Everyone was wondering what kind of rally Jon Stewart would hold. Would it be a comedy routine, interchangeable with an episode of The Daily Show? Or would it make a serious political statement that could, according to some analysts, undermine Stewart and Stephen Colbert as comedians willing to mock both sides equally?
It was both. The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear, held on the National Mall Saturday afternoon, ridiculed the whole idea of a political rally. But it also managed to send a message about the broken political system, how the media abets it, and why it's OK to care—even for professional ironists.
Turns out the political rally is a ripe form for satire. And while not all the jokes hit, Saturday's show was faithful to the format, down to a "Benediction," a lame poetry reading, and cheesy musical numbers. ("The Star Spangled Banner" went wisely unmocked.) Tim Meadows guested as a shyster trying to hawk janky rally memorabilia. Stewart and Colbert handed out awards for calmness and fear-mongering, respectively. They even took on media coverage of rallies. "There are two options for reporting on a rally," Stewart said. "It was either a tremendous success or horrendous failure." Cut to Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac filing a jingoistic snow job that celebrated real Americans coming together while Jason Jones delivered a paranoid hit piece underplaying attendance. Stewart thus managed to mock the very media tropes that could be used to cover his own rally.
Stewart has always walked the line between irony and sincerity. He's a jokester, but he cares about political discourse, if not the minutiae of policymaking. The rally was a three-hour exploration of that tension. Every time the tone threatened to get mawkish, a gag swooped in to undercut it. Just as the eyeballs started the roll as the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens sang "Peace Train," Ozzy * Osbourne intervened with "Crazy Train." Jon Stewart was just starting to give a somber "keynote" speech when Colbert cut him off.
Only at the end did Stewart take off the clown nose entirely. (He affixed a warning label, calling it a "moment for some sincerity.") He admitted not knowing what exactly the rally was about. "Some of you see it as a clarion call for action. Some of you more ironic cats see it as a 'clarion call' for 'action.' " He could only speak to his own intent, he said, which was to show that civil discourse and cooperation are possible. "We work together to get things done every day," he said. Most people are not political animals—they "don't live solely as Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives. Most of them [are] just a little late for something they have to do." Likewise, things are not as bad as they seem. "We live in hard times, not End Times." But you wouldn't know it from the way the media portrays politics. "The perpetual pundit conflicterator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder." Individuals may not physically be able to restrain Glenn Beck from going to work. But they can change the channel, Stewart said. As for fixing the political process, he compared problem solving with cars merging lanes to squeeze through a tunnel. "They do it, concession by concession. … There will be days of darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land. Sometimes it's New Jersey."
The rally's open-ended mission statement meant that each person brought his own interpretation—which, come to think of it, is how the Tea Party works. Some people took the "rally against rallies" angle. Signs mocking signs were everywhere: "Having a Sign Makes Me Right," "I hope today isn't too windy so my sign doesn't blow away," "My Political Views Can't Be Summarized by a Sign."
Chris Ellis, 26, carried a sign saying, "Meh!" As a "raging apathetic," his goal was to protest protests. "If you really want to get things done, you don't go to a rally," said his friend, Kevin Guertler. "You go get a job. You go start a social group. You don't hold a sign." They feel so strongly about not holding signs, they drove all the way from Raleigh and Richmond, respectively, to hold signs about it. *
Others were motivated by disgust with the Tea Parties. "Yeah, Right, Like Jesus Would Have Been in Your Tea Party," read a sign carried by Terry Holliday, 33, of West Virginia. "I want people to know that the Tea Party are not the only patriotic people in the country," he said.
Other attendees were just Daily Show superfans. "It ain't no joke!" said Ralph Childers, a man of a certain age who, along with his friend Barbara Sarah, was toting a "Bubbies 4 Sanity" sign. Childers says he gets his news from Stewart and Colbert. "Everybody else is crazy."
And the sincerity bit? Holliday says that was his favorite part. "Every comedian has a serious side," he said. "I don't believe it was a play for ratings. He sees a divide and wants to fix it."
"The only thing I thought was missing was I thought he should have said you should vote," said Fred Edwords of Maryland. "I think it's a civic duty. Why should he shy away from it?" Stewart's plea to change the channel didn't satisfy everyone, either. "I already don't watch 24 hour news," said Mallory Hatton, 25, of Texas. "I don't do any of that stuff."
But for a few hours on Saturday, at least, civility reigned. When a girl near me started a chant—"Fuck Glenn Beck!"—a guy nearby shushed her and suggested an alternative: "Glenn Beck has different opinions than me!"
Video: The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear
Correction, Nov. 1, 2010: This article incorrectly identified Chris Ellis as Kevin Guertler and vice versa. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Nov. 2, 2010: This article also misspelled Ozzy Osbourne's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)