, the chances of widespread alienation are hilariously low, as are the chances that the event will melodramatically end with Stewart getting “stranded” somewhere — unless we are referring to Washington DC and Stewart’s inability to fully grasp its grid system.
But heck, let’s hear from this university professor Politico found:
“He’s moving to a very new position – and very much runs the risk of alienating some people who liked him because he didn’t seem to be positioning himself as in the mainstream of political life,” said Geoffrey Baym, who actually studies “The Daily Show” at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Stewart, he said, is transforming himself from an “outside figure” to a “mainstream political player.”
Sorry to say, I cannot compete on paper with someone who runs the Department of Daily Show Studies at UNCG. But he’s flat out wrong if he believes that Stewart is “moving to a new position.” For the past two weeks, enabled by the sharp memories of our readership, we’ve very deftly proven that the call for sanity isn’t a new thing at all — it’s been a constant theme of “The Daily Show”. Some of the exact rhetoric that Stewart has deployed to promote this rally — the “take it down a notch, America,” the images of people marching in formation, shouting “Be reasonable!” — was used in earlier editions of “The Daily Show”, dating back years.
And I’m sorry to say, but this concern over some perilous shift between “outsider” and “mainstream” is just another example of people talking about comedy without having a fundamental understanding of it. So, let’s review how comedy works: first you establish a set of ideal conditions, then you juxtapose the “actual” conditions, and when the distance between the “actual” and the “ideal” is revealed, you mine that territory for “jokes.” What Stewart and Colbert demonstrate on a regular basis is that the discourse of “mainstream political players” is insane, the “outsider” position is that sanity needs to be restored, and the “ideal” would be for the two positions to be reversed. And voila, that’s how you create a successful television show that’s stood for over a decade.
Politico does raise an authentic concern, however, in noting that many ancillary groups — including “the Democratic National Committee” and “campaigners for the legalization of marijuana” are looking to “co-opt the energy” of the Rally To Restore Sanity. If you’ve been to any sort of protest in Washington, DC, you’d know it was ever thus — if you come to Washington for, let’s say, a march for reproductive rights, you will be beset on all sides by shady types, pimping their socialist newsletters, which you will end up refusing or politely accepting before depositing it in a nearby trashcan.
It will be interesting to see how Stewart and Colbert contend with these various hangers-on. But it won’t catch them off-guard. The phenomenon of outsiders seeking to co-opt the energy of a protest is a topic that Stewart has previously lampooned. In fact, the funny thing about pro-marijuana legalization advocates being cited in this instance is that Stewart has already joked about this. Remember when he was riffing on the signs he was suggesting for the Rally? Presenting a sign that read “Legalize Pot,” Stewart joked, “To be honest, I don’t know how that got in there. Turns out that whenever you have a stack of signs, this one always seems to end up in it.”
Once again, you see the simple fact that this Rally To Restore Sanity is coming from a rooted, tested, well-thought out place, and not some crazy new shift in philosophy or identity. Happily, Lawrence O’Donnell is on hand to make a lick of sense:
“It’s fantastic for the brand,” said MSNBC analyst Lawrence O’Donnell, marveling at Stewart’s ability to escape the TV section of the newspaper and generate what’s known as off-the-page publicity. “He’s a great comedian extending his work to another stage.”
“He knows what he does for a living,” O’Donnell said. “He will stand up there as a comedian and leave as a comedian.”
That’s from the fourth and fifth paragraph of the piece, by the way. Having treated their readers to such a deft wielding of Occam’s Razor, it makes you wonder why multiple paragraphs of blather had to follow. But hey, maybe I’m missing the joke!