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Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Rallies Are No Laughing Matter


Jon Stewart's decision to hold a "Rally to Restore Sanity" in Washington DC on October 30th - just a few days before the midterm elections - exists, like many things Jon Stewart-related, in the uneasy space between comedy and sincerity.

Stewart has always insisted his show is only about the former, despite evidence that his ambitions are far larger than that. If you don’t believe me, check out his takedown of CNN's "Crossfire" on that now-canceled program if you have any doubts.

And while the inclusion of Stephen Colbert and his "March to Keep Fear Alive" on October 30th shades things slightly more toward the comedic, Stewart is treating the event seriously and definitely not a laughing matter.Rally To Restore Sanitiy

The essence of Stewart's message in the "Rally to Restore Sanity" - that Americans needs to "take it down a notch for America" - can be seen in that memorable Crossfire appearance back in 2006. "Why do we have to fight, the two of you?" Stewart said to the hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, around whose partisan arguments the show was built.

Though I sympathize with Stewart’s message of moderation, I think his event is misplaced and misguided because it actually ridicules the tradition of mass political activism seen at the National Mall.

One of the reasons for selecting the National Mall is because Glenn Beck recently held his “Restoring Honor” rally on Aug.28th.  Obviously the two comedians are parodying Beck’s rally.

But the National Mall is the site where Dr Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous 'I Have A Dream' speech in 1963.  Don’t forget the history of other famous speeches and rallies on this site--- What of Cox’s Army in 1932, when 25,000 unemployed workers from Pennsylvania marched for a Public Works Program? What about the April 24, 1971 Vietnam War Out Now March, when up to 500,000 people gathered to end the war? Or the National Equity March of last year, when 200,000 people came together in support of gay rights?

Rally To Keep Fear AliveInstead of paying reverence of the historic nature of the location, it became another punch line for Stewart--"As far as we know, no huge iconic event has ever taken place there."

Stewart’s website attempts to clarify the meaning behind his rally-- This event is for “the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) — not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence … we couldn’t. That’s sort of the point.”

Which makes me wonder-- what’s the point again?  So this is a rally to get together the people who don’t particularly care about anything, in order to parody Glenn Beck and also, incidentally, Al Sharpton, Dr. Martin Luther King, and anybody else who has rallied here?

By parodying rallies like these, the two comedians are, in essence, parodying democratic demonstration itself. The day that political rallies become a joke is the day democracy’s most effective vehicle of expression becomes irrelevant. That’s will be a sad for our republic.

There is a time and a place for comedians telling news jokes. Thirty years ago, it was at the beginning of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live’s parody of the presidential debates. Ten years ago it was on the Daily Show.  Five years ago, college students admit the show is their primary news source. Now, it seems, the line between jokes and news has blurred. In this case, the jokes and the news have blended to form an abomination that seems to be spitting in the face of political demonstration itself.

If you think I’m too sensitive about the blurring of the comedian-politician lines, just look at Stephen Colbert’s recent illegal immigration testimony at the House Judiciary Committee, which House Majority Steny Hoyer said was an embarrassment.

In character during the entire testimony, Colbert said the answer to immigration issues was for Americans to stop eating fruits and vegetables, and even offered to submit video of his colonoscopy to the congressional record. Sure, Colbert brought attention to a very serious issue; however, instead of proving some valuable insights to the nature of illegal immigration, he mocked it, along with the entire Congressional process.

Stephen Colbert listens to a question as he testifies on farm workers before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugee, Border Security and International Law on Capitol Hill.

Stewart may be genuinely attempting to restore sanity to the hyper-partisan of madness in the news, but, really, he’s becoming a part of the madness he so arrogantly makes fun of on his show. Colbert has kept the fear alive by allowing his fake ultra-conservative persona to come from behind the desk of his show’s studio and out into the grasses of D.C., where he will present a speech as if he were an actual politician, rather than just a comedian. The comedy must’ve gotten lost in the translation, because while many others may be entertained, I’m not laughing.

Contact Erik Uliasz at euliasz@philly2philly.com