Friday, February 23, 2024

In a somewhat unique display, people at the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally held Saturday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., competed to have the funniest and sanest signs. (Photo: Marc Levy)

One commonly accepted estimate put the crowd at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear at about 215,000. (Photo: David Shankbone)

There were worries Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert’s rally in Washington, D.C., would distract Democrats from the vital work of getting out the vote for Tuesday’s election. Like most criticisms of a rally that hadn’t happened, this was a pretty dumb thing to worry about.

No rally on the National Mall is going to change the course of this election, even though the crowd of 215,000 people gathered Saturday was bigger than expected. Any loss of get-out-the-vote efforts would be more than equaled by the event’s publicity and its energizing effect on those who were there.

Much of what the media said about the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear before it happened was misguided, including Timothy Noah’s piece in Slate urging people to “Stay home!” because he worried about “the spectacle of affluent 18-to-34-year-olds blanketing the Mall to snicker at jokes about wingnut ignoramuses and Bible thumpers.” He didn’t understand why more people were crashing at his home near the National Mall for the ironic rally than had come for the genuinely historic inauguration of President Barack Obama, and The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum revealed an equal amount of cluelessness about the loss of U.S. moderates in a somewhat incoherent piece called “Jon Stewart’s march is no laughing matter.” Perhaps the worst was David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun, who fumed about how “snickering and smiling as we look down our noses at the targets of their cool, smug ridicule is … our style these days.”

Zurawik is the Sun’s television critic, but from his pre-analysis of a National Mall event he figured would be “mocking a special place in America’s political life — a space where people from across the land gather to voice their grievances and sound their solidarity,” it’s almost like he’s never watched Stewart’s “Daily Show.”

There are at least 215,000 earnest people who understand Stewart better than this television critic.

The rally crowd was a mix of ages and races from all over the country, but nearly all were fans of Stewart and Colbert’s who seemed to share their ironic but sincere sense of humor. (Photo: Marc Levy)

In all modesty, I think I too grasp the sensibility better than Noah, Applebaum, Zurawik or any number of other pundits. I was in the middle of the rally, among people of every generation — a cluster of twentysomethings ahead of me, a group of middle-agers behind me and everywhere parents with grown children as well as toddlers. While the crowd seemed predominantly white, the people around me were racially diverse, including two black women to my left, a young South Asian woman to my right and a group of Iranian-Americans just ahead (their T-shirts advertised it). There were groups from as far away geographically as California and as far away politically as Texas and Alaska, identifying themselves so everyone understood their states weren’t monolithically aligned with the right. Everyone around me stood for three hours in perfect comity, and because we couldn’t move, I spoke with most of them. Contrary to those in the media worrying expectations for the rally were too high, no one I spoke with had come to the rally with any expectations whatsoever.

They were there because Stewart wanted them there. Because they understand and trust Stewart and agree with him: People should calm down, play fair and either base what they say on facts or temper what they say because they don’t have all the facts.

That was why I was there, anyway — because I agree with what Stewart says and does.

Sometimes I think he goes too easy on some interview subjects, but he’s as guilty of failing to go in for the kill when interviewing people on the right as he is for treating gently people on the left. (He did chide Obama for a weak couple of years, and it takes strength to criticize a sitting president to his face.) Since the mind-set of his “Daily Show” is unabashedly liberal, this is courtesy at work as much or more so than it is weakness, and he more than makes up for it with his brilliant takedowns of the worst of the nation’s screamers and loons.

Usually, Stewart and his signature video montages are doing what the news media is supposed to be doing — comparing politicians’ and pundits’ claims with reality — while the media is too busy showing how credulous and irresponsible it can be in the name of objectivity. It’s funny and serious at the same time. Stewart uses irony to get across a  sincere message.

Since the comedians had challenged participants to come up with the sanest signs possible, many of them had a self-referential quality. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Stewart’s fans get that. There’s no reason to be a fan unless you do.

As Paul Farhi noted in the Post, “the Pew Research Center in 2004 found that almost as many people under 30 (21 percent) relied on comedy shows such as Stewart’s for information about the presidential campaign as relied on the networks’ evening newscasts (23 percent) … Another survey, this one from 2007, classified 54 percent of the “Daily Show” audience as ‘high-knowledge’ viewers, based on a current-events test. This equaled the percentage of those who were readers of major newspaper Web sites and slightly exceeded viewers of ‘The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” on PBS, ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ on Fox or NPR’s regular listeners.”

These are the people who understand Stewart is capable of being a comedian — the somewhat glib stance to which he retreats when he is accused of being more — and yet delivering legitimate news and analysis. Cutting through the fog to reveal harsh truths is what the best comics do, but sticking to that role is also a way for Stewart to keep expectations low. It’s harder to disappoint people with low expectations, and easier to duck whatever responsibilities people try to pin on you. Stewart’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy, and he wants to stay that because he knows America is fickle and cruel when messiahs disappoint.

Given this, it was interesting to see what else Stewart, Colbert and their writers and performers did Saturday that was legitimate and sincere but somehow also served to tamp down critiques before they could even be floated. They took out an event permit for 60,000 people but rented portable toilets for at least 150,000. The stars of the “Mythbusters” show, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, had the crowd do the wave a few times, which required overhead cameras to pan the Mall to show what was going on, forestalling accusations the rally wasn’t literally a big deal. There was a straightforward singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Tony Bennett doing “America the Beautiful” to ensure there would be no opportunity to question the event’s patriotism. Media-bashing videos made fun of crazies on both ends of the political spectrum so no one could say it was all about Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Beck. And they had Yusef Islam come in to sing “Peace Train,” but also cut him off to let Ozzy Osborne sing some of “Crazy Train,” blunting the screams of having on a Muslim who’d endorsed a fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie (which was, it should be noted, two decades ago, although the former Cat Stevens has excused it only with own extremely glib excuse: He was joking).

This hasn’t stopped the right from freaking out and leveling all kinds of criticisms and accusations at the rally and people who attended, with Yusef Islam being just the most obvious flashpoint.

But that brings the conversation inevitably to the crowning irony: This was a nonpolitical, bipartisan event at which Stewart spoke of reason and sanity to … his fans, who are almost wholly progressives, Democrats and liberals and already believe themselves to be reasonable and sane. They made their way to the National Mall despite an almost total lack of information about what the rally would be like or about because they already had an ingrained, implicit understanding of those things.

They gathered in Washington, D.C., to show a solidarity for blunt, good humor but a humane restraint for difference, and support for a man that wouldn’t betray them because he wouldn’t really lead them.

But he would entertain them, rally them with good feeling and send them out into the world with a final message that confused the critics because it never had to be spoken:

Now we vote.